Rethinking Men

What masculinity means in the 21st century.

Relationships are Weird

Relationships are weird but wonderful.

RELATIONSHIPS ARE WEIRD!

“Relationships are weird,” a friend remarked at a party recently, and we all nodded sadly in agreement. But why are they weird? Presumably because people are so different and have such conflicting points of view on the trinity of R, L and S: Relationships, Love and Sex. Which comes first? S, L or R? That can make a difference. Any discussion of romantic relationships is therefore likely to be fraught. Yet we know that they are vital for our health and well-being. Weird but vital.

Some of the things that make them weird are the range and depths of the disagreements. On love: do “opposites attract” or do “birds of a feather flock together”? Alien theory or clone / mirror theory? Who do we like? Ourselves in the other or the other for themselves? On absence: Does “absence makes the heart grow fonder” or “out of sight, out of mind”? On sex: some people clearly separate sex and love; others do not. For the former sex may be for fun or profit, release, advantage or revenge…for the latter, not so much. On openness: some want open marriages, others insist on exclusivity; some want freedom, others want commitment. Hard to negotiate such contradictory desires. On love again: Lennon sang that “Love is all you need.” Really? Is love enough or do we need more? What if our various multiple and even conflicting needs and wants are not being met? Do we sublimate them? Repress them? Transfer them? And what about love? Is it all chemical, as Helen Fisher suggests? Is it all or mostly sensory compatibility, as Winnie Dunn argues? Is it all the coincidence of timing? Or smell, due to the genetics of the Major Histocompatibility Complex? Or is it all about that elusive chemistry and connection, so hard to define yet so instantly and deeply felt? (17 June and 7 July, 2009). Or more simply, conflicting ideas about relationships.

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“We murder to dissect” wrote William Blake, but we do have to make an effort to sort things out. Then we have the issue of capital: which factors are most important in a potential relationship: the erotic, the physical (beauty, looks), the social (education, humour, culture, background, smarts) or the economic? We cannot really separate them, but somehow we do evaluate each other and everything in some elaborate calculus of costs and benefits.

And there are other controversies. Does the elastic band theory hold? (27 April 2013). (This is the theory that relationships are like elastic bands: as one moves closer, the other backs away, and vice versa). Do nice guys finish last, as is sometimes said, and do women walk all over them? But then the women choose bad boys who walk all over them. Weird, but lots of walking, mostly over and out.

Which brings us to another issue: how come we can be so attracted to people who are so wrong for us? Or conversely not attracted to people who everyone says are just right for us? Dilemma. It happens, which is why we have so many break-ups, separations and divorces. Weird.

Relationships do not always last forever. This may be tragic or, if the glass is half-full, wonderful while they lasted and fondly remembered. There must have been some good in them once, before they turned bad or boring. Why do they turn? Is it because we keep on falling for the same type of wrong-for-us partner? Or do we keep making the same mistakes each time around, with the same personality flaws recurring? Or both? Perhaps we do not learn enough from experience.

There are so many things that can, and do, go wrong. The list is too long, depressing and familiar to recite. And to add insult to injury, after all that has gone wrong, there is the break-up. Perhaps more pain and sadness. Perhaps relief. But then, as surely as sun follows rain, eventually, the whole cycle starts all over again, with the rebound. Weird.

But surely not all relationships are all that weird. We have to know some people that seem to be, and surely are, happy, balanced and sane, and where the relationship just gets better and better. Most people say they are happy or very happy in their marriages. So that’s good. What are the secrets of a happy relationship?

I polled my friends and colleagues (and myself) on this, and this list is also long but fairly cheerful and worth reciting. Love, friendship and sex were common responses, and a host of qualities: kindness, patience, honesty, emotional intelligence; plus some abilities: strong communication and conflict-negotiation skills, the ability and willingness to compromise and to commit.

I heard a woman being asked what the secret of her long marriage was. She replied: “Never admit.” “Why not?” a guy asked. “Because then he will have to do something.” One friend said “a sense of humour, low expectations and a bad memory.” Another offered “I don’t b…know!” (That was the gist of it anyway). Replies were various: “I don’t believe in relationships, and happy or good. Go with the flow. It’s all projection.” “Count your blessings!” “Suffer in silence” – which is a bit stoic, not to say masochistic. Most thought that we have to work at it. Someone else said that the secret was a miracle.

In sum, some may be more or less weird, depending perhaps on the degree of difference (which does not necessarily equate with conflict); but mostly they are wonderful, which is why most of us are in them, or in between them. As the song sings: “I’m so in love with you, you make me feel brand new.”

Anthony Synnott, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology at Concordia University in Montreal.

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