TED talk: Rewriting the Rules of Relationships

TED talk: Rewriting the Rules of Relationships

Last Friday I was very privileged to be part of the TEDx Brighton 2013 event where I gave a talk which tried to summarise my Rewriting the Rules book into ten minutes! Hopefully it’s a good taster of the main ideas in the book, as well as applying a couple of my favourite metaphors for relationships: the crab bucket, and holding the precious object.

Here is the talk, and beneath it a written version:

Relationship Uncertainty

I want to start with a list of advice about relationships which I’ve found in various self-help books, problem pages and magazine articles:

  • Never waste an opportunity to say ‘I love you’: Don’t be the first to use the L word.
  • Take her at face value: Figure out the hidden reason why she’s upset.
  • Don’t use complete sentences during sex: Talk dirty, he’ll love it.
  • Work at your relationship: Be spontaneous.

Confusing right?

As a culture we’re currently in a state of relationship uncertainty. At the same time that we’ve opened up to same sex marriage, government insists that monogamous coupledom is the only good basis for a family. There has never been greater gender equality, but there’s a constant pull back to the view that men and women are from different planets. And, whilst some commentators argue that we should loosen our views around affairs and infidelity, others argue that we should tighten restrictions around people watching online porn – because this is seen as bad for relationships.

Why are we in such uncertainty? First of all, declining religion, unstable jobs, and the fact we all move around rather than staying in smaller communities have all meant that we look to romantic relationships to meet all of our needs in a way we never have before. Love has become the new religion.

At the same time we’re encouraged by the media, by advertisers, and by each other, to be independent individuals who fulfill our own goals in life and are true to ourselves no matter what.

This creates a tension as we long for belonging, togetherness and connection with a partner, at the same time that we strive for individual freedom, independence and personal fulfillment.

There are two main things that we tend do when faced with such uncertainty: Either we look back to the old rules that have been around before – and cling onto those for some sense of security, or we create new rules – but often we cling onto these just as tightly.

For the rest of the talk I’ll explore these two paths, and then consider an alternative: embracing the uncertainty that we find ourselves in in our relationships.


Grasping the old rules

The first option, in such a state of uncertainty, is to turn to the old rules of relationships and to grasp hold of these to get some sense of stability.

We see this in a lot of the mainstream advice about relationships which promises that we can find The One who will complete us and provide us with a happily-ever-after, so long as we follow a particular set of rules.

Often the rules are about gender. Back in the 1990s the best-selling book, The Rules, promised women that they would find the perfect man who would stay with them forever if only they would return to traditional femininity: Let him take the initiative; don’t talk too much, laugh too much, or demand too much, and he’ll have to make you his.

Almost as a direct response to this, the seduction communities of the early 2000s advised men on how to become alpha males and play the game that would make them irresistible to women.

Once in a relationship, there is a battalion of relationship therapists, agony aunts and experts on hand to ensure that we stay together forever in a constant state of love and great sex. Anything else is considered to be a failure.

There are many problems with this approach. First of all, this idea that we can find everything in one person is not actually an old one. It’s only since around the 1950s that we’ve expected our romantic partner to be our soulmate, our best friend, our perfect sex partner, and sole co-parent. As historian, Stephanie Coontz, says ‘people have always loved a love story. But for most of the past our ancestors didn’t try to live in one.’

Secondly, of course, this is a great deal of pressure to put on one person throughout the increasingly long lives that we are likely to be spending together. Nobody can provide us with constant love, great sex, validation of everything we do, and total security. Indeed, as my colleague and TED talker Esther Perel points out, many of the things that we require from a partner are contradictory: safety and excitement, shared lives and the freedom to do what we want to do, everyday togetherness and constant passion.

So we see many people bouncing from one person to another in serial monogamy, or having affair after affair, staying bitterly in relationships that don’t match their expectations, or giving up on the whole endeavour having been bruised and battered by one too many painful separations.

Crab bucket

Graspingthe new rules

There is a story that Terry Pratchett tells about what happens when you have a bucket full of crabs. If one crab tries to escape the bucket, Pratchett says, the other crabs pull it back in.

Thus it is with the rules of relationships. They may not be working very well, but if anybody tries to propose something different they are quickly shouted down and brought back into line. The mass media tells us that anybody who is doing sex, gender, or relationships differently is – at best – a weirdo worthy of ridicule, and – at worst – a dangerous threat to society. Just think about how people who are kinky, or trans people, or people in open relationships, are generally portrayed in movies and newspaper articles.

