Relationships in Perel: From productivity to identity economies and beyond

Photo: Antonio Guillem/Getty Images/iStockphoto

I was inspired to write this piece since hearing Dr. Ester Perel’s breakthrough TED talk The Secret to Desire in a Long Term Relationship. Speaking with a fluid combination of penetrating insight, wry humor and provocation, Dr. Perel is a natural storyteller and it was immediately apparent that her audience was spellbound. Incorporating anthropological and sociological research, she assesses the history of sexuality and long-term, monogamous relationships in terms of two distinct periods:

  1. Productivity – marriage (the predominant long-term, monogamous relationship) developed as an economic institution to consolidate family resources, establish alliances and produce more ‘economic assets’ (i.e., children) to help cultivate the land, grow the family trade etc.
  2. Identity – As the productivity economy exploded with Industrialization, the rights of people—particularly women—had significantly progressed. Technological advancements such as industrial machinery, household appliances and agricultural advancements have created a considerable surplus of labor which could then be freed to pursue leisure and recreation. Furthermore, the widespread usage on contraceptives in the 20th century had essentially divorced sexuality from its primarily procreative functions.

Social change is obviously embedded in a matrix of complex historical, economic, political and social determinants however there are two facets undergirding the identity economy that are worth highlighting as they portend important changes to the scope of modern relationships.

Consumerism as Master-Identity: The perfect symbol of fluidity and possibility in the modern world is the credit card. As Mastercard’s iconic ads have long taught us, those ‘priceless’ moments in our lives are made possible by unfettered access to capital. Without the ability to consume, one is literally ‘broke’ and even displaced. Clearly, our ability to eat, play, rest and even love is predicated on our ability to consume goods and services. As access to capital becomes increasingly available and disinhibited (e.g., speculative markets, credit), there is an invisible injunction to consume increasingly more. Even as our ability to rest, play and create may actually decrease; the illusion and obligation to get more out of our consumerism increases. Consumerism becomes not simply an economic imperative but a deeply personal one.

Restructuring of Social Units: With technological progress, surplus production and consumer power; the social units were drastically reconfigured in terms of space and composition. As families became urbanized, decreasing labor demands as well as widespread availability of contraceptives and better mortality rates meant that families were also getting smaller. The expansion of housing and transportation meant that families were also becoming much more mobile. These were only some of the drivers that, at the beginning of the 20th century, essentially restructured families from multi-generational dwellings within close communal ties to smaller, “nuclear” members mobily stationed in anonymous, urban and suburban clusters.

From these two major social determinants, there are at least three major derivatives that herald a shift into the identity economy. Now we can clearly describe the concomitant difficulties that exist for relationships, at least in their traditional form.

  1. Mythic happiness. As part of the bargain for this unparalleled social and economic restructuring, we have been sold the promise that increasing material prosperity can and should translate to ever increasing happiness.  Of course, common sense dictates there are limits to happiness (which is in itself a separate ontological question) but no one seems to know precisely what those limits are; at the same time, we are continually bombarded with new and exciting products that promise to take our happiness to the next level if we would only indulge.
  2. Empty selves, strained relationships. The American psychologist Dr. Phil Cushman is one of a growing choir of cultural critics of this Western model of consumer-driven happiness. In his insightful paper describing what he calls the ‘empty self’, Dr. Cushman suggests that the changes ushered by Industrialization to the family, community and society have left us feeling empty, deprived and mourning the lack of those traditional deep and wide social connections. Consequently we are goaded, he argues, to replace these absences by connections to goods and services—as temporal and perishable as they are. The result is that we are plagued with a chronic sense of emptiness as we attempt to dress, eat, play and sex away the losses of deep, historically situated community. Although this may be an unduly reductive and pessimistic account given the possibilities of our present, hyper-connected reality; it is perhaps a noteworthy to observe that most of our non-familial relationships are centered around a single aspect of either production (i.e., work) or consumption (i.e., leisure, parenting, school etc.). Dr. Perel prosaically illustrates the strain this puts on our long-term, monogamous relationships as we call upon our significant others to stand in where once a whole village existed:

“Give me belonging, give me identity, give me continuity, but give me transcendence and mystery and awe all in one. Give me comfort, give me edge; give me novelty, give me familiarity; give me predictability, give me surprise.”

