State-of-the-Couple Report

State-of-the-Couple Report

by Ronni Sandroff

Social values support the “act” of marriage, but conspire against romance, passion, and equal relationships.

“I’m definitely not ready for marriage.”

Claire Vignerie, 28, who used to work for MTV news, is now in graduate school at Sarah Lawrence College. Though she remains very close to two men with whom she lived for a year each, she treasures her independence: “I want to do things on my own while I’m still young.”

“I’m not ready” — a male prerogative in the days when women were more worried about being asked than being ripe–is now the mantra of many young women at a stage of life when their own mothers were already married and suckling infants. They believe they’ll find love — someday — but meanwhile they’re relieved at not having to cope too soon with the demands of adjusting to another person, combining family life and career, and worrying that they’ll end up single again, but this time, with kids.

Despite the tremendous pressure for monogamous pairing generated by the fear of contracting AIDS, young marriage has not made the expected comeback. Today’s young women are marrying significantly later than their mothers: at 24.5 years on average, compared to 21.0 in 1973. People continue to wed — 90 percent of women are married by age 29 — but getting there is more problematic.

While many younger women dawdle at the gate, their supposed role models, the older women who have been through the social upheavals of the last few decades are wondering: is this all? On the other side of the relationship tunnel — post-kids, post-divorce, post-coming out, and past their first career triumphs and the initial glow of maturely chosen domestic partnerships — the generation that brought feminist thought to the masses is finding it hard to continue to extract real satisfaction out of dyadic relationships.

“Am I happy in my marriage? Depends on what day you ask me,” says anthropologist Barbara Joans, 60, married for twenty years to a man twelve years her junior. “We’ve found it very hard to stay together. If you don’t find ways to go beyond your initial attraction and build some commonalities — it gets boring.”

For Barbara, “going beyond” has meant learning to ride a Harley and giving up vegetarianism so she could join her husband on long road trips with “Mom and Pop” type motorcycle clubs. “Unlike the general culture, the clubs are supportive of relationships. Kin is what keeps you alive. The people we ride with don’t put down family life.”

Joans and her husband have chosen an unusual solution to a common problem — the fact that isolation, alienation, overwork, and dearth of community life have made couple relationships the only significant source of love and support for many Americans. This puts intense pressure on the dyad to be all things to each other and raises expectations of the joys of home life that few couples have the energy to meet.

A whole relationships industry — complete with schools, courses, TV segments, and mountains of self-help books — has grown up to address the quandaries of young and middle-aged pair bonding. The basic theme is that good ole American “know-how,” or “technique” will solve everything: Learn to communicate, fight fair, share sacred hours, and buy your husband How To Satisfy a Woman Every Time and Have Her Beg for More for Valentine’s Day. “Couples today really understand that relationships don’t run on automatic; they take effort,” notes New York City public opinion pollster Ethel Klein. “Oprah and company have taught Americans a whole vocabulary for dealing with one another.”

The subtext of relationship fixers, however, is that with a little savvy the traditional twosome can work and satisfy all our emotional needs. Write off any residue of dissatisfaction as irreconcilable differences between alien species (Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus). This view conveniently ignores the significance of the changing roles of women and men, the high divorce rate, and the pervasive feeling of emotional alienation among those in couples — and those who are not.

Fortunately, some deeper insights are now emerging from thinkers mining the feminist experience of the last thirty years for ideas and models for better loving. In Peer Marriage: How Love Between Equals Really Works, sociologist Pepper Schwartz studied couples in which each person assumed roughly equal responsibility for emotional, economic, and household duties. She found that the level of equality was highly related to the couples’ satisfaction with their relationship. Although these peer marriages have some built-in problems of their own, the mutual respect generated by sharing both emotional and provider roles made the relationships less vulnerable to the failures of empathy and interest, and the depersonalization of the female, which threaten many traditional and “near peer” relationships.

