When Stacey May posted on marriage and feminist politics a few days ago, I promised I would try to write something on coupledom. Since then I’ve been walking around town with various thoughts bumbling around my head like feral hamsters - I’ll try to set a few of them down here to see if it lights anyone’s fire.
Coupledom is old. Really, really old. Maybe too old to call an institution - more like a human tendency, like right-handedness or male pattern baldness. It’s one of those things that seems so natural that we barely notice it, the way you stop seeing the tip of your nose even though it’s hovering right there in your field of vision. But I like making familiar things strange - it’s a good way of thinking about how naturalization works, and who it benefits. And of course the Hidden Cameras‘ call to “ban marriage” is extreme, but then you don’t get good pop songs by being moderate (“ban marriage, ban it sometiiiiiiiimes” just doesn’t have quite the same ring). And since my favorite gay folk church chorus put it out there, we might as well run with it for a bit. How come long-term monogamy is the Mount Everest of human relationships, that we’re all striving for “because it’s there”? Or, alternately, that it’s so normal that we don’t even think about it as something to strive for - it just kind of happens, somewhere between high-school graduation and Botox treatments. And, since these question are pretty much impossible to answer, why does it matter? And what happens to people for whom the shoe just doesn’t fit?
Some school-friends of mine recently went to a “professionalization seminar”, a session where you get tips on how to turn what you’ve learned in university into a kickass career. Much of the discussion ended up being about how to make sure you and your parter get hired at the same institution, how to plan maternity leave, and other relationship-related concerns. “And what if you’re single?” one of my friends asked. “Well,” was the reply, “I guess you have it easy.” Really? Moving to a new city where you have no friends or family or support network to start a very demanding job is easy? Singlehandedly caring for yourself emotionally and physically while attempting to do work that means a lot to you but sometimes makes you totally nuts is easy? I mean, yes, negotiating between career and family is hard too, there’s about eight tonnes of Ms. Magazine ink out there to tell you that, but opting out of coupledom, for whatever reason, doesn’t suddenly make you into a freewheelin’ bohemian without a care in the world besides which trendy new bar you’re going to hit up next.
It’s pretty safe to say that society looks out for and protects the nuclear family in a way that it doesn’t single people, best friends forever, cousins, hippie communes, roommates, leather daddies and their baby dykes, polyamorous lovers, motorcycle gangs, bosom buddies, bridge partners, threesomes, or any other kind of romantic or non-romantic way that people come up with to stick together. The only institution that maybe comes close in terms of protecting itself is the Mafia. So, what I want to know is, how do you learn an ethics of care that includes those outside romantic partnerships and blood relations?
Now, I hope to heaven that I don’t become one of those people who ask their friends and family to gather and witness a commitment ceremony where they pledge eternal devotion to themselves, or their low-rider bicycle, or Starbucks double lattes. If I’m ever that desperate for attention, hopefully I’ll rob a bank or something. And I’m not of the Carrie Bradshaw school of singledom, where not being married (or being not-married) means a sparkly whirl of commodity fetishism, cutesy self-love seminars, and martini nights with the girls. I might have martini nights with the girls, but for godsakes don’t call it that.
Thea predicted that I was going to write about the joys of polyamoury or non-monogamy, but I can’t in all honesty speak from firsthand experience, or even secondhand - I don’t know anyone for whom this has worked out, and most have involved, as Thea put it, ‘full-on emotional breakdowns”. (Thought there are always those urban legends, the friend-of-a-friend who was romantically involved with three people simultaneously and they all still get along great and meet for cribbage games once a month - and if you’re one of those people, I would love to hear from you.) Anyway, you can’t really prescribe a way of being and loving as a cure for society’s ills, as in “if everyone had a boyfriend and a girlfriend each and reared their children communally everything would be great,” (though after a long night of gin and tonics my friend and I did seem to think that this model comes pretty close to utopia). Some people can do it, and for others it just doesn’t work out.
This does, however, lead me to wonder about the whole idea of success in relationships. If marriage until death-do-us-part is the ideal, then anything that falls short of that sounds like failure. But what does it mean when something “doesn’t work out”? Think of it this way - we’ve all been in relationships that have ended. Does that constitute failure? Or does it just constitute being alive? While obviously no one wants to go through an emotional Chernobyl, I would hazard that those of us who have been through the relationship wringer probably have some pretty serious resources to fall back on, and some pretty kick-ass “life skills” (ugh, sorry) that maybe you don’t get when you marry your childhood sweetheart. Then again, who wants life skills when you could have someone to massage your feet at night and make you tomato soup? Or does that mean that really I’m just looking for a butler, or one of those Pro-Shiatsu things you can buy off late-nite TV? Who knows.
I do know that I am obsessed with how caring relationships and communities form, when there’s way fewer models for them than long-term monogamy. I’ve lived with housemates for my entire adult life, not just because it’s cheap but because for some reason it’s important to me to live with, care for and be cared for by people who are not my relatives or my romantic partner. And it’s sometimes hard and alienating to maintain what I think is how I want to live. Maybe it won’t be forever, and maybe it will. And I hope there will be more people to talk about things like this with. Ahem. Your line.