– Ester Perel, TED Talk “The Secret to Desire in a Long-term Relationship”

The Greeks had several varieties of love, each connoting different aspects of different relationships. Now, it is as if each of us have become Amazon warehouses unto another; expected to fulfill or produce whatever is fancied at a moment’s click.

  • Time and attention scarcity. In a seminal paper that would induct a field of studies into ‘attentional economics’, Dr. Herbert Simon claimed that “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently…” In an information-rich environment of products, ads and media that actively solicit our attention; our ability to give time and attention becomes a precious affordance. And a valued form of capital. When intimate relationships have to compete for access to these increasingly scarce resources, efficiency becomes the modus operandi. As systems of production and consumption become ever more efficient; efficiency becomes a relational model as well. Unfortunately, while we may often wish to treat others–including our partners–with efficiency, most do not prefer to be treated that way themselves. This puts a strain on relationships as partners frequently have to negotiate times to give intimacy, sex and even basic attention to one another.

So what is to be done? Dr. Perel is a marriage and family therapist and her recommendations are very self-affirming. In a subsequent talk on infidelity, she reminds couples of these inimical realities and suggests that there is nothing inherently wrong with partners who either want more or are found wanting. Instead, however, she emphasizes a non-blaming approach and promotes a strategy of deciphering the unmet wishes while combining this with a pragmatic optimism that this openness (along with the insights about the constitutional emptiness in modern relationships) will allow couples to more effectively and ‘productively’ respond to one another.

Although this treatment seeks to fundamentally alleviate the shame of transgressing and of being transgressed, it does not challenge the fundamental parameters of the identity economy. We are not dissuaded from seeking partners who promise to fill out our panoramic expectations. Instead, we are reminded that disappointments are expected and times of scarcity (i.e., in terms of desire, attention, time etc.) are natural accompaniments to the boom times of fulfillment, variety and abundance. Dr. Perel is of course, not alone or even in the minority in her defense of this prevailing institution or the economy that it is embedded within. It can be argued that—whether we want to or not—we are all actors in the identity economy. The solutions, therefore, must be pragmatic. For example, we may put limits on our desires for immediate (and efficient) gratification by investing in savings, insurance and investments. The same may be done with the currency of our time and attention. For instance, instead of tucking into a habitual pornography routine and then ordering takeout, one might instead make a meal with their partner and allow for a night of cuddling that may lead to intimacy later. This kind of solution, advocated from the ancient Epicureans to the 17th century Schopenhauer, gathers its modern sensibility from notions of ‘satisficing’ (more later) and it is considered a good economic and relational strategy. Some have even suggested that we bring to bear the principles of rational decision making to adjudicate our relationships; in the same manner that we may choose goods or services (such as a root canal or colonoscopy).

It would be difficult to go further into the history of relationships and sexuality without troubling to mention the contributions of Michel Foucault. Although his encyclopedic work was not without controversy, what is important here is his concept of biopower. According to Foucault, beginning in the 17th century, the body has been increasingly linked to the mechanization process. The machine serves as both extension and metonym for the body. In this view, the “body as a machine” has been encouraged to become both useful and docile within the productive economy. The classical institution of marriage, which is now rife with dissatisfaction and ever-increasing rates of infidelity, even serves the current identity economy by creating endless markets for counseling, litigation, self-help and sex. As long as the bulk of prosperity is tied in assets that are spatially (e.g., land) or materially located (e.g., home ownership) and passed through kinship ties, marriage will be the prevailing institution of intimacy. If the identity economy is here to say, what does this portend for the institution of marriage in our modern age of relationships?

Some possibilities and trends can be observed:

Marriages expand into unions. Just as industrialization furnished assemblies of workers who created the rights to organize and advocate for one another, marriages may become increasingly associated within clusters of relationships. Most of these relationship clusters will probably not be sexually explicit and instead consist of networks of friends through work, spousal associations, and joint activities that function by supporting members either directly (i.e., in shared ‘village’ activities that bring joy, support, transcendence and stability) or indirectly (e.g., illicit affairs). Perhaps some clusters will be openly sexual in the form of swinger communities or non-marital assemblies of partners (i.e., open relationships).

