OK, so maybe the title’s a cheap gimmick. But I got you to look, didn’t I? This one’s about the pressure to be in a relationship and how it affects our self-esteem and happiness.
As a teenager and woman in her early 20s I felt like I had a lot to prove. Specifically, a lot to prove sexually. Upon meeting new people, I felt like a failure because I wasn’t in a relationship. My short and, most often, disastrous mini dating spurts made me question if there was something wrong with me. Why couldn’t I get a girl? (I was more gay back then. And no, homophobes, if you have mysteriously managed to stumble upon this post, it wasn’t ‘a phase.’)
I found that every time I found someone I did like I ‘fucked it up’ by being overly keen. I was desperate to be with them no matter how much I actually liked this person or how awesome they were or were not. I had such low self-confidence, and I wanted to prove that I was loveable (to myself and, I imagined, to the people around me), so would take any offer I could get. This trend started with a disgusting first kiss and continued throughout my twenties with a series of failed mini-relationships with, for the most part, people I wasn’t really that into in the first place.
Nowadays, I find that my self-esteem has improved a lot but I still often feel unloved. I question whether my friends really like me and I find it hard to accept the love that is freely given to me. I also don’t think I’m the only one who feels like this. I have seen many of my loved ones stick with violent relationships, or relationships with people they are just not that into.
We feel a more valued member of society when we are in a relationship, no matter our relative level of happiness or how dys/functional the relationship is. We feel more presentable to the world, more socially acceptable. I wonder what it is about our society that makes people desperate to be in a relationship, any relationship, at whatever cost?Maybe it’s because the forces that be would prefer us to be preoccupied with the heteronormative structure of exclusive pairing, children and paying the mortgage, than single and dangerously free to think outside and, perhaps, smash the system.
Despite all its lip service to individual freedom, society wants us to be in a relationship, no matter how bad that relationship is and no matter how unhappy we are. I am more approved of when I’m in a relationship. I’m seen as more successful and I am taken more seriously. Perhaps this is one reason why groups of friends often get married orpregnant around the same time. It’s a culmination of the pressure to do what is socially acceptable plus female competition – to prove you are just as, or more, successful than your friends.
I am certain that this social pressure falls more heavily on women. We are judged so much more harshly than men. It is far more important to keep us in our subservient place by making us neurotic about the importance of being in a relationship and if, when and how we have children.
When I started dating my partner, I was both touched and slightly irritated by just how happy everyone was about it. Everyone wanted to tell me just how happy there were; even my best friend’s mother declared “I’m so happy she’s found someone.” I appreciate the well-meaning behind such declarations, but I also want to shout, “I was quite happy being single, you know!” I did my best to rail against the feeling that the most important thing in my life was getting a man, and the Disney narrative of being saved by your lover.
Being in a relationship is great, in so many ways, but it also hasn’t saved me. My problems haven’t gone away, I just have more consistent support to deal with them. I’m happier, but I’ve also had to compromise in some areas, for example with the use of my time. A bit like having a baby, relationships aren’t to be entered into lightly. They’re a huge waste of your time if they’re not right.
My partner is great, but there is a lot more to both of us than our relationship.
I guess the point I’m trying to make here is that I’m sick of being valued in comparison to others. I’m sick of female competition to get the guy, marry the guy, be impregnated by the guy. And this competition definitely carries over to affect queer folks, as the sex-obsessed queer ‘community’ proves.
I would love to know whether you have felt this pressure to date, or to stay in a relationship because, gasp, what if you are truly unloveable and can’t get someone else? Have you felt this pressure as a guy, and why do think it’s so hard to think outside the relationship box?
I am more than my relationship. I am more than a single, dating or married person. And I know you are too.
How Disney fucked up my love life and how it literally pays to get married. Plus, surprisingly readable musings on the nature of happiness.
Hi guys! Me again. Yup this one is pretty long – I was going to post it as two pieces but I think it makes more sense in one go. I have inserted cunning subtitles and pretty pictures to keep you entertained. Plus, wittiness! Knock yourselves out. I would especially enjoy responses to my questions about how cis, trans and gay guys feel about romance. Do you, too, feel conditioned to love in a particular way?
