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At the same time, an expanding service sector handles some of what used to keep people too busy to develop multiple relationships: housekeeping, childrearing, and elder care, for example.

Under these circumstances, it is more possible than ever for “alternative” ways of being to come to the fore, with some even achieving mainstream respectability: think gay marriage, affective disinvestment in parenting, non-couple coparenting, moving back in with your parents, and “conscious uncoupling.” Flip the coin, and the dwindling of the blue-collar industrial workforce, the expansion of domestic and affective caring work in the service sector, and the creeping obsolescence of the traditional nuclear family have been crucial drivers of the hyper-conservative men’s rights activist or “alt-right” masculinist backlash against changing norms.

Scholars have argued that the heteronormative, monogamous, nuclear family couple was particularly well suited to capital’s dynamic phase of industrial expansion and profitability.

In our current situation of economic turmoil and stagnation, the reproduction of productive labor in couple-based households is no longer a necessity everywhere—indeed, in some countries, the difficulty of keeping people working and the unemployed engaged in work-like activities worries governments greatly, hence conversations about the possibility of a universal basic income.

People in Emily Witt’s circle of adult acquaintances engage not in “relationships” as she had imagined them as a child, but in short-term “emotional involvements.” Those who do make more lasting commitments tend to arrange them in such a way that each person in the couple is free to be sexually and emotionally involved with other people—so long as it doesn’t threaten their primary partnership.

Witt largely presents these new realities of dating and romantic life as a progressive liberation, but she can’t quite enjoy them.

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Most couples saw each other as help to get through the day.

Relatively few people had the freedom to seek new encounters and develop multiple intimacies.

Even now, of course, many people might think that polyamory sounds great, but who has the time?

They ask: “Why is the alternative not an even greater plurality?

Again, not only of lovers, but of life-sustaining arrangements of relations that we navigate without containment?


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