Most of us grow up with the idea that when we’re older, we’ll be part of a couple (and therefore ‘sorted’), and that, if single, we’ll maximise the opportunities to change our circumstances (and so be ‘seeking’). But what does it actually mean to be in a relationship today, and is the elevated status of the couple justified?
In the 1990s, sociologists acknowledged that there had been a transformation in intimate relationships. Where relationships were once driven and formed by social and economic factors, romantic love was now the primary motivation of the ‘pure relationship’, which, as Giddens argued, “exists solely for whatever rewards that relationship can deliver”. To get a sense of the primacy of romantic love, think of the long, passionate staring that typifies the ‘Twilight’ films (for a 26 minute montage of these stares, click here).
More recently, Beck and Beck-Gernsheim acknowledged the ways in which globalisation, migration, and technological advances have contributed to the rise of what they call ‘the global family’ and ‘distant love’. Where relationships once involved the coming together of individuals from the same nation state, relationships today are increasingly formed between individuals from different countries, cultures, and ethnic backgrounds, who have different religious convictions and speak different languages. The family has become a unit in which ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ nations and ‘West’ and ‘non-West’ worlds collide, where religious and political ideologies are confronted, and social inequalities are magnified. These authors go on to describe the rise of the “everyday trauma” of ‘distant love’, whereby couples increasingly maintain intimacy at a distance, through Facebook, email, Skype and Whatsapp. Rather than staring-in-Twilight, think of the heart-felt intrigue of ‘Catfish’, or the soft-focus Instagram-like scenes of ‘Her’.
But whether we’re talking about ‘pure relationships’, or ‘distant love’, compulsory coupledom reigns. It is generally expected that most people at some point will become part of a couple, and that if they are single they will be ‘seeking’ to become part of a couple. But there has been some opposition to this assumption. Over a decade ago, the quirky alones emerged, proudly declaring that they preferred to be single than to date for dating’s sake. Now we have the loud and proud savvy aunties, and for the more cynically inclined, the bitterbabes.
But there is a lot more going on than these solitary voices of dissent. In the UK, there were 7.7 million one person households in 2013, constituting the second most common household type in the UK. Adults aged 25-44 were five times more likely to live alone in 2011 than in 1973. And the rise of the so-called singleton society – often considered a consequence of the rampant pursuit of individual interests (the Durkheimian ‘cult of the individual’ on speed) – is a source of consternation for some. Singles are bad for the economy, have unrealistic expectations of relationships, and they die sooner too. On the other side of the fence, there is a suggestion, sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant, that couples are simply settling for the status quo.
Such judgements obfuscate how relationships and couples are changing. In the era of ‘distant love’, it is arguably becoming more difficult than ever to distinguish who is in a couple and who is not.
Contemporary coupledom need have nothing to do, for example, with geographical location. It is increasingly common for individuals to move countries and cultures in the pursuit of paying work, or furthering their careers. And there is the growing trend of the LAT couple – who choose to ‘Live Apart Together’. Social media platforms and communication technologies (Skype, Whatsapp and the like) also allow for relationships to form and progress between individuals who have never actually met, or have meet fleetingly. As Beck and Beck-Gernsheim inform us, “love used to be and still always is something imagined. As we all know, it takes place largely in the mind. What is special about love on the internet is that takes place only in the mind.”
In debating the significance of geographical location for couple relationships, we begin to question whether two individuals have to share a bed, have sex, or be physically intimate with one another in order to achieve their couple status. If so, how much sex and what sort of sex should they be having? Physical intimacy is a challenge for those in the throes of distant love, although numerous apps promise to overcome the barrier of distance. But what if sex and/or intimacy isn’t a priority, or on the agenda at all? How are the more conventional couple who no longer have sex any different from the couple in distant love, or from two friends who live together?
Perhaps it is love that sets singles and couples apart. But how exactly is love between friends and love between individuals in a couple different? In the era of the ‘global family’, individuals may have different and competing conceptualisations of love, marriage and happiness, and the relationship between them. If the concept of love is too complex and slippery to grasp, perhaps we should ask if couples have to like one another, or be kind to one another?
A survey led recently by a British team of researchers found that the simple of act of making a cup of tea for one another is an important aspect of long term intimate relationships. But like sharing a bed and having sex, the act of tea-making is a challenge for those living in different time zones.
Most crucial to definitions of coupledom and singlehood is an acknowledgement that neither is a static state. In the UK it is expected that 42% of marriages will end in divorce, most of which will occur between the fourth and eighth year of marriage. In his book ‘Going solo’, sociologist Eric Klinenberg summarises with admirable balance (curiously absent in many discussions of this subject): “we cycle in and out of different living arrangements: alone, together, alone, together”. However, he does go on to note that “the typical American will spend more of his or her adult life unmarried than married, and for much of this time he or she will live alone. Naturally, we are adapting. We are learning to go solo, and crafting new ways of living in the process.”
So it seems that now is a good time to address our attitudes and perceptions of what it is to be in a relationship and what it is to be single. Seeing as most of us will be single for a great period of our lives, we might all benefit from an appreciation of the limits of the single-couple distinction, and for there to be a greater appreciation of shared experiences and commonalities in our experiences. As Klinenberg outlines, “singles and people who live alone are twice as likely as married people to go to bars and to dance clubs….To be sure, many occasionally struggle with loneliness or with the feeling that they need to change something to make their lives feel more complete. But so, too, do their married friends and family members, and, really, most everyone during some periods of their lives. Finding a partner or a live-in companion is not enough to solve the social pain of loneliness, which is a fundamental part of the human experience.”
Perhaps then we could all breathe a little easier as we make choices and decisions about our personal, romantic and intimate lives, unmarred by perceptions and experiences of stigma. And perhaps then we could simply put the kettle on and make a cup of tea (virtual or real) for whoever we like, whenever we like, for whatever reason we like, and experience love in whatever form we find it.
Klinenberg, E. (2012). Going solo: The extraordinary rise and surprising appeal of living alone. Penguin.
Beck, U., and Beck-Gernsheim, E. (2013). Distant love. Personal life in the global age. Polity.
Giddens, A. (1991). Modernity and self-identity: Self and identity in the late modern age. Polity.