The Tenacity of the Couple-Norm: Intimate Citizenship Regimes in a Changing Europe by Sasha Roseneil, Isabel Crowhurst, Tone Hellesund, Ana Cristina Santos, and Mariya Stoilova (UCL Press, 2020) is a newly published (and freely available online for download as a pdf) book which raises an issue of relevance to popular romance fiction. The focus is on coupledom as a concept within society, which the authors refer to as the "couple-norm," defined as "the structure of affinity that is composed of an intimate/sexual dyad" (4) and the
book is about the ongoing strength of the couple-norm and the insidious grip it exerts on our lives as it defines what it is to be a citizen, a fully recognized and rights-bearing member of society. It exposes the construction of coupledom – the condition or state of living as a couple – as the normal, natural and superior way of being an adult. (3)
The book is not a rejection of coupledom, however. The authors argue that
coupledom is not in itself, necessarily, a social ill or a negative influence in people’s lives. Indeed, being part of [sic] couple can be one of the greatest sources of pleasure, fulfilment and security that life in a competitive, uncertain, fast-changing, sometimes dangerous, often precarious social world can offer. (232)
and they state that
There is a danger, identified by Biddy Martin (1996) and Robyn Wiegman (2012), that a relentless anti-normativity, such as that sometimes embraced within queer theory, can produce a somewhat superior, even contemptuous, hypercritical gaze that ‘fears ordinariness’ (Martin, 1996) and ‘names and shames’ ‘those normalities that are inhabited, desired and pursued within gay, lesbian, trans and queer discourses as well as outside them’ (Wiegman, 2012: 334), whilst idealizing practices that are regarded as transgressive of dominant norms. (26)
Rather, they are arguing that there is a need to examine the negative implications of the "couple norm" for those who do not form part of a couple:
The couple-form has historically been valorized and conventionalized, so that it is the very essence of ‘normal’. Whether a person is coupled or not is fundamental to their experience of social recognition and belonging: the good citizen is the coupled citizen, and the socially integrated, psychologically developed and well-functioning person is coupled. Being part of a couple is widely seen and felt to be an achievement, a stabilizing status characteristic of adulthood, indicative of moral responsibility and bestowing full membership of the community. To be outside the couple-form is, in many ways, to be outside, or at least on the margins of, society. (4)
Romances acknowledge the pressure exerted by the norm when protagonists complain about pressure from family to find a partner and, clearly, some popular romances already think outside the "couple norm." Could romance go further, however?
The authors of this book ask
What would it mean for an intimate citizenship regime to cease to promote coupledom and to work instead actively to attenuate the negative impacts of the couple-norm? (233)
What I ask is: what could romance fiction, as a genre, do, to normalise other forms of relationships in addition to coupledom, without abandoning the central love story and the happy ending?
I agree with Roseneil et al, that being in a "couple can be one of the greatest sources of pleasure, fulfilment and security that life in a competitive, uncertain, fast-changing, sometimes dangerous, often precarious social world can offer" (232) yet I feel that romance has room to expand in terms of the relationships it depicts. Indeed, romance has already been expanding, so that more individuals can see themselves and their lives reflected in the novels. The authors of the book found that their interviewees were
centring their lives around friendship, choosing to remain single, embracing solitude, forging non-cohabiting partnerships, sharing the raising of children outside the couple-form, resisting the romantic imperative, forming relationships with people from different backgrounds and defying monogamy. They were envisaging, and often finding, stability, security, love, intimacy, sex and domesticity in many different ways, outside the conventional couple-form. (233)
A choice to remain single would probably be a step too far for the romance, even if one could argue that, technically taking time to form a loving relationship with oneself could be the "central relationship" in a "love story" with an optimistic/happy ending. It is, though, already a possibility in chick-lit, I think. Non-monogamous relationships seem more easily adapted into the genre and, indeed, the genre already includes central sexual relationships involving more than two people and central couples who are not monogamous. What about "lives centred around close friendships" and "non-cohabiting partnerships"?