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we have privatised fellow-feeling

and turned it into a coveted thing



relationships • 31.05.18

Does not this whole paroxysm of love’s declaration conceal some lack? We would not need to speak this word, if it were not to obscure, as the squid does with his ink, the failure of desire under the excess of affirmation.

Roland Barthes


Monogamy At All Costs ...the price paid for exclusive partnerships is too high.

Having It All ...it is patently not possible.

Sex & Emancipation ...that modern woman might reject procreation and family life.

Adventures In Erotica ...further thoughts on sexuality.

Unhitched ...Judith Stacey argues that monogamy is not natural.

It’s okay to be a lapsed romantic having reached a certain age but to no longer believe in love is another 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. To me 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, fostering a world where connections to the extended flock are transactional, where instrumentality determines 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 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 a 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 mean is a partnership. My case here can be exemplified in the different senses of these two words. Relationship is about the engagement we have with everything. It is open to possibility. Partnership is exclusive, a select thing, effectively a closing off. To my thinking the former trumps the latter. Relationship is where the treasures of existence lie, morally, spiritually and otherwise. That these terms are used confusingly in the world of coupling is instructive. If you're a non-monogamist like me who values connection over affiliation it arouses suspicion.

I could say something about overuse of the love-word itself which is expected to cover all manner of sentiment when a more specific vocabulary exists. Terms like affection, care, companionship and respect, all the way to adoration, infatuation and lust are there to be utilised, each with a distinct import determined by context. Given you can love a thing, a place, a memory, an activity, given that love manifests in a complexity of feeling, then parlance matters. When love possibilities are infinite, the word alone becomes so generic as to be virtually meaningless.

I could point to the state of flux in which love often finds itself; how it is usually assumed to be good and positive but can also be about obsession, dependency, misery and heart-break; how the ones loved aren’t loved at all sometimes; how impatience, frustration and contempt can be 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 as much a declaration as a feeling, an act of claiming even, and as such always amenable to the language of possession: my wife, my daughter etc.


Perhaps love isn’t so much about love after all but something else entirely. Perhaps it is tethered to the price we pay as primates for inhabiting huge societies when we are evolved for living in much smaller numbers. These mass populations being too big for our tribal minds we settle for a trade-off resulting in the exclusive family on the one hand (micro-tribe) and the instrumental society on the other (macro-tribe). Unfortunately, and at great cost, this trade-off compromises our predisposition toward authentic community. Whatever the moral imperatives, you can’t love a million people. You can’t even love a hundred. You have to focus on the few and relegate the rest.

But loving the loved-ones while sub-contracting everyone else was never going to deliver the much sought-after moral populace. It was forever likely to render family as little more than an extended form of individualism where the individuals raised, with each generation, are too much identified with their own interests at the expense of the group. Rather, co-existence in bigger bands would be truer to the natural impulses of fellowship essential for a healthy 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.

In sum, I'm saying that a radical reimagining is required, one that appreciates how humans best relate to each other, one where relationships more suited to our nature can thrive, one that understands that although you can’t love a hundred people, you can know a hundred and have common cause with them, that you can have a sense of who they are and what they care about, that 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.

In this sense it is the prospect of a returning, as expressed in Eliot's "Four Quartets"... We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time. It won’t be happening soon of course. Widespread conformism and adherence to the status-quo, in particular to the high octane of shuttered intimacy, is too entrenched. But change is necessary, if only to alleviate the plight of the many for whom the current paradigm will always be a source of discontent. When it comes it will not be via the grandiose platforms of the political, but piecemeal, one personal life at a time.


I'll end here with a wish-list of imperatives, some behaviours a future society might embrace consistent with what I’ve written...

     Moving away from partnerships in favour of relationships.

     Breaking out of the segregated units of current domesticity.

     Women no longer needing to attach themselves to a single man as the sole route to legitimacy and security.

     Not everyone thinking they must procreate and feeling inadequate if they don’t.

     Finding new relationship models beyond bog-standard heterosexual monogamy.

     Becoming more at ease with sexuality in general and ending the shame that has been built up around it.

     Finding ways to raise children cooperatively in groups established for the purpose.

     Finding ways to curb patriarchal power, bringing to an end systems that grant disproportionate authority to any individual man or woman.

     Reducing inequities and promoting distribution of wealth as a moral imperative.

     Having power reside in minimal institutions less with elite individuals.  

     Investing in what are seen as weak ties and loose attachments and imbuing them with fresh validity.

     Establishing new groups along the lines of intentional communities, purposed initiatives which could form the basis of alternative institutions.

     Above all: moving away from the atomised, adversarial structures of contemporary society toward ways of living in common cause.