“Hollywood is the devil and if you’re not careful it can ruin even the best of relationships.” – Feminism for Anarchist Men zine
In my post on careers last month, I suggested that, in a world which only allows women as value as girlfriends, wives, attached to another, maybe we don’t feel there is any point in nurturing women’s abilities. You may have a brilliant daughter who is hugely talented, but the most important thing to you is that she finds a partner, settles down (whatever that means) and has babies. And, of course, this isn’t only an external pressure. We have all internalised this pressure to mate. The idea that a monogamous long-term relationship is our only possible happy ending. I mean, I used to lie about my past relationships because I thought I was a failure if I hadn’t had one. Never mind my own talents, I only have value if I am, and have, a lover. It seems that being single is even worse than being gay.
Happiness. That old bind. I remember my friend reporting to me how, at a dinner party, one of the guests said that women would have been happier without feminism. Apart from some possible responses to this – what, we would be happier without the vote, the criminalisation of rape within marriage, the right to own property? – it is actually quite a hard statement to argue against. Happiness is hard to quantify, and who feels happy when they haven’t got a man?
As a woman, it is virtually impossible to be happily single. With everything in our lives pushing us towards the ‘happy ending’ of a relationship, we can never feel completely happy in the moment of now. Now, I am single. Now, I am writing. Now, I am doing something I have always wanted to do, the thing that I am best at, but am I happy? Fantasies about meeting the ‘right person’ who I can ‘settle down’ with take up a lot of my headspace. Where is my home, if not with this imaginary other who is going to make everything all right?
“Will you marry me?” – pretty much ever movie, romantic novel, ever.
I have spent a lot of my life waiting for someone to rescue me. A prince to ride up on a white horse and take me away from my tower. I won’t try to free myself, because that’s not how the story is meant to go.
Most little girls don’t know they have the power to make themselves happy. Because they have been told they don’t. As Betty tells her daughter in Mad Men, the first kiss is of huge importance in a girl’s life. The kiss is the moment that wakes Snow White / Sleeping Beauty, and the prince will then whisk her off into a world of affluence, orgasmic sex and, happiness. Of course, in a world in which men still earn a lot more than women, this myth does have some truth to it. Marrying is, for heterosexual women, still a choice of economics. If you earn less than men for the same work, then to have kids, be rich, to have everything you want, you need to marry a guy who will financially support you.
Despite the fact that both my parents are equally qualified, as a physician my mother earns far less than my surgeon father. It’s true that she could have chosen another specialty and thereby earned a higher wage, but she decided to give up her dreams of being an anaesthetist to be a mother. Even as a GP, she still was hardly at home and both my brother and I had nannies. As a woman who wanted to marry and live a respectable middle-class life, how much choice did she ever have to become an anaesthetist? Especially when the dream includes a nice house, money for holidays and to give your children everything you want for them. Even today, my female doctor friends are not choosing surgery because the male culture and long hours are inimical to family life. The main reason for my best friend getting married is to get better mortgage options, although of course the public commitment to her husband is meaningful. Plus, everyone know that when you get married you get a tonne of presents! (The financial rewards of marriage are obvious.)
“being single is even worse than being gay”
Of course, my argument here is very middle-class and I realise that marriage does not give most people these luxuries. But we would be kidding ourselves if we pretended that the Disney dream were only about love. How do we quantify happiness in this capitalist world if not in terms of money and possessions? Even if you are a girl born into a working-class family, you are still taught to dream of being rescued by a rich prince. Ariel and Belle married above their class and Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty both masqueraded as members of a different class into order to catch their man. (Prince Charming falls in love with Sleeping Beauty when he sees her, apparently a peasant, dancing in the woods with animals. Luckily, it turns out she is the daughter of the King and Queen so he is allowed to love her after all.) Romantic comedies of the past two decades like Pretty Woman and Cinderella remake Maid in Manhattan still sell this dream. It’s OK if you are a prostitute or a maid working in a hotel because a rich business man/politician will ‘discover’ and rescue you from your shitty job. We are all taught to wait for that special someone who will always find and save us. (Btw, check out this feminist run down of Disney princesses. It’s awesome.)
For heterosexual women, marriage is a compelling sell. It makes economic sense. It also (weirdly) offers the promise of autonomy. When are your parents ever going to recognise you as an independent woman if not when you marry? Marriage is the moment fretful mothers breathe a sigh of relief; their daughter has finally flown the nest and responsibility for her wellbeing has been passed onto someone else. Girls marry to be seen as a woman, a grown-up, even if the transaction of marriage still means that they have just been passed onto another owner.
