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  • In many ways, the apparent sexual freedom of group life is actually the inhibition and closeting—the destruction—of love and the freedom and independence available in coupled life. Tweet This
  • The current high level of skepticism about marriage is a measure of how much people want love but lack love, and how hopeless they are about finding it. Tweet This

“Everyone loves a lover.”1 Like many old saws, this one is only half true. When two people prefer each other to everyone else and form an exclusive bond of tender, passionate love, they’re likely to get some negative reactions as well as smiles and approval. Friends may feel envious or abandoned. A parent might snub their lover. Lonely strangers may look accusingly at couples glowing with love. And after the wedding, couples often get mixed reactions, like one that I got: “I’m sure you’ll be very happy—for a little while anyway.” The community’s ambivalence is reinforced by a steady stream of books and articles that are anything but encouraging about love and marriage.

Our age didn’t invent social hostility toward lovers and marriage. Resentment toward couples and toward narratives of lasting romantic love has gone higher or lower across the ages, but it never goes away. In the United States, it’s been high for several decades, and the rate of formal marriage has dropped to historic lows, amidst calls to “privatize” it or abolish it entirely. Marriage, and the ideas of love it rests on, has plenty of foes as well as friends.

Given the intensity of the cultural conflict around marriage, it’s surprising to realize how much the two sides agree. Friends of marriage subscribe to many of the same ideas as its foes, only with a different spin. Both see the single life as free, nonconforming, and self-affirming, and see marrying—forming exclusive, permanent couples—as leading restricted, self-sacrificing, and conventional but safer lives. They agree that romantic love doesn’t last, that permanence in marriage depends on the fallbacks of friendship, companionship, and shared practical goals: child welfare and financial, tax, social security, and inheritance advantages. Both also insist on the morally requisite, and onerous, hard work needed to shore up marriages. These ideas—today’s common-sense, conventional thinking—don’t picture matrimony in a way that encourages people to rush into its arms. 

Marriage is a much-valued personal good for millions, and, as abundant evidence shows, a powerful social good.2 Moreover, at least as I see things, the grave evils of marital dysfunction, divorce, and social inequity don’t make lasting love and marriages based on it any less common, real, or desirable. Why, then, are they so widely scorned of late?

I found part of an answer in Otto Kernberg’s study of love relations, which stressed the importance of the ways in which couples’ social worlds affect them. Kernberg, a psychoanalyst, observed that a degree of social hostility arises toward any two people who form an exclusive love relationship. The social group is “suspicious of relationships including love and sex that escape its total control.”3

Kernberg reverses the conventional picture in which freedom and romance thrive in single life, when people belong to a carefree group of friends who can go and do what they like, date, and have sex with anyone who’s willing, and needn’t call home if they’re going to be late for dinner. Coupled life, not single life, he maintains, is free, nonconforming, and romantic. The couple who shares a deep, tender, passionate, exclusive love establishes a private world from which their social group is excluded. That kind of relationship, as Kernberg points out, is “inherently rebellious. It frees the adult couple from participation in the conventionalities of the social group, creates an experience of sexual intimacy that is eminently private and secret . . ..”4

In couples’ private realms, the conventions of group life do not apply, and social controls and rules are evaded. In social life, people are much more careful about they say and do. They drive on the right, censor what they say about politics and religion, show respect for the boss, and wear slacks, not bathrobes, to restaurants. If they don’t conform, they risk ostracism or unemployment. 

In private time with a mate or lover, we are free from supervision, ostracism, censorship, and control. We can live according to our own rules and values, say what we really think, “be ourselves,” drop the front, do what we like. In open, subtle, or symbolic ways, the group resists this, and tries to reclaim us or punish us if it can’t.

I found the rest of the answer in social scientists’ worries about the decline of in-person social connections—“bowling alone.” For decades, disconnected people have gravitated to distant, vast, abstract communities: mega-churches preaching to tens of thousands, and, more recently, online via Reddit, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. These new, impersonal “groups” not only have more power and a wider domain, but they also profit from increased disconnection and give more voice to it—especially to its sadness, anger, and envy. They spread, promote, and amplify the reactions to exclusive love relations that Kernberg described.   

