There’s a Word for the Assumption That Everybody Should Be in a Relationship

Photo: Lawren Lu/Getty Images

Coupledom runs deep. Like, anciently so: In the Symposium, Plato has Aristophanes recount the origins of humanity. Man’s original form was a four-legged, four-armed, double-sexed entity, but Zeus, who thought humans might threaten the power of the gods, had them sliced in half — with, wickedly enough, their heads turned “towards the wound, so that each person would see that he’d been cut and keep better order.” This, Aristophanes explains, is where the standardized aching for a soul mate comes from: “Now, since their natural form had been cut in two, each one longed for its own other half, and so they would throw their arms about each other, weaving themselves together, wanting to grow together.”

This is a primordial example of the centrality of romantic love to the human experience. To Arizona State philosopher Elizabeth Brake, privileging such partnerships over all other relationships and lifestyles has toxic, though sometimes hard to see, consequences. To capture the culture-wide preoccupation with romantic, sexual love, she coined the term amatonormativity. As she explains in her book Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality, and the Law, the word refers to “the assumptions that a central, exclusive, amorous relationship is normal for humans, in that it is a universally shared goal, and that such a relationship is normative, in that it should be aimed at in preference to other relationship types.”

The neologism is a play on heteronormativity, she tells Science of Us via email, or the social stuctures that take heterosexuality to be the normal way to be. Using amatus, the Latin for “beloved,” amatonormativity labels the structures that assume exclusive, romantic relationships are the be-all and end-all, and that everybody should organize their lives around securing and maintaining such relationships. Love conquers all, et cetera.

One side effect of mistaking life for a romantic comedy is that it makes it easier to assume that anybody who acts in a non-normative way — whether they’re single, asexual, aromantic, or, you might also say, nonmonogamous — must be weird or defective — since the love amatonormativity prescribes is romantic, sexual, exclusive, and lifelong. Like any culture-defining narrative, the consequences are everywhere, informing how single people view themselves, why unhappy partners stay in bad relationships, and how personal growth and the achievement of adulthood are thought to work. It expands on what singles researcher Bella DePaulo says of the marriage narrative: “It’s hurting single people because they’re led to believe that there’s something wrong with them, something wrong with their lives, even if they recognize at some level that they want to be single,” she told Science of Us in an interview last summer. “And it also hurts married people, and people who want to be coupled, because if they’re in a bad relationship, they still think, If I become single, maybe I’m going to be even more unhappy.”

Once acquired, amatonormativity is an extreme case of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, that thing where once you learn a word or hear about a band, you see it everywhere. Like in pop music (“2 Become 1”, “one could be two”), in books (romance accounts for a third of the U.S. fiction market), and in the little things people say. Carrie Jenkins, a philosopher at the University of British Columbia and author of What Love Is and What It Could Be, hears amatonormativity in phrases like “All the good ones are taken” and “You’re so lovely, I can’t believe you’re single.” Well-intended as they might be, both suggest that to not be taken is to neither be good nor lovely.

It frames national debates, too: Jenkins points to Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion on same-sex marriage, which reads that the petitioners “not … be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions” and find “equal dignity in the eyes of the law.” While that very paragraph set liberal hearts aflame, Jenkins is cautious: There’s also the message that without marriage, one lives without dignity, in lonely condemnation, as with some kind of Old Testament curse. There’s also the matter of the embattled structure of health care, says Brake — why is it just spouses that can receive extended coverage? Why not kin or close friends? (Though some places are coming around: The Canadian province of Alberta has had a law on the books since 2003 stating that adults who meet criteria of “interdependence” are treated like common-law spouses.)

Social science — that shared enterprise into empirically understanding how people work — has also been warped by amatonormativity. My colleague Jesse Singal has reported on how close-relationships researchers have long assumed that everybody either wants to get hitched or is failing at doing so. Methodological sloppiness — like lumping in divorced people with singles — has plagued singles research, though they’re often just the control group for the real action in marriage. And contra amatonormative assumptions, a 2012 meta-analysis of 18 studies found found that in the long term, married people don’t end up happier than singles.

Like so much else, amatonormativity hits women harder than men. You can see it in the asymmetry of spinster and bachelor; the former is holed up with her books and cats, the latter is the most interesting man in the world. Fueled by amatonormativity, expectations of motherhood mean that only men make way more money from going to fancy schools and having posh hobbies. University of Connecticut sociologist Christin Munsch has told me that even the most egalitarian couples are constrained by patriarchal practicality — somebody has to pick Johnny up from school, and since Mom makes four bucks to Dad’s five, it’s likely on her.

There is also the widespread assumption that in order to grow up, one must settle down. Like essayist Laura Kipnis observed, modern, secular people yearn to be filled with romantic love and the validation it offers. “We prostrate ourselves at love’s portals, like social strivers waiting at the rope line outside some exclusive club hoping to gain admission and thereby confirm our essential worth,” she wrote in The New York Times Magazine.

While a contemporary phenomenon — marriage used to be more about land rights than affairs of the heart — the recent turning of relationships into vehicles of self-realization seems to have made marriages harder than ever before, even as partners spend less time together.

According to the work of Northwestern close-relationships researcher Eli Finkel, marriages are asking more of either partner than before — meeting core psychological needs is a bit different than tilling crops or simply loving someone — but the payoff can be larger, self-realization-wise. Still, James Hollis, the Jungian scholar, would argue that to make a relationship work, your significant other needs to remain significantly other — they’re not there to replace your parents; healing and realization are DIY. Given that the self has a mysterious evolutionary purpose and is (probably) constructed, one thing you can be sure of is that individual selves are just that. They are, Jenkins emphasizes, individual.

Of course, lots of people look for themselves, or at least part of themselves, in their romantic relationships, and their love(s) reflect, refract, and reform their sense of self. But the same, she says, could be true of the friends, family, and communities that you relate to. Beyond that, relationship isn’t the only medium available to us. Self-realization can also be found in “work, play, creative activity, and all kinds of other things that can make life meaningful to the person living it,” Jenkins says. Just as diversity in background and ethnicity and weight and sexual orientation are democratic values, so should be methods of finding fulfillment. Indeed, other research indicates that on average, life is pretty meaningful for most people — indicating that meaning is more accessible, and broadly interpretable, than what amatonormativity (or any number of prescriptive systems) would make you expect.

With its ubiquity, amatonormativity lends itself to glorious, self-affirming rebellion. You could move out to the woods and live deliberately, or just take yourself to the movies or art museum. You might also consider eating alone in Los Angeles. I’ve heard it works.

Unpacking the Assumption That Everybody Should Be Coupled Up