“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn…” – Moulin Rouge
Heterosexual or not, we only take people seriously when they are partnered up. There is nothing weirder to us than a single person. It doesn’t matter if you are queer, straight or whatever, the most important thing is that you are in a relationship. As women, we are taught that it is our job and our destiny to seek out a guy and even in the case of a lesbian, a committed female partner is still better than none. When I was a teenager, all the talk with my friends was about when we going to get a boyfriend, kisses and who we were dating. Now, living mostly among queers, I still feel the same pressure to hook up. People expect me to be an actively sexual person and to have a (probably non-monogamous) partner. This pressure to be sexual feels similar to the pressure I experience from my family’s side to be in a long-term monogamous relationship. It seems that, no matter which community you live in, you are valued more when you are in a relationship. If you are a single woman, then you must be ‘unhappy’.
It is undoubtedly better, in our eyes, to be in a bad relationship than no relationship at all. I may recognise that other people’s relationships have some pretty major problems, but I will still be jealous of them for being together. It doesn’t matter if the majority of marriages end in divorce, getting married is still the best thing that can ever happen to you. I know women who will endure years of bad relationships just because they are terrified of being single. I recognise this clinging tendency in myself when I am desperate to keep dating a person even if I am not particularly into them; I generally find it extremely difficult to end the relationship for myself. Upon being dumped, I often feel relieved that that (right) decision has been made for me and simultaneously ashamed that I couldn’t make it for myself.
“who feels happy when they haven’t got a man?”
I remember being particularly upset when, a year ago, an old friend said she was ‘disappointed’ that I hadn’t been in a relationship since I had last seen her 2 years before. What could this disappointment possibly mean? It had nothing to do with concern about my happiness. She knew I had been depressed, at times suicidal and I told her I needed and wanted to be single so I could look after myself. So, we expect people to be in relationships even to their own detriment? Apparently, being in a couple is more important than my health, or even my life. If this is true, then what, for women, does happiness mean?
The social desire for women to be in a relationship is cloaked in false concern about our happiness. The conservative social dream, that keeps us neurotic, spending all our energies trying to make ourselves attractive in order to catch a man (whether he actually be a man or not) is sold to us as a dream of happiness. We are promised that our prince will rescue us from our insecurities by providing us with the financial security of (heterosexual) partnership. Of course, this isn’t so explicit and financial security is worked into a fairy tale of orgasmic kisses where I ‘just knew he was the one for me’ and ‘I had finally found my one true love’. Even some of my straight feminist friends still describe their boyfriends in terms of ‘the one.’ Just see Sex and the City’s Mr Big for an example of true love being sold to highly intelligent and otherwise sane, successful women.
I imagine that men don’t experience this urge to merge in quite the same way. Growing up with a different set of stimuli, they are allowed to be happily single. The rich older bachelor is for many men a figure of envy. He hasn’t been presented with a ticking biological clock and a deadline by which he must settle down and reproduce. He can play the field for pretty much as long as he likes.
Of course, if you’re a guy you are also (financially) better off being gay. You have double the top salaries and it’s less likely you’ll have children to support. Visit mainstream gay villages in the Western world’s big cities and the orgasm of commerce there will tell you just how much more money these guys have to burn than us lesbians. I also wonder where men who were raised as women generally fall on this scale of pressure. Do trans men dream of settling down and feel the pressure to desperately seek a partner, or does their gender allow them to ignore the conditioning directed at women? What do you guys think?
This dream of love seems to be blind to sexuality. I, still, wonder if my date will be ‘the one to rescue me’ at the same time I consciously recognise this idea is bollocks. No matter if the person I am with is male, female or neither, I have a constant internal dialogue about our relationship. Where is this going, are we going to settle down together, is this the person ‘I am going to spend the rest of my life with’? This internal dialogue has nothing to do with the person in front of me. Even if, on a date, I am thinking how much this person is irritating me, I will stil desperately cling to them because I want them to save me. Even though I know, beyond a doubt, that this is a false dream I have learnt by some very successful (and ongoing) social conditioning, I can’t seem to get rid of it.
Not My Happy Ending
The dream of ‘the one’ has had some pretty disastrous effects on my love life. It causes me to cling onto my lover as if I were drowning, neurotic behaviour that is not very sexy. It also, as Germaine Greer argued in The Female Eunuchway back in the 70s, provides a very convenient distraction from myself. Linked to the self-abuse of fat hate, the desire to catch, keep (beauty myth) and be rescued by (Disney) a lover keeps me away from the realisation that only I can rescue myself.
