Book review: Brenot, P. (2001). Inventer le couple. Paris: O. Jacob.
Philippe Brenot, an anthropologist, a sociologist, an ethologist, but also a psychiatrist and couple therapist, questions the nature, human cultural history, and the current collapse of the traditional marriage model, concluding that the long-lasting monogamous couple is hardly viable.
“Is it not because the couple, in its contemporary meaning, is a recent invention, that it is the product of a wonderful moral, social and sexual revolution that we still have to digest? Is it not mainly because we are expecting too much from the couple, because we expect that it reconciles contradictory objectives: sexual fulfillment and intellectual complicity, fidelity and fantasy, equality and difference, passion and duration?”
Synopsis: In “Inventing the couple”, Philippe Brenot takes an analytical look at different forms of relationships, and proposes ways of action to give new life to the modern couple.
According to Brenot, there are five possible ways to form a couple:
- “Solitarism”, i.e. solitary forms of living;
- Promiscuity: a state of sexual democracy without the exclusive right of one over the other, as opposed to polygamy (several marriages) where a male dominates several females;
- Polygyny: union of a male with several females, the most frequent mode of matching in the sexual animal world;
- Polyandry: union of a female with several males; and
- Monogamy: rare in the animal world, representing only 4% of mammalian species, 18% of primate species, the vast majority is organized in temporary couples and infidelity is the norm.
Moreover, there are a variety of forms and constellations of couples, which can be classified as:
- Numerical: single man / woman, single-parent family, childless couple, polygamy, community;
- Temporal: transitional marriage, fixed-term contract, fixed-term contract, annualized couple;
- Geographical: cohabiting or not cohabiting;
- Psychological: fusional / closed couple, open relationship, avoiding couple, couple of 2 “similars”;
- Social partners: free union or cohabitation (concubinage), union without papers, Civil Pact of Solidarity (PACS), refusal of marriage, couple of “façade”; and
- Pathological: neurotic couple, defensive couple.
These two frameworks of analysis can be combined. For example, the masked polygamy of conventional marriage, which often covers psychological mechanisms without the knowledge of the person who is experiencing them : “I am a chronic cheater, but at the same time, I have fear of divorce. Everything is good with my wife, I have a fulfilling relationship with her, sexually it’s great. But for me, another relationship, a double life is important and necessary. I don’t know why, but that’s how it is.”
How does a couple come together? Brenot gives the ten reasons for being together (p.148):
- together by duty
- by convention
- by inhibition
- by love
- through common passion
- to raise a child
- for financial necessity
- by interest
- for support of the other…
- or because there was nothing else.
Once the framework has been presented, Brenot invites the reader to analyze his / her own couple and gives a series of keys of analysis, such as language, sex, memory, mutual help and the need for proximity. Conducting such an analysis can allow couples to assess their convergence of interests, their differences of ideas, and their desire or the ability to live together on a daily basis. Once the motors and brakes of the couple have been detected and analyzed, the question then is to find solutions to overcome or even anticipate these problems, as a means to invent or even reinvent the couple. By all means, it is necessary to become aware of the deep aspirations of each partner in order to construct a form that allows each one to flourish and to build an autonomous couple. “The couple is autonomous when it carries within it the seeds of its balance: dialogue, sharing, tenderness, initiative, reconciliation. It is at this price, of the reinvention, that the couple can live for a long time and remain in love.”
Our analysis: In an era where, especially in metropolitan areas, a growing number of people are experiencing the failure of their relationships and increasing divorce rates while having widespread access to dating applications, the author does a great job questioning monogamy in order to encourage societal discussion about this key topic. This brings us back to the old problem: wanting a blossoming couple while being personally dissatisfied – in the long run, the couple cannot represent the panacea for people’s own problems. Longing for a partner simply won’t help fill internal emptiness.
Nowadays, it is increasingly common to openly discuss and even accept “new types” of relationships, such as open relationships, platonic relationships, relationships involving several people and so on. Instead of panicking over these changes, we can see the search for a suitable type of relationship as a path towards greater self-knowledge, or even as a self-healing mechanism. It allows us to ask ourselves the right questions about what we want for ourselves, our lives and our relationships. This search is about conducting an honest analysis, which may mean that we choose to maintain the status quo, i.e. by reaffirming what we have, or to improve our couple’s conditions, sometimes even deciding to break up. It is normal that our needs evolve over time. Therefore, analyzing the role of each partner in the couple, as well as ourselves, allows us to realize that changes are necessary.
The exercise of intellectualization and schematization of our couple can also have drawbacks, especially when it leads to the demystification of interhuman relationships. When considering our relationships, the three intellectual, emotional and spiritual levels each have their own unique importance. It is necessary to assess what is “adequate” for both partners from a rational point of view, without neglecting the emotional arguments (such as what the partners feel is good for them) after having respectively conducted an introspection. Trying to approach issues in the couple through an intellectual exercise can potentially lead to a “desexualization” of the couple, which does not necessarily lead to increased harmony therein. The “reinvention of the couple”, on the other side, through holistic assessment, affords those in relationships to identify creative solutions, be it in monogamous, polygamous or solitary constellations.