Guess who’s about to be a feminist killjoy again! Yaaaaaaaay!
I want to add a little caveat to the beginning of this particular rant. While I think we need to seriously deconstruct our ideas about romance and relationships, I’m not saying people can’t enjoy being in them. What we do need to do is think about why we’re in them, what we want to get out of them, and what they mean in the broader context of our broadly shitty culture. Okay, all clear that I’m not attacking love? Cool, let’s get started on attacking love, then.
I read a while back that the way we think about romantic love these days are in opposition to some of our patriarchal institutions. And as soon as I finished reading that, I laughed for about half an hour. Because it’s bullshit. Our ideas about romance and monogamy support our most patriarchal institutions, literally hold them up, and as a bonus, perpetuate ideas about gender, heterosexuality, and to a certain extent race, and they contribute to the retrenchment of oppressive gender roles*. The emphasis on love as the one true thing that can make us whole and complete does not set us free. Not even a little bit.
The idea of romantic love is pretty old, but it’s not the ahistorical concept our culture paints it as these days, with our sickening Disney movies (I know, I love them too, it’s a problem) and our reinterpretations of history and our freaking obsession with shipping Literally Every Fictional Character Ever (guilty here too, but in my defence, that Destiel ship just sails itself). The truth, however, is that relationships between men and women (cos even today, romance is super heteronormative**) didn’t used to be about love. Oh, people would try and paste a thin veneer of affection over things, because let’s face it, life is easier when you don’t want to smash your partner’s face in, but they were always more about ownership and progeny. So let’s break down some myths about romance, and look at how modern romantic ideals emerged.
Historically, since our society has been patriarchal for a really long time, relationships were about men owning women. Monogamy, or at least a form of monogamy, was about ensuring that all children born within these relationships were the offspring of the man, because genetics matter for some reason. (This is why it’s always been more acceptable for men to commit adultery than women – no chance of coming home carrying a baby that ain’t your partner’s when you’re a cis man!) Women were possessions. While there were stories about romance and love and shit (bleh), they weren’t reflective of reality, and they mostly existed to keep women docile – you marry the charming man your parents pick out, he obviously loves you because he just basically bought you from your dad, isn’t it wonderful, and don’t even think of desiring independence because that would be terrible!
As well as basically being business transactions between men, ‘romantic’ partnerships weren’t the same as they are now. Women had their ‘sphere’, and men had theirs. (Although prior to the Industrial Revolution, the gender divide was experienced differently to our idea that ‘men were at work women were at home’ before feminism happened.) Each partner had a life and work of their own, that didn’t involve the other. While there were plenty of sucky elements involved in this division, it wasn’t ALL bad ALL the time. Just like 99.9% of the time.
Yes, this history lesson is important. Stop whining.
When feminists started to fight for gender equality, there was a shift in the way we thought of ‘women’s work’ and ‘men’s work’, which kind of threatened the whole basis of the relationships that had, up until then, been a vital building block of society. Without the nuclear family, who was going to raise children? Who was going to care for relatives? Who was going to do all the shitty drudge work for free?! How could the government justify not setting up adequate social welfare systems? And how could corporations justify paying some people less if those people were going to go around being SINGLE AND HAPPY?!?! DISASTER!! Patriarchy desperately needed to find a way to stop people realising that monogamy and the nuclear family were actually patriarchal institutions designed to support oppression!
Okay, I know, this is sounding super tinfoil hatty, and I’m not actually suggesting that there was a secret group of old white dudes sitting around a table somewhere in a secret bunker figuring out how to stymy feminism.
Although that would explain a lot…
But the fact is, society is really good at adjusting to changes and making them less… changey… Our society has relied on the nuclear family for so long that people now accept it as the ‘natural’ state of things, despite millennia of evidence to the contrary. I mean, seriously, the fricking Bible is cover to cover polygamy and adultery, so don’t try and tell me that long term monogamy is the natural state of most human beings. (For the record, I’m actually naturally monogamous, but mostly because I cannot comprehend having the energy for more than one partner. Or even one partner, tbh. So I’m in no way shaming those to whom monogamy actually does come naturally. I will, however shit from a great height on the idea that monogamy is the only moral and legitimate way of relating to people.)
