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Mar. 18 2010 - 8:25 am | 686 views | 1 recommendation | 5 comments

In today’s culture, sex is public but love is private

Rome visit, June 2008 - 57

Image by Ed Yourdon via Flickr

Ah love.  It’s sacred.  It’s special.  It deserves privacy.  At least that’s what we learn from a growing sense of discomfort over couples publicly airing their grievances on Facebook.  An article in the New York Times yesterday, “I need to vent.  Hello Facebook,” laments couples who like to fight online.  It’s not so much that couples are doing this (after all, I am sure that couples have long complained to their friends about their significant other’s stupidity or crassness or slovenly habits), it’s that they’re doing so in the semi-public forum of Facebook that bothers people (as opposed to a coffee shop?).

It’s a question being asked a lot these days as couples, who once had to leave the house to fight in public, take their arguments onto Facebook… People, like Mr. Gower,… view Facebook as an opportunity: How better to show everyone what his future wife puts him through?

My friends have a biased opinion of her, and her friends have a biased opinion of me,” Mr. Gower said. Broadcasting his gripes on Facebook is “a way to get your side of the story out there to everybody. That way, they don’t just hear her side.”

Ms. Andrews shares her fiancé’s view. “A lot of people aren’t with us if we have a fight at home,” she said. This way, “All our friends can kind of comment on it.”

What is interesting about this story is not the fact that these two self-absorbed 22-year olds are getting married and therefore will have a 1000plus more rights and privileges than the unmarried majority of Americans.  No, that’s old news.  What’s interesting is the moral outrage over public fighting between couples.  Citing “experts” on marriage, we learn that couples need to put up a public face of harmony, to show themselves as a united front, regardless of what’s really going on.

From the Victorian era through the 1950s, marriage was viewed as the source of all safety from a predatory world,” said Michael Vincent Miller, a psychologist and the author of the book “Intimate Terrorism: The Crisis of Love in an Age of Disillusion.” Striving for that ideal, he said, meant keeping your disagreements private, “to keep a public face of harmony.”

Readers’ comments exhibit a similar demand that couples appear to be in harmony, even if they’re not.

Privacy in relationships is key to success. Why would anyone want to make their partner look bad, especially in such a public way?

And

If you care THAT much about what your friends think of your relationship, you should not be getting married. I would never want to be with someone who would publicly denigrate me so that all my friends could see it and comment on it and I would want to me with someone that I respect enough to also refrain from doing that to them. Privacy in a relationship is special and valuable and should be protected.

But if as a culture we insist that married couples keep all disagreement private, sex is something to be investigated, especially loud sex.  At least that’s what one unfortunate pot-smoking New Jersey resident found out when police responded to a 911 call about screams.  When Brian McGacken and his girlfriend came to the door and explained that they were having loud sex, police decided to search the house anyway and arrested him for possession of marijuana.  The Superior Court of New Jersey just upheld McGacken’s conviction and ten-year sentence for possession.

What exactly is going on in our culture where we want couples who are “in love” and legitimate to present a united, harmonious public front, while copulating couples disturb the peace?  I understand that the cops might have thought that it was an issue of domestic abuse, but rather than searching the premises, perhaps they should have interviewed the girlfriend privately, not search the home for pot?  Besides, if we’re concerned about domestic abuse, why are we encouraging married couples to keep a united front at all times?

I think the deeper cultural issue, is that as marriage disintegrates as a cultural form (most Americans are unmarried), certain segments of the population feel a need to protect it as an ideal.  Why?  Because marriage does a lot of work shoring up certain privileges in this society- and I’m not just talking about the family discount at the local gym.  Married people are considered more mature, more ethical, and more deserving of state rights and privileges.  Married people are also much, much whiter and much, much wealthier than unmarried people.

How convenient that the people who have the most in this culture are also the ones most likely to get married.  What better excuse for giving them not just extra rights, but the social prestige of being “good” and “hard-working” and “stable.”  Sadly for the ruling elites, married people today are misbehaving more than ever: fighting on Facebook or daytime talk shows or even publicly “dating” other married people.

When married people refuse to keep their backstage behavior backstage, when they broadcast it on social networks, the claim that married people deserve extra rights and extra status disappears.  Suddenly the unmarried majority might just demand that we all get the same civil rights, regardless of how we organize our intimate lives.


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  1. collapse expand

    “Married people are considered more mature, more ethical, and more deserving of state rights and privileges. Married people are also much, much whiter and much, much wealthier than unmarried people.”

    Here, here. Really great analysis. Don’t even get me started on privileges associated with being married and with children. It’s like a license to dominate public space. Usually with loud arguments over whether Mommy brought the right sponge bob dvd for the player in the SUV for the ten-minute trip to whole foods.

  2. collapse expand

    Married couples arguing online? Oh the horror! Never mind the donkey sex, child porn or mind numbing third rail BS! I know I will spend a good portion of my day worrying about couples arguing on facebook.

    • collapse expand

      Yes, the “worry” about FB seems misplaced in the NY Times piece- I mean- don’t we also hear this obnoxious public fighting in restaurants or even movie theaters? The worst couple argument I ever heard was walking behind two people on 7th Ave in Park Slope- He had an affair with the nanny- worst part was, they were my neighbors and I had to see them everyday after that for years.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        I just had the pleasure of hearing a public phone call involving a poor lost soul desperately trying to keep from being evicted from her apartment. Of course the fact that she admitted she had just gotten out of bed at 10:30 in the morning didn’t help her case I’m guessing. Just more people, Laurie, airing their depression and anxiety on any venue that is handy. Desperate for someone to listen or care about their problems. I prefer tuning out and listening to birds sing, but that’s just me.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    Here comes the conjunction of the planets: I agree wholeheartedly with you Ms. Essig.

    Missing here is any sense of what marriage is about. Young couples think of romance, sex, the excitement of starting a family –they never think of how they’ll handle disagreements, sickness, depression, debt or any of the common afflictions that so often plague marriages.

    Add to that a steady stream of media (print, radio, and so on) that doesn’t deal with this either, and… it all comes out on Facebook.

    Judge my spouse. Ugh.

    That said, people do need a cross check to know whether their problems are so deep that they’re irredeemable. In the days of our parents, and grandparents it was the hairdresser or the bartender. Today, this need is just as strong as it ever was. But in our faceless society sometimes it’s easier to reach out on the Internet.

    I wonder if there is a money making opportunity for someone to become an internet psychiatrist? :-)

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    I'm an academic who does not believe in abstract knowledge. Like Marx, I think the point isn't just to describe the world, but to change it. Unlike Marx I don't have Engels sending me my monthly rent. So I have a day job teaching sociology at Middlebury College. In my real life, I'm a fighter (taekwondo) and a writer

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