How We Are Socialized to Think We Want a Romantic Partner, Even If We Don’t
“Discrimination skews choices,” economists argue. How it skews the preference to partner.
My heart was broken again recently, when I heard the story of still another single person (I’ll call him Sam) who really wanted to stay single but could not get past the feeling that doing so would mean there was something seriously wrong with him.
Sam and many other people whose best life may well be single life are up against a formidable obstacle: the couple norm. That’s the belief that being romantically coupled is “the normal, natural and superior way of being an adult.” Sasha Roseneil, Isabel Crowhurst, Tone Hellesund, Ana Cristina Santos, and Mariya Stoilova documented it and defined it that way in their book, The Tenacity of the Couple Norm.
The couple norm needs to be sent to the trash heap of historical embarrassments. Until it is no longer part of the conventional wisdom that being romantically coupled is the normal, natural, and superior way of being an adult, too many people are going to be held back from living their most fulfilling and most meaningful lives.
Other norms that once seemed unshakeable are already on their way out. For example, the hetero norm — the belief that it is abnormal or unnatural to be anything other than heterosexual — has come tumbling down. New laws and policies, such as the legalization of same-sex marriage, have created a more welcoming world for people who aren’t heterosexual.
Meanwhile, the couple norm remains largely uncontested. In their study of Bulgaria, Norway, Portugal, and the United Kingdom, Roseneil and her colleagues found that:
“Living outside the couple-form, or in non-normative couple-forms, is made harder, economically, legally and socially, by the laws and policies of states.”
One of the most intriguing arguments the social scientists made was that the yearning to be coupled can feel natural when in fact it isn’t. Instead, that longing is shaped in large part by the power and pervasiveness of the couple norm, and the pressures and expectations that are part of the package.