So I am back in the women’s discussion group on ‘Are relationships changing?’ and the thread of conversation seems to have slipped from: “There are many more women choosing to be single …” to: “… for obvious reasons.” I suddenly find myself both in and out of our club at the same time, by virtue of an imperceptible smile or nod. I am really well-trained to question my own pull towards being in a relationship with a man. Why? Partly because of the background anti-male sentiment that circulates around the actual collective oppressive and discriminatory practices of men – this makes it easy to imagine that being ‘independent’ of men is the wisest and safest standpoint a woman can take, personally. This doesn’t logically fit with being a girlfriend or wife – although casual dating seems superficially to be more compatible. The other, related reason, is the various pains that I’ve enjoyed first-hand – seen through the lens of break-ups and the retrospective analysis of what ‘extra work’ I was doing while the relationships were active (and afterwards). I am always alert for, and often anxious about, ways I may not have learned my lessons, ways my hidden needs and insecurities in relation to men may not be done with yet.
Nevertheless, here I am in ‘real life’ enjoying willfully being in a hetero relationship – shit we even talk about the future! And yet I almost fall into the camp where women tacitly agree that hetero relationships are so much hard work for a woman that being in one is an obviously crazy move. Remember those famous statistics about married men and married women? What gives?
If my belief is that the ‘benefits’ of my relationship somehow outweigh the ‘costs’, am I thereby deluding myself that somehow I or we are ‘not the norm’? Are we somehow better or cleverer or saner or more loving or enlightened or less sexist than the millions of other couples who constitute this statistical reality? Or, am I simply gambling with my life, telling myself, since the outcome of our relationship belongs in the future, that we are part of (unknown) future statistics and not past or current ones? You never know when divorce rates are going to suddenly slow down, right? Better still, let’s dodge all these pitfalls just by not getting married. Eureka!
Yet very time we hit a real pitfall, or a boulder or a pothole or even fall in a swamp, the horrible ’emotion work’ we drag ourselves through to work it all out does pay off. There’s work and there’s work. “Relationships are hard work” can mean different things, for example: “Only a woman with low self-esteem would willingly consent to being the lifelong unpaid caretaker for a manchild who may offer love but can never understand or empathise with her burdens.” Alternatively it can mean: “If you want a romantic partner who’s committed to a view of a shared future, then every so often you will have to confront unpredicted challenges, which is hard work. If you do not succeed in fully listening to and hearing each other and both making genuine compromises during those moments, what started as a healthy partnership will slide over time into a power imbalance.”
The shortcut to this is “Everything in life that’s really worth doing is hard work.” Show me someone who is really passionate about their job who didn’t have to struggle to study to qualify for it, or who finds it easy every day. Or find me a parent who will say that it’s easy raising a child, that they love them and they don’t encounter problems and experience excruciatingly hard work.
Our attempt to re-view hetero couple relationships as we reeled from the bleak realities of Thatcherism and absorbed the painful truths of the second wave has become increasingly individualistic. Relationships are ultimately part of the web of human commitments and community functioning that sustains not only family but all human social (and material) life. Make no mistake, individualism, as a stage in our development, has given us a lot of gifts. The idea that a woman is deserving of equal treatment by a male partner as well as in the workplace, in politics and so on, is an individualistic response to the idea that all women should just shut up and share womens’ work. Recognising individuals is a way to raise standards of care and dignity for all and the basis for understanding what equality means.
But we’re only vaguely, and only partially, individuals. In a relationship, we are never really half a person, but we are in certain ways half of a human unit, just as a kid is an integral part of its entire family, and that little family is often part of (one or two or more) bigger family networks. Our little personalities are composites of all our relatives, teachers and friends, with a strand of unique individuality hanging it all together and – crucially – enabling us to make decisions that don’t suit the community majority when we need to.
There are lots of threads here which still need untangling. How many men are still benefitting from being an individual while a woman does the team bit for them both as an unacknowledged domestic project-manager? Will they live happier lives than their wives? Are men learning to do emotion work? How are men learning how to do emotion work? And is the answer that women are doing even more emotion work to teach them? Is this always true? Is there anything wrong with the idea (or reality) of women ‘teaching’ a male partner how to communicate his needs and how to listen so he really hears? Is there anything wrong with a woman (or man) leaving a partner who is unable or unwilling to learn? Even if she/he has promised a lifelong commitment? Are there women who refuse to do emotion work despite pleas from a hetero male partner?
There are billions of us and we encounter such a tiny percentage (even if we have humungous social media networks), so we can never know in any detail what is behind divorce statistics, life expectancy figures, or what is occurring in the hearts and minds of women and men in hetero relationships, arguing about whether he is doing enough emotion work, washing up or childcare. We don’t even know how our own lives will work out.
To step outside the frame – someone once told me they were on a strict diet to reduce their cholesterol level, so that they wouldn’t be put on statins, which they don’t want. Their danger level was based on their lifestyle plus family history. They can’t do anything to change the effect of their family history on the software determining their danger level – presumably even if their relatives’ illnesses were rooted in ‘lifestyle’ factors – e.g. poor diet. This person was dieting to convince a computer of their health, but they were living an incredibly healthy lifestyle already.
How does this relate? Well to put it simply, we can’t live by statistics, and there is a danger that we may rely on them to stand in for truths about ‘men’ or ‘women’ which fit with personal experiences and make us feel better about them. Don’t get me wrong, I’m well aware how easy it becomes as you get older to amalgamate concrete stories, first hand experiences and countless anecdotes into a truth. This kind of truth is not only helpful for our conversations with others, and to assist us in making sense of our lives, it’s also normally true! Nevertheless, we need to be sure we don’t let an amalgam of statistics and similar stories solidify into the idea that people aren’t changing, when in fact they might be. When it comes to men and emotion work, the chances are they’re changing faster now than ever before.
Whether the pace satisfies onlookers or not is another question, and to answer it we’d have to ask yet another: how can we possibly gain that kind of amalgamated overview for the here and now? Probably the answer is, we can’t, we have to move on with our lives in the same state of not-knowing that we were in when we were young and embarked on all the patriarchally-doomed relationships that those of us in the discussion group have in common. The difference is, when we were young we assumed we did know everything, and now we’re a bit wiser, we know we don’t.