So upon the heels of the feminist movement in the twentieth century came the rise of the idealised romance. You know the one – magical, ethereal, Disney-movie-watching-them-sleep-creepy-af romantical love. *shudders* With this new brand of relationship came the idea that one’s partner should be one’s ‘everything’ – emotionally, sexually, practically, in all aspects of life. If you couldn’t find The One, your life is basically devoid of all meaning (especially if you’re a woman, since this whole institution is still patriarchal as hell, and still built around the same basic ideals as its previous iteration). People were caught up in the romance of romance. Instead of questioning why we should still be forming these life-long monogamous partnerships, complete with compulsory spawn, people fell for it hook line and sinker. And because it was presented as a ‘natural’ human state, it’s now almost impossible to argue against it.
Now, you might be thinking, “Cam, why do you have to make such a big deal out of this? It’s just romance, right? What’s wrong with a bit more love in the world?” Well, the thing is, it’s not that simple. Sure, love is part of the story, but it’s not the whole story, and the part of the story we don’t see is the harmful part. That’s the part that paints jealousy as a necessary part of love, when it’s actually a result of ownership. And owning people, I think we can all agree, is Bad. Gender roles are hidden in our idea of romance as well, and we really don’t need more ways to enforce the cisnormative*** gender binary. There are also ideas about class and race all tied up in our idea of romance, ideas about who is loveable and who is not, how you should love someone – even your sleeping arrangements are dictated by our assumptions around romance. It’s never just about love.
So what can we do? Well, I’m glad you asked.
Firstly, we need to ditch the idea that romance is a ‘normal’ part of life. It doesn’t have to be. You don’t need to be in a romantic relationship to have kids, to be happy, to be financially secure, to have fulfilling relationships. You really don’t. And even if you are in a romantic partnership (or partnerships etc), the person you’re with should NOT be expected to be your be all and end all. They’re just a human. The idea of The One is so damaging – it’s part of the reason our relationships never live up to our expectations. Literally no one can fulfill your every need. What they can do is be one of many positive and fulfilling relationships in our lives, and can meet some of our emotional needs. For the rest, we need to forge other relationships, find other ways to create meaning in our lives. It isn’t selfish to create space for yourself, it’s fucking necessary. Our culture needs us to believe that romantic partnerships of this kind are necessary so that our society can continue to operate without change. And I think we can all agree, our society is in desperate need of some changes.
Secondly, can we get rid of the idea that life-long monogamy is the only legitimate form of romantic attachment? There are so many other ways of relating to people. Just because a relationship only lasted six months, or six years, or hell, six days, doesn’t mean it’s a failure. People change, their needs change, and it’s perfectly fine for a relationship to stop working as those changes occur. It’s not a failure or a character flaw, it’s just being human. The sooner we learn to accept this, the better. This assumption that only life long monogamy is acceptable is really dangerous. It upholds the idea that your partner is obligated to love you. It upholds the idea that you have some kind of ownership over your partner. And it forces people to stay in relationships that are not only unhappy, but harmful. Instead of teaching people to save their romantic partnerships at all costs, we need to teach them that it’s okay to leave, and how to do it well. And yes, that is actually possible.
Monogamy is also not the only option. If you’re committed to being monogamous, you’d better damn well be monogamous. But what if that doesn’t work for you? Are you a bad person if you form more than one romantic or sexual relationship? Of course not, provided all parties are GENUINELY okay with that. Sadly, a lot of men (yes, men, it’s mostly men, deal with it) have taken the idea of polyamory and browbeaten their partners into agreeing to it, even though said partners don’t want to, and if you do this, you’re a massive dick. If your partner wants to be monogamous and you don’t, you shouldn’t be together. Adultery is not the same as polyamory, and the difference is CONSENT.
