Jayeel Cornelio and Nicole Curato: Sociology’s task is to destroy society’s last acceptable prejudice.
We are inspired by this duty today, the 14th of February, as we challenge the tyranny of couple culture.
We do not take the word tyranny lightly. In fact, we find this to be the most suitable term to describe the dominance of couple culture for centuries.
From the romanticism in the Victorian era to the aspirational hashtag #couplegoals, romantic relationships are celebrated as the most profound embodiment of love, fidelity, and devotion.
We find this problematic. Idealizing couple culture obscures relations of power that can be dangerously oppressive.
Sociology has a lot to say about this.
For Friedrich Engels, couplehood, formalized through marriage, is a means of regulating private property through inheritance. Inasmuch as marriage is between contracting partners, commitment is also an ideological tool that conceals class interests.
For Talcott Parsons, intimacy is not only romantic. It is also moral. Its normative power lies in keeping a couple together and their nuclear family. Bound up within this intimacy is the (hetero) sexual division of labor: the husband as the hardworking breadwinner and the wife as the caring mother. Nuclear families, in order for them to be considered "functional", must have both, and if they don’t, they are judged as broken.
Zygmunt Bauman perhaps is the most pessimistic. As we live at a time of rampant individualism and technological development, postmodern love has become a commodified game of swiping left and right, of finding a partner, an act that is comparable to shopping for "mundane objects of utility". Emotional attachments are thus fleeting.
And yet, couplehood remains to be a powerful fantasy today. "Destiny", "couple goals", and "forever" are some of the ways we portray couplehood as the embodiment of completeness.
How can anyone fault couples who bask in the glorious rays of the sunset, one's head on the other's shoulder?
It is improper to fault them. Romantic relationships, after all, can be empowering. They may inspire us to be the best versions of ourselves.
But it is also unfair to think that only couples can love and be truly happy in this world.
To glamorize coupledom is to foster a sense of inferiority among those who opt for other ways of organizing their lives, as if something is missing, as if there is something wrong with them.
At the same time, to glamorize coupledom is to deny that there are those among us who have to deal with the reality of abandonment. They chose to love but have been left behind anyway. In a culture that celebrates coupledom, they are failures. (READ: The pain of being alone)
Nothing could be more tyrannical than this.
We must stop considering couplehood as the pinnacle of love and devotion. It’s 2018. It’s time to democratize our view of relationships to something more inclusive and less hierarchical.
We often forget that people who are not part of the couple culture are also engaged in meaningful relationships anchored on virtues of love and devotion. Solo parenting, serial monogamy, full-time care roles, committed, long-term friendships, and deliberate singlehood are life choices that are not of lesser status than coupledom.
There are also those who manifest their love as a lifelong commitment to a cause. They belong to communities – political, ethical, and even religious – through which they are making a difference. These are the teachers, activists, counselors, and social workers in our midst. Expressing concern for those around them, their “radical happiness” is a far cry from romantic love.
Couplehood, in other words, is not the pinnacle of love. It is just one of love's many possibilities.
On Valentine's Day, it pays to be reminded that love, in the words of Vincent de Paul, is "inventive, even to infinity". It's time that we embrace love in all its colors and inspiring diversity.
Nicole Curato and Jayeel Cornelio are sociologists. They are engaged in a relationship of mutual care and constructive criticism. They are not a couple.