However, occasionally a crab does manage to get out of the bucket and finds itself scuttling around out on the beach. What happens then? Because it is so precarious and scary out there alone, the strong tendency is to find another bucket and to settle in with all the other crabs there. As I say in my book, there are gay crab buckets, kinky crab buckets, polyamorous crab buckets, and every other kind of crab bucket you could imagine.

What this means is that, when we do come up with another way of doing relationships, we often grasp hold of that just as tightly as other people do to the old rules.

For example, in recent years lots of groups have come up with alternatives to monogamy. However, such groups often quickly find themselves in a crab bucket mentality. Perhaps they say it’s only okay to have sex with other people, but not to develop loving feelings. Or that we must have lots of rules in place to protect the specialness of the primary relationship. Or that everybody must be free to do whatever they want and feelings of jealousy or insecurity are not allowed. Whatever version of relationships we develop, it very easily becomes something a rigid system that we see as the only way, or better than the alternatives. Any crab who tries to do something different is pulled back into the bucket.


Embracing Uncertainty

I’ve suggested that, as a culture, we have tended to pass on old rules of relationships which are not helpful – perhaps even damaging. However I’ve also warned that – when we try to develop different rules to pass on to people which might offer helpful alternatives – these often become just as inflexible and brittle as the old rules.

What is the alternative? The idea that I would like to pass on is that of embracing uncertainty.

The author, Martine Batchelor, puts it this way. ‘Imagine,’ she says ‘that I am holding an object made of gold. It is so precious and it is mine – I feel I must hold onto it. I grasp it, curling my fingers so as not to drop it, so that nobody can take it away from me. What happens after a while? Not only do my hand and arm get cramp but I cannot use my hand for anything else. When you grip something, you create tension and limit yourself. Dropping the golden object is not the solution.’ The alternative is ‘learning to relax to uncurl the fingers and gently open the hand. When my hand is wide open and there is no tension, the precious object can rest lightly on my palm. I can still value the object and take care of it; I can put it down and pick it up; I can use my hand for doing something else.’

So what does this mean for relationships? It means that whether we’re turning to the old rules, or developing new ones, we try to avoid the tendency to grasp them tightly or to hurl them away. Instead, we hold them gently, recognising what they offer, but also their limitations. Rather than insisting on rigidly adhering to them we can treat them flexibly, recognising that they might need to shift over time as situations and people change.

Perhaps we can take the same approach to our relationships themselves. Instead of grasping hold of one person, or a few people, in our lives and insisting that they meet all of our needs, perhaps we can hold all of our relationships more gently, appreciating what we have with partners but also with friends, family, and colleagues. From people we are close with to those with whom we share only a fleeting connection.

Holding relationships gently means that we can see them more clearly, noticing when things need to change rather than becoming stuck in the dilemma of staying together just as we are or breaking up and never seeing each other again.

In this way perhaps we can learn that people in our lives are not objects that need to be figured out and played according to some set of rules, so that we can get what we want from them. Rather they are complex people in their own right, ever-changing and with their own contradictions and vulnerabilities, hopes and fears, triumphs and tragedies. Perhaps we can then be present to that person as they are right now, instead of grabbing hold of them or rejecting them entirely.

Those are the kinds of ideas about relationships that I would like to pass on.


There is an Italian translation of this talk here:

Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).



  1. organizednowplease

    28 October

    Congrats on the TED talk!!! I would love to attend a conference, but presenting is awesome.

  2. Very interesting. I may return after a cup of tea 🙂

  3. Andy Jaeger

    29 October

    Meg, I’m in awe that you’ve given at TED talk. And you’ll be pleased to know it’s resulted in one more sale of your book! I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about rules and relationships, and particularly the rules that come along with definitions (boyfriend, girlfriend, partner, lover, etc) and I’m looking forward to reading more. But anyway, congrats on your new-found stardom!

    • megbarkerpsych

      29 October

      Wow thanks Andy – it was so exciting – and the most nerve-wracking talk I’ve done since starting to lecture! I’m hoping I’ll get another opportunity at some stage and not need to look at my notes quite as much 🙂
      Do let me know what you think of the book. I think an ongoing conversation about what we mean by those terms – and the fact that different people in relationships can mean different things and not be right/wrong in some universal way – is really important.

  4. Donna Farrer

    5 November

    I am so going to have to get your book. I loved your post here. I have been really into relationships lately and trying to get the ins and outs to be more clear. I have been reading Wendy Brown’s Why Love Succeeds or Fails, pretty upfront title but she has some great things to think about in it so I have been really enthralled. is her site. It’s a good resource if anyone is like me and is really trying to figure out relationships ans how they work.