Bella DePaulo points out eloquently in her book Singled Out that we live in a society that stigmatizes singles (singlism) and elevates marriage to the must-have cure-all of all unhappiness (matrimania). Both of these ideas are also internalized. From a young age, especially women are bombarded with the idea that we can only prove our lovability through marriage. The ring on our finger shows the world: Look! I made it! Someone loves me! Girlfriends – we learn – are fine to have but they are expendable, yet, somehow will always be there. Once we found The One, we won’t need them anymore, he will meet our every need, share all our interests, and we’ll live happily ever after. Ideas like this make it difficult to leave a relationship because we would be marked as unlovable since we lost our proof. They make us desperate to find and stay in a relationship.
And, of course, biology plays into this, too. A lot. Reproduction is an important biological driver as a part of evolution. However, the nuclear family is not a biological need. The idea of separate spheres and its mutation to the relegation of the man to the breadwinner role and the woman to the safe haven of the home are not reflecting biological needs. They are social constructs (which are even reflected in the nomenclature for our species: every mammal is of the breast, the nurturing aspect; homo sapien reflects the (male) ability to reason, to be out in the world, distinguishing us from the other animals). The concept of the soul mate in marriage is a rather recent invention. So is the individual pursuit of happiness, which is an idea encouraged since the Enlightenment. The two have been very strongly linked: We now pursue happiness by finding a soul mate. This linkage is not surprising since the idea of a soul mate developed around the time of the Enlightenment. It might even have been a reaction to some people’s attempts to take the ideas of the Enlightenment to their logical consequences and do things like give women the right to vote. The idea of separate spheres sprang up and was quickly absorbed into culture, preventing any ideas of equality to take hold. Marriage changed from an almost purely economic institution to one based on love, which was best expressed if both partners were experts in their sphere. Only after the second world war did the breadwinner truly become the sole provider: it was now economically possible to support a family with one income. The cracks were, of course, starting to show and marriage changed again. Or did it? Marriage remains the institution that is most coveted and least questioned. It remains a rite of passage to adulthood. And we remain stuck with the idea that we are somehow incomplete as one. Even though we have broken down the walls between the separate spheres, two remains better than one. As social animals, we interact, of course. Social relationships are what made us human and they remain extremely important. They do not have to be confined to one person, though. We can move beyond matrimania and view all our relationships as important and worthy our attention.