Why are we obsessed with couples?

Last updated 14:09 22/08/2012
Jennifer Aniston
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BRIDE TO BE: News of Jennifer Aniston's engagement have been reported as if she has been saved from a fate worse than death.

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Unless you have been living under a rock you will have seen the breathlessly reported news that Jennifer Aniston is engaged, ending her 'unlucky-in-love' spell.

But while some cheer, others have questioned the applause: why should being single be any cause for comment or concern? After all, many more of us are single than we may have been 50 or even 20 years ago. We're divorcing more, marrying later, cohabiting and living-apart-together. It's normal, we are told, to choose something other than another half.

Or is it?

"Being single is losing its stigma, and rightly so," says Hugo Schywzer, an American social commentator and expert on all things couple-related. "It's absolutely false that being uncoupled is always a 'second best.'  Many single people - some celibate, some not - lead very fulfilling lives and wouldn't choose to be partnered no matter whom they met."

The trouble is - and this is perhaps the crux of the Aniston fall-out, a "big but" as Schwyzer puts it - we have screaming double standards. "We also live in a culture that shames people for wanting to be in a relationship," he said. "If you aren't satisfied on your own and make it obvious you're looking for a partner, you can get teased for being 'needy' or pathologised as not really capable of handling things on your own."

He's right. Just recently, a Salon piece did its level best to fly the flag for singledom in a world that remains "couples-obsessed".

"I don't think we even know what being single is. We live in such a couples-obsessed society that there really are no 'singles' out there - everyone is pre- or post-coupled," says Michael Cobb, a professor of English at the University of Toronto, in the interview.

Cobb's argument pivots on the reality that being attached is certainly no silver bullet to lasting happiness and that being single is the best way to really get to know yourself, your world and connect with other people. It gives you time to pursue personal goals, take up tennis and spend time with family. To be, well, selfish.

Cobb talks about the fear of being alone that prevents many couples from ending bad relationships - though "that fear is probably much greater than the actual experience of it."

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Many of us have been there - eking out a painful union because the other side looks far too barren. It's not, of course - or at least not in the long term. I, for one, can attest that a relationship with no trust, is far, far better off avoided than struggled with.

In that vein, simply because you're in a relationship doesn't mean you are any closer to cancelling out ever-growing amounts of emotional baggage, says Cobb. No, that would be far too easy.

Indeed, "the marker of success, the end of the romantic story, is riding off into the sunset with that person. But you don't get to see the next 30 years of boredom, or anxiety, or terror or concern."

We have heard the horror stories, read the divorce statistics and doubled-up with pain when our hearts are broken. But as much as we love to hope that singledom is the hottest date around, our surroundings attest to a very different approach.

In short, a pro-singledom argument - and this is not going to be popular - may be a stubborn show of strength rather than a choice born from deep desire.

John Curtis, a relationship expert, author and proponent of alternatives to marriage is not so sure. "The argument for singledom has an array of motives, some, no doubt, born of pain, loss and being unlucky in love but another argument is that it is a choice, not unlike a nun or priest who forsakes all other options except the commitment to one vocation and life of service." But how many people really choose to be single?

Most of those who want to be single - just 12 per cent of single Baby Boomers in the RSVP survey want to get married - seem to have tried marriage. All of the rest still have the hope, the naivety, the dream, the gut instinct to find the one and walk into the sunset, hand in hand.

Aniston, J-Lo and Elle Macpherson are all "post-coupled". Their marriages did not last, though they once (or even twice) promised to live the rest of their lives in a partnership.

Schywzer sees the ideal of coupledom as something rather more elastic than it once was. Which is lucky, given fairytale-shattering divorce rates and morphing family models.

"We live in what might be called an 'if/then' culture," he said. "Many young people say to me 'If I meet the right person, then I might consider being in a relationship - but if I don't, then I'm okay being single.'  Part of the reason more people are single is that we've all raised our standards, and that's largely a good thing. But it's always going to be important to support those people who do want to be in a relationship to find the love they want, even as we celebrate the fulfillment they can have on their own."

True, we have more options open to us than ever. "There has been a decades-long 'experiment' to explore new possibilities for relationshipping," says Curtis. "Women have gained the most freedom in this regard and have had a huge variety of new options open up to them. They have gone from a single trajectory of marriage and motherhood to a much broader range of options including being or staying single and childless." There are few who join the rollercoaster of having a child with the aim of being single for the ride, surely.

And there's the rub. Yes, it would be ideal to celebrate both singleness and meeting the right person but there is a deep, instinctive desire, a fluid, yearning hope within most of us - even those of us who have been burnt or who are stubbornly independent - to find someone to just be alongside. A teammate. As Phoebe might say to Aniston's Rachel, a lobster. As long as coupling is possible, the caveat to single life remains: until something better comes along. No amount of friends, neices, after work tennis clubs or sweaty bars can salve the longing for deep human companionship, no matter how brief. And that's nothing to be ashamed of.

The marriage naysayers, the staunch loners, the modern enlightened: they all once upon a time dreamt of finding a sidekick. As even Curtis admitted, "falling in love is part of a growth opportunity to become more complete as a person, not driven by the need to fill a void but more like a part of a life adventure approached with a sense of wonderment."

And who could turn that down?

- Sydney Morning Herald



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