- Maybe love isn’t as good a foundation for relationships as we think. Tweet This
- It’s worth at least entertaining the possibility that the way we think about relationships and love today is not necessarily superior to the way people thought about these things in the past. Tweet This
- The soulmate paradigm has come to imply that relationships should be all things to their participants. Tweet This
Almost every romantic comedy unfolds the same way: Two people meet, obstacles prevent them from getting into a relationship, they overcome those obstacles, and eventually fall in love.
The obstacles vary and some love stories subvert the basic outline. Last year’s Lovebirds is about two people already in a relationship who are trying to break up. In this year’s Bridgerton, the relationship forms out of convenience and has lots of ups and downs along the way. But the end result is typically always the same.
The argument these kinds of stories are making is simple: The way to have happiness and a fulfilled life is to find someone to fall in love with.
This is an idea that seems eminently natural. But, in fact, it’s actually very new; though love as a concept is ancient, it has only been very recently that people began thinking of it as the core, foundational feature of formal relationships such as marriage. We’re basically living a social experiment right now to see if we can upend thousands of years of thinking.
Which brings me to my thesis: Maybe love isn’t as good a foundation for relationships as we think.
Love Came After Marriage for Most People in History
To get a sense of just how long people have been getting married without (initially) loving their partners, let’s go back two millennia or so to Ancient Rome. In Rome, marriages were typically arranged with an eye toward producing heirs and advancing a family’s political, social, and financial prospects. Technically, it was the legal responsibility of the male head of household, or paterfamilias, to arrange these unions, though it seems that some men did consult the broader family and that the decision was ultimately agreed upon by the group.1
I know this sounds like a nightmare now but allow me to briefly play devil’s advocate. In the West, we typically ask people to make arguably the most consequential decision in their life—who to marry—when they’re young, inexperienced, and potentially emotionally compromised. I’m not advocating for a return to arranged marriage, but compared to the modern western approach, the idea of having a committee vet and choose candidates—sort of like a corporation does with prospective employees—strikes me as a potentially more risk averse option.
In any case, the Romans did fall in love, but affection was not the starting point of the marriage the way it is today. Instead, affection was expected to come later, after a wedding that was arranged for social or financial reasons.2 And even if affection did grow, the Romans were quite a bit less invested in the idea of love than we are; some Roman philosophers, for example, advised against showing too much love to one’s spouse after a wedding and frowned on things such as husbands so much as kissing their wives in front of anyone.3 Arranged marriages continued into the medieval period with largely the same objectives, and with the idea that love would blossom after the fact, as the result of a union, rather than as the cause of it.4
However, as I’ve written before, the medieval Catholic Church gradually began stripping authority from family groups and giving individuals more control over their relationships.5 This is where the seeds of our modern ideas about both individuality and love-based relationships lie. And gradually the church’s efforts helped give rise to the idea of “companionate marriages”—or marriages in which the partners were supposed to provide companionship to each other as well as economic or social advantages.6
Still, it wasn’t until the end of the 1700s that personal choice beat out arranged marriage as the social ideal, and that individuals were widely encouraged to marry for love.7 Historian Stephanie Coontz, in her fantastic book Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, has argued that this happened thanks to the emerging market economy, which allowed people to earn wages and become less dependent on their families for survival. That growing sense of economic individualism also gave rise to a period of new philosophical ideas, which today we call the Enlightenment.
Changes in terminology highlight how people began to think of their relationships differently during this period: In the past, wives had been referred to as “help meets” and “yoke mates” to their husbands—phrases that capture the idea that a marriage was about two people working together.
But the Enlightenment period saw that change. As Coontz writes, “the older view that wives and husbands were work mates gave way to the idea that they were soul mates.”
This process has continued right up until today, with the expansion of wage labor further severing family ties in the 1800s and 1900s, while things like the Victorian war on friendship shrank the circle from which people could get companionship—forcing spouses to fill that role. Loving your spouse turned into also not loving your friends.
Because the soul mate paradigm has merged social life and marriage—your spouse is now supposed to be your best friend—not having a relationship means also not having the cornerstone of a broader support circle.
Love Is Great—Until It’s Gone
As marriage was evolving to have love at its core, critics began raising the alarm. Here’s Coontz’s summary of the arguments:
If the choice of marriage partner was a personal decision, conservatives asked, what would prevent young people, especially women, from choosing unwisely? If people were encouraged to expect marriage to be the best and happiest experience of their lives, what would hold a marriage together if things went “for worse” rather than “for better”?
One of the things that most struck me about Coontz’s book is that she calls these criticisms premature—but ultimately correct.
