When you’re in a couple, you go from being a whole thing to becoming half of something—tragic, no? But there’s a difference between being in a relationship and being A Couple. I attempt to break it down. By Karley Sciortino.
This article was written for the current issue of Purple magazine.
Couples are boring. I know, I know—I’ve probably just pissed off every non-single person reading this. But before you get defensive, let me explain what I mean by “couple.”
We all know those people who start dating someone and are never seen solo again. Those people who shift from being an “I” to a “we” all too easily, who can no longer fathom attending a dinner party unchaperoned. To couple literally means to combine—to take two things and make them a single unit. To me, the idea of going from being a whole thing to becoming half of something is pretty depressing. But for a lot of people, this is a main ambition in life. How bizarre?
But then there are the rare few who enter relationships and somehow manage to maintain their autonomy and independence. Rather than submitting to the social idea of what love is supposed to look like, this rare breed—the “anti-couple”—love by their own design. So how do we avoid the all-too-common social tragedy known as the couple?
Just to be clear, I am not anti-relationship. Being in a relationship can be a beautiful, supportive, and transformative experience. But there’s a difference between being in a relationship and being a couple. And while the differences may be subtle, they are profound. Also, being anti-couple doesn’t necessarily mean being anti-monogamy. You can be in a committed, monogamous relationship and still avoid behaving like a couple. Being an anti-couple doesn’t mean that you can’t have a strong, loving relationship.
During coupledom, your identity is partially suspended—or, at least, it’s incorporated and consolidated into that of the couple. When you’re a couple, you no longer have your own opinions, ideas or emotions, because a good couple experiences everything in tandem—”We love that movie” and “We don’t like that restaurant.” Recently, when I asked a friend about his trip to Greece, he replied “We had a great vacation.” I kept thinking: “Maybe your girlfriend didn’t. Maybe she secretly wanted to hang herself.” A couple denies the possibility of independent and divergent experiences, while an anti-couple is made up of two people who aren’t afraid to speak for themselves.
It’s rare that a couple is thought to be more fun than its pre-coupled individual parts. It’s very rare that I prefer hanging out with my friend and their partner, rather than with my friend alone. This isn’t because I’m some bitter single person who doesn’t want my friends to find love. It’s because people almost unanimously become slightly boring or neutralized when they’re around the person they’re dating—they become annoyingly lovey, needy, jealous or nagging, or they become a censored, shadow of themselves. When you hang out with a couple, you get limited access to both halves. You only get the version of each person that they feel is most attractive to their partner, paired with their shared version of their couple that they want to project to the world. And all of this is bad news, because when you’re a couple, you’re liable to act like a censored version of yourself so often that eventually this sanitization becomes your new self. And that’s scary.
Obviously, there are some exceptions to this rule. There are the rare instances where two people make each other better—where they enable the most fun and bright parts of each other’s personalities. Most often, these are scandalous couples. Or, more likely, scandalous anti-couples. Henry Miller and Anais Nin come to mind, as do Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Anti-couples compliment one another, whereas a couple is dependent on one another.
A classic example of an anti-couple is Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre—not because they were publicly in an open-relationship, but because their relationship maintained a distance and an intellectual—and sometimes conflictual—dialogue. Sartre was a true feminist, showing that men and women could be intellectual equals. There was a great mutual admiration between them, and they criticized, stimulated and inspired each other’s work. In other words, they were together for reasons beyond merely the convention of being a couple.
When I was a kid, I had an image in my head of what a “good relationship” looked like. This image was based on what I saw on TV and in movies, and what I gleaned from the relationships of my parents and their friends. I remember “inseparable” was a word people often used positively when describing relationships—“they’re inseperable” was another way of saying “they’re very in love.” I imagined a good boyfriend as a guy who would come with you to your friend’s birthday party without complaining. This is pretty standard thinking. Romantic relationships are surrounded by all kinds of socially sanctioned ideas about what is a normal and good way to express your love for another person. Generally, this translates to: someone who will always be at your side. But isn’t that a depressingly simplistic way to define love and connection? Shouldn’t a relationship be thought of as two people who support and understand each other, rather than two people who stand next to each other by default?
Being a couple in inherently conformist, because a couple is a social identity that keeps in line with a society structured on family values. As early as our 20s, “I’m single” becomes a phase that’s most often uttered apologetically. Starting around age 30, it’s seen as a tragedy to show up to a social event solo. (It’s like that episode of Sex and the City when Miranda’s mother dies, and at the funeral everyone’s worried about her because she doesn’t have a date. “Ignore the coffin,” Miranda says mockingly, “there’s a 35-year-old single woman walking behind it.”) Even if you are in a relationship, but you attend a social event alone, you have to make an excuse for your partner’s absence, otherwise everyone will assume there’s a problem in your relationship. It’s for these reasons that most people fall into coupledom by default—because it’s what is socially, morally and politically expected of us (and because it’s just annoying to have to constantly explain yourself otherwise). But it’s worth resisting this, because if you need your partner with you in every social situation in order to feel comfortable, then you’re not entirely yourself anymore—you’re a couple.
I’m not saying that being an anti-couple means you should always show up alone. Clearly, when you love someone, having them around makes things more fun, more colorful, more sexy. But maintaining a distance and a tension between yourself and your partner is what keeps the relationship interesting. In her widely viewed TED Talk, “The Secret to Desire in a Long-Term Relationship,” famed psychotherapist Esther Perel describes how maintaining space, independence, and individual goals is essential to sustaining the allure of your partner over time. Perel says, “In love, we want to have, we want to know the beloved. We want to minimize the distance. We want to contract that gap. We want to neutralize the tensions. We want closeness. But in desire we want an other… we want a bridge to cross.” Put concisely: “Fire needs air. Desire needs space.”
During research for her bestselling book, Mating in Captivity, Perel found that across cultural, religious, race and gender lines, people report being most drawn to their partners when they are away; when they are able to long for each other and then reunite. Or, when their partner is doing something they are passionate about—when they’re onstage, in the studio, in their element, when they are radiant and self-sustaining. When suddenly, the person we know so well becomes once again mysterious and elusive. Put frankly, Perel says, “I have yet to see somebody who is so turned on by somebody who needs them.”
This sustained independence is especially important for women, given that the couple is an inherently male structure. Even if a woman dreams of the ostensible security of the couple, or is more proactive in creating it, it’s the man who controls the unit—be it financially, violently, or through dominating the decision making. In an essay for the New Inquiry, writer Hannah Black describes this imbalance, writing of the couple: “In its heterosexual form, it’s a patriarchal horror movie… Despite the limited achievements of feminist struggles, the structure of straight coupledom still represents an appropriation of the physical and psychic energy of women to benefit men.”
In an anti-couple, you don’t lose yourself to a false idea of perfection. You don’t compromise your own vision of life. By remaining yourself, you increase your chances of remaining in love, even when faced with conflict and contradiction and antagonism (and all the other stuff that goes hand in hand with being in a relationship). But you also have to face the truth of who your partner is: someone different to you, someone who’s difficult and enigmatic, someone who has secrets from you. But that’s why you love them.