We picked the theme of relationships for a recent discussion group – more specifically: How have relationships changed? The first question I thought we would have to ask would be “Since when?” When the group actually took place, it provoked so many more questions that instead of simply writing this one post, I have inadvertently started an unending stream of words … which is what probably what a blog should be! Consider this part one. And here we go!
In our discussion group, we soon established our time zone, because most of us are similar in age: we zoomed in on how the war affected our grandparents and parents and then on how that has played out in the generations since. Being all women it was hard not to focus on how relationships have changed for women, but that was plenty to talk about (and don’t fight who you are…). We soon acknowledged substantial shared experiences and it became apparent that romance would probably fall off the agenda, if it was there at all.
Talking about the social developments of the twentieth century is a surprisingly effective way to view one’s own experiences (as a woman over 40) in a more objective light than usual. I was reminded of my grandmother’s joy at being in the Land Army as a youngster, and how last year I had powerfully symbolic dreams leading me to recognise that her life, in some crucial sense, went downhill ever after. She had managed to convey to me her excitement and pride at being in the LA, but never her regret at her transformation into wife, and mother of my mother (and four others). This solved the riddle for me of why this competent, jovial, affectionate person barely connected with me as her granddaughter: because she could not know or show what she ‘wanted for me’ as a woman. And because her real joy in life was at odds with the roles she embodied and modelled. She made great cookies, but she rarely looked me straight in the eyes.
Her last words to me were “I hope you find what you’re looking for.” I thought she meant “You’re a fool to jeapordise your marriage for your studies – chasing after something unwomanly, I can’t imagine what.” But perhaps she meant “Keep going and you will find your way back to the land and to yourself, for both of us.” Perhaps she was not being sarcastic.
Needless to say, changes in womanhood underlay much of our discussion and eventually I realised that I was joining in a discourse where the undesirability of heterosexual coupling, for women, was almost being taken for granted. It’s not that we had that outlook which surprised me. We each had faced significant past obstacles in hetero relationships. We had each freed ourselves from those, with varying degrees of difficulty and varying levels of damage sustained. We shared the statistics: the happiest subgroup in society (in these terms) are married men, the unhappiest are married women, and the highest level of divorce by age is by couples in their 50s. Single-person-households are still fast growing and may be (if I remember correctly) the biggest group.
What did surprise me though, is that this angle within the conversation flowed so easily for me, even while I am in a relationship that I love being in. This triggered a plethora of new questions, including:
- It is comfortable or comforting for women across cultures and ages to hold a collective view of men as ‘trouble’ or ‘hard work’ in order to build solidarity and gain a solace which they cannot get from men?
- If not, what does a community have to look like, in order that women-in-company can share their reflections in a balanced way, on men’s strengths and weaknesses, gifts and flaws? Can we start that conversation? Do we have the motivation?
- Do women find themselves increasingly saying No to hetero partnerships because ‘men have got worse’, because women have become ‘more assertive’, or what?
On the whole, the most interesting spin-off question for me wouldn’t be “Since when?” or “What kind of relationships are we talking about?” or “From whose point of view?”, but “What are the major imminent changes that every generation is facing, right now?”
Young adults and adolescents are famously creating all sorts of new-fangled alternatives to apparently washed-up models like hetero marriage, not to mention ‘young people are having less sex’ in general (here’s my quick search which brought up no less than ten different articles reporting on this … take your pick of newspaper!). Many young people are reportedly scared of getting into relationships in the way that, perhaps, a majority of young women were ready and eager to do when we were their age. Is this because of the general precarity of adult economic life now? Quite possibly this is mixed, for both sexes, with confusion, or simple repellence, at the complexity and politics of hetero relationships in our time. I can’t imagine how much the appearance of likely happiness, long-term success, and equal treatment within hetero partnerships has changed in the past 30 years.
Hopefully this uncertainty is creating a fertile spawning ground for new configurations of family, romance, sexuality, companionship, solidarity, community building and shared living. It’s completely disorientating to begin regretting the demise of the nuclear family model after decades of criticising it with a vengeance.
This moment reminds me of a story I was told about the Great Storm that hit the South-East of England in 1987. An older friend told me he noticed many weeks of penetrating torrential rain, before the winds came and lifted all the trees out of the soggy earth. We saw the tragedy of millions of trees lost. Nature cares not for the 30 odd years it takes a tree to grow up.
Hearing the various statistics which each show how the nuclear family model is becoming less and less common – with 55% of children in school now NOT living with two biological parents – I do feel anxiety for young people now, in a temporary forgetting of how much I have voiced my criticisms of that model, and more importantly, lived through the hellishness of it. I pine for how my children will manage to cultivate love and perhaps even parenthood without these structures? What a fucking crock. Not only is the critique of the nuclear family a sound one, but when I was young I didn’t give a shit about how my parents did things (except to the extent that it gave me something I could be better than them at). It’s precisely because they never ‘succeeded’ in creating a nuclear family environment that I was determined to be one – and what a nice mess that made of my kids’ childhoods …
What comes to us as genuinely new is by definition not knowable in advance. Will it be better, or worse, or both? And is there anything new in the human world that isn’t, if you think about it really carefully, kids learning from their parents’ fuck ups?