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You don’t have to be a couple to participate in the couple form. In fact there is nothing else to do.
How to talk about that thing or experience or lifestyle or belief known as the couple?
Here is one way. In its heyday at the time of the development of the amenity-laden one-family home, the couple – as encountered in the metropolitan west and its cultural exports – also privatizes daily needs into a single unit. Emotional, erotic and practical requirements are condensed to a bare minimum, as efficient as a domestic kitchen. It is the most reductive, exclusionary and precarious imaginable method of meeting the probably universal need to feel close to and recognized by others.
Nevertheless the couple dominates the imaginary realm of love, so much so that people who are not in couples are described negatively in relation to it (“single,” “divorced,” etc). In its heterosexual form, it’s a patriarchal horror movie: Women are more likely to be attacked or killed by a partner than a stranger, and many are financially dependent on the same men who statistically if not actually threaten their lives, and even more so if they have children. 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. And insofar as gay people recreate the straight couple, this structure of violence, domination and emotional paucity is what they are recreating. Whatever Beyoncé says about not making a big deal out of the little things, marriage is no more the logical full extension of sexual desire than prison is the utmost expression of sheltering from a rainstorm.
How should I talk about the couple? Here is another way. I fell reciprocally in love when I was 24 and we stayed together for just over a year. When we met I thought he was weird looking; then I thought he was funny and smart; then I thought he was the funniest, smartest, most beautiful person in the world. We said, interchangeably, things like, “I want to marry you,” and “I could look at you forever.” This was the expression of a feeling between us; like summer aches with the premonition of winter, romantic love aches stupidly with thwarted infinity. There is one particular day we spent together, having sex and swimming in the sun, that years later is still my shining image of eternity: I could live happily inside that day forever. I moved to a new country and into his apartment. Unfortunately it turned out I had no concept of love outside of what I could physically feel. So the logic of sex extended to encompass the whole relationship, by which I mean the confusion of pronouns and body parts, of what’s mine and yours (yours because it’s part of you/yours because it’s part of me but belongs to you, etc.) At one point I was so deeply invested in our physical connection that I registered it as a faint disturbance when we ate different food from each other. I fused myself into that couple as fast as I could, because it seemed like the most radiant form of life, because I thought that by being a couple I could get a break from being myself.
(It’s kind of gross to talk about this relationship in this way, to stuff it into these gluey sentences. My ex is a stranger to me now, and he lives with his girlfriend and his kid. It feels bad that I still invoke his reality to make myself seem more real to myself, but my excuse is that the couple is an abstraction and flattens whatever is found inside it. His account of our time together would be different from mine, of course, and I don’t think he would have any reason to write it.)
When I was a couple, I would say things like, “If only there were someone else in this relationship, everything would be fine.” I thought this imaginary third person would be better able to bear the demand to be consistent, present, alive to yourself and to the other. I thought they would distract us from how inept I was at receiving love, like a hapless cartoon character with eyes swivelling: “Who, me?” I could not believe anyone had been stupid enough to fall in love with me; I was full of grateful contempt and contemptuous gratitude. In the end the idea of the couple, the praxis of the couple, was too big, and we were too small, and also the other way round. We broke up and I moved back to London, disoriented by grief. The food I had not wanted to eat alone stuck in my throat, and for months I had to force myself to eat, mechanically, in the cold glow of what felt at that point like the purely biological will not to die. Pared back to the mode of survival, I realised I had become a couple better than I thought: I had become a couple so successfully that I had forgotten how to be a person. And ever since then I have been careful enough not to get what I wish for. Never since have I shared a digestive system from mouth to asshole; only rarely since have I said, without thinking, something like, “I want my dick in your mouth.”
Both rejections and affirmations of the couple are skewered on this doubleness: It is the fullest expression of love and proximity available to us, and it bears all the insufficiencies of present social relations. Monogamous romantic commitment, like infallible lifelong attraction to only men or only women, is surely a minority tendency expediently elevated to a general social principle. But knowing that isn’t enough to undo the power of either. The couple represents an unforgiveable privatization of love, but refusing it doesn’t necessarily make love any more freely available. Despite the efforts of radical groups and the bravery of marginalized communities, it mostly remains the case that in turning away from couple-form love, we are turning toward nothing. The hope or mirage of kindness among strangers, of love among friends, is at war with the intensive familiarity of romantic love.
