The Load-Bearing Relationship

Casey Horner/Couple standing on grass field mountain

Fewer people are getting married. More people are staying unhappily single—or getting strung along—for longer periods of time and fewer people seem to be finding themselves in happy relationships. Living in Los Angeles, my circle of twenty-somethings rotate through flings and “situationships.” I have one very beautiful and universally-liked friend who counted fifty first and second-odd dates in the last year. Online, our internet friends fill my timeline with bleak romantic discourse. It’s understood that the kids are not alright.

In 2000, the percentage of Americans between the ages of 25 and 50 who had never married was just 21%. By 2018, the share of never-married adults climbed to 35%. The median age at first marriage was 25 for women and 27 for men in 2000; by 2022, it was 28 and 30. Today, 41% of Americans ages 18-29 are single, and about a third of never-married single adults say they have never been in a committed romantic relationship. Much ink has been spilled over this fact. Some blame Instagram and TikTok for obliterating our social skills, some blame Tinder, video games, pornography, or feminism. The list goes on. There’s a consensus that something has dramatically changed the way people treat each other over the last ten-odd years, and that something has made it much more difficult to form lasting romantic connection. 

We’ve changed the rules of engagement in relationships—the question of what, in the popular imagination, do we owe to the people in our lives? I think the best way to characterize that shift in the social landscape is towards what I would call the contractual moral framework.

Traditional societies held that we are born into our roles and responsibilities. You owed certain social and practical tributes to your neighbors, siblings, and countrymen, even though you didn’t sign up for them. Confucianism and stoicism made these systems of reciprocal obligations explicit in “role ethics.” Abrahamic religions treated one’s responsibility to the community as part of their obligation to God. Hinduism and the related traditions of the Indian subcontinent contain injunctions from dharma, the personal and social moral duties expected of every spiritually upright individual. While the roles and responsibilities differed greatly across time and place, all of these societies agreed on the necessity and even nobility of fulfilling unchosen roles and responsibilities.

As a consequence, doctrines of how to be a good person centered on the idea that we hold a positive duty of care to others, be it through tithing, caring for sick family members, or raising our neighbor’s barns on the frontier. As Robert Putnam finds in Bowling Alone, an analysis of over 500,000 interviews from the end of the 20th century, even a few decades ago supporting one’s friends and neighbors (lending a proverbial “cup of sugar”) was a far more pervasive and accepted part of American life than it is today. The recent past is a foreign country. The America of even the 1990s was a more communal and less individualist society than the modern United States, perhaps even less individualist than any developed country today.

The last decade is defined by a shift away from a role ethic and towards a contractualist one. In a contractual moral framework, you have obligations only within relationships that you chose to participate in—meaning, to the children you chose to have and the person you chose to marry—and these can be revoked at any time. You owe nothing to the people in your life that you did not choose: nothing to your parents, your siblings, your extended family or friends, certainly nothing to your neighbors, schoolmates, or countrymen; at least nothing beyond the level of civility that you owe to a stranger on the street. 

A great portion of the last decade’s trends in interpersonal discourse boil down to this idea. There is a wealth of literature dedicated to rejecting the idea that we owe any duty of care at all to our family members and neighbors. Consider the “no-contact” movement: social media is ridden with listicles and advice columns endorsing “11 Steps for Going No Contact with Your Toxic Parents,” and an entire subcultural meme dedicated to skewering Baby Boomers whose children stopped speaking to them after increasingly trivial missteps. How dare they feel entitled to their children’s attention? We didn’t ask to be born. 

There are very vocal conversations about a “child-free” lifestyle, which assert that you should never be asked to accommodate children in public spaces or children in your extended family, because you didn’t choose to have them. Two million Redditors on r/entitledparents and r/childfree exchange daily complaints, aggrieved by siblings who nicely ask them to babysit, or cousins who have the audacity to bring their children to weddings. Parents are made to feel like burdens just for existing in public spaces, let alone asking for help. Of course, it’s true that much of online discourse is written by poorly-adjusted personalities who make for unreliable narrators, and many of these anecdotes are essentially works of fiction. But online discourse creates a very real lens through which young people gauge, from the privacy of their iPhones, what they should or should not expect from the people in their lives.

