Mar 04 / Simcha

Why Couplehood is So Difficult (Eva Illouz)

valentineWith contemporary culture’s focus on individual satisfaction, the traditional couple relationship is much more difficult to achieve. With more and people opting to live on their own, is the very idea of couplehood passé?  

Eva Illouz, columnist for Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz and professor of sociology at Hebrew University, Jerusalem, explores the challenges of long-term relationships in a recent Ha’aretz article (Don’t Be My Valentine, 2.13.13).  She suggests that modern culture provides us little training in suspending calculation, tolerating boredom, delaying self-development, living with ‏(frequently‏) mediocre sexuality, and preferring commitment to contractual insecurity.  The following is a short selection from a much lengthier and most thoughtful piece (original is in Hebrew).

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 Let us reflect on what makes satisfactory couplehood so difficult to achieve.

1.  Much of our culture is psychological, in that it calls on men and women to be deeply absorbed by their selves, by their needs, by their interiority. This inner reflection tends to make people keenly aware of their own self-interest, and has contributed to making relationships into utilitarian projects, justified not by moral duties or social conventions, but by the individualist pursuit of two persons seeking to maximize their pleasure. This focus on the self makes it difficult to engage in non-calculating behavior such as forgiveness and self-sacrifice, because it tends to encourage a fixation of the self on its own projects and goals, independently of that of another.

2.  Moreover, the culture of needs and self-knowledge overlaps with equality as a new cultural definition of social bonds, especially between men and women. In turn, the norm of equality creates new tensions, as it implies that men and women calculate, measure and quantify what they give to each other, both in terms of their work in the household and in terms of their emotional exchange. While equality is inherent in the democratic polity, it has been more difficult to implement in the private sphere because it demands a constant tracking of the contributions of each partner.

3.  The third difficulty encountered by couples derives from the problem of boredom, itself an outcome of the fact that excitement is now a new norm of relationships within a couple. Excitement implies a new supply of experiences and sentiments. Excitement has been institutionalized in the sphere of leisure, through the production of novel experiences. During the 20th century, excitement migrated from the realm of objects to the realm of persons, and, more exactly, from the realm of leisure to that of interpersonal interactions…. The culture of excitement is especially salient in the realm of sexuality, which must supply endless sources of novelty and stimulation.

4.  In addition, psychological culture has made self-change and self-development imperatives. To live a good life today means to live a life in which the future self will evolve from the current one. This creates instability within couples: If change is intrinsically valued, then changing one’s personality, tastes and preferences becomes a value, thus undermining the stability that couples inherently require. This instability is accentuated by the culture of choice − in which a multiplicity of sexual partners considerably delays the formation of a couple and constitutes an ongoing threat to their stability as well. Indeed, to self-realize means to increasingly elaborate and refine one’s tastes, implying to change and to improve one’s partner. The abundance of sexual choice, coupled with the ideology of self-realization, encourages the desire to meet someone “more suitable.”

5.  Finally, modern capitalist culture demands the cultivation of autonomy (one needs to learn independence and autonomy from one’s youngest age). The demand of autonomy in turn exerts and creates centripetal forces on a couple. Autonomy, allied to self-realization, encourages the marking of boundaries of self that prohibit fusion and make people turn away at signs of rejection or distance. In short, the imperative of autonomy conflicts with the reality of love as dependence, attachment, symbiosis and thus makes love conflict − rather than resonate with − autonomy as an important feature of personhood.

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In the face of this, do we still need couples? Couples seem to have become an unnecessary institution, one that disturbs individual development and forces the individual to face and cope with his-her contradictions. Couples create confusion, conflict, loneliness and pain. The sheer numbers speak against couples, as more and more people choose to live alone. But I want to suggest that the notion is still important to defend, because couples represent a social form whose value resides precisely in the fact that it is contrary to the reigning ethos of our times.

How so? Monogamous couplehood − if we are to stick to the conventional definition − is perhaps the last social unit that functions according to principles that oppose those of capitalist culture. A couple is de facto a proclamation against the culture of choice, against the culture of maximization of choice, against the culture that choices should be improved, and against the idea of the self as a permanent site for excitement, enjoyment and self-realization. Couples, in a way, function on an economy of scarcity. They require virtues and character for which modern culture no longer trains us: They require the capacity to singularize another, to suspend calculation, to tolerate boredom, to stop self-development, to live with ‏(frequently‏) mediocre sexuality, to prefer commitment to contractual insecurity.

Couples, then, with all their conventionality, seem increasingly to stand for values that have become the true radical alternatives to the market. We may wonder if, by a long detour of history, couplehood and love have not again become the radical alternative to the dominant ethos of their time − not as a transgression but as an affirmation of that heavy and arduous sturdiness that binds us to others and to our own old and outdated selves.