While Schwartz focuses on marriages that work, other feminist thinkers question the primacy of the couple itself. In Fierce Tenderness, theologian Mary Hunt wonders if the couple is an “unmitigated good” and urges lesbian women to “take the opportunity of their marginality to rethink the basic paradigm of defining ‘significant others’ only in terms of couples.” And in Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery and other writings, activist bell hooks takes the “beyond couples” concept even further by urging us to broaden our emotional scope and allow the transformative power of love to radiate from our families to our communities.

None of these authors give more than an inkling of how the human — and especially female — power of love can be wielded to transform personal relationships, institutions, government, and culture. “The alternatives are not yet worked out,” Mary Hunt told On The Issues. “At this point, they’re imaginative, a subtle movement in new directions, a dimly seen horizon.” What follows is an attempt to sketch the horizon.

I want to know what love is

“Desire, extended over time,” is the literal meaning of the ancient Egyptian glyph for love. Desire refers to sexual yearning, but there are other yearnings too — to be held close, to be safe, to be known and understood, and, as love matures, to care for, comfort, and delight the beloved.

In the not so distant past, if the flames of desire were strong, they usually led directly to marriage. Today, they often lead instead to sharing living space and a hurried, or leisurely, attempt to see if lasting love can be developed. Once marriage is committed, we hope it will prove more stable than the thoughtless, breathless unions of earlier times.

But while today’s social values still support the “act” of marriage, they also conspire against the couple’s ability to achieve a satisfying relationship. Lip service is given to the need for intimacy and family life, but the weight of our corporate, legal, and tax systems really fuels a workaholic lifestyle and breakneck consumer consumption.

The feeling that there’s “no time for love” is apparent even among the young and single. Many young people, in a desperate hurry to find a partner in the few hours left over from work, focus on “bottom line dating,” trying to quickly rule out the unsuitable, looking for settings in which romance can be instantly dispensed, as if from ATM machines. This is the view of Sharyn Wolf, author of Guerrilla Dating Tactics, who has given seminars on the subject for 12 years.

Slowing down long enough to really perceive — no less grow intimate with–another person is a problem for many. The antidote — according to Wolf, Mary Hunt and Pepper Schwartz, is to “find a friend, not a date.” Learning to preserve times of “unbusyness” in daily life to tend a budding friendship is good preparation for a caring couple relationship. Schwartz finds that friendship is both the basis for — and the reward of — peer relationships. “As more demanding standards for intimacy have emerged…achieving friendship has become a critical element for lasting marriage,” she writes. “Friends choose each other repeatedly during the lifetime of a relationship.” Peer couples are together because they want to be, not primarily out of need for financial support or home services.

Couples who devote time to each other must often do so without social support. Anne Benefield, minister at the Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, counsels couples about to get married to reserve a “date night” each week for catching up, solidifying the relationship, and generating some romance. “I tell them not to let anyone know about this,” Benefield said, “Because if you say I can’t work late or I can’t make that meeting because I have to see my spouse, everyone assumes that that’s a date you can easily break.”

The years of basic training in how to live with another person, and the delay of permanent commitment, may bode well for producing more equal relationships between the sexes. Roughly a third of Schwartz’ rare peer couples were on their second marriage, as compared to about a fifth of traditional couples. Living through the discontents of unequal relationships, in which the man’s role as primary provider tended to create major power disparities, apparently prepares some individuals for breaking the mold and risking equality.

For make no mistake, equal relationships are risky in American society, especially if the couple chooses to have children. Peer marriages almost always require a diminished emphasis on career and earnings potential, a voluntary acceptance of less than full-tilt accomplishment from both partners. In Schwartz’ study couples who achieved peer relationships often did it by economic mutiny against the capitalist career-and-income first ideal. “An unfettered commitment to the world of work doesn’t usually allow a peer marriage to flourish. Ultimately, there is no room for a partner-spouse — in truth, no room for anyone or anything else, except insofar as they fit into the spaces left over.”

Even for childless couples, maintaining a satisfactory relationship today puts the individuals in direct conflict with the demands of the American marketplace, with its heavy emphasis on long work weeks and the fast paced, over-booked life.

