Nothing rocks our worlds, for better or worse, quite like relationships — platonic, romantic or sexual. They’re the cause of endless moments of ecstasy and a comparable amount of distress on occasion. Most of all, modern relationships as we in the west know them are rife with complicated and sometimes arbitrary social rituals like not double-texting, the politics of paying for meals, the antiquated and historically regressive institution of marriage and other silly idiosyncrasies.
Maybe that last part demands a bit of elaboration.
In Western culture, we are utterly overwhelmed with images of the traditional nuclear family — the dominant family structure wherein (usually heterosexual) monogamous spouses live with their children separate from friends, extended family and community members. Media is saturated with representations of the nuclear unit as an ideal structure to aspire to, fueling the public’s desire to meet “the one,” or their “endgame” or their “forever person.” These are all fine aspirations — romantic love can give life a uniquely powerful sense of feeling and purpose, but what are the origins of the monogamous white-picket fantasy?
If we get too comfortable, we often forget that the political, economic, legal and even familial structures that govern our lives don’t just come out of thin air or out of the minds of individuals. They evolve as we do, marking new ways in which humans can interact with each other, either through oppressive systems like capitalism and settler colonialism, or liberatory ones like socialism, decolonization and the abolition of slavery, police and prisons — some of which have yet to be put into practice.
The invention of the nuclear family falls right into the paradigm of institutions created to harness or exploit humanity’s developing technological and intellectual abilities. In his 1884 work “Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State,” socialist theorist and revolutionary Friedrich Engels, a contemporaneous partner to Karl Marx, traces the genealogy of the nuclear family in Western Europe from pre-industrial and pre-feudal family structures. By studying anthropological studies of non-industrialized communities at the time, he highlighted how societies at different levels of economic development had different forms of family structures. He further identified this pattern as beginning at consanguineous — being related by blood — family and sexual structures to polygynous — males having multiple female partners — to the monogamous structure that we’re so familiar with today, which is based on the protection of private property and the exploitation of the unpaid domestic labor of one partner, usually the female spouse.
It’s always worth mentioning that a major error in Engels’ work due to potent Eurocentrism is that it may reflect the racism and biases of European anthropologists observing a diverse range of societies at an arm’s length; as such, it understates the productive complexity and sophistication of pre-industrial and pre-feudal societies. Strict readers of Engels and other European theorists may leave with moralistic prejudices against non-capitalist, non-monogamous forms of social organization. In reality, they’re not better or worse; they’re different.
The evolution of private property, or legally separated swaths of land and other commodities from which owners can profit, precipitated the evolution of the nuclear family, according to thinkers like Engels as well as modern revolutionary feminists such as Sylvia Federicci and Angela Davis. Private land could be owned by the patriarch of a nuclear family, but the atomization of land ownership made it much easier for monopolies on land ownership through the wealth and military power of feudal aristocrats. When the social and productive center is based in the household and not the community or society at large, it is impossible to resist the voracious encroachment of wealthy feudal lords and, nowadays, capitalist landlords and monopolists.
This regime of private accumulation of land and wealth was carried on through Europe’s genocidal settler-colonial project, which exported the ideology of the nuclear family into large portions of the world. It’s no coincidence that there are few, if any, states in which wealth and property is something that can be held in common as opposed to by an individual or a married couple. The United States settler-colonial project persisted as viciously as it did in part due to the Dawes Act, a settler law in which ownership of Indigenous land was parceled into the hands of individuals instead of held in common by the citizens of Native nations. After all, land grabs are much easier from the hands of individuals rather than entire bands, nations, and pluri-national confederacies.
Marriage is the institution which patched monogamy into the legal fabric of our modern capitalist society, which is no longer dependent on our ability to reproduce as much as possible to sustain a subsistence economy — certainly not here, at least. The appeal of marriage, of course, is financial security within a chaotic and unstable capitalist system whose upswings enrich a small handful of the owning class and whose downturns devastate the bulk of the working class. Marriage is billed as a Band-aid for this instability when true economic justice rests in the prospect of shared wealth and mutual flourishing among communities.
Romance and relationships are not immune to the influence of capitalist social relations on culture; if you’ve been in a relationship that has felt possessive, overly controlling, transactional, and extractive of your emotional capacities, that is as much a symptom of the transactional and extractive properties of capitalism as it is cis-heteropatriarchy and crappy partners. Exploring non-colonial family structures rooted in common sharing and compersion — or the joy one can feel from seeing their loved ones experiencing happiness — instead of possession and property relations won’t just help us visualize better relationships; it’ll help us visualize a better world.