Rewriting the Rules

The Book Brigade talks with British psychologist Meg-John Barker

Posted Apr 05, 2018

Used with permission of author Meg-John Barker.
Source: Used with permission of author Meg-John Barker.

There’s a lot of information out there about relationships, and much of it implies that when things aren’t working, you are the problem. Maybe it’s time to revise the ways we all think about relationships.

Why do we need new rules for love relationships?

We don't necessarily need new rules, but we do need to think carefully about the rules we've received and whether they work for us. There's a strong idea out there that there is one “right'” or “normal” way of doing relationships that everyone should aim for by following certain relationship rules. Actually there is no “one size fits all” way of doing relationships, and it's important for all of us to find the way that works best for us. The current rules of relationships can lead to a lot of pain and suffering—for example, if somebody so fixed on finding '”The One” perfect partner that they don't invest in all the other important relationships in their life, or if the pressure on long-term love makes someone stay in a relationship that's damaging for them, or if attempts to find love mean somebody ends up being bruised and battered by breakup after breakup.

Do we need any rules for them?

Not necessarily. One point I make is that any set of rules can become rigid and constraining if we hold it too tightly. This is true for conventional monogamous coupledom, but it's also true for any kind of alternative relationship style. The approach of embracing uncertainty, which I explore in the book, is about moving away from the desire for a clear set of rules that will hold forever and instead embracing flexibility and being present to relationships as they are in the here and now. That doesn't mean that we won't communicate and negotiate about how we want to do our relationships, but it does mean a move away from rules that are set in stone.

Why a self-help guide that claims to be anti-self-help?

What I mean by “anti-self-help” is that a lot of self-help books locate our problems and difficulties in life in ourselves, as individuals. They suggest there's something wrong with us that needs fixing, and they sell the book on the basis that the “expert” can give you tricks or hacks to solve all your problems. My view is that many of our struggles—particularly around relationships—are more due to the rotten cultural messages that we receive than to any kind of individual 'flaw' we might have. So Rewriting the Rules is a self-help book in that it gives you lots of ideas about how to navigate the wider cultural ideas about relationships, but it's anti-self-help in that it doesn't see you as the problem that needs fixing. In fact it sees that whole idea as part of the reason we struggle so much.

What is the biggest thing that has changed in the relationship between partners?

I guess the biggest change over time has been the pressure we're now under for partner relationships to fulfill all our needs. Some writers have called romantic love the new religion because we now look to a partner to be our best friend, our support, our hot lover (forever), our cheerleader, our caregiver when sick, our cohabitee and possibly co-parent, and all kinds of other things. The pressure that puts on one person is unsustainable, which is partly why so many relationships buckle under the strain. In the past people valued multiple kinds of love in their lives (including love of friends, family, colleagues, humanity, and oneself). They also looked for a lot of these things in their mates, their community, and their other relationships. 

You talk a lot about uncertainty; how has it entered relationships in a way that it didn’t before?

I think that people have a lot of relationship uncertainty at the moment because ways of doing relationships have opened up a lot but without much clarity about how we can navigate them. For example people now live a whole lot longer than they did in the past, so how do we remain with the same person—if we want to—for all that time with all the changes that will happen along the way? Many, if not most, relationships end in breakup or divorce, but we often need to remain on good terms with exes because we have family or community or property together. How do we go about doing that? There are lots of different ways of doing relationships out there now, such as polyamory, living-apart-together, friends-with-benefits arrangements, monogamish relationships, and solo-ness, but how do we actually do our relationships in these ways if we want to? Rewriting the Rules aims to answer all of these kinds of questions.

How have the rules of conflict changed?

Despite increasing pressure on relationships, there's also a strong idea in wider culture that conflict in relationships is a bad thing, something to be avoided, that it's a sign the relationship is in a bad place, or even a failure. This means that we really don't prepare people for how to manage the inevitable conflict that will crop up in relationships, or to communicate about relationships more widely (in case it causes conflict). The book explores some ways of addressing conflict when it happens, which will hopefully be useful to people—like building empathy, listening, and communicating your needs.

What do you think is the biggest difference in the way relationships are conducted today versus, say, 20 years ago?

The internet has got to be the biggest shift. Hook-up apps and online contact mean that dating and relationships have become even bigger business, and people are more able to find like-minded people who want to do relationships in similar ways to theirs. The internet has also revealed just how common secret infidelities are, with whole websites for people seeking affairs. The internet has both opened up and closed down our experiences of relationships in many ways. We now have the opportunity to connect with people all around the world, but we're still encouraged to present ourselves in quite inauthentic ways in order to get love and also to judge others increasingly quickly with the swipe of a finger.

Has the desire to engage in romantic relationships changed in any significant way?

It's different in different places. In some cultures and communities romantic relationships are seen as the be-all and end-all of life in an unprecedented way these days. In other cultures and communities people are de-emphasizing romantic love and focusing more on their own solo projects or on friendships. The internet is also opening up a wide range of relationship styles to people who might not have come across them before, so people are more aware of the possibilities of open and polyamorous relationships, for example.

Isn’t love one of those arenas where we’ve always had to write our own rules—if we dared to first confront ourselves to know what we want?

In an ideal world, yes. And there have always been people who have been trying to write their own rules: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre spring to mind. However, most of the time there have actually been very strict rules about how to do relationships—in wider culture in the form of laws, religious beliefs, and the more implicit rules of popular culture and the media. People, particularly women and LGBT people who stepped outside such rules, have been judged and punished harshly. Still today there's a huge stigma around remaining single, around breakups, and around having multiple sexual or romantic relationships, for example. So yes, we have to write our own rules, but that can be a difficult task indeed in the face of a society that wants us to stick to a certain set of rules.

Love seems to be one of those realms where one can stick close to one’s own rules or closer to more culturally prescriptive rules. What’s gained and lost either way?

Good question. When the rules that work for us are in conflict with wider cultural rules, we're put in a tough situation. Sticking close to our own rules means feeling more true to ourselves and probably forging relationships that are a far better fit for us. But it also means potentially feeling alienated from our culture, maybe losing friends and family, or even feeling precarious because we have no legal rights in such a relationship. In my view, we need to do what we can to shift wider culture away from its fixation with a “right'” or “normal” way of doing relationships to embrace the diversity of relationships and relationship styles that actually work for people.

What is the most important thing you’ve learned in writing this book?

This is the second edition of the book so it reflects what I've learnt about relationships in the years since the first edition was published. One thing is our relationship patterns, where these come from, and how we can shift out of them. A lot of us learn patterns of relating in our families and our early relationships which set us up to struggle in relationships. Maybe we find it hard to be vulnerable and let people in close, or maybe we always ask too much of people and they can never be enough for us. Hopefully this book helps readers to think through their own patterns and gives them some ideas of how they might address them.

What one point do you most want readers to walk away with?

Different kinds of relationships work for different people, and at different times in life. Whatever works for you is absolutely fine so long as you behave kindly and consensually with the others involved.

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Rewriting the Rules

Used with permission of author Meg-John Barker.
Source: Used with permission of author Meg-John Barker.