Feeling Disadvantaged for Not Leading a Conventional Coupled Life?
These scholars explain how people can be supported and protected, regardless of how they live
All around the world, more and more people are living outside of conventional coupled life. How is that working out for them?
In an important new book, The Tenacity of the Couple-Norm, five scholars researched four very different European nations in some depth. Sasha Roseneil, Isabel Crowhurst, Tone Hellesund, Ana Cristina Santos, and Mariya Stoilova studied laws and policies relevant to coupling in each nation, and how they changed over time. They also looked at the role of social movements in effecting social change. They interviewed, at length, 67 people who were not living a conventionally coupled life, all from the capital cities of the four countries.
The four nations, as described by the authors, were:
· The United Kingdom, a late liberal welfare state
· Portugal, a post-dictatorship southern European welfare state
· Norway, a social democratic welfare state
· Bulgaria, a post-communist state
(Here is what “welfare state” means.)
What counts as conventional coupled life has evolved somewhat. At its core, the authors note, “cohabiting, procreative coupledom” is considered the norm, and that’s the kind of coupling that is privileged. But, they add, “the good and proper intimate citizen is no longer necessarily married or heterosexual.” They are, though, “living in a long-term, stable, sexually exclusive, co-residential partnership.”
That still leaves many ways of living outside of conventional coupledom. People who are living single, adults of any marital or relationship status sharing a place with people who are not relatives, and committed couples who live apart are a few examples.
Change Has Happened, But It Has Not Dislodged Conventional Couples from Their Place of Privilege
The bottom line about the relevant laws and policies in Europe will sound familiar to those of us attuned to such matters in the U.S.:
“Living outside the couple-form, or in non-normative couple-forms, is made harder, economically, legally and socially, by the laws and policies of states.”
In the big picture, though, there has been progress in the nations the authors studied — especially in Norway, the UK, and Portugal. Over time, governments have become:
· Less patriarchal and more supportive of gender-equal policies and practices.
· Less family-oriented and more supportive of policies and practices that protect individuals.
· Less “heteronormative” and more supportive of people who are not heterosexual.
With changes mostly headed in more supportive directions, it should be easier in practical ways, and more comfortable psychologically, to live outside of conventional coupledom. To some extent, it is. But the most fundamental finding from this intensive study was, as the authors put it in the title of their book, “the tenacity of the couple-norm.” In the 21st century in those four nations — and I think it is fair to say, in much of the rest of the world — coupledom is still seen as “the normal, natural and superior way of being an adult.” That’s what the authors mean by the couple-norm.
To be coupled is to be prized above people who are not coupled:
“Whether a person is coupled or not is fundamental to their experiences of social recognition and belonging: the good citizen is the coupled citizen, and the socially integrated, psychologically developed and well-functioning person is coupled. Being part of a couple is widely seen and felt to be an achievement, a stabilizing status characteristic of adulthood, indicative of moral responsibility and bestowing full membership of the community. To be outside the couple-form is, in many ways, to be outside, or at least on the margins of, society.”
In a previous article about this book, “How the longing to couple can feel natural when it isn’t,” I described the relentless external forces — both formal and informal — that encourage and reward coupling and stigmatize life outside of conventional coupling. I’ve also repeatedly debunked the myths that getting married makes you happier, healthier, or more socially integrated. I’ve also described what needs to change now that more people are living alone. Here, I want to focus on the authors’ vision for greater fairness for people living beyond the couple norm.
Among the Goals: Life Outside of Coupling as a Fundamental Human Right
In the last chapter of The Tenacity of the Couple-Norm, Sasha Roseneil and her colleagues advocate a bold goal: there should be a fundamental right to life outside of the couple-form, just as there is a “recognized fundamental right to family life.” The latter is already enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. Life beyond the couple-form should be, too.
People living in all sorts of ways beyond conventional coupling should be supported and protected. The examples the authors enumerate are:
· “Living alone,
· Sharing a home with a non-sexual partner or with a group of friends,
· Being single,
· Not marrying,
· Forming a non-cohabiting relationship,
· Parenting with more than one other person, and
· Having complex, multiple intimate/sexual relationships.”
The authors also argue for laws and policies that no longer assume that everyone is living conventional coupled life, and that do not privilege the conventionally coupled. They specifically mention:
· Social security,
· Minimum wages,
· Child support,
· Health and mental health provisions,
· Reproductive rights,
· Care in sickness and old age, and
One Big Problem: The Missing Social Movement for Singles’ Rights
The couple-norm is interconnected with other powerful norms, including the gender norm and the hetero norm. “Historically,” the authors note, “the gender norm has operated as a patriarchal gender-norm, with masculinity and men clearly privileged over and dominating of femininity and women.” The hetero norm similarly privileges heterosexuals and “opposite-sex” relationships. Considerably more progress has been made in challenging the gender norm and the hetero norm than the couple norm, in no small part because of the powerful social movements fueling that progress.
People living outside of conventional coupling have never had similarly powerful social movements. In their review of activism in the UK, Norway, Portugal, and Bulgaria, the authors found only one relevant national organization, Norway’s National Organization for Single People. It was established in 1957 to challenge discrimination against single people, especially in housing. The group made the case that singles were paying more taxes and more, per person, for water and other utilities, effectively subsidizing couples. They demanded tax deductions to offset the costs of living alone.
Between 1969 and 1985, two leaders of that Norwegian organization, Alfhild Brevig and Agnes Husbyn, published three books, including “Strongest Alone?”. Roseneil and her colleagues said that the books “argued for fairer economic and material conditions for single people and for the recognition of single life as an honourable alternative to coupledom.”
Sadly, Norway’s National Organization for Single People shut down in 2019, because of a decrease in membership.
Laws and Policies: The Worst and the Best
Of all the laws and policies from all four nations that the authors described, none rankled me more than Bulgaria’s “Bachelor Tax,” which was in effect between 1951 and 1990. The tax wasn’t aimed just at bachelors and it was more about not having children than not having a spouse. As Roseneil and her colleagues explained, adults who did not have children, both married and unmarried, “were required to pay 5 percent of taxable income at the age of 21, rising to 15 percent at 35.” In 1967, Prime Minister Todor Zhivkov explained why he supported the tax: “Those who do not want to have any children have to take part in supporting other people’s children.”
A law that I found especially inspiring is, happily, still in effect. Passed in 2001 in Portugal, the “shared economy” law gave rights to people who lived together, no matter how many, and regardless of whether they were relatives or had a sexual or romantic relationship. The law protected “people sharing a table and house for over two years and who have established a living experience together of reciprocal help and shared resources.” The same tax breaks that married couples got, and the same entitlements to holidays and leaves, were extended to Portuguese people living in a shared economy.
Of course, solo single people living alone should also have the same benefits and protections as everyone else. Living arrangements, marital status, and relationship status should have nothing to do with access to fundamental rights and protections.
[Want to learn more? Take a look at this collection of articles on all sorts of topics relevant to single life. Watch my TEDX talk, “What no one ever told you about people who are single.” Check out my website. Find my other stories on Medium here. Disclosure: Links to books may include affiliate links. Finally, this post was adapted from a column originally published at Unmarried Equality (UE), with the organization’s permission. The opinions expressed are my own. For links to previous UE columns, click here.]