Watching other people do it

In times of crisis, the love affairs of strangers remain endlessly absorbing.

I live in Bloomsbury, a London neighborhood whose name is synonymous with a long-gone, still-romanticized period of post-Victorian literary and sexual experimentation. Today, its reputation is built primarily around its convenient spread of transit links, which loop out in every direction, funneling sardine-packed commuters in and out of the hipper, more residential zones of the city. As a result, my pocket of the city is a bustling epicenter of low-stakes weeknight courtship: first or second dates, after-work drinks or single-course meals, arrived at with low expectations and curfews in mind. By 10:30 p.m. most nights, the streets return to quiet. Occasionally, if the weather permits, a pair will linger outside the upscale bar across the road from my flat, struck silly by unexpected chemistry, or too much weeknight wine, or a combination of the two.

I know this not because I am a part of it — due to luck or folly, I am married — but because I watch. Since leaving my office job, with its self-replenishing buffet of power dynamics and human tensions, I’ve developed a taste for casual anthropology. A few times a month, I go out alone to a nearby restaurant or pub; my favorite is a local Korean spot, where the tables are jammed so close together I physically cannot squeeze between them without knocking over someone’s soju with my thighs. (Annoying, but the proximity makes for great listening conditions.)

I bring a book, I order noodles and tea, and I watch. One duo launches into an extended volley of sexual innuendo, fueled by a bottle of screw-top rosé. Another spends a solid seven minutes trying to remember the name of a restaurant they’ve both been to, at some point, in New York City — only to arrive at, you guessed it, Katz’s Delicatessen. “Oh, from When Harry Met Sally!,” one of them shouts. Her interlocutor has clearly never seen When Harry Met Sally. “I think it’s in a lot of movies,” he offers, apologetic. “Anyway, it’s a New York must.”

In a time where everything is falling out of sync our collective desire for stories that make sense of shifting dynamics, or at least offer a viable way through to some kind of unproblematic individual happiness, is going into hyperdrive.

These conversations are never particularly intimate, and more often than not the first 20 minutes are filled with a man describing his job as though he invented the concept of management consulting. Still, it’s the undercurrent that fascinates me. There’s nothing quite like the way two people engage when they’re at the start of a possible something: The way they gravitate to certain solid-ground topics, then lean towards the edge of the suggestive; the way they set out traps for key information, then shrug when it trips into their laps; the way they curate the best parts of themselves, to hold the other’s attention, but sprinkle in a bit of their worst selves, too, testing their staying power.

I know this is weird, and probably a violation of social norms, but we’re all doing it. We live in a golden era of self-aware voyeurism: We’re all putting on a show, and we’re all watching, all the time. We’re all swimming in a stream of curated intimacy, and we’re all pissing in it too. We’re listening in and tuning out and everything’s happening all the time and nothing’s happening in order. Add to this the fact we’re all caught in the infinite clamor and casino-like incentives of the lowest-stakes wars in human history (the streaming wars, the content wars, Facebook’s perpetual cross-platform battle for relevance), and you wind up with a culture designed for compulsive lurking, listening, watching. I begin my day with a hot shower while I listen to couples discuss their intimacy problems with a frank and sensual Belgian psychoanalyst, I punctuate my day with randomized videos and photographs of other people’s days and other people’s relationships, and I end my day watching serialized  high-production television shows about other people’s love stories.

In a way, this is how it’s always been: We depend on other people’s narratives to help construct (or escape, or reframe) our own. It makes sense, too, that in a time where everything is falling out of sync — not just the weather but the whole sequence of adulthood — our collective desire for stories that make sense of shifting dynamics, or at least offer a viable way through to some kind of unproblematic individual happiness, would go into hyperdrive.

Sheila Heti puts it best in her introduction to Phyllis Rose’s recently reissued Parallel Lives, a cult classic biography of five Victorian marriages: “The only real sort of permission any of us obtain to live our lives creatively is by witnessing — in literature, or in the lives of our friends — other people doing it.” Since its publication in 1983, Parallel Lives has been beloved among well-read Americans, from Nora Ephron (who allegedly read it every four years) to Haley Mlotek (whose New York Times Magazine  Letter of Recommendation for the book likely encouraged a new wave of Rose readers). The biography tracks the famous literary partnerships of Jane Welsh and Thomas Carlyle, Effie Gray and John Ruskin, Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill, Catherine Hogarth and Charles Dickens, and George Eliot and Henry Lewes, across the course of 60 years, from 1821-1881. I find biographies almost universally unreadable, but finished Parallel Lives in two days. It is a sterling work of academic research that reads like 300 pages of riveting gossip.