Polyamory comes in many forms. Some people have a ‘primary’ relationship and one or more ‘secondary’ relationships. Some people have a primary relationship and one or more ‘sex friends’. Some people have several equally committed relationships, each with their own features and particular value. Some people live in a great big group of polyamorous happiness, and all of these options are fine, and healthy, and are not about week-long orgies, but about sharing meaningful relationships. Some polyamorous relationships are platonic. Not everything is about sex, people!!
Also, non-monogamy will not destroy your children. You know what will? Small-minded bigotry or witnessing shitty relationships. That’s not the same thing.
Thirdly, and in combination with secondly, we need to teach people how to form healthy relationships. As long as we fear being single, we’re going to keep getting into shitty or mediocre partnerships that don’t make us happy, and don’t improve our lives one little bit. You know what we should do instead? Teach people – from a really young age – that singlehood is great. BECAUSE IT FUCKING IS. Teach people how to value deep friendships. Teach people how to relate to others in a way that doesn’t involve romance or sex. STOP MAKING EVERY DEEP RELATIONSHIP ABOUT SEX AND STOP GLORIFYING ROMANCE AT EVERY OPPORTUNITY. (Lookin’ at you, Tumblr…)
Fourthly, stop thinking of couples as a single entity. They’re separate people. They have a right to their own individual income, individual bank acccounts, individual health insurance etc. Stop forcing people to stay together by making them operate as a single entity!! We need to build a society where there is enough financial and social support for single people. We need to stop shaming single parents. We need to stop ‘rewarding’ couples financially and legally by making things like health insurance (just one example) cheaper for couples, but denying friends who live together, or polyamorous relationships, the same benefits. Make things like healthcare, education, and childcare universal, so it’s possible for single parents to access the same opportunities as coupled up parents. Pay out social welfare on an individual basis, like a Basic Universal Income. This makes it easier for people to leave unhealthy relationships, and provides genuine opportunities for people to be independent. Life shouldn’t be cheaper or easier just because you’re part of a couple. It just shouldn’t. Especially since, paradoxically enough, the traditional nuclear family is now in a minority – it’s no longer the norm, but we still act as though it is, and set up our financial and legal institutions around this assumption!
And last of all, stop assuming there is only one way to love. There isn’t. Love doesn’t exist in some platonic/romantic binary. There are as many different ways of relating to people in a healthy and positive way as there are people, and we need to start celebrating all of them.
Our ideas about romantic love aren’t nearly as pure and innocent as we like to imagine. They are dangerous, and they’re just as oppressive as the institutions that came before them – it’s just harder to see how. We need to pick apart the ideas we have about love and family and ‘normality’. We need to question our desires, not only our sexual and romantic desires, but our ambitions and what we want to do with our lives. We need to ask why we value romance so highly, and why we fear singlehood. These are not easy questions to answer, and it takes time. But I promise you, it’s absolutely worth it.
Feminist killjoy out.
* “retrenchment of gender roles” refers to the way gender roles are actually resolidifying and becoming MORE conservative, even as feminism becomes more popular. There are several reasons for this, but whatever the reasons, it’s a scary thing.
** “heteronormative” refers to our ideas of ‘normal’ relationships, which inevitably involve a masculine and feminine participant, are monogamous, are lifelong, etc. Heteronormativity applies to queer relationships as well – we might be growing more accepting of gay couples, but only if they conform to our ideas of what ‘normal’ relationships look like.
*** “cisnormative” refers to the assumption that everyone is cisgender, and that trans people are basically freaks. In our cisnormative culture, refusing to date trans people is seen as a ‘natural preference’, rather than a result of our socialisation. This is pretty harmful for trans people, particularly trans women, who find themselves at risk of violence because of these beliefs.
All Rights Reserved to Cambrey Payne 2017. Please acknowledge sources when sharing and do not repost without original source.
Image from: http://libreshot.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/love-hearth.jpg