Over at my Living Single blog at Psychology Today, I asked this question: The rise of the couple and demise of all the rest: How did this happen? In the comments section, readers engaged in a wonderfully thoughtful and substantive discussion.  Several people described or asked about specific references (thanks!), so I thought I would share some highlights from my favorite one.

The title of the book, by historian John R. Gillis, did not initially strike me as all that relevant: A world of their own making: Myth, ritual, and the quest for family values. But I found one of the chapters to be chock full of fascinating insights and information. The title is “The Perfect Couple” and it is in the section of the book on “Mythical figures in the suburban landscape.”

Here are a few highlights:

  • “Romance is not new, but never has it been so exclusively symbolized by the love between just two people. In earlier centuries, it had been possible to imagine love in other ways…” (p. 133)
  • “For centuries conjugal love was more feared than celebrated; it was viewed as too volatile and insubstantial to sustain either individual identities or the social order.” (p. 134)
  • Previously, times “like Valentine’s Day, that we think of as for lovers were considered communal, with everyone getting and getting a gift.” (p. 136)
  • In earlier times, “weddings highlighted community, not conjugality, and for that reason the part played by the couple was relatively inconspicuous.” (p. 142)
  • Referring to the early 1800s: “While it was not uncommon for couples to take what was then called the ‘bridal trip,’ the purpose was to visit friends and distant kin, not to be alone with one another. For this reason, it was the custom for the pair to take their closest companions along…” (p. 142)
  • In the 19th century: “…men’s relations with their best friends were often more intense than those with their wives, whom they saw mainly on weekends and with whom they did not even vacation until late in the century.” (p. 148)
  • “Victorian women traveled and vacationed together. They had their own clubs and homes away from home every bit as comfortable as those their husbands frequented. The bonds they formed with sisters and best friends were often more intimate and intense than those they formed with their husbands.” (p. 148)
  • Speaking of current times: “The perfect couple now must be everything to one another – good providers, super sexual partners, best friends, stimulating companions – roles that earlier generations turned to others to fulfill.” (p. 151)