When Amal Alamuddin and George Clooney tied the knot the other day, my social media feeds lit up with all kinds of celebratory yearning. Her dress! they said, her impressive job! But most resonantly, they seemed totalised by her husband. Her rich, handsome, famous husband.
A few days before the wedding, I went for a walk down the river with a mate. She’s a new-ish friend, an artist, and we’re still in the early stages of our friendship. While illegally picking flowers, she and I discussed the blocks we come up against in our work. Mine usually centre on not feeling like a strong enough writer, and worrying that readers will think I’m stupid or shallow. Her blocks, she said, often came back to a fear of not finding the right person to share her life with. Both of these inhibitors are about other people validating us, and both are silly in the sense that they are invented by feelings of inadequacy. But their affect is different.
Years ago, I remember going to a party directly after an ex-boyfriend and I had broken up. Once there, I didn’t know what I was doing at this party, I was nervous and uncomfortable, and didn’t really feel like having fun, so I told a friend what had happened. What if that’s the last person I connect with like that? I asked her between deep sips of wine. What if I never find someone like them again?, and other such clichés. Because I felt sad and dejected, I was more terrified of being alone than I was being with someone I didn’t get along with for a million reasons. She said, well, maybe you won’t. Who cares?
She was callous, but right, and I didn’t entirely understand that that until maybe a few years later. The couple occupies the most prominent space in our culture, and it’s abnormal to not aspire to it. The couple is the location of progenation, new life, it’s the institution that makes it possible to live in a capitalist economy by sanctioning the sharing of resources, and dramatically, it’s the centre from which all tension is drawn.
One troubling aspect of this cultural fixation on the heterosexual couple is that it is also the most sanctioned place for women’s private labour to make men’s public work possible. Even if marriage were to expand, legally, to include same-sex unions, the institution would still reiterate the primacy (and privacy) of the home. While sometimes this is innocuous, the mythology around domesticity makes possible co-dependence, domestic violence, and most frequently, unfulfilled potential.
The urge to soul-mating is ancient, and it’s a wonder it has survived as long as it has. In Plato’s Symposium, he discusses the obsessive draw towards togetherness: 'Do you desire to be wholly one; always day and night in one another’s company? for if this is what you desire, I am ready to melt and fuse you together, so that being two you shall become one.' This version of coupledom doesn’t seem to leave much time for things outside a relationship, things like reading, new friendships, or parties, let alone working on projects that might have some value to others.
In the few times I have felt distressed by the prospect of some kind of eternal singledom, I have reminded myself of how difficult and suffocating romantic love can be, especially in the belittling shadow of celebrity couplings, their affluence, glamour, and unavoidable clichés. I draw on my accumulated life data, which tells me that no-one is a perfect partner, even with 'hard work'. And there are many more things to love than some perfect other individual – kids, animals, colleagues and friends, and work. These entities tend not to impede on vital alone time, either. Or in Oprah-speak, 'me time'.
The human-rights-lawyer-captures-the-heart-of-Hollywood-silver-fox story is a quaint and old-fashioned one, and in and of itself, it’s kind of charming. But that charm ends when it is consumed by single people, who, in my social networks, are accomplished single women who see the marriage as a reflection on their own failures, it’s just a boring repetition of what we already know - that people are truly successful when they publicly enshrine their romantic love for another person.
Ellena Savage edits arts at The Lifted Brow, politics and culture at Spook Magazine, and is a postgraduate student of creative writing at Monash University. She tweets as @RarrSavage
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03 October 2014
I agree absolutely with your premise, Ellena. I also agree with Iris Murdoch when she said, "Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck." And that amazement just kinda happens and, if both are really sensible, both will choose it. I can hope for George and Amal that beneath the glitz and glamour are two people who are totally amazed they've found each other!
03 October 2014
I was utterly amazed to read about Miss Savage's ideas about a "cultural fixation on the heterosexual couple". I happen to believe that nothing in this life reflects the love of God for mankind more richly than the loving bond that binds a married couple. A culture that does not foster this bond is doomed.
03 October 2014
True love not Hollywood rubbish is the joy of sharing. Giving is so rewarding. Of course there are highs and lows but it is all worthwhile.It's never boring!
03 October 2014
For God's sake, this is ridiculous! "What if I never find someone like them again?" What on earth's wrong with "What if I never find someone like that again?"
04 October 2014
One of the overheads of intelligence is trying to understand our condition. I am seventy and single, but have been double (triple . . .) a number of times and have children and grandchildren. Looking back, all I can say is that it just happened to me, and was (and is) largely wonderful. Looking forward, although I am quite certain of death, I have no idea of what is going to happen next. The glorious thing about our divine Universe is that things can change radically at any moment. The old terminology seems most accurate: we do not make love, we fall into it.
05 October 2014
The Clooney story - ageing rake marries exotic human rights lawyer - is a fairy tale as yet incomplete. What will be will be. Loneliness is something which motivates many to partner. I think, if we knew what sometimes happens to
" romance " we would think again. I remember my first serious romance was with someone I now know for certain was a chronic psychopath. Fortunately it died. Adolf Guggenbull-Craig - yes, he really does exist - a Jungian analyst, in his book " Marriage dead or alive", says matrimony is more like a traditional ordeal and that a more give-and-take European one has more chance of survival than our " Woman's Day" version. I concur.
05 October 2014
me time is great
07 October 2014
While I agree that there is a lot of expectation that women and men should be part of a couple. And I don't think anyone should be made to feel pressured or be expected to be in a relationship to be fulfilled in life. Men and women are individuals and don't need a partner to lead a productive and fulfilled life.
However I do have a problem with statements like 'suffocating' and perfect partner, as a reason not want a relationship.
I've been married for 30 years and we have had lots of ups and downs. Neither of us are perfect, no one is, not together or apart. We love being together and are each other's best friend. I feel lucky to have my husband. We comfort each other when needed. We laugh and cry together. We also spend plenty of time doing our own thing in our day. We see our own friends and work apart.
Being a couple may not be for everyone, but it can wonderful for some. Just as being single is right for others.
16 October 2014
to jim: your comment seems the suggest that any relationship that fails to reflect the traditional ideal is unworthy or unable to reflect God's love. God's love has already been revealed to us as a father/son relationship - and the holy spirit which somehow connects us to that. As a non-heterosexual person I have accepted the reality that i will never experience the marriage bond you mention, but despite that (or maybe even because of that) my life and relationships, are not just as rich in reflecting God's love. God is not about hierarchies of worthiness like human love - God's love is unconditional and, if God did hold any bias or favouritism it would be for the outcast.