Yet one may wonder, pace Coontz, whether there is not an even more intimate connection between love and work than the one where work moves in to try to restore or preserve what is left of a fading love. One might suppose rather that love and work—or at least a distinctly modern, capitalist conception of work—are two sides of the same coin: both emerge together at the same moment in history, and both carry with them the ungrounded belief that each of us has our destiny in our own hands, that our happiness is entirely a consequence of our life choices, and our misery a surefire sign that we are doing something wrong. In this connection the contemporary use of “passion” serves as a revealing misnomer. For how many can recall that, originally, from classical antiquity through Descartes’ The Passions of the Soul, to undergo a passion was to suffer an affliction over which one had no control? To undergo a passion was to be on the receiving end of an action, to be a patient rather than an agent, and in this respect the idea of choosing to live a life of passion, to “follow one’s passion,” could have made no sense. But in the modern world, in both work and love, this is precisely what we are expected to do: to treat the things that happen to us, that cannot but happen to us, as a result of the way our society is structured, as if they were the result of our own sundry projects of self-creation.
The rebranding of couples as “partners” is the sad culmination of the modern transformation of couples into work-love units. Heterosexual couples began calling one another “partners” at some point in the late 1980s or early ’90s out of a sense of solidarity with their gay friends who could not yet be spouses. Believing themselves to be friends of sexual otherness, they were at the same time abetting the ongoing transformation of marriage into a variety of modern capitalist work. And it is at precisely this moment in the history of marriage that it became feasible for the institution to subsume same-sex couples: the moment at which the hard work of individuals had fully replaced exchange between families as the basic model of what a marriage ought to be. One recalls for example the scene from the 1999 film American Beauty in which the gay neighbors ring the doorbell of Col. Frank Fitts, an abusive ex-marine and collector of Nazi paraphernalia. “Let’s cut to the chase,” Fitts blurts out, “what are you guys selling?” They explain that they just wanted to welcome him to the neighborhood. “But you said you’re partners,” he replies, “so what’s your business?” And so the partners present one another: “Well, he’s a tax attorney.” “And he’s an anesthesiologist.” This, the audience understands, is the “new normal”: the same-sex couple, having embraced the model of coupledom as partnership, represents the neighborhood, the domicile, and the good career; the man who cannot comprehend this model is a closet Nazi.
When marriage was a matter of exchange, the gender of the units of exchange was a nonnegligible factor in the determination of who should be exchanged with whom. A family simply could not afford to give its son to a fruitless union with another family’s son. When marriage comes to be seen as a line of work, by contrast, and when individuals are seen as free to choose their own vocation, then it correspondingly transforms into a gender-neutral institution. It is thus exactly the historical moment when marriage becomes a variety of work rather than of exchange that the genders of its members cease to matter. Marriage was always an economic matter, but members of marriages were not always its employees, and this is what the awful new talk of “partnership” is really about.
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