Even outside of marriage, in any romantic entanglement, Westerners value what British sociologist Anthony Giddens calls the “pure relationship.” The pure relationship is one which people are a part of only because they want to be, because it satisfies both individuals. It’s different than romantic love, which assumes you’ll find The One and stay with them forever, for better and for worse. In a pure relationship, if someone is no longer satisfied, it’s assumed they’ll leave.
“While the dyad—the couple—is the basic structure to the union, it is never to usurp the individual’s primacy and will,” Regnerus writes.
According to Baumeister and another psychologist, Michael MacKenzie, the self is now seen as a “value base”—that is, a good so self-evident that it doesn’t even need to be questioned. Just as a devout Christian would not question the importance of God’s will, a modern Westerner would likely not question the importance of being “true to yourself.”
But Americans are unique, Finkel writes, in that they not only believe in being true to themselves, but they also still strongly value commitment. So the United States has higher rates of both marriage and divorce than many other countries. The sociologist Andrew Cherlin calls this “the marriage-go-round.”
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Modern Americans are freer than ever to spend their time finding the right person, the one who will improve their lives. And they’re freer than ever to leave. Not just in the sense of “you can get divorced now,” but cultural norms have created an environment where it’s easy to feel like if something doesn’t work out right away, you should pull out your phone and look for other options. Where high expectations are often disappointed. Where, after enough letdowns, people may lose faith in finding the kind of fulfillment they seek outside of themselves. Where they wander through the mating market, halfheartedly picking up the bruised wares, then putting them back in the bin when they’re not shiny enough.
Regnerus recounts a post he saw online where a man in a long-distance relationship discovered his girlfriend had posed for some racy pictures and was asking for advice on how to talk to her about it. One of the responses the man received was “She doesn’t belong to you.” True enough—she’s her own person who can make her own choices. The phrasing, however, prompted Regnerus to “reflect on the place of belongingness in the ‘pure relationship’ era. Do people belong to other people?”
As people’s search for romance becomes increasingly divorced from their communities, many relationships start with two individuals, who know next to nothing of each other’s context, trying to figure out if they’d fit into each other’s lives. In the best of circumstances, according to Finkel, they each elevate the other, and live meaningfully—if not always happily—ever after. In less ideal circumstances, individualism leads to loneliness.
“Interdependence has faded, leaving only independence,” Regnerus writes. “It is freer but also far more vulnerable than many wish to acknowledge.”
C.S. Lewis would likely agree.