Anthony Synnott Ph.D.

Rethinking Men

The Elastic Band Theory Of Relationships

If not elastic bands, are they fogs, mazes, battlefields, bank accounts, or...?

Posted Apr 27, 2013

“Relationships are like elastic bands,” my friend explained. “If you pull away, they’ll follow you, but if you get closer, (‘Honey! I love you darling! I want you!’) they’ll pull away.” “Really?” “Yes” she replied. “You must know the famous advice for women?”

            Treat them mean

            And they’ll be keen.

            Treat them nice

            And they’ll be ice.

No, I did not know, and I was horrified. Some pulling and pushing as wills and desires conflict is normal, and usually ends in a compromise, and negotiating intimacy can be tricky, but to be deliberately mean is, well, mean. And why would men be keen if women are mean? And this does not sound much like love! Who teaches women this? But such advice would certainly explain the sad guy’s lament that: “Nice guys finish last.” Or, in this new poetic mode: “Nice begets ice.”

But then how do we explain the “bad boy” syndrome, so familiar toHollywoodfans? Jesse James, Charlie Sheen,WarrenBeatty? Are they mean? Or charming, fun, dazzling, wild, solvent and obvious in their desire to bed you, but not to wed you? What’s a girl to do? Be ice or nice? Run away or into his arms?  It depends what she wants. And do nice girls finish last…like the nice guys?

And what about bad girls? Do they have more fun? The T-shirts suggest that “Good girls go to heaven but bad girls go everywhere.” Is that true?

In any event, this advice to women is surely counter-intuitive. My inner poet, perhaps naïve, feels that more appropriate advice would be this rhyme rather than that one:

            Treat them mean

            And they’ll be ice.

            Treat them nice

            And they’ll be keen.

Certainly this elastic band advice is strange, and raises questions: is this advisory still around? Is it all about control issues?   Is this the well-known fear of intimacy, commitment and being tied down? Are men really keener on women who are meaner?  Maybe it is all a myth. Are men all masochists and are women all sadists? Of course not. (The popularity of the 50 Shades novels among women and the handcuffs suggests that women are more likely to be aspiring masochists than sadists.) Why would women be mean if men are keen? And why would men be ice if women are nice?  

Can one be too nice? I looked up “nice” in my Concise Oxford dictionary: “agreeable, attractive, delightful, well-flavoured, satisfactory, kind, friendly, considerate, generally commendable.” So no, you can’t. On the other hand my human sources say that if you’re too nice, they (men or women) will take you for granted and you can get trampled underfoot. Nice does not equal spineless wimp. You have to guard your own self, autonomy and power, or lose yourself and, eventually, your partner.

The elastic band theory seems to imply that we should all be mean to each other to keep each other. This is not a happy scene; repulsive actually. This cannot be wise advice. These relationships seem perverse. Weird we knew, but perverse? This is not love. We know we must have some boundaries, but this elastic band theory seems more about control and neurosis than love, so I think we must reject it as emotionally immature and narcissistic. It seems to describe unhealthy, immature, dysfunctional relationships fraught with negative energies and power struggles. Power struggles within any significant relationship, intimate or otherwise, wreak havoc in that relationship and are indicative of our own narcissism and our need to control the other. The more we struggle for power within a significant relationship, the more we crave for our wants, needs, and personal goals to take precedence over the feelings, thoughts, and desires of the other.

Genuine intimacy requires dialogue, transparency, vulnerability and reciprocity. This would be a partnership centered and grounded in seeking to understand our partner and allowing our partner to know us, being accepting, respectful, and empathetic. The ultimate goal in a relationship, sans the power struggle and the elastic band pulling and pushing, is surely to maintain, strengthen and enhance this relationship. Successful intimate relationships are partnerships of equals, characterized by intimacy which evolves through mutual self-disclosure and sincerity, and are based on shared values, wants, needs, and goals. Partners recognize that they have different temperaments, strengths, vulnerabilities, and emotional histories, which can create issues, but still.

In genuine intimate relationships, the partnership genre, differences are appreciated and cherished with partners who are flexible, collaborative, accepting, honest (sans the games playing and the control), compassionate, supportive, fair, equal, reliable, loving.

Love is the bedrock of relationships, presumably – and don’t you love the rocking bed image? – and “mean” should have no place there. So, do you think that there is any truth in the theory that relationships are all, or mostly, like elastic bands? Remember: Too much pulling on an elastic band will eventually break it.

If not, what are relationships like? Or, more prosaically, what have your relationships been like? Will one size/word fit all?  Fogs?  Mazes? Jungles?  Tests? Roller coasters? Free fall parachute drops? Walking a tight rope or the plank? Battlefields? Learning opportunities? Bank accounts? (deposits and withdrawals should be roughly equal over time). Or all or some of the above, or other? Kindly select your simile, smile or cry, examples will help, and please, do tell.

About the Author

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

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