Over 600 years later, the strictures and stigmas of courtly romance still poison our understanding of relationships. If only we had the courage to imagine something differentby Caspar Salmon / November 7, 2019 / Leave a comment
Much hilarity and scorn have greeted the statement in an interview this week from the actor Emma Watson that she is happily “self-partnered.” Not since Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow doulaed the phrase ‘conscious uncoupling’ into existence have online wags had such a shiny new locution to play with.
But any single person over the age of 30—which this writer is—will tell you that Watson’s intervention is timely because, despite immense progress in so many social causes, the stigma of singleness is still tenacious. Her comments are so much more forward-thinking than the reduced mindset of former years. Cast your memory back to literature’s most famous single person (apart from God, from the Bible): Bridget Jones. A recurring nightmare in the life of the protagonist is being identified as a singleton at social events—but in Helen Fielding’s deathlessly conventional world, Bridget ultimately solves this problem by… getting a boyfriend. Talk about curing the symptom.
Another notorious single gal from the 2000s, Carrie Bradshaw, brought great joy to many un-coupled people in an episode of Sex and the City in which she ordered a rich friend to buy her some shoes, with the words, “I’m getting married… to myself. And I’m registered at Manohlo Blahnik.” I have forked out (most gladly!) for friends’ engagement parties, weddings, and even—in grave contravention of my principles and homosexuality—stag dos. Totting up the exact sum that these events have set me back over the years would be deleterious to my mental health, but I will observe that in return I would have loved to see more married friends make the journey to London for my 30th birthday—which I consider the closest thing to a wedding I’ll ever have, given that I would rather choke than get married.
The financial woes don’t stop there for people who refuse to buy into the lie of lifelong monogamy. Have a look at property prices in London. When people ask me if I’m on the lookout for a partner—a question I certainly love to hear!—I tend to reply that I would dearly like to meet that special somebody who will halve my rent.
Of course, Carrie Bradshaw eventually ruins all her good work by finally getting married in a big white dress—because, if you hadn’t noticed, almost no cultural or artistic artefact, no commentator or family, can countenance the wholly alien concept of people being contentedly single for even a second. The very word ‘single’ implies something not quite arrived at. I remember reading a review of a Rudolf Nureyev biography a few years ago, in which the reviewer observed something to the effect that the famously promiscuous dancer had commitment problems. Well, possibly. But perhaps he just liked having lots of sex and getting a double bed all to himself?
Why is the idea of coupledom still so all-conquering? Part of my problem with the concept, as a queer man, lies with the failure of the LGBTQ community to defeat the stranglehold of marriage on society, and the noxious, false ideas it propagates about the importance of sexual fidelity. On the contrary, queers were co-opted into campaigning for our right to get married, and our allies now patronisingly trumpet on our behalf that “it doesn’t matter what the gender of two people who love each other is.” Wait—how many again? Ah yeah, just the two. Is this really what we dreamed? Queer people, for a majority of whom sex is wholly divorced from reproduction, could have argued for a utopia: of several people in one loving relationship, or no people, or any number of permutations of consensual relationships involving sex or love or support of some kind. Instead, we plumped for settling down with that one person. The one. I see in this such a bitter, boring defeat.
The truth is that at no point in my life can I ever remember having pictured myself with one other person. This might be due to my sexuality: I lived in secrecy and self-hatred for years, and homosexuality has offered precious few aspirational models of long-term relationships since it came into mainstream acceptance so recently. But I have honestly never felt the urge to meet one person; to be fifty per cent of a unit. This isn’t to say it will never happen, but I don’t seek it out. What I do need, like most other humans, is to be caressed, hugged, seen, spoken and listened to; to be cared for sometimes and to give that caring back. We all need someone to hold our forehead when we vomit. But why should this be restricted to one person, who is in a sexual relationship with us? It seems clear to me that there is a huge failure of imagination here.
Marriage is a contract, which traditionally bartered sexual fidelity in return for land and money, with sexual rights to the bodies of women, and the promise of reproductive issue, used as bargaining chips. Our conception of coupledom and monogamy is indebted to this model—a way of regulating sex and living conditions—in no small way. It also owes something to the relatively recent idea of courtly love, the invention of which in the early renaissance shapes our understanding of the very idea of ‘love’—whatever that means (to quote Prince Charles). Jean de Meun, the writer, conceived of ‘romance’ as, essentially, a high form of trickery, a system of flattery and negotiation, designed to help men con women into having sex with them. For this, he was magnificently rebuked by Christine de Pizan in her Epistre au dieu d’Amours from 1399, which saw right through the misogynistic stratagems of this supposed romantic ‘love.’
Over 600 years later, the strictures and stigmas of heterosexuality continue to poison our understanding of relationships. Watson is powerful enough, rich enough, independent enough to assume her own singleness and stand up for it—but as long as we so desperately cling to the concept of one person for every person, this sort of much-needed stand will continue to be seen as preposterous.
For what vestiges of shame would remain for an ‘unpartnered’ woman, if she had the choice of having children on her own and were able to look after and afford them, because society truly helped parents out? What if the idea of women not reproducing at all was fully accepted, or if queerness was fully accepted, or if women could feel free to engage in casual sex without fear of shame or violence? What if different models of companionship and friendship existed, and these too were socially accepted and financially viable?