When I was asked out by my first boyfriend, an older, married friend took me aside. Most people’s reactions had been either congratulatory or involved sex jokes, or both. But my friend had a somber expression, and she was not discouraging but earnest in what she told me. “Be careful,” she said, “No matter what they say about equality, men will always be men.”
A year or two later, I recall getting the same sentiment from an acquaintance, who’d been broken up with and gotten back with again within the space of a week. The same boyfriend had a chronic habit of cancelling plans and standing her up. She laughed bitterly. “You know how lads are,” she said.
A male friend of mine had a girlfriend who worked, while he was in college and unemployed. She was well-off, quite generous, and loved treating him; to my knowledge, every time he came into money he’d treat her back. He admitted to me that he’d never told his parents that she paid for things; they’d have been mortified.
The ideal man is kind and sensitive, but never more so than the woman; he knows where his duty is to step up as a man, such as looking after you, paying for your coffee, wanting more sex than you, getting angry when you talk to other men, and caring about his problems less than you care about yours. He may be cold or emotionally clumsy, but he’s a man, and they’re less good at these things. The ideal woman is nice and easy to talk to, definitely beautiful; it is to be expected she will be a little moody and clingy, but that’s just how it is! Learn to predict when her outbursts will be; asking her about her feelings will be mutually painful. Her expectations will be confusing and sometimes overwhelming. It is expected that both of you will want to keep each other on your toes, because a little bit of jealousy and desirability is healthy. You will fight, sometimes you will scream, and sometimes you will just never agree and be left crying alone until someone says sorry and you decide to drop the issue for fear of starting the argument again. But don’t worry! That’s romance, and it worked great for your parents, so take it as a sign you’re thriving.
Heterosexual relationships are absolutely unavoidable. A movie without a straight romantic subplot is a beautiful rarity, many of your friends are together with the opposite gender, and it’s the first question you’re asked by your intrusive older aunt. Much the way there are heavy expectations in gender roles, so too are there certain dynamics expected– or not expected– from men and women who do, as they often do, get together (Non-heterosexual relationships feel this less, I imagine, because society doesn’t push those people together in the first place). The first expectation that hangs over pretty much everyone is the fact you will get into a relationship, you must want to get into a relationship; this starts in secondary school and continues until you are either married or dead. It’s expected, by your early twenties, that you’ll have been in at least one relationship. It’s expected that if you’re not in one, you ought to be lonely. You don’t even have to be romantic or unsatisfied. They just have to feel empty and like a failure, for the heinous crime of not being attractive enough to the opposite sex.
The average lifespan of the man is increased once he gets married; the average lifespan of the woman decreases. Statistically, women’s salaries and mental health both drop upon marriage. Women are usually expected to be more emotionally intelligent and domestically contribute more, i.e. do most of the relationship legwork. Men don’t necessarily get off that easily; masculinity places a high, high emphasis on how attractive you are to a woman, and if you can’t find one, you sure as hell better not be seen turning to your friends or family for emotional support. Do too much for your girlfriend and you’re a pansy; if you fail to be protective or controlling enough, you’re a wimp. Women are told to gear up to teach men how to look after themselves, look after their partners, help them through their issues and take the occasional temper outburst; men are encouraged to make their girlfriends their entire support system; is it such a wonder that so many people end up unhappy and unsatisfied?
It’s funny how, in the bombardment of information and expectations about relationships, there are little guidelines on how to treat them. If you’re not being slapped or cheated on, everything’s perfect – after all, a few fights is what proves the relationship is strong, right? After eighteen years of ceaseless reminders about relationships I was surprised to learn that you can, in fact, be friends with your boyfriend. I was surprised by the fact some couples never yell at or insult one another; that older married couples sometimes still love each other; that getting sick of each other is, in fact, not an inevitable factor. The evidence for this is surprisingly sparse. Even fictional couples rarely go past the initial stage of infatuation and courtship, and if they bother to depict any mutual support afterwards usually do so so that one or both of the partners can be killed off to drive the motivation of the rest of the characters. A lack of communication is encouraged, and an acceptance of the underlying problems is endorsed. No relationship is perfect by virtue of the sexual orientation of its members, but in this society we encourage a toxic kind of heterosexuality that accepts that relationships are, at best, tenuous; that inequality, anger and resentment are just the realities of adult life.
One of the the hardest lessons learned in love, I think, is that finding someone who will love you and keep you company is actually ridiculously easy. Anyone- including the abusive, the toxic, and the generally horrible- can make you feel loved. Anyone who’s tried to talk a friend into breaking up with an awful partner will have heard the, ‘But I love them!’/’But they love me!’ line. Falling and staying in love is easy as hell and not even that special. It won’t fulfill you; it won’t meet any needs for emotional support or resolve any of your trust issues, it won’t get you through any hard times, and once it fades you’ll realise what you actually had all along. Respect, kindness, and conflict resolution will carry you further than any sparks or daydreams well: common buzzwords to throw around, yet viewing your partner as a mysterious but sexy adversary is still a strange majority view. Needing to be desirable, begging for dates, hating yourself for being single… All of these are symptoms of a disease, but the disease isn’t being single. They’re signs of a broken society that expects a broken form of romance.