Pervasive skepticism and resentment may weaken love relations, just as social support can strengthen them. If every marital quarrel sounds in a social echo chamber that repeats and underscores its wounds, if marriage carries stigma, if it inspires sour reactions instead of respect and approval, those attitudes may infect marriages and help to undermine them or dissuade people from marrying in the first place. As people (myself included) increasingly live online, social media, online dating, and the smartphone’s omnipresent tethers exaggerate the group’s destructive reach into private life. At the same time, today’s polarized values and politics make the group hungrier than ever to use that power.

Teenagers are especially vulnerable to all this, though their elders aren’t immune. Adolescents are tempted to experiment with sex in a blatantly public way that’s designed for the eyes of the group—an impulse that social media enables and magnifies. They will make out or even have intercourse at parties, then circulate videos or photos of their own or others’ exploits via the smartphone. In these actions, they’re experimenting with behavior that the group is urging on; they’re not withdrawing from the group to form their own private two-person society. The fads of sexting, flashing, and other embraces of public sexuality are attempts to bring sex into the group, or—the same thing—to somehow stay in the group while finding love and sex. A familiar paradox of young love is that adolescents may begin looking for sexual experience to win approval and admiration from their group, yet immediately find themselves in opposition to the group when they develop real sexual love for someone.

At older ages, overt social negativity toward the couple declines, and mature couples are less needy for acceptance and vulnerable to group pressure. But the group’s ambivalence doesn’t disappear. It may be expressed in hostile social “theories” about marriage, jokes about being henpecked or having flings or affairs. Bachelor parties, the group’s last attempt to hold on to the couple, always include a lot of disguised punishment for leaving the brother- or sisterhood—practical jokes, humiliations, and forced drunkenness. Weddings are usually real sweetness, and if the couple is lucky, ambivalences eventually die down. But there never comes a time when being part of a couple doesn’t come with a need for negotiating with the group.

If the group conscience doesn’t respect and validate the couple, it may eventually break them up: Third parties may attempt to seduce one of them at a vulnerable moment; the group may lower the social status of one or both or reject or disrespect one mate. It may set up social rules, laws, or economic incentives that create conflicts between the partners’ individual interests and their interests as a couple. When the social world holds marriage in low esteem and all these pressures are felt, it takes a tough couple to resist them. In many ways, the apparent sexual freedom of group life is actually the inhibition and closeting—the destruction—of love and the freedom and independence available in coupled life. It undermines marriage, the institution that protects the couple by granting it social recognition.

Kernberg points out that even though every couple builds a wall against their group, each couple also has a dire and fundamental need for the group, the keeper of the social conscience that regulates couples’ anger and ambivalence. At the same time, the group urgently needs couples. The group pins its hope for love on couples’ survival because its members, too, want love and want to believe in it.5 The current high level of skepticism about marriage is a measure of how much people want love but lack love, and how hopeless they are about finding it.  

Cheryl Mendelson received her Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Rochester and her J.D. from Harvard Law School. She has practiced law in New York City and taught philosophy at Barnard College. Her books include the bestselling Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House, a trilogy of novels about Morningside Heights, and, most recently, The Good Life: The Moral Individual in an Antimoral World.

*Photo credit: Alvin Mahmudov on Unsplash 

1. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Love,” Essays: First Series (1841) in Emerson: Essays and Lectures, Literary Classics of the United States, Inc. 1983, p. 328: “All mankind loves a lover.”

2. See, for example, Susan L. Brown, Families in America (Sociology in the Twenty-First Century Book 4) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017), Chapter 4, pp. 126-7.

3. Otto Kernberg, Love Relations: Normality and Pathology (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), p. 182.

4. Kernberg, p. 181.

5. Kernberg, p. 182.