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How Capitalism Kills Romance

Relationship problems are usually considered private ones – but from financial stress to overwork, the pressures caused by capitalism can upend our romantic lives too.

We can’t simply therapise our way out of relationship problems. (Sara Monika / Getty Images)

Sex and relationships are big topics in therapy. Whether the issue is conflict with a partner or spouse, deciding whether or not to stay in a relationship, pain and confusion after a breakup or divorce, frustrations with dating and single life, or questions about sexuality, therapy can provide a private and relatively objective space to gain insight and learn skills.

The problem is that we don’t have sex or relationships in a vacuum. We date, have sex, break up, marry, divorce, procreate, and communicate under our social and economic conditions. Therapeutic techniques like ‘I’ statements, values inventories, and the DEAR MAN skill can make navigating relationships easier, but when it comes to intimacy, capitalism still forces our hand in innumerable ways. For this reason, we can’t simply therapise our way out of the relationship problems subject to our social context.

As I have written in Tribune before, capitalism makes life much more stressful than it needs to be. Most people struggle in a society where the cost of living is spiraling, and most people work all the time to pay for basic necessities of survival. We have a shortage of both time and money, and these twin scarcities can cause serious problems for sex and relationships.

In a 2009 study published in the journal Family Relations, researchers found that ‘spouses rated conflicts [about money] as more intense and significant than other conflict topics: They lasted longer, more often covered problems that had been discussed previously, and held higher current and long-term importance to couples’ relationships.’ As recently as February 2022, the Independent reported on a UK study that found that nearly two thirds of people who admit to arguing with their partner did so about money. A third admitted keeping financial secrets from their partner, like savings or debts—evidence of the power financial stress has to undermine the basic tenets of good relationship management, like communication and openness. It is even harder to remove the question of financial stress from a romantic relationship when that stress is exacerbated, as it so often is, by overwork.

The question of time scarcity becomes even more prevalent when people are involved in any kind of non-monogamous relationship—open relationships, swinging, polyamory. A growing number of therapists promote themselves as sex-positive, offering specialised knowledge about these lifestyles and offering them up as empowering alternatives to the status quo. Once, several years ago, I had a therapist ask if I would consider an open relationship as an alternative to the unhappy one I felt stuck in. I laughed at her. ‘Where would I find the time?’

How quickly a relationship progresses can also be influenced by financial factors. Extortionate rental costs often nudge younger couples toward moving in together before they feel truly ready: in London alone, tenants are facing record rents amid a cost of living crisis, while September 2021 saw rents outside London rising at their fastest rates since 2008, and moving in with a partner can often appeal as a way to mitigate this. Financial factors in turn prevent people from leaving relationships in which they are no longer happy, let alone relationships which are abusive. Therapists often find themselves helping clients navigate safety in situations of interpersonal violence—but how can clients make safe choices for themselves when the options available are abuse or homelessness?

There is also singledom. As the writer Anne Helen Peterson observes, not being able to split the cost of housing, utilities, household goods, and more puts single people at a financial disadvantage compared to their coupled counterparts. In the United States, single people pay more in taxes, and marriage is one of the only reliable ways to get on a good health insurance plan. One 2010 study she cites estimates that a single woman with a $40,000 annual salary would pay almost half a million dollars over the course of her lifetime compared to a married woman with the same salary. Given this choice, why wouldn’t you stay in a bad relationship?

The solutions to these kinds of problems generally come down to the question of more money and more time. For example, one of the many possible knock-on effects of financial stress and overwork is changes to libido. In 2017, the small town of Overtornea in Sweden floated the idea of paid sex leave in response to the population’s rising average age—and while this idea is obviously silly, it’s actually indicative of the kind of material approach that could have a positive impact on relationships. A more realistic interpretation could exist in the form of a four-day week without loss of pay, which would give individuals more time for relaxation and for nurturing both the physical and emotional elements of their relationships. To relax some of the financial pressure on romantic relationships, we quite simply need higher wages.

Whatever kinds of relationships we have—and not only romantically, but with friends and family members, too—the conditions of capitalism play a role in our ability to maintain and nurture them, robbing us of our time and rewarding us with pay that is barely enough to live on. That’s not to say that socialism can solve all the problems of the heart—but there are obvious benefits to building a world that values the freedom and wellbeing of all over the wealth of a few.