I am unhappy. Am I unhappy because I am single? No. I am unhappy because I want to have more adventures (including love affairs), to be more creative. But I am too busy obsessing after someone I barely know to work on being happy for myself. I am never happier than when shut off from media, travelling, spending my days writing and exploring. But every time I fancy someone I obsess in a way that takes me away from the real world and more into myself. The dream of love leads me away from adventure into self-defeating masochism. This behaviour is also circular: the more miserable I get, the more desperately I look to the other person to save me.
“If you are a single woman, you must be unhappy”
Having had depression over the past two years has forced me to do some hard evaluation of the way I engage with life and relationships. In her autobiography Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal Jeanette Winterson says that “creativity is on the side of health” (I will be reviewing this book on feminist mag The F Wordso keep a look out for the link). I too have learnt that writing and other types of art provide me with an outlet for that nervous energy that I used to invest so destructively into my affairs. I believe this misuse of our energy is exactly what Disney and the myth of romantic love works to achieve. Keep our attention away from ourselves, and we, the oppressed majority will never rebel against our oppression. We will never rebel against our potential.
All this isn’t to say that I don’t believe in love. I do, wholeheartedly, believe in love. Love which is sane and healthy and forms a deep connection between individuals. I also believe that the myths surrounding romantic love are deliberately harmful to women and the heterosexual men who love them. The imbalance of power in such obsessive relationships can only lead to destruction of some kind, whether of the relationship itself, or the independence and creativity of the lovers. I would love to learn to form relationships that aren’t needy and obsessive but strong and calm. The kind of feeling I get when I am by the sea; the feeling I am home. When each wave is a new moment and it is constantly and calmly changing.
Disney princesses dubbed with clips from Mean Girls:
On why I can’t fit in and how I’ve learnt to admire women who choose to.
My best friend is getting married tomorrow. Well, she’s already married (in a registry office) and is having a party tomorrow. When she told her boss she was going to celebrate her union by wearing black, not shaving her armpits and have an online gaming competition with some of her geek friends (I am not cool enough to know what this is called) her boss had to lie downon the floor because she felt faint. “You’re a loon, darling, a complete and utter loon!”
My friend may be getting married, but if she’s going to do it, she’s making damned sure she is doing it on her own terms.
“if you’re a girl there’s no pleasing the patriarchy anyway”
Author, journalist and brilliant feminist Elizabeth Wurtzel wrote the famed Prozac Nation. It is the autobiography of a brilliant girl who nearly dies because she is too much – too sexy, too clever, too alive – for this world. She has depression and takes tonnes of drugs and has some messed-up affairs and tries to kills herself but, thank God, survives to be the wonderful thinker she is today. How did she do that? As I remember it, the book doesn’t really tell you. But I think she must have learnt the art of survival. Of learning to play by the rules sometimes so that she doesn’t get punished for living an otherwise unconventional life. She has probably learnt to find the intellectual relief she craves in her journalistic writing and job as a corporate lawyer. A way to rant and let off some steam without totally self-destructing. You should read Prozac Nation. It’s depressing, but great.
I want to read this book as a story of compromise. Compromise has been given a bad rep. Teenagers think of it as a bad thing, a failure to be yourself, and that’s why they laugh at adults in our jobs and relationships worrying about what bed linen best compliments the curtains and which sofa fits in the living room. And that’s why we adults hate teenagers back. For showing us the compromises we have had to make in our lives. We laugh cruelly back at them, because we know they will have to make the same choices or suffer the consequences.
Feminists can also judge women. When a woman has a big white wedding, or decides to have babies at the peak of her career, it is easy to call her a cop-out. It’s easy to assume that when she chooses a career in business over being a self-employed artist or in some other manner follows the heterosexist, capitalist pattern of life she is not thinking for herself. But what if this were her choice?
I think that compromise can be a feminist choice. Choosing to compromise demonstrate intelligence. It shows an ability to adapt and survive. It can be a strategy, a weighing up of the odds. The act of assessing your situation and decide how you are going to survive.
I used to think that the choice to take the path of least resistance was a sign of weakness, of failure, but now I have come to see it as a position of strength.
