science of us

Why the Idea of ‘the One’ Is a New and Stressful Concept

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Is love a lie? Is anyone happily married? Yes but also no, according to (a reductive take on) this satisfying New Yorker interview with beloved/feared couples therapist Esther Perel.

Marriage as we now know it, she says — or at least as we often idealize it — is a relatively recent development, and the idea of finding one person to love and feel fulfilled by, long term, is especially new: “Never in the history of family life was the emotional well-being of the couple relevant to the survival of the family,” she says. “The couple could be miserable for 30 years, you were stuck for life, you married once — and if you didn’t like it, you could hope for an early death of your partner.”

But as we’ve “gone up the Maslow ladder of needs,” she says — from seeking physical safety to seeking more sophisticated forms of “self-actualization” — we’re “asking from one person what an entire village used to provide.”

This is an improvement over the 30-year marriage where you hoped your spouse would die, but she says it would be helpful to acknowledge that these waters are relatively uncharted and to accordingly cut yourself and your partner some slack. This new model, where choices have largely replaced rules, also comes with its own, new set of stressors:

What used to be defined by rules, duty, and obligation now has to take place in conversation. And so everything is a freakin’ negotiation! You negotiate with your partner about where you want to live, if you want to have children, how many children do you want to have, if this is the right time to have children. It’s an absolute existential smorgasbord. We are not just in pain for no reason, is what I’m trying to say.

It makes sense, then, that modern relationships are an endless source of anxiety and suffering, which, for me, is unexpectedly cheering. All these goddamn decisions; no wonder everything falls apart. There is still plenty of gentleness and humor to bind us, though, and I especially liked what Perel said about love being like the moon: “It’s often surprising how it can kind of ebb and flow. We think it’s disappeared and, suddenly, it shows up again. It’s not a permanent state of enthusiasm.”

Why the Idea of ‘the One’ Is a New and Stressful Concept