Coontz traces the rise of love-oriented marriages to a number of less positive trends, such as the rise of divorce in the twentieth century. Divorce rates eventually started falling, but as author Helen Andrews recently pointed out in a conversation with the New York Times, it wasn’t because stable marriages won out:8
The problem with the family that millennials are most worried about and are most likely to face is not divorce. It’s never getting married in the first place. So that’s an indication to me not that the family was shaken up and then discovered a new equilibrium or is on its way to a new equilibrium. That says to me that the boomers broke the nuclear family. And it has not yet been repaired if millennials are not even finding their way toward getting married in the first place. That’s a sign that there’s something that’s gone wrong with the way we are coupling up.
In other words, more people are alone now than ever before. Which raises a question: Are our relationships really better off today than they were in the past?
When modern relationships work well, they work very well. But more and more people are getting left out, unable to find a soulmate (and not really looking for a yoke mate). And because the soulmate paradigm has merged social life and marriage—your spouse is now supposed to be your best friend—not having a relationship means also not having the cornerstone of a broader support circle.
Meanwhile, loneliness and isolation are growing problems, and Andrews notes in that same piece that right now it looks like 20% of millennial women who want kids will ultimately never have them.9
Even for people in relationships this is problematic because if their marriage doesn’t turn out to be the “best and happiest experience” (to borrow from the 18th century critics Coontz mentioned) it can collapse and take their primary friendship with it.
By contrast, in a world of “work mate” marriages, no one expected you to be best friends with your spouse. If you ended up as friends or in love, great. If you didn’t, that was okay too. Your relationship and community didn’t necessarily fall apart.
Would some marriages be less fulfilling in such a world? Maybe. There would certainly be less incentive for people to work on their relationships the way they do now. But a less-than-stellar marriage—which many people have today anyway—also would have been less devastating because there were members of the community to fill the many roles that we now pile onto spouses.
Ultimately, I’m not arguing here that we should (or can) return to a world in which spouses primarily see each other as work mates. I fell in love and married my wife when I was in my 20s, and we’re still in love today. So I’m hardly one to talk.
But I do want to make two points:
First, love was supposed to make relationships better, but in practice that doesn’t really seem to have happened. Some relationships might be better, but there are also more people alone, isolated, lonely and without adequate support systems than ever before. These problems have coincided with the rise of love-centered marriages, and the soul mate paradigm pushes us to find solutions within relationships. If you drift apart from your partner, for example, the conventional wisdom today might be to attend couple’s counseling or eventually to split up. In a work mate paradigm, you would have an entirely different set of options (eg spending more time with your friends).10 Which is to say, it’s worth at least entertaining the possibility that the way we think about relationships and love today is not necessarily superior to the way people thought about these things in the past.
And second, we may be asking too much of our romantic relationships. The soul mate paradigm has come to imply that relationships should be all things to their participants. But even our relatively recent ancestors didn’t expect marriage to satisfy all their needs. Maybe we can learn something from our history.
Jim Dalrymple II is a journalist and author of the Nuclear Meltdown newsletter about families. He also covers housing for Inman and has previously worked at BuzzFeed News and the Salt Lake Tribunte.
Editor’s Note: This essay appeared first in the author’s newsletter, Nuclear Meltdown. It has been lightly edited, and the title has been changed.
1. Growing Up and Growing Old in Ancient Rome: A Life Course Approach. By Mary Harlow, Ray Laurence. 2001. Page 59-60
2. Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage. Stephanie Coontz. 2005. Page 82
4. Family and Household in Medieval England (Social History in Perspective) 2000th Edition. Peter Fleming. Page 56
5. Most westerners today will probably see this as a good thing — yay more individuality! — but it’s worth reiterating that the church did this not to cast off the barbaric traditions of the past but rather to whittle down family power and collect families’ resources.
6. Family and Household in Medieval England (Social History in Perspective) 2000th Edition. Peter Fleming. Page 12; The WEIRDest People in the World. Joseph Henrich. 2020. Page 167
7. Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage. Stephanie Coontz. 2005. Page 145-146
8. See also: “The rise of the single-person household.” George Masnick. May 20, 2015.
9. There are plenty of other problems as well: Researchers have also connected declines in marriage to things like higher mortality, rising inequality, a lack of social mobility, and increased incarceration rates. There’s a loneliness epidemic, as well as a growing problem with estrangement.
10. There’s a whole tangent I could go down about social life in the pre-Victorian West. I’ll save that for a future post, but suffice it here to say that at one time clubs, pubs, etc. were very common ways where people spent their time. Bridgerton, for all it’s ahistorical fun, actually does show this; the men of the various families spend a considerable amount of time hanging out in fancy parlors. Formal institutions were of course more accessible to men, but women did have non-spouse social options. And in any case its fairly easy for me to imagine a club-oriented social world like the one in Bridgerton, but which has formal options for both men and women. I don’t really see any reason such a world couldn’t exist now that attitudes about gender equality have advanced so far beyond what they were in the Regency period.