Compromise can be feminist because it means you’re clever and you’ve worked out the odds. You can’t have the baby, marriage and the promotion. You can’t live in a squat, work for free and still fund your artwork. Compromise means you’ve assessed your situation and you know something has to give. It’s up to you to decide what. For Wurtzel, she found some institutions in which there was the least restraint/most space for her to write out her crazy ideas. For my best friend, a career in art sales gives stimulation and a good relationship helps her to negotiate the craziness. For another old friend, getting married and earning good money in a banking job helped her survive the demands of her own massive intellect and some shit parenting. Me, my compromise is different. I may have to sacrifice children and financial stability, at least for a while, in order to follow my art. And this is a compromise because maybe I do want kids, and I definitely want a partner and a stable home, but I have learnt that I just can’t survive this world if I don’t follow my creativity. A 9-5 job, a ‘normal’ relationship; that is what nearly killed me.
It is of great importance to create alternative communities and imagine how to construct a society that is not inherently sexist, racist, classist, transphobic etc. But each person also needs to balance their feminist dreams with the necessity of living in the here and now.
“to survive in this world you have to know how to play your cards right, and you know women started off with a shit hand”
I am terrified of following my own path. Because I know it will take me to some pretty radical places and I am afraid that I won’t be allowed to survive. That they won’t let me survive. My parents and friends and the world who tells me to get a proper job, have a baby, your biological clock, tick tock. And when I don’t do these things, what will happen to me? It’s lucky that I’m queer really, or I might already be married, in Brittany, with lots of babies. (Yes, that is my parallel life.) But behind my desire to be a writer, I know that I want the option to have a baby and yes, realistically, I have maximum 10 years to do that in and I don’t even have a partner so what the hell am I going to do? Being queer stresses me out because it makes having a baby far less obvious, a much harder option. Goddammit, this life is so unfair! And this fear of the future contradicts my knowledge that now, right now, is the time for experimentation, for my art. I need to follow my own path but I know that path might lead me away from some other options. I know I couldn’t have a baby now. I know I wouldn’t survive, body and mind intact. That it might just kill me.
Thank God for wonders like Patti Smith who not only survive they do so whole and well and seem to find the support for their wanderings. She’s a Buddhist. Religion probably helps.
The fact that so many brilliant women I know compromise and appear to fall in line – get a job, a nice boyfriend, have babies, do the normal thing – doesn’t make them anti-feminist or failures. They don’t do it because they’re stupid and brainwashed by patriarchy, they do it because they’re clever and they know that living this hard and fast life outside of the rules is a sure path to death and/or madness. They do it because they know they couldn’t survive otherwise.
Women who form this kind of compromise are fucking intelligent and have a strong skill for survival. Because to survive in this world you have to know how to play your cards right, and you know women and queers started off with a shit hand.
“It doesn’t matter, really, what anyone else thinks of you”
In these past 2 years of depression I have learnt the trick of survival. Faced with the knowledge that I can’t have everything in this life, I have also made my choice. Just as my best friend chose a husband, babies and a career, I have chosen art and adventure. This may mean I won’t have time to have kids (I’m 40 in 10 years!), but I think I will survive this sadness. And I nearly didn’t survive the other option, so it seems I don’t have much choice anyway. It must be possible to be a healthy artist. Self-destruction is awfully glamorous, but no matter how cool it sounds in a biography, I don’t want to endure that kind of pain. This is why I like Patti Smith when she sings about revolution and then says ‘and don’t forget to brush your teeth.’ She remembers that in order to be a healthy artist you need to take care of yourself. Art and sleep. Art and sobriety. Art and sanity. It doesn’t sound that sexy, but it works.
Go to bed on time, eat well, do exercise and see a shrink. ‘An artist’s job is to balance mystical communication with the hard labor of creation’ (Patti Smith, Just Kids). Or maybe that’s balancing artistic work with the hard labour of keeping your mind.
I know that we all think there is a set of rules to do things properly. And not only in the mainstream. In queer communities you are expected to have multiple lovers, live communally and not get paid for your work (anti-capitalist). For me, none of these things feel right. But I am still queer and I am still a feminist.
It doesn’t matter, really, what anyone else thinks of you. We all know, deep down, that conforming to anyone’s standards just to be seen to do the ‘right’ thing won’t really please anyone (if you’re a girl there’s no pleasing the patriarchy, or anyone else, anyway) and it won’t make you happy either. So whether you’re a radical queer or a pregnant married woman, it doesn’t matter, so long as you are living by your standards and not anyone else’s. Remember, only you know what’s right for you and only you can decide what you need to do in order to get on in in this world.
By the way, when Patti Smith walked over me, down the aisle of a Catholic church she was giving a concert in, I had to restrain myself from rugby tackling her. From grabbing hold of her ankles and holding her and never letting her go. Good thing I have more common sense than that.