Marriages become increasingly deferred. This has been a long-time trend, since at least the start of the Industrialization period in the West. The average age at marriage will likely continue to increase as educational opportunities expand, life expectancy increases, and mortality rates decrease. Psychologically, marriage may be seen as viable only after one is in a position to make an informed decision having completed an education in different partnerships (i.e., dating/fucking around).

Marriages become optional. With increased consumer power comes other viable options for union. As cohabitation and single rates have increased, rates of marriage have decreased. Furthermore, with increasing wages along with women’s entry into the education and labor forces, divorce rates have simultaneously decreased. Although this seems counterintuitive given the trends towards consumerist dissatisfaction and infidelity, there are a number of reasons for this. Primarily, the rates of divorce have decreased in the younger cohorts. These individuals appear to be either marrying into more stable unions (i.e., educated, dual-income earners), staying single or cohabiting.

In the shift from the productive to the identity economy, relationships have become destabilized in part due to the proliferation of individual wants and societal encouragement to pursue those wants as ends in themselves. As happiness became associated with material prosperity (and even embedded in the US Declaration of Independence); its realization and conceptualization became increasingly more nebulous in the state of modern relationships. Now that we are well into the identity economy, several survival strategies have emerged and the adaptability of our relationships as we know them (e.g., marriage) may depend on them.

  1. Start satisficing. Coined by the same person cited earlier who spawned a subdiscipline on the economics of attention, Herbert Simon refers to “satisficing” as a decision-making process whereby we stop looking for alternatives once an ‘adequate’ solution has been found. In this model, we conserve our attentional resources (instead of squandering it forever in the searching process) by settling on that one thing and then allocating resources instead to long-term investments in that choice. While this may seem patently obvious for anyone who has taken marital vows, the identity economy exerts a powerful pull on us to demand ever-more from ourselves, our partners and our relationships. In a world where efficiency, productivity, and aesthetics converge into the ‘ethical’ pursuit of more, we would often do better to step off the accelerator and consider what choices may likely result in adequate happiness under the widest possible circumstances.
  2. The pursuit of happiness is a pursuit into emptiness. As Cushman, Schopenhauer and others (most notably the Buddhists) have noted, happiness is an emergent and ephemeral phenomenon. It cannot be chased, because that is the path not merely towards disappointment but also the intolerance of disappointment. It becomes one’s personal hell. If it is clear that ever-increasing productivity cannot yield ever-increasing happiness, then what other virtuous pursuits can we—and should we—turn our attentions towards? Shall we follow the Epicureans and pursue a balanced life with a minimum of pain? Shall we follow the existentialists and pursue meaning into itself? Or perhaps we shall follow certain nihilists and iconoclasts and desire power over all aspects of self. What can a relationship look like when the partners are not committed to their own happiness or to each other’s as a final end? What superlatives may hold them together? Whether it be the pursuit of children (one’s own continuity) or a desire for cultural or economic stability—the conservative models of marriage as an arranged union perhaps offers new optics when glancing over the precipice into inchoate choice.  
  3. Consider alternatives to long-term, monogamous intimacy. Today we bear witness to a proliferation of common law partnerships, single living (which has still not cleared its moral minefields), open relationships and other forms of communal sexuality, partnerships and intimacy. As alternative identities (e.g., queer, non-binary), sexualities and genders (i.e., cis, trans) emerge (or re-emerge), relationships may need to be similarly revamped to suit the predilections of the empowered consumer market. But perhaps more than this, the queering of identity boasts a history of exercising powerful critique against hegemonic forms of intolerance (and their culmination in overt or suggested violence) towards difference and the applications of rights for non-dominant others. Can relationships—as an exercise of utmost tolerance towards the other—also be similarly expanded to include configurations that allow for a proliferation of intimacy while offering a more advantageous cost : benefits portfolio than current long-term, monogamous relationships? Can such relationships be guaranteed certain rights to security and property by the state?

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