3 min

The tyranny of coupledom

Don't leave the seat up

Midway throughher scathing look at modern coupledom, Against Love: A Polemic, US writer Laura Kipnis begins a catalogue of all the things you can’t do if you’re in a relationship.

The list goes something like this: “You can’t leave the house without saying where you’re going. You can’t not say what time you’ll return…. You can’t be a slob. You can’t do less than 50 percent around the house, even if the other person wants to do 100 to 200 percent more housecleaning than you find necessary or even reasonable…. You can’t sleep apart…. You can’t not ‘communicate your feelings.’ Except when those feelings are critical, which they should not be.”

The list goes on for nine pages and includes (by my count) more than 150 separate variations on the theme, “you can’t.”

In all the fuss around same-sex marriage, no one, to my knowledge, has bothered to question the institution it’s designed to prop up, the modern companionate couple. Kipnis herself is amused that gay men and lesbians want to get married and even more amused by the people who want to stop them, since clearly an institution be-deviled by adultery, hypocrisy and sky-high levels of divorce needs all the support it can get.

Her book is billed as a polemic against love, but what really bugs her is a particular “emotional regime,” the peculiarly modern institution known as companionate love.

For her the modern couple is a totalitarian security state ruled by interdictions, policed by therapy, barracked in domesticity and riddled with emotional deadness.

From bathroom to bedroom, writes Kipnis, all aspects of domestic life are subject to scrutiny. All couples use interdictions and love means voluntary adherence to them. This is called compromise, flexibility and getting along. When it comes to pleasing your mate, obedience is more important than freedom or autonomy.

People who rebel against these strictures are labelled misfits with “intimacy issues” and are subjected to extensive indoctrination (aka therapy) in the realities of what is laughingly called self-knowledge. The idea that therapy might have its own larger social agenda is seldom acknowledged.

“Only a cynic,” says Kipnis, “could suspect it of being remedial socialization in party clothes.”

For Kipnis, the only way out of this humdrum self-abnegation is adultery. She spends many a windy page detailing the wondrous ways in which extracurricular sex bursts the usual bounds of time and work. It’s a highly romantic view of sex and it will look like nonsense to anyone who’s ever seen a gay couple in action.

We all know gay couples who screw around like crazy and are just as claustrophobically self-contained as any of their straight cousins. A high-flying love affair may well break down the structures of everyday life (although even Kipnis admits that adultery tends to be circular, returning you to the place from whence you started), but a blowjob on the way home from work? That’s about as transgressive as another trip to the mall.

Kipnis is an academic and she is fully aware of the larger social and economic forces at play in the fields of romance. If modern love has “developed in such a way as to maximize submission and minimize freedom,” there are good reasons for it, she says. “Note that the conditions of lovability are remarkably convergent with those of a cowed workforce and a docile electorate.”

When it comes to intimacy, after all, we live in a scarcity economy. The social structures that used to give people a sense of meaning and connection – friends, churches, recreational leagues, the extended family – are all on the wane, largely because the idea of people embedded in community doesn’t fit with modern capitalism’s taste for easily manipulated individuals pursuing easily marketed desires.

No wonder, then, that people are worried about the state of their family or their relationship and are willing to endure anything – therapy, TV gurus and even the banality of self-help books – to make them work. There is nothing else. If you don’t have a mate, you’re plum out of luck. Forget sex or the problem of the diminished (because domesticated) libido (Kipnis’s big bugaboo). That’s a red herring. You won’t have anyone to talk to. The fear of an isolation unknown to earlier generations causes people to circle the wagons and enforce their domesticity with rules. As coupled love has become more and more central to our intimate lives, so too has our anxiety increased and with it our willingness to sacrifice just about anything – autonomy, freedom, privacy – to get it.

The sad thing is that there seem few ways out. What are you going to do? Battle late capitalism and all its glittering toys? Still, even if it’s short on solutions Kipnis’s jaunty jeremiad forces you to think. Too many people believe there’s only one way of doing a relationship. Kipnis begs you to differ.