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coupling is an insidious convention



relationships • 31.05.18

It’s okay to be a lapsed romantic having reached a certain age. But to no longer believe in love is a different matter. That’s frowned upon verging on sacrilege when all but the most hardened of hearts get misty-eyed over so called loved ones. Even that silly expression “loved ones” triggers in me a reflexive rolling of the eyes. I’ll try to articulate why while suggesting that the language of attachment is defective. I’ll also explain how, like Laura Kipnis in her celebrated polemic, I’ve ended up being “against love” and how that might be a morally progressive attitude to hold.

In younger years it was monogamy I was wary of after coming to realise I wasn’t much suited to it. Many aren’t. Kipnis certainly wasn’t and thought it meant “being asked to commit to unmet needs as the price of social stability”. She thought the problem was when “monogamy isn’t a desire but an enforced compliance system with partners as cops and surveillance experts.”

It was opinions like that I had to seek out in literature having never met anyone in the flesh who shared compatible values regarding relationships. It felt alien being expected to attach to a singular person, supposedly for the duration, thereafter having to do everything in consort, never straying too far, doing little that didn’t include them, requiring approval by them, and on top of that having to commit generally to a set of cultural norms however unsuitable they were.


Attachments are basic to being human of course. They’re an inheritance from primordial roots and without them survival would've been impossible. But throughout history these bonds were always with the wider group. Relatedness was dispersed among the many. Now cohabitation is inside tiny nuclear units physically shared with fewer and fewer people in a world where connections to the extended flock are increasingly transactional with instrumentality determining interests, motivations and desires.

To me that’s a travesty and coupling is the culprit. It's the insidious convention at the heart of too many inherited pathologies. The situation is compounded by an under-appreciation of just how unnatural such behaviours are, only kept in check through rigorous moral enforcement. That alone might be good reason to question how intrinsic they are. I suspect not very.

The insight here is that group intimacy was an ordinary occurrence for thousands of generations before formalised monogamy but is now co-opted to enforce it. Age-old affections are thus intensified as they’re projected on to the much contracted in-group which is family. What was once dispersed becomes concentrated and these condensed emotions are what we currently experience as love, romanticised into a high-flown, quasi-spiritual thing, when in fact it is normal and natural in its native form, properly regarded as commonplace and virtually unconscious like water to fish.

Instead we have privatised fellow-feeling and turned it into a coveted thing. As such it is a perversion. What we would ordinarily get from belonging to the tribe we confine to exclusive partnerships. “We are asking from one person,” says Esther Perel, “what an entire village once provided. And couples are crumbling under the weight of so much expectation.”

Help is at hand however when these expectations are perpetually guided by a form of propaganda designed to keep us loving one another. As if we wouldn’t otherwise! Most of our nature functions don’t have to be sold to us that way but love does apparently, everywhere from the pulpit to the therapist’s couch, from the popular song to the silver screen. It amounts to an enormous cultural canon in which we must be indoctrinated. To be a heretic in such matters is to be excommunicated.


So what could the moral case be for rejecting love as it is conventionally understood? I would start with a critique of the terminology used. For example, when people say they're "in a relationship" what they actually mean is a partnership. In a certain respect my case here is exemplified in the different senses of these two words. Relationship is the connection and engagement we have with everything. It is potentially open to all possibilities. Partnership is exclusive, a select thing, effectively a closing off. I think the former is of infinitely higher value than the latter. Relationship is where the treasures of existence lie, morally, spiritually and otherwise. That these terms are used confusingly in the context of coupling is instructive. It makes a non-monogamist like me suspicious.

I could say something about the love-word itself, how it tends to be used generically when it would be better employed specifically. I mean that a more accurate vocabulary exists to describe the actual feelings of love, words like affection, companionship, and respect, all the way to adoration and lust. I could point to the state of flux in which love often finds itself; how the ones we purport to love we sometimes don’t love at all; how sometimes impatience, frustration and contempt are what’s in play; how people can even be hateful towards partners but still profess to love them. Much of that seems contradictory yet not untypical. It indicates that love might be less a feeling and more a declaration, more like an act of claiming, and as such always amenable to the language of ownership: my wife, my daughter etc.

It might be that love isn’t so much about love after all but something else entirely, something tethered perhaps to the price paid for being primates who inhabit huge societies but who are evolved for living in much smaller numbers. Whatever the imperatives, you can’t love a million people. You can’t even love a hundred. But you can know a hundred and have common cause with them; you can have a sense of who they are and what they care about; you can be concerned for them, collaborate with them, and with more imagination than is shown currently, even co-habit with them, all of which would be an optimal manifestation for how to relate, indeed how hominins did actually relate for much of their successful history.

Loving the loved-ones while sub-contracting everyone else was never going to deliver the much sought-after moral society. It would forever tend towards family being little more than an extension of individualism where the individuals raised are, with each generation, too much identified with their own interests at the expense of the group. Rather, we need to co-exist in bigger bands and extend the natural impulses of fellowship toward a healthier collective. Valued human attributes can proliferate exponentially if allowed to take root in a conducive environment. Bigger in-groups with looser ties would be a resolution more in keeping with our innate interests from which we have become too far removed.


the final part of this is to follow