Man, I love it when other people tackle stuff that pisses me off, so I don’t have to.
I read this piece in the NY Times by Maureen Dowd yesterday. She’s pissed about the recent “study” that “proves” that men are “naturally” drawn toward subordinate women (again, I want to see the study where it’s biologically advantageous for women to be attracted to men who beat the crap out of them – we can put them right next to the “studies” that say that kids born to “mixed-race” couples are “naturally” stupider than those of “pure-race” couples), and I just sort of snarled at it and moved on.
Brendan, however, took it on, mashed up some other recent news bits with it, and has a good look at “guy culture” and society’s tendency toward assuming what’s happening in relationships right now and on TV must be “natural.”
He brings up a couple of good points worth chewing on, one of them being the fact that “equal” relationships are really fucking hard. When you look at the news media, at “guy culture,” hell, at Cosmo, what you’re going to see are the same things that Dowd sees – men looking for subservient mates, women trying to trick men into thinking they’re stupider than they are; insecure women dying to get married to just about anybody, especially Desperate Smart Women; insecure men who find the idea of a woman who makes more money than them unnerving.
Whether or not these things are “true” isn’t the point – governments spoon up “truth” every morning. That’s why we can send House representatives to Iraq who have no idea what it’s like for people living in Iraq. They’ve been given a different truth – and it’s not the real one.
When you grow up looking for an equal sort of pairing with somebody (or a couple of somebodies, depending on preferences), you’re not going to see many examples of it on television, in the movies, in books, plays, etc. You’re going to see a lot of unequal powerplays: evil scheming women trying to manipulate men, or evil scheming men trying to manipulate women, or subservient women trying to please evil men, or mediocre men, or men trying to please the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, so he can then marry her, own her, and show her who’s boss (my favorite. This is why I’m so fearful of being Greek-Goddess-Worshipped by men. The other side of this coin is. “I won her. She’s mine. Now I can show her who’s in charge”).
If you’re lucky, you’ll grow up watching real people in real relationships, and odds are that though some of them will mirror our media stereotypes, and a lot of them will be crappy, some of them won’t, and you’ll find one that intrigues you.
My parents were married just out of high school, my mom was 18 and my dad was 20, and they’d been dating on and off since my mom was 15 and he was 17. My relationship myth, growing up, was this magical romantic one: my mom met my dad in French class. He was the guy in the back of the class wearing the leather jacket, slouching in his seat. When the French professor asked him to stand up and introduce himself, my father did so – in perfect French. He was one of five children raised by my GI grandfather and war-bride French grandmother, and spent the first seven years of his life in France.
My mother was smitten. As the popular version of the story goes, she ran to her best friend immediately after class and said, “I just met the man I’m going to marry.”
There was a break-up, a jealousy play or two, and then my mom finally said to him, “Are we going to get married, or what?”
They got married.
They’ve been married for something like thirty years.
The trouble was, they got married too young, and they’ll be the first to tell you this. Every time they have an argument it’s like watching a couple of 18-year-olds. And I don’t know that some of their life goals corresponded as well as they could have. All my dad really wanted was to have kids, my mom really didn’t, she flirted with the idea of joining the Peace Corps. They waited five years, and had kids. Though they still share some core ideas about love and commitment – which has kept them together – it’s been a long hard road. Such is the nature of relationships.
So though I admired my parents and was really taken in by this Grand Idea of the One True Love, the One True Love idea got me sorta stuck in my first relationship, as I was basing my life on a set of mythos I learned from my parents, and that mythos isn’t gonna work every time, and especially not in high school, especially if you try to force it. I really, really wanted a One True Love, and a great “I fell in love with him right then” story, but I honestly didn’t have one. I had these two warring ideas in my head: the One True Love from high school whose love was so powerful it superceded everything else you wanted to do with your life, and what I was actually looking for…. Growing up, the place where I saw my ideal sort of “I want to live that kind of life, with that kind of person,” example was that of my Uncle Steve and Aunt Kris.
The popular mythos is:
They met as exchange students in Thailand. She was from Ohio. He was from Washington State. Should have been doomed from the start. How many people would you really fly halfway across the country to be with?
We didn’t hang out much, so my idea of their relationship has been formed in pictures, and the one that always clinched it for me was a picture of the two of them coming up out of the water in their scuba diving gear. They’re probably about the age that I am now, and they’ve got their respirators in their hands. As the water ripples around them, they come together into a fun, half-laugh, half-kiss.
And I remember thinking, when I saw that picture: that’s it. That’s what I want.
My uncle worked as a television news anchor for awhile, and in his study, there’s a picture of him in a flight suit, stepping out of an Airforce jet he got to ride in for a news story.
