Friday, June 12, 2009

Another Kind of Entitlement

This post may be a bit rambly. It’s also based on our heteronormative cultural views, so it won’t necessarily be terribly inclusive, although many of these reflections could apply to gay and trans partnered relationships as well. So bear with me.

As the dreaded wedding season approaches, and as our group of friends matures and settles into relationships that are evolving from the this-is-so-exciting-and-thrilling-and-romantic phase into a more calm, deep, and often more rewarding partnership (or not), I’ve been thinking about the way our culture constructs romantic relationships. As others have said before, the way romantic relationships are portrayed in movies and TV shows, and the way a relationship is thought to be so central to a woman’s life (but not a man’s) is deeply problematic. Similarly, the way that landing the right man is supposed to solve all your problems (think romantic comedy here) is a huge issue. And finally, the ridiculous idea that a soul mate exists for each and every person, and all you have to do is find that person and the rest is cake and rainbows is unspeakably absurd.

For one thing, all this “soul mate” ideology puts an incredible amount of pressure on the person who’s allegedly your soul mate, and dooms your relationship with them to be plagued by endless disappointment. After all, a soul mate is supposed to meet your every need, and be your perfect companion. Who, I ask you, can possibly match those criteria? Second, if there’s only one perfect soul mate for you, what are the chances you’ll ever meet? What are the chances you’ll even live on the same continent and speak the same language? If it really were the case that there was one perfect soul mate for every person, and we all held out to find that perfect someone, then the vast majority of people would end up single while their “soul mate” lived a similarly isolated existence somewhere on the other side of the planet. On the upside, maybe that would bring the birth rate down and help the environment a bit.

But beyond these things, it seems to me like we grow up in a culture that instills us with a profound sense of entitlement when it comes to relationships. We’re taught to expect that our partner will meet all of our sexual, social, intellectual, and companionship needs, and if s/he doesn’t, then we’re “not compatible.” This ideology seems to go hand-in-hand with the completely-self-sufficient-nuclear-family-as-the-basic-social-unit mindset which really became dominant during the Victorian era and hasn’t truly lost its grip on us yet. I suspect it has a lot to do with capitalism, but that’s a topic for another post. Sometimes I wonder if people would be happier in their relationships if they had a more reasonable attitude and set of expectations. I think we can all agree that it’s simply not going to happen that one person is going to meet all your needs, and yet when we find ourselves in a less-than-completely-fulfilling situation, we feel like fate has dealt us a poor hand. And maybe that’s just us being privileged and pouty and entitled.

I’m not saying that personal fulfillment isn’t a worthy goal, or that we shouldn’t strive to develop relationships that are meaningful and allow us to flourish. What I am saying is that maybe we shouldn’t expect so much from one relationship and preference it so far above all others. Maybe we should be open to the idea that we get/give different things from/to different people, and if some of our needs are met by people outside of our primary romantic relationship, that’s probably OK. And maybe, as is the case in so many other aspects of our culture, we should let go of the consumer mindset we’ve been trained to have and stop judging relationships solely on the basis of what we get from them. I realize that this could sound dangerously similar to the old women-should-seek-their-fulfillment-through-serving-the-needs-of-others shtick, and that’s not my intention at all. What I am suggesting is that if we view our demand that our primary romantic relationship will fulfill us in every way as an entitled and consumerist mindset, we’ll be more likely to strike a healthy balance and develop workable, fulfilling-for-the-most-part relationships rather than relentlessly searching for that perfect Mr./Ms. Right who will meet our every need and solve all our problems. Or maybe this is just another way for me to vent my irritation and contempt for chick flicks…


  1. Lyndsay6/12/2009

    What view of the ideal family was dominant before the Victorian age?

    I think it's good to serve others needs IF you are getting the same back from others. I mean how much can you expect if you're not ready to give a little?

  2. Michael6/12/2009

    Before the industrial revolution you often had extended families in a household, which would often also include hired help and possibly their families. Also, kids were apprenticed and left home at a pretty young age. And cottage industries were very common, so women and children filled a number of different roles depending on what was needed at the time. Also, older siblings often cared for younger ones while the mom worked in the family "business."

    I do think the isolated nuclear family is tied to this idea that your partner will be everything to you.

  3. My grandparents' neighbors are from India, and when their son came of age they returned to India to arrange a marriage for him and bring back his bride. I guess the bride and groom did have final veto power, but they liked each other well enough initially and became quite affectionate over time. The father explained to my sister that young people don't have the wisdom or perspective to know who will be compatible with them, and that if you're sincere, committed, and well-matched, you will come to love that person over time. But he also said that in cultures where they have arranged marriages, people don't expect their spouse to fulfill all their needs, so there's less pressure and less disappointment. I thought that was an interesting way to describe it.

  4. this is a really interesting post and has got me thinking...*sound of wheels turning*