Rose is unsentimental and unsparing. She pursues her research in the wake of her own divorce, but rather than being motivated by a particular message (marriage is bad, marriage is good, marriage is inevitable), she is driven by a generous and wide-ranging curiosity about the ways we perform our partnerships: to ourselves when we’re alone, to our partners in private, and together, for the outside world. She’s clear-eyed about the ways in which every relationship ends up swaddled in other people’s gossip: Every couple in Parallel Lives, at some point, observes the others, in a kind of moralistic panopticon from which only Eliot and Lewes really manage to break free (by running off, in modern fashion, to Berlin). They judge each other, they take cues from each other, and they find their bearings in comparison: one couple’s public separation grants another the boldness to act against convention; another couple’s collaborative spirit throws another’s master-servant dynamic into painful relief. The strength of each couple is tested not by their closeness or affection but by the level of balanced, sustaining tension in the cord that runs between its two players: partnership as a modified tug-of-war, where each pulls not to throw the other off, but to jointly reach the center.

More than anything I’ve read on the subject to date, Parallel Lives exposes the brutal work of building a unified narrative out of two subjectivities: from the early-stage negotiations in courtship to the deep-in-the-thick-of-it sparring through which any partnership attempting equality or fairness arrives at a structure, a script, or a plan.

It’s this sparring that fills my shower-listening: Esther Perel’s Where Should We Begin, a podcast whose premise would have seemed like an ethical violation (or at least, pretty creepy) a decade ago. In brief, the show consists of mostly unedited one-off couple’s therapy sessions, which take place in Perel’s Manhattan office. In the most recent season, topics ranged from a middle-aged couple discussing open marriage, to a young couple deciding whether to get married for a visa, to a pair who came together when they both cheated on their respective spouses (spoiler: the man then cheats again, the woman doesn’t know if she can trust him, and Perel tells her points blank that she can’t).

Esther Perel

Esther Perel

When I first came across Perel’s work a few years ago, I found the premise of Where Should We Begin irresistible; I wondered, for a while, why a whole subgenre of “therapy sessions as podcasts” hadn’t taken off. But listening to season after season of WSWB, the answer becomes obvious: the drama exists in the power struggle between two narratives. In the stories we tell ourselves, we’re always the protagonist, and usually the winner. Amazingly, Where Should We Begin — like Parallel Lives — never strays into the cliche. Perel’s perennial lesson is that nobody in a relationship wins, but few want to win and be alone. As Rose puts it, describing the unenviable marriage of Jane Welsh and Thomas Carlyle, “To say they clashed in many ways and in many ways disappointed each other is to say no more than that they were married, and for a long time. They acted out the possibilities of the form.”

There are so many forms now, it’d take a collective to act out all the possibilities. In a sense, I guess that’s what’s happening: It’s never been so easy to see a thousand different versions of what your life could be, if the variables were tweaked. Watching my friends’ lives unfold, in the same interface where I watch strangers’ lives unfold, in the same interface where I watch commercially-produced representations of lives unfold, I can feel overwhelmed by data — like there’s a pattern to it all that none of us will live to see made sense of, when some 23rd-century Phyllis Rose will write a compulsively readable account. (Insert necessary caveat that there won’t be humans in the 23rd century; insert necessary caveat that if there are, they’ll almost certainly be the descendents of the ultra-rich, who will be the only class to survive this century, and therefore their art will be very bad.)

All the same, love and its consequences defy preparation, defy warning. You could take almost every novel and every biography ever written as a Yelp review of partnership (on that basis, it’s probably sitting on two stars), and you can consume and participate in an endless array of strangers’ therapy sessions and Instagram stories and romantic fictions, and still you’d arrive at the door empty-handed. In an age of deep skepticism, an age where we can hardly be said to be motivated by the biological imperative, where the conventional promises of partnership have been fairly thoroughly dismantled, maybe that’s what still propels so many of us into restaurants and bars on weeknights, into each other’s beds and lives, and ultimately what moves us forward in our relationships, trying on the possibilities of the form for as long or as short as they last: a desire for one of the few experiences left which can’t be gauged from the outside. The last frontier where, rudderless, with luck or folly, we can make a mess all our own.

Jennifer Schaffer is a writer living in London. You can find her on Twitter.