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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Jealousy

Jealousy can be mild and flattering and endearing, and sometimes it gets violent and murderous. None of us are immune to feelings of insecurity. When somebody loves us and makes us feel secure we are bound to want to avoid losing them. The more we doubt our own worth, the more likely we are to suspect that a lover will find somebody better than us and jump ship. Sadly, the more we mistrust somebody, the more likely they are to believe that they can never make us happy and leave anyway.

One strong possible reason for sexual jealousy in men is (bio)logical: doubt about the paternity of one’s offspring. If you are 100% certain that you are the only man your partner has slept with in a certain period of time, you will feel secure that you are the father if a baby comes along. Add to this thousands of years of habit. Men apparently being in control of their wives in public is one example – even if a woman is very clear that she is not interested in sex with anyone else, a man can still experience pressure from other people to show her ‘who’s in charge’.

Why do women get jealous? Women being ‘provided for’ is another example of habit – even though most women work very hard, it is still true that a lot of women have depended on men for material security – for money or protection from other men. More or less intentionally, we have created societies in which men control financial resources far more than women do. If another woman is attracted to her partner a woman might be afraid of losing her income, her home, her family, her survival, not just her lover. Sexual prestige can also be as important for many women as it is for many men.

Why do same-sex partners get jealous? As above, everybody has insecurities – while being in a loving relationship can help us feel valued, special, wanted, etc., it also gives us something really big which we can lose. People leave, people die, people disappear. Every pair bond is as vulnerable to death and decay as our own bodies. While the idea that the only way to be happy is to be paired off is a rather horrible one, when it works well coupledom has a lot of rewards and couples don’t want to give them up without a fight.

In theory, we should only be committed to one sexual partner if we genuinely don’t want more than one. Sometimes people vow to stick to one without meaning it, because they love and want that person and don’t see the possibility of living happily if they are honest. Oftentimes one can be a lot. Some people decide to have no sexual relationships. Sex can be an incredibly powerful form of communication (especially when it’s done well and with a good listener) – we don’t want to be doing it so much that we can’t hear ourselves think.

Even in relationships where partners agree that sex with other people is allowed, jealousy is common and understandable. Jealousy is always understandable. How we express jealousy is what matters. The Sleep Project is not a way to make somebody jealous, or to test your ability to overcome jealousy. It’s a way to free ourselves from the causes of jealousy.

Sexuality politics

Sharp readers may be wondering whether I am assuming heterosexuality to be ‘normal’, especially when I suggest that friends of the same sex might already be regular sleep-together-ers. On the contrary, I think homosexuality and bi-sexuality have a lot to add to this discussion.

I don’t have much time for stereotypes such as ‘homosexuals are more promiscuous’. But I do suspect that when people have already had to wade (or fight) through a certain amount of ‘traditional’ morality to find out where their own sexuality lies, they have often learnt to take that morality with a pinch of salt. I think it’s easier for heterosexuals to get into a relationship and then just stay there indefinitely, for better or worse, because society tells us all that this is normal. Being normal doesn’t appeal to everyone, but it does make life a lot easier, and all creatures are lazy.

Bisexual, homosexual and heterosexual are all labels that we would not need to use if we were genuinely free to love, have sex with, and sleep with whoever we wanted. We do not need to identify as bisexual simply so that the correct group of potential sexual partners can identify us as potential sexual partners. We identify as bisexual in the hope that other people will not get confused by our behaviour and harass or intimidate us for not being what they thought we were.

Once society really gets that many people are not straight, we will be far less likely to assume that friends of the same sex are never going to be sexually attracted to us. When that finally sinks in, perhaps we will be less likely to assume that friends of the opposite sex are going to be sexually attracted to us as soon as we step into their personal space. Will we live to see that day? You decide.