Old Fashioned Love - on love and relationships in the 21st century
in conversation with Dr. Meg-John Barker
Monday, February 16, 2015
Dr. Meg-John Barker is a senior lecturer in psychology at the Open University and a sex and relationship therapist. Meg has researched and written extensively on relationships, gender and sexuality -particularly on bisexuality, BDSM and polyamory. We spoke to Meg-John about some of the common problems she encounters in practice, and asked for some thoughts on love, relationships, and expectations...
I think that one of the biggest problems we face at the moment is that we tend to see any problem that we have as individual, when there's actually a huge social component to most problems. For example, clients who are depressed often ask what is wrong with them, assuming that they must have some psychological flaw. Often the far greater element in depression is the high social expectations that we're currently under, and feeling that we can't possibly match up to all of these. People feel that they have failed if they haven't passed each expected life 'milestone' in the right way at the right time; if they're single when they 'should' be in a relationship; if they haven't 'succeeded' in finding a high paying and fulfilling job; if they've not achieved everything they were told they should by the time they were 30, 40, 50 or 60.
These issues are often gendered to an extent. For example, for men there may be more pressure to demonstrate success at work as part of their masculinity, which can be very difficult in the current economic climate. For women there is still a great emphasis on relationships and appearance being important, so not being in a certain kind of relationship, or looking a certain way, can feel like a failure. But there is also pressure for everyone to 'succeed' across all these areas regardless of gender.
I think that there is a greater and greater problem of looking inside and blaming ourselves for problems which are really about the pressures of narrow social expectations and problematic cultural ideals. That's why, in my books and blog, I try to shift attention back to those things being what needs to change, not the individual person. For example, if we had images of diverse bodies in magazines, people probably wouldn't feel nearly as bad about how they look because they wouldn't have such a limited idea of what is beautiful to compare themselves against.
I do think that people are increasingly concerned about their relationships, and the reason seems to be that people are looking to romantic relationship to fulfil a lot of the needs that used to get met elsewhere. Some writers have suggested that love has become the new religion, as people look to partners for meaning and belonging, which they might have found in religion in the past. Similarly, as work becomes more precarious, and people move around a lot in their lives, there may be less of a sense of validation, love and community from friends, colleagues and family than there was before.
Some people respond to the increasing pressures on relationships by trying desperately to make them work within the current model, whereas other people try and find other ways of doing things (like non-monogamous relationships, for example). Either way, there can be more need for support because there's a lot of pressure on this area, and because people aren't sure how to do it without any sense of a rulebook.
My main project for next year is to write a book based on the 'Enduring Love?' study that my colleagues at the Open University, Jacqui Gabb and Janet Fink, carried out. This research looked at people in long-term relationships. The two key findings that stood out for me were everyday kindness, and separateness.
Many of the couples emphasised small acts of gratitude and appreciation that they did for each other on a daily basis, like bringing somebody a cup of tea. Also, several couples spoke of the importance of having some of their needs met elsewhere - not all in the relationship - for example, in time alone, separate hobbies and interests, or with other friends and families. So I think that everyday kindness, and some degree of separateness, is probably essential to a relationship of whatever kind.
Love in the public domain
There is some very interesting research by my colleague Bjarne M. Holmes which found that Hollywood movies promote unrealistic ideas, like there being just one true love out there for every person, that we are destined to be with that person, that they will telepathically know and meet all our needs, and that we'll live happily ever after.
People who have these kinds of beliefs actually have much less happy relationships than those with more realistic expectations who don't look to one person to be everything for them. For more realistic views I love the film Ruby Sparks, which is all about the dangers of idealising a partner and trying to make them into your perfect person. In some ways the classic rom-com When Harry Met Sally also presents a diversity of relationships and the idea that great relationships can be based on friendship. Some of the bromance movies that came out in the last decade, like I Love You Man also have an interesting take on the importance of friendship in men's lives and whether a romantic relationship should really take over from that or be in addition to it. There's a similar message about women's friendships in the TV show Sex and The City, or more recently Girls.
Our sense that romantic relationships should be secret and private - compared with other relationships - is definitely a problem. First it means that we often only share the happy parts of our relationships with others, which means that everyone else in our lives gets a very unrealistic image to compare their relationship against, on Facebook for example. But also, keeping these things private puts our relationship under a lot of pressure as we can't then get any support, or any objective view of what we're dealing with.
A useful recent example of the dangers of this in fiction would be the 50 Shades of Grey series. Ana in the books is not allowed to talk about her relationship with Christian with her friends and family. This means that she can't talk to anybody about whether she really wants to engage in the sexual practices that he wants her to, and she also has nobody to tell her how abusive it is that he doesn't respect her wishes, follows her on holiday, tries to get involved in her work situation, etc.
The Rules of Love
It's very difficult to live any aspect of life with no kind of guide or map at all. When people do question the standard rules of relationships, they often try to find an alternative way of doing things and grab hold of that just as tightly. For example, people who decide not to be monogamous might end up with equally rigid ideas about how to be in an open relationship. This is very understandable because we generally don't like uncertainty and it can feel safer to have something to hang onto. However, the risk is that we may not find what works best for us if we grab hold of the first alternative that we come across, and that - as we inevitably change over time - it can be better to me more flexible and to adapt to the situation.
Rather than having a concrete set of rules for our relationship, we might consider having an ongoing conversation with a partner about the commitments that we want to make to each other, for example, and how we want to live our relationship, which we can return to and renegotiate as times change.
How we understand relationships and love in the long term is hard to predict because there are always moves in conflicting directions. At the same time that relationships are changing in some ways, like with same-sex marriage, they are staying the same in others. For example, if anything there is more emphasis than ever on monogamy in government policies and the like, even though there is also more awareness of people doing things differently. At the same time as the 50 Shades film is coming out, governments are clamping down on depictions of sexual diversity.
My ideal would be for there to be much more emphasis on diversity: the diverse ways in which people do relationships, make commitments, have sex, bring up families, etc. We know that different things work for different people, and at different times in their lives. That message would help people to find the best way of doing relationships for them instead of trying to cram themselves into a one-size-fits-all model. It would also be a move away from an idealised cultural model for people to compare themselves against. Instead of focusing on what is normal, and what isn't, we could focus on kind and ethical treatment of each other in relationships of whatever kind.
About the author:
Meg-John’s book Rewriting the Rules: An Integrative guide to Love, Sex, and Relationships is a friendly guide through the complicated - and often contradictory - rules of love. It is published by Routledge and available from Amazon and good bookshops.
You can read Meg-John’s blog, and find out more about her research and work at http://rewritingtherules.wordpress.com/
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