Are You Agentic?

 

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(Edited version published as a guest post in Dr.  Bella DePaulo’s PsychCentral.com column “Single at Heart” on May 17, 2017).

The first time I heard the word “agentic” was in an article written by brilliant Stanford social psychologist Dr. Albert Bandura, referring to his social cognitive theory. In his 2001 essay, Social Cognitive Theory: An Agentic Perspective, (you can read the whole article here: https://www.uky.edu/~eushe2/Bandura/Bandura2001ARPr.pdf),  he claims that the basic components of personal agency include:

…the temporal extension of agency through intentionality and forethought, self-regulation by self-reactive influence, and self-reflectiveness about one’s capabilities, quality of functioning, and the meaning and purposes of one’s life pursuits. Personal agency operates within a broad network of sociocultural influences. In these agentic transactions, people are producers as well as products of social systems (1).

The second time I consciously thought about the concept of agency in intimate relationships was when I read Dr. Kassia Wosick’s Sex, Love, and Fidelity: A Study of Contemporary Romantic Relationships (2012), while I was researching where to go to grad school (I ended up studying with her). Her study compared diverse types of monogamous and non-monogamous relationship structures, and she dubs the ways in which the polyamorous people in her study usually followed a narrow set of rules, but also had a lot of flexibility to re-evlauate concepts, and to change patterns of behavior that weren’t working, as “agentic fidelity.” Polyamory (and its newer, more inclusive cousin, relationship anarchy), is defined as being open to more than one sexual and/or emotional connection simultaneously. There is emphasis on consent and honesty, and in my experiences this openness can have the effect of evening out power relations.

One of the things I was interested in exploring in an academic capacity was polyamory and its relationship to power. I was convinced that its anti-authoritarian approach was in some way linked to larger social structures such as marriage, heteronormativity, and even war. To me, geopolitical conflicts seemed like higher-stakes versions of domestic disputes. The idea that someone else could ever dictate what I could do, feel, or say, or who I can freely associate with, smacks of ownership to me and just rubs me the wrong way. Additionally, it implies a lack of trust. If I can’t talk to another man without a boyfriend thinking I’m deceiving him in some way, then he just doesn’t trust me, and if that’s the case, what’s the point of being committed?

The concept of marriage has always eluded me as well. Successful monogamous as well as hierarchical polyamorous relationships have been modeled to me, and I have had both myself. Sometimes I was quite happy in those situations, and someday I may be again. But never once have I entertained the concept of legal marriage. Informally, before I began working on my master’s degree, I used to ask married friends what made them decide to make the leap from cohabitation to legal marriage. I got lots of answers, but to me, all of them seemed achievable without getting a stamp of approval from the government. There were a few exceptions, such as access to health care, better mortgage rates (which is essentially housing discrimination against unmarried people), and adjustment of immigration status. But those are all problems with institutional structures, and we singles and solos are getting louder and louder about how unfair these processes are and the ways in which we think they should be changed.

When I first met happily solo people who still had sex and intimacy and romance without having to deal with the usual stressful associations of “escalator” relationships, I took to the idea right away. Before I actually knew people successfully living this way, I didn’t know it was even a choice. People just don’t “do” that in our society. But they do. I do now, and it’s perfect for me at this point in my life. Others might be happier in monogamous LAT (Living Apart Together) relationships, or in consciously chosen (agentic) monogamous relationships.

As Bandura notes, social processes are reciprocal. Over the last ten years or so, I’ve been learning that solo life is definitely for me. Dr Bella DePaulo and Amy Gahran, through their books and blogs, have helped to validate this choice for me. I hope to do the same for others – whether you prefer monogamy, casual dating, polyamory, relationship anarchy, some other relationship structure, or no structure at all, there is a happy place for you. In my research, I found that the single and solo people I interviewed (who self-defined as not actively looking for a lifetime, monogamous partner at the time of writing) were happy because they were living authentically. The sample included solo polyamorous people who may or may not be in one or more relationships, both sexual and non-sexual; people who had been in long-term monogamous couples and determined one way or the other that they preferred to be free agents; and those who have never been married or coupled, including some who were aromantic and/or asexual. This was a small-scale study and not generalizable, but what all these people have in common is a sense of pride and self-worth in having overcome past insecurities and living their lives as they feel they are meant to be lived.

Many participants describe a feeling of being “boxed in” when they were part of traditional couples. Part of their process of self-discovery was that of “building your own box,” as one participant put it, which fits perfectly into Bandura’s (2001) social cognitive theory: “Social structures are created by human activity, and sociostructural practices, in turn, impose constraints and provide enabling resources and opportunity structures for personal development and functioning” (15). To live entirely outside the box may be isolating and counterproductive, but if you can build a box that suits your needs and doesn’t interfere with the basic functions of society, then not only have you found a way to be happy, but perhaps if enough people choose more non-traditional ways of living, institutions will start to respond positively, as we have seen with the marriage equality movement.

Of course, all of this assumes a privileged, western point of view. In India and in many parts of Africa and the middle east, for example, women really don’t have a choice to be agentic when it comes to sexuality. But that is a different column altogether. Here in the U.S., many of us do have that choice – although, as far as coupling is concerned, we may not know it’s there due to the cultural hegemony we’re inundated with every day. I didn’t know until I was in my 30s. I knew I wasn’t getting married, but I hadn’t really thought deliberately about that choice and the motivations behind it.

Being agentically single is not a binary decision between getting married or stayinsingle/solo. There are lots of versions in between. There are even married folks who consider themselves agentically solo. What is important in terms of agency is being able to take advantage of the free flow of information and communication that’s available all around us and use it to our full advantage. If we are truly agentic – we have the ability to individualize interpersonal relationships, and modeling these for others can expand the range of their perceived acceptable social scripts, legitimizing single and solo life in culture, politics, and societies.

[1] Bandura, Albert. 2001. “Social Cognitive Theory: An Agentic Perspective.” Annual Psychological Review 52:1-26.

[2] Wosick, Kassia. 2012. Sex, Love, and Fidelity: A Study of Contemporary Romantic Relationships. Amherst, Cambria Press.

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