Beyond the dyad

In a social scene so unfriendly to love, couples who do manage to meet and stay together are apt to weave an insulating cocoon around themselves to protect the relationship and keep it warm. The problem is that over time, the cocoon may go from snug to suffocating, with the intense companionship snuffing out dim romance and passion. The peer couples Pepper Schwartz describe grow so similar and rely so much on each other for total human support, that sexuality can become a problem, subjected to a kind of sister/brother incest taboo.

The same can happen in very close lesbian relationships. Mary Hunt acknowledges the specter of “lesbian bed death,” in which a couple’s intimacy and friendship has a cooling effect on their sexual ardor, but Hunt feels the problem may be one of definition — viewing genital sexuality as the only significant form of physical closeness.

When the dyad is the exclusive form of emotional support, it places limits on the human spirit as well as sexuality. Young and middle-aged women alike fear that being in a couple constrains individual freedom and growth, and cuts them off from other great loves and loyalties or even the luxury of extensive solitude. In long relationships, creativity is needed to ignite and re-ignite the interest, add levels of complexity, uncover new common interests. “We’re on our third marriage,” a woman said of her 25-year relationship.

Reinventing couple love is greatly facilitated if each person also has a repertoire of other emotionally satisfying relationships. “Obsession with romantic love relationships has “led us to confuse all emotional bonds with sexual bonds…as a result we seem to avoid strong but deeply rewarding emotional attachments with others of our own sex . . . We need to put more energy into nonromantic relationships. . . ,” Geraldine K. Piorkowski, Ph.D. wrote in Psychology Today.

To remain satisfying, couple love needs to be part of a continuum of relationships that expands outward into circles of friends and the community. “If it weren’t for my friends, I could never put up with my husband,” says one woman, married 17 years. “They satisfy a whole range of emotional needs that my mate doesn’t even know exist.” Her friends link her to a wider world as well, serving as colleagues, travel companions, and political allies.

Platonic female friendships are a source of tremendous emotional satisfaction for many women. bell hooks notes that we learn to care for ourselves by caring for our female friends.

“If you’re in a couple, you’re one person away from being single, notes Mary Hunt. “We need to expand the definition of ‘significant other.'”

The problem is that American relationships are being shoved into a smaller and smaller time frame. Couples have little time together, and friends are harder to squeeze in. This is not only emotionally unhealthy for individuals and couples, the tiny circle of intimates discourages involvement in the community. Consider how often the decision to attend a meeting, join a committee, or get active in a political movement, is predicated on having a friend — or a circle of friends — willing to go along. Networks of friends and colleagues are often the bridge for extending personal love and caring to the larger social scene.

Love has always been a power source for women. In the past, it was sometimes our sole means of influence. Comfortable and experienced with the power of love — in romantic, familial, and parental relationships –i t’s not too big a stretch to imagine women tapping love as a political catalyst that can create change in the familial, tribal and global arenas.

To preserve the joys of our couple relationships, and preserve ourselves and the world around us, bell hooks implies we may need to create radical circles of love, insurrectionary groups — like those of the early Christians or Buddhist monks — that both protect individuals and work for fundamental change.

hooks notes that the “civil rights movement transformed society in the United States because it was fundamentally rooted in a love ethic…Again and again, [Martin Luther] King testified that he had ‘decided to love’…It is truly amazing that King had the courage to speak as much as he did about the transformative power of love in a culture where such talk is often seen as merely sentimental.”

Turning a community of friends into a political cell (and vice versa) is part of the American feminist tradition. A number of the original feminist consciousness-raising groups of the 1970s evolved into close friendship networks that have lasted for decades and helped those involved stay creative, politically active, and relatively sane amid divorces, abuses, custody cases, harassment lawsuits, and career ups and downs.

Choosing love, hooks notes, we also choose to live in community, and that means that we do not have to change by ourselves. Creating tribes of common interest, neighborhood communities, political cells, circles of love, gives us a reservoir of love to drink from when we find ourselves outside of a couple — or parched from the innate limits of the twosome.

Ronni Sandroff is editor of this magazine. She and Leonid Kulberg have been married for 30 years, if the time spent in their current and all previous marriages are added together, as they think is only right.