How to talk about couples? But I am always talking about them. In the park sprawled in the sun we signal intimacy by picking over the details of our love affairs. I like for people to tell me how they met their partners. They were at a party. They sat next to each other in class. They were at a bar. Although romantic comedy perceives every twist of daily life as a potential meet-cute, how-we-met stories are pretty repetitive. They are adorable (or annoying, if you feel that way) because the emotional significance of the encounter so far exceeds its detail. They are enlivened by mild peril: What if they hadn’t gone to that party or bar or college or city? At the same time there’s nothing really at stake at all. Any of these couples might easily not have met, and had they not met each other, each would have met someone else, and that would have been a love story too. How-we-met stories teach us two things: 1) Your life could have been completely different, and 2) in which case, it would have been in many ways exactly the same. Anything could happen, but less than everything does.
Falling in love is meant to be unexpected and transformative. “I just fell in love” is, especially the way men wield it, an unparalleled excuse for all sorts of shitty behavior. But love as random event is not really compatible with love as duration. The couple domesticates the happenstance of love into the everyday; love in the form of the couple turns its face against accident, and lives by this refusal. As Germaine Greer famously notes in The Female Eunuch, “Security is when everything is settled, when nothing can happen to you; security is the denial of life.” But for many people, especially women, especially impoverished women, denying life is the only way to have one. Overall, the couple seems to endure mainly negatively: break-ups are painful, being alone means you’ve failed, good sex is hard to come by, the world is a scary place, etc. Those couples whose love survives on the gentle basis of shared affection and interests might be inspiring examples of emotional health, but on the other hand their advantages over people with, say, a close circle of friends, are mainly legislative.
The first couple I encountered were my parents, who were together for 10 years. They were beautiful, troubled and emotionally irresponsible. They were twentysomethings with small kids – how had that happened? One of them was a black man and the other was the child of a holocaust survivor, so they treated the family as a provisional arrangement, or a drag performance, or a historical irony. In the evenings one of them would smoke weed and listen to records and the other would paint her toenails and talk on the phone. Sometimes she thought he was going to kill her, and I guess he could have, but the fact is he did not. The seismic register of their arguments and reconciliations and the inaccessible mystery of the desire between them regulated my early childhood. I sheltered in the intricate imaginary world I shared with my brother. Perhaps we were a kind of couple, too. All the men I have loved remind me of him in some way; one even shared his birthday.
I failed at being a couple, but you don’t have to be a couple to participate in the couple form. You can watch movies about couples, you can listen to songs about them, you can watch them fuck on the internet. In fact there is nothing else to do. There must be a secret sympathy or secret correspondence between people that mimics or exceeds or subtends the global correspondences set up by commodity production. Or maybe just because we mostly emerge from families, we carry the family inside us, vestigially, as the fascination of the couple. Otherwise I don’t know how it is that romantic love endures as an image, even as it fails as a practice.
Broken-hearted and sick with jealousy last summer, I obsessively imagined the person I loved then having sex with his new partner. I was delirious with the impenetrable truth and the total obscurity (to me) of the sex between them, sometimes almost high on it, sometimes nauseated. Lying in bed in the haze of these thoughts, I tried to contract my heightened powers of imagination to include more mundanely not my ex-lover in a distant city but the driver of a passing car, whose hands on the wheel seemed just as mysterious as the hands of the person I loved touching someone else. All these things seemed to shine from inside the twin mystery of separateness and sympathy – how we are something to each other, and not nothing; something to each other, but not everything. In the news at that time a video was circulating, of Mos Def attempting to endure the tube feeding inflicted on prisoners at Guantanamo, and I experienced a pointless but sincere sympathetic pain in my sinuses. The principle of the couple – love as privacy – stands in opposition to the logic of this faint pain, which belongs to a swamp in which sensations are transmitted across lives. In my craziness I saw this swamp clearly, the inverse of the couple, but I couldn’t live there either.
What remains of a couple when it’s gone? A small collection of souvenirs: phrases, images, sensations. These fragments persist long afterwards, as vivid as they are completely and radiantly meaningless, as if they were signs that will one day reveal their secrets. Sometimes the fragments include a child or two, and sometimes those children grow up and have to be what they are. But although the couple is the primary image of love, the couple is not all that love is, and so these fragments are not signs.