One of the hallmarks of a strong commitment between two individuals is that they have a strong identity of themselves as a couple. It’s about “us,” not just me or you. In fact, one of the many ways I’ve summarized commitment in marriage is that it reflects “us with a future.”
Having a strong couple identity doesn’t mean some kind of mind-meld or merging into one undifferentiated unit. A lot of people fear such merging, some to the point of overdoing their avoidance of joining with another; and some people desire exactly this type of merging because of insecurity or other issues. Healthy couple identity means there is me, you, and us. There are three identities. All three matter and all are honored in how we go through life together.
But it’s hard to build and hang onto “us” in a culture that is focused on individuality (and on long work hours). As documented in the book Alone Together: How Marriage in America Is Changing, the sociologist Paul Amato and his colleagues have found that couples, as couples, are increasingly isolated. There is a “we” but the “we” has, on average, been growing thinner. Couples have become less engaged in shared activities and outside commitments, such as involvement in community groups.
Specifically, Amato and colleagues note: “Couples in 2000 were substantially less likely than couples in 1980 to eat together, visit friends together, go out for leisure activities together, or work on projects around the house together.” They were less likely to participate in clubs or groups together, as well. Home alone meets alone together.
Amato and colleagues note one exception to this trend, which is involvement in religious organizations, particularly churches. There is a movement toward increased church involvement among married couples since 1980.
This trend toward growing isolation is concerning. As Amato and colleagues concluded, “Increasing individualism appears to have had a corrosive effect on marital quality.” In other words, couples do best when they engage in some significant shared commitments and activities outside their relationship, in groups, clubs, churches or synagogues, volunteering, etc.
I think there are several reasons for this. First, when you do anything positive as a couple that includes a public element, you are acting out your identity as a couple. You are showing the world you are a team. You are showing yourselves you are a team. You cannot overestimate the power of the way behaving in a specific direction affects your identity. We act out who we are, but we also become who we act out.
Second, when you engage in activities together that have specific purposes in line with a shared world view—which could be faith-related, political, family-related like working together at children’s events, or service to others—you are strengthening your bond as a couple through shared meaning and purpose. Think of your shared values as a horizon. Doing things together that reinforce having a common future reinforces the very essence of commitment.
So doing some things together as a couple is good for you, good for your relationship, and good for the community. Isolation has never been shown to be good for people. While there are some couples who are involved in too many things, the trend for the average couple is toward reclusiveness. If you and your partner have gotten pretty isolated from the rest of your community, it’s worth taking a bit of time to reflect on your options for doing at least one thing where you can be involved, together, with others.
You’re not always safe when you are sliding into home.