Most of my love stories end with me feeling like I put a whole lot of energy into trying to build something out of nothing. Lust turns to love so easily and before you know it you’re invested in a relationship that seems more important than you. You end up trying to save a relationship for the sake of the relationship rather than trying to save yourself.
Before you all start accusing me of being bitter or hard or cold or damaged or whatever else women with personalities and life experience are, I’m not anti-romance and I’m not anti-love. I get sucked into all that lovey crap like the best of us. That said, I like to keep a healthy level of cynicism (hey, let’s just go right ahead and call that realism) on hand.
In a world that places an inordinate amount of value on heterosexual, we-only-need-one-another-forever-and-ever, marriage-type relationships, I think it’s important to challenge the notion that love means one thing and one thing only. Or that intimate relationships should look a particular way.
From personal experience, I know that one person isn’t meant to fulfill our every need and our every desire. No one can be your everyone. And yet we are told the opposite. The contemporary story of love, marriage, and family says that we are supposed to meet a soulmate and that person should to make us happy forever. That seems like a lot of pressure to me. It also seems like a great way to feel a constant sense of disappointment for the rest of your life.
There have been times in my life when I’ve wanted those big, material displays of affection. Diamond rings, expensive dinners, proposals at sporting events (I used to date jocks, ok?) – these things are thrown in our faces so often as examples of romance and as representative of what real love looks like. It’s easy to fall for it. I never even wanted to get married and these fantasies would still weasel their way in.
In retrospect, it feels like the times I’ve wanted those symbols of affection it was because the actual real love was missing. That isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy food and gifts, because I do. Yes I do. But I’ve never expected my friends to buy me jewelry in order to prove they care about me. I really just want them to hang out with me and listen to me complain about stuff. Maybe if my romantic partners spent more time listening to me complain and less time paying for dinner those relationships would have stuck too.
I don’t want one person to meet my every need. I think it’s co-dependent and creepy. I certainly don’t want someone to think that if they pay for enough dinners or buy me enough stuff it should somehow make up for a lack of effort or compassion or caring. Somehow in romance-land, women are still expected to do the bulk of the emotion labour in heterosexual relationships while men are expected to “show their love” by doing things or by paying for things. Men are often excused from making a real effort to communicate and listen and think about their partner’s feelings or experience because their role as MAN means they don’t need to do emotional work so long as they are able to spend two months’ salary on an engagement ring. I remember an ex-boyfriend telling his buddy, upon hearing of this friend’s engagement to his girlfriend: “Well she deserves it – you really put her through hell.”
I certainly don’t think all men think this way but there is an overarching understanding, in our culture, that marriage and commitment is a favour men do for women. Men are excused from emotional labour or thoughtfulness or sensitivity so long as they make up for it in material or “romantic” ways. I have definitely, in the past, been rewarded with gifts for putting up with abuse. Vanessa Bryant (previously known as Vanessa Williams) was gifted with a $4 million “apology ring” from Kobe Bryant after he was accused of rape. There’s something about heteronormative representations of romance doesn’t really seem very loving.
In opposition to mainstream messages, love relationships or marriage are not actually the most important things in life. Let’s face it, these relationships are often miserable or they fall apart. Sometimes you find yourself in an intimate relationship with someone who fucks with your head to the point where you start to doubt every thought that crosses your mind and sometimes you find yourself in love with someone whose primary relationship is with drugs and alcohol and your heart breaks over and over again because you’ve committed to a person who loves crack more than anything else in the world. There are good relationships to be had and there is lots of love out there in the world but putting your relationship or your marriage ahead of your love for yourself, your well-being, and your happiness isn’t romantic. It’s stupid.
Valentine’s Day plays into all of this. It buys into the notion that material things equal love and it perpetuates the idea that heterosexual couplings, in particular, are the most significant relationships. Coupledom, according to V-day, means you mean something. It means you have worth. It says that the unmarrieds are just waiting for the right one to come along and that they are incomplete until that happens. And, in the end, Valentine’s Day doesn’t even really seem to celebrate real love. I mean, if you’re going all out one day out of the year in order to make up for not paying attention the rest of the year, is that really all that romantic?
Occupying Valentine’s Day seems like a good way to celebrate the meaningful relationships in your life, regardless of who they are with, and to look for things that have real value and bring you happiness in ways that don’t simultaneously force you to compromise yourself. Marriage and diamonds are symbolic, sure, but in the end, you are going to be your best partner and you’re going to have to live with yourself until the day that you die. You may as well go ahead and try to nurture that relationship.
According to dominant narratives, I am supposed to start feeling desperate sometime soon. I’m over 30 and single. Somebody kill me or make a romantic comedy out of me. But I think, in my case, this romcom would have to tweak the ending so that, instead of putting on a wedding dress and making promises I’m not sure I should even try to keep, I can put on my bitch-face (to ward off the creeps, of course) and walk off into the sunset with my doggie. We’ll share some pizza later and will, without a doubt, live happily ever after.