Therapy culture, both a social media zeitgeist and a real-world medical practice, increasingly frames leaning on the people in your life as a form of emotional abuse. There is a very real conversation about “trauma dumping” that teaches young people that telling your friends about your problems is an unacceptable imposition and provides helpful scripts for “setting boundaries” by refusing to listen or help. Therapy culture teaches us that we’ve been “conditioned” or “parentified” into toxic self-abnegation, and celebrates “putting yourself first” and “self-care” by refusing to be there for others. 

Here is a thriving genre of literature dedicated to the contractual framework, in the same way that the fables are dedicated to Abrahamic religions. We used to see supportiveness as a virtue; today, it’s a kind of victimhood. The cardinal sin in the contractual fable is asking of someone: being entitled. The cardinal virtue is refusing to give; having boundaries.

The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020-2022 greatly accelerated an already ongoing shift from social structure to individual choice. During lockdowns, we realized we could opt out of social participation entirely—work remotely, eat DoorDash, simply stay home. Not only did the pandemic make “touching grass” for the first time truly optional, it explicitly made anti-social life a virtue and social participation a vice. Much has been written about how this dynamic affects couples’ willingness to have children. When you can’t expect family and friends to pitch in, you strip away the proverbial village. The burden of childrearing grows much heavier, in both money and time. 

But what about our willingness to embark on the project of marriage at all? The natural corollary to the contractual framework is that the only person you can feel entitled to support from is the person who signed up to be in your life: your romantic partner. When you can’t expect anything from the relationships you didn’t choose, the pressure on the one relationship you did choose becomes impossible to shoulder. The same advice columnists who clutch their pearls at the idea of asking your friends to babysit will tell you to drop your spouse for even needing to be asked to help. 

When your spouse is the only person in your life you are supposed to be able to depend on, natural points of friction in a relationship go from mildly annoying to terrifying. When a fight with your spouse is a threat to your entire support system, it’s so existentially stressful that it becomes impossible to confront. 

In imagining that one person can fulfill essentially our every, financial, logistical and spiritual need, in a moral world without friends, parents, or community, we have drawn up a job description for an impossible task. I suspect “polyamory,” the practice of maintaining committed relationships with multiple partners, increasingly common in the San Francisco Bay Area, is pointing at this same truth—one person can’t do everything. Many young people bounce from one ambiguous relationship to another and find it impossible to commit to a partner because they have a yawning void in their social lives that no one person could ever fill.

One happy counterexample: I have close family friends in Houston with a six-year-old daughter and both sets of grandparents within a short drive. They have a close “aunt” who moved next door and installed a gate between the backyard fences so her niece can come over and play at will. They seem to be two of the most thriving people I know.

It is cognitively tempting to see the notice of a consent-only framework as requiring a totalizing indictment of all the ends of individualism, from sexual liberation to free-trade consumer choice. That’s not so. Modernity, techno-capital, the arc of progress, does simply bend towards contractualism. As more abundant and better organized societies improve in the ability to meet more finely grained needs, fulfilling our own individual preferences naturally float towards the top of our priorities. But that doesn’t mean we need to abandon our duties to our family and friends. Instead, it calls on us to affirmatively value showing up for the people in our lives. 

Your family and friends are entitled to your love, attention, and support. You owe the people who love you help with moving, help with kids, and help when they’re sick. You owe your aging relatives phone calls and visits. To the terminally online: if you’re concerned about the marriage crisis, the answer isn’t to ban divorce or scold women about “the wall.” The way to restore the birth rate is to be an enthusiastic, supportive, and reliable participant in your friends’ and families’ lives.

Cat Orman studied at Yale and is a co-founder of Flyby Robotics, an American drone developer. You can follow her at here.