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We must know and understand the circumstances and sequence of events associated with the decision of two people to become a couple. The defining moment in the life of a couple is critical as a way of defining an orienting difference. Without the probe of the embryo there is no entity. Without the marker event there is no couple. In many ways a newly-formed couple is like the new-formed embryo. Both the couple and embryo initially have no form or character. Not even the head or tail of an embryo is determined in its early life. Something must happen to the embryo. There must be some small event that sets the orientation of the embryo. If the embryo is grown in a vacuum, with no external intrusions, then it will never develop. Gregory Bateson describes this orienting intrusion in embryos as “the difference that makes a difference.” Similarly, something must intrude on the couple to give it definition and character. This is the marker event.
In some cases, the marker event has a minimal impact on the character of the couple. It does nothing more than help to initially orient the couple. In other cases, this event significantly influences the way in which the two partners define themselves as a couple. In this regard, it is important to know if the two people are coming together for their own needs or to meet the needs or expectations of other people (e.g. parents, friends). At what point are we a couple based on other people’s expectations and at what point are we a couple based on our own needs, values or interests?
In addressing the issue of formation, our interviewers asked the following question: “when do you think you really became a couple?” The answers that our informants provided ranged from a traditional notion about engagement and marriage to very nontraditional and quite surprising marker events. We heard many stories regarding engagements and marriages, complete with bungled proposals, jitters at the altar, and frightening wedding nights. In identifying the marker event in his relationship with Nancy, John indicated that he knew that he and Nancy became a couple “when we got engaged.” He directly and candidly addressed the issue of traditional, public marker events meeting societal needs rather than necessarily the personal expectations or needs of the two partners: “you see, the way I was brought up, it was like, ‘Murder, maybe. Divorce, no!’ Also, once you said you were going to marry someone, it was a commitment, almost like being married.”