Relationships: Part two

relationship failure problem sad
Contracts: so last year?

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.

 

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When is too much sex not enough?

Pile of threaded metal countersunk screws with a Philips head screwdriver on a white background for DIY and carpentry

Okay, so when is not enough sex for me too much for you? When I forget about quality and focus on quantity? Or when we have fundamentally different levels of libido? And what is the truth underlying the apparent universality that men want sex more than women?

Person A is pained when their partner says he thinks they have sex less than they used to, or that she doesn’t initiate enough. Painstaking discussion reveals that they are in a vicious cycle where he has been making it harder for her to initiate sex (by going straight to sleep) to protect himself emotionally from her not initiating. Is her not having been more insistent, say, waking him up to complain, or chasing him faster to bed at night, evidence that he is right? Or is it just a lot of disappointed person A?

Person P says: my partner wants sex more than I do. It has always been that way. Is this an unsolvable function of their libidos, or a long term chain reaction, triggered by a seed thought that goes unnoticed, like Person A’s ‘not enough initiation’? Is it a gendered problem which happens to loads of couples?

Maybe there is a problem of quality versus quantity. I don’t mean that they have crap sex, or not enough quality sex; I have no idea and don’t want any clairvoyant comments filling me in on that either, kindly thank you. I mean that if they have never completed a conversation about how much sex would be enough, not enough, and too much, by working out a perfect compromise on quantity and frequency of sex, to make them both feel as close to satisfied and as far from put upon as humanly possible, then maybe it’s because without realising it they have settled on a shared idea of what sex is that is just quantitative.

Let’s indulge stereotypes and call Person P ‘she’ and assume they are hetero. Maybe she doesn’t want sex as much as he does because she doesn’t enjoy it as much as he does. Maybe she has not-enoyed it more times than he has. Maybe he doesn’t even know she has not-enjoyed it as much as she has.

I don’t know about you but I think sex is fucking brilliant and I can’t think why anyone would not want to have sex all day long, every day, unless there were some pressing reason not to do so. Some of the reasons I don’t actually do this in my own life are: having to eat, cook, clean, look after others, go out to work, buy or grow food, pay bills, mend stuff, answer the phone, menstruate, socialise in public places and/or with people who are no good for having sex with. I would probably stop having sex to vote. I won’t count laundry because if I did have sex all day every day I wouldn’t bother to get dressed.

There are other reasons I don’t have sex this much, including: movies, books, conversation, Scrabble, my kids and other relatives and all my friends, sport, art, learning, live music and being outdoors in nature. Taken as a bundle these duties and non-sex pleasures take a really big chunk out of my sex time pie chart. There also seem to be times when my mate doesn’t want to have sex (and my solutions to this don’t include urgently finding someone else to have sex with). And finally, if we had sex all the time, surely we would pretty soon be doing the same thing over and over again, since how would we get a chance to even think of anything different?

Esther Perel tells us that many couples identify the times when they are stretched away from their mate, socially or geographically, as the times they are most likely to notice the rekindling of desire. These desiring moments presumably generate new energy and initiative for sex, whether any newness in bed is thought through or not.

My brain says the sex person P doesn’t want so much of must, almost by definition, be less fun for her that it is for him. Does he notice this when they have sex? Does he care? Does she notice this, or suspect it, or does she enjoy sex a great deal, but simply feel incredibly satisfied thereafter and find the idea of doing it again quite bizarre? Duty kills libido; does she have more duties, or not? I have heard of a hetero couple for whom him doing the ironing is a consistent initiation process.

Maybe their shared seed thought was that men enjoy sex more than women do. Maybe their vicious cycle is that he enjoys the sex more than she does every single time and neither of them has realised that they are both missing out. Maybe believing he naturally enjoys sex more than her means he doesn’t fully realise the value of showing her sexual affection even when she clearly does not want sex, and maybe she doesn’t show him sexual affection in case he wants sex more.

Why doesn’t he just fucking forget about the number of sexes he’s not getting for a while, and try to find out what is less great in her memories of their sex than in his? I do understand that some people have low libido. I agree that everyone has the absolute right to say no to sex, including within a relationship, heaven forbid that this should need saying. I also have a conviction that a large majority of sexually mature adults have the physical and hormonal apparatus to have and enjoy good sex and that good sex creates libido. I most want more sex when I have had good sex recently.

As if this post wasn’t long enough already, I will add: (menstruating age) women are definitely cyclic. If it seems that a conversation about what will make sex better will happen before how to have more of it, start by checking when you are/she is most likely to be hot. The second week after menstruation is a good place to start. And if that’s just passed, so much the better. Discussing what you are going to do to each other for a whole month is going to give that low libido some serious trouble.