Here were these images of this life, of this way life could be, and something about it really connected with me. How truly egalitarian and buddy-buddy their relationship is now, I don’t know, but I remember those images, and that hope I had that yes, really, there’s another way for things to be. You can have a big, full life with somebody who wants to have a big, full, life with you. It’s possible. You don’t have to backbite and backstab and blame each other for everything. You don’t have to sacrifice your life in order to be with somebody you like.
And it’s that hope for another life that’s kept me happily single for so long. If that’s not what I get, I’d rather have nothing.
I’m an all-or-nothing sort of person.
And when you’re raised in a society that doesn’t encourage those sorts of relationships, they’re really fucking hard. Brendan says this nicely:
Perhaps the hardest sort of relationship to maintain is a true meeting of equals. All relationships have their own internal power dynamics, terms and quirks, but a relationship whose core substance is true regard for and communication with another person respected as an equal requires a level of emotional maturity and openness that’s almost wholly absent from popular discourse in this time and place. We tell neither men nor women to seek these sorts of relationships as the/an ideal, nor give them the tools and encouragement necessary to enable them to develop and maintain them. What we have instead, in the broadest terms, is a usership culture around relationships- what can I get out of this other person. Sometimes it’s financial, sometimes it’s emotional, sometimes it’s status. In some respects this is also the child of marketing, in some ways the child of reductionist evolutionary explanations where a relationship is simply about fulfilling needs and obtaining resources and services.
The most equal buddy-buddy relationship I’ve had has been the one with my roomie – non-sexual it may be, but though we’d been friends for about five years, since the Clarion days, there’s a whole other dynamic involved when you live with someone, particularly somebody you really like and connect with on a lot of levels. One of the most difficult things for me to learn was actually how to tell her when I was upset about something, when something she did bugged me, to open up about why I was feeling down. I’m not a big talker (she calls me the “strong and silent type”), but she’s really good at asking questions and keeping open lines of communication so I don’t build up these huge resentments – against her or myself – and we can resolve conflicts pretty quickly.
She gets all the kudos for this. I’ve always considered talking about “feelings” to be a weak thing, and sometimes, I’ve even hated myself for feeling the things that I feel. I’ve just recently gotten to the point where I can go, “Jenn, I hate myself for feeling this way, and I know it’s adolescent and foolish, but this is sort of where I’m at with this, so if I seem down and snarky, know that it’s not about you, it’s just this stuff I’m trying to work out on my own.”
And she’ll go. “Cool. It sucks that you feel that way. You are a great person. Let me know if I can help you with that.”
It has made our domestic life much easier.
And it’s taken me a while to get used to.
Because I have a very guy-like mentality when it comes to talking and showing emotion. You get me and a guy who has the same guy-like mentality together, and bad things happen.
I didn’t have any existing framework of an open-communication relationship before, one where I was with somebody who was just as smart and capable as I was and didn’t want to suck the life out of me (again, that “I worship you until you’re mine, at which point I will destroy you!” mentality that a lot of women-worshippers have). Even with a lot of my old friends, there are things we Just Don’t Talk About. Sometimes I think we’re all trying to pretend that we’re a lot saner than we are because we’re afraid of what our friends will think of us. I know me and my best buddy Stephanie don’t talk about a lot of things, or slide over them very quickly, usually the Dark Teatime of the Soul things, though we’ve known each other for over a decade now.
I remember going out with her around Christmas, and we were sitting outside Moonstruck on 23rd in Portland, and she said, “I’ve been married for a year. I think I’m becoming boring and domestic. Would you still want to hang out with me if I was boring?” And though she said it with a half-joking little laugh, it was only half-joking.
I sort of looked at her, dumbstruck, and said, “You’re not boring. You won’t ever be boring. I don’t hang out with boring people. You know, there are these people in your life you want to know until the last breath leaves your body…? You’re one of those people.”
It’s funny, how we don’t have a social system that really teaches ushow to talk to each other, friends, lovers, relations. Unless you’ve got a family that teaches it to you, you won’t learn. You won’t get it from the media, or from school. You’re supposed to be looking at people as things, as what they can give you, instead of just people, the ones on this journey with you, the ones who have seen you through the shit and back again. The ones you want to see out to the end.
So when we talk about hetero relationships, and their inequality, I also find myself turning toward looking at other relationships, at how I’ve been taught to handle them, and I realize I come up lacking.
I don’t know that you can assign blame or fault for this: it just is. I have to be aware of what I’m getting fed from the media at large, and decide if one of the reasons I’m uncomfortable on a date is because what I want isn’t what’s being fed to me.
That’s not good or bad, it just is.
Realize that most of this stuff is bullshit, it’s somebody selling something. The minute you start interrogating these “studies,” they all unravel. It’s in the best interest of money makers to keep us unhappy. It’s in the best interests of the government for me to worry more about being smart or fat than who we’re bombing in Iraq and where all the money’s going.
It doesn’t mean that’s how we have to be.