Soul-Mate Mania

Heightened expectations of love and intimacy have created the new “superrelationship.” Is it working?

When the Massachusetts Supreme Court made history earlier this year by legalizing gay marriage, it based its decision on the idea that marriage is about intimacy, not procreation. For many people, the scary part of this equation isn’t the same-sex variable — it’s the notion that marriage, despite its less-than-enviable success rate, is still seen as the final frontier when it comes to forging intimacy. Many married couples might consider themselves blissfully intimate, but judging by recent trends — everything from the rise of cuddle parties to the recent spike in divorces among older couples (“the 37-year itch,” as The New York Times dubbed it) — it does seem that people today are craving new forms of intimacy. We looked around and here’s what we found. — The Editors

I can’t remember if I actually proposed to my high school sweetheart in those delirious months between graduation and my induction into the U.S. Air Force in February 1970. Our courtship, after all, was the sort of adolescent rite of passage common to the times — the clumsy passion of drive-in movies, the semisacred promise of exchanging class rings — and our eventual engagement and marriage were less a product of romantic ritual than one of community routine.

Our small town was full of young couples, each drifting inexorably toward early matrimony with all the self-knowledge you’d expect from the Pepsi Generation. We all knew the drill: You started dating around 15 or 16; if you were lucky, you’d be going steady by your junior year and engaged before graduation (girls were always comparing diamonds in the hallways); the weddings would kick in the following spring.

Though we all professed great passion and fidelity for our beloved, we approached the altar as boyfriends and girlfriends. As determined as we might have been to prove we were mature enough to marry, most of us were just playing house — with the added attraction of family-sanctioned sex.

A surprising number of these marriages (not including mine) endured and produced fairly functional families. They are what author Barbara Dafoe Whitehead calls “good-enough” marriages — relationships built more on expedience and adolescent lust than on the thoughtful and energetic pursuit of a soul mate that increasingly characterizes American mating rituals today. But, says Whitehead, “good enough” doesn’t seem to be enough for bachelors and bachelorettes these days. What they’re pining for is a “superrelationship.”

AS YOU MIGHT EXPECT, the quest for superrelationships has significantly raised the bar for those seeking marital bliss. A generation ago, physical attraction, economic prospects, and a vague sense of social compatibility were acceptable criteria for an optimistic coupling; unattached men and women today are a bit more demanding. “The emphasis is now on more of an inner life, an inner sense of well-being, of comfort and satisfaction and closeness,” says Whitehead, co-director of the Rutgers University-based National Marriage Project and author of The Divorce Culture: Rethinking Our Commitments to Marriage and Family (Knopf). “Marriage today is seen as an intimate union of like-minded souls that combines in interesting new ways sex, love, and friendship.”

People are looking for a mate who “gets” them, Whitehead explains, someone who understands what matters to them on an almost intuitive level and shares those values. That’s why what passes for a courtship ritual these days often includes an almost obsessive need to share one’s innermost emotions.

“There’s a lot of psychologizing,” says Whitehead. “And one of the effects is to think you’re more intimate than you really are.”

But false intimacy is nothing new, especially at a time when sex on the third date is the norm. What’s really demanding about the building of a superrelationship is the level of maintenance it requires to run smoothly.

Because couples in these types of marriages expect an uncommon level of emotional intimacy — the closeness of soul mates — they must constantly strive to maintain a high level of trust and loyalty. “This cannot be seriously undermined or threatened or changed, or the relationship is at risk,” says Whitehead. “These relationships are fragile and demanding in a way that the ‘good-enough’ marriages of the past might not have been.”

In other words, this new sort of marriage requires a lot of work.

But why should the language of labor — diligence, perseverance, resourcefulness — attach itself so readily to love? Why should we be so quick to accept the idea that marriage is an occupation?

To hear Northwestern University communication professor Laura Kipnis tell it, these new superrelationships — even more than most marriages — are doomed because such a high demand for emotional intimacy cannot be adequately met within the tedium and predictability of most committed relationships. “When monogamy becomes labor, when desire is organized contractually, with accounts kept and fidelity extracted like labor from employees, with marriage a domestic factor policed by means of rigid shop-floor discipline designed to keep the wives and husbands and domestic partners of the world choke-chained to the status quo machinery — is this really what we mean by a ‘good relationship?'” she asks in her recent book Against Love (Pantheon).

Kipnis argues passionately against the inexorable rush to coupledom that characterizes our society, suggesting that marriage is a masterful mechanism for social control that systematically prevents people from living their lives to the fullest. “What a feat of social engineering to shoehorn an entire citizenry (minus the occasional straggler) into such uniform household arrangements, all because everyone knows that true love demands it and that any reluctance to participate signals an insufficiency of love,” she writes. To get a steady dose of this life-affirming intimacy (not to mention good sex), she writes, you’re eventually going to have to look elsewhere — thus destroying the trust and loyalty so central to the marriage.

As the owner of one failed marriage and another that, despite its longevity (25 years in May), remains a puzzle, I don’t pretend to have trod a path worth recommending to others. But I’m not prepared to give up on the idea of marriage (nor to embrace the idea of adultery as a medicinal antidote), an approach Kipnis seems to favor.

Nobody really wants to give up the adrenaline rush of new romance. We all aspire to our own version of a superrelationship that feeds our particular calculus of what marital bliss ought to produce. What may be missing in that equation, though, is a willingness to look beyond the ephemeral thrills of young love (and lust) to the infinitely deeper and more satisfying connections that allow lovers over the course of many years to become more complete and independent human beings — even as they cement a bond that makes one from two.

“These are our days of wine and roses, when the mere prospect of seeing the face or hearing the voice of our beloved is capable of producing a thrill,” write Maurice Taylor and Seana McGee in The New Couple (Harper SanFrancisco). “Nevertheless, the intoxication stage of relationship ends; it’s supposed to end, as night replaces day, though few of us accept this fact.”

Intoxication being what it is, I suspect there are not many of us who can say with any conviction that we’ve moved beyond the thrill-seeking phase. I certainly haven’t. But I can, at least, begin to imagine what it might be like. And, more importantly, I know for certain who’s coming with me.

Craig Cox is an Utne contributing editor.

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