Never buy drinks for a girl you fancy. Don’t meet him half-way or go Dutch. Get her talking. Speak about yourself. Be open about your feelings. Don’t come on too heavy. Never forgive cheating. Infidelity can be the best thing for a couple Work at your relationship. Be spontaneous…
The introduction to the book sets out the problem that we are currently in a state of massive uncertainty about relationships. Never before in our history has there been more advice available on who and how to love, and never before have the rules we receive about relationships been more confusing and contradictory. At the same time that everything from official forms to social networking sites seem intent on defining us by our relationships there is less and less clarity about what exactly we’re talking about. If we were honest perhaps we’d all tick the box which says ‘it’s complicated’.
The introduction explains that, in the face of such uncertainty, we are tempted either to grasp hold of old rules of relationships, or to develop new rules and to grab onto those equally tightly. For this reason, the book examines both the old and new rules of relating, and questions how useful they might be to us trying to manage our relationships today. The reader is welcomed as a co-traveller on this complicated, but rewarding, journey, through the rules of relationships.
Chapter 1: Rewriting the rules of yourself
Is there anything to the common idea that we need to love ourselves before we are able to love – or be loved by – another person? This chapter puts our relationship with ourselves right up front because it is hard to have a good relationship with anybody else if this relationship is in a bad way. Unfortunately these days it is extremely difficult to feel positive and kindly towards ourselves in the face of a culture of self-improvement, self-scrutiny and celebrity. We are so often told that we are not good enough and that extreme fame and fortune is the only way to be a successful person.
This chapter proposes that we tend to treat ourselves in a ‘hard and soft’ way: either berating ourselves or just giving up. This often results in us being hard and soft in relationships too: demanding unrealistic perfection or accepting a relationship we’re really unhappy with. An alternative ‘gentle and firm’ way of treating ourselves and others is suggested, where we realise that no-one is perfect and go easy on ourselves, whilst recognising where our limits are and being clear about our responsibilities. If we get along better with ourselves perhaps we won’t be so desperately looking to our relationships to make us feel that we are okay.
Chapter 2: Rewriting the rules of attraction
One of the rules that is so omnipresent that it can almost seem unquestionable is that there is a body ideal which we should all aspire to, and strive to match, and that such beauty is the only way to attract a partner. Physical attributes are often the qualities that take up much of the limited space in personal adverts. And very few people are happy with the appearance they have. There are ever more products available aimed at attaining and maintaining the ideal appearance, from face creams to cosmetic surgery to gym membership. Each season there is a new bodily feature to be insecure about which we had never heard of before.
Chapter 2 continues the theme from chapter 1: it seems that the way we treat our own bodies is very linked to the ways in which we judge or embrace the bodies of other people. The chapter looks at some of the problems caused by our negative relationships with our bodies, and the ways in which what is considered beautiful changes so much over time and across different places. The chapter ends with a number of practical suggestions about how we can be kinder to our bodies, and more open to those of other people.
Chapter 3: Rewriting the rules of love
Chapter 3 zeroes in on the rules of love. Following on from the previous two chapters it looks at how we are often seen as being incomplete people, or even failures, until we have found The One who will be everything to us. This idea is sold everywhere from fairy tales to Hollywood movies. We all know what happily-ever-after is meant to look like. So how come it is so different from what most of us experience in our relationships?
Actually, belief in a soulmate who we are destined for, who will magically know what we want and meet all our expectations, has been found – time and time again – to make people unhappy and to put their relationships at risk. The pressure to meet and keep The One can easily make people feel that they are not enough by themselves. This means that people who are single, or who leave a relationship, feel as if they are failures and that there is something wrong with them. At the same time, people in relationships may stay in them even if they are very unhappy there, for fear of being alone. Chapter 3 considers alternatives like the need for some solitude even within relationships, and the idea that we might require different people for different things in our lives.
Chapter 4: Rewriting the rules of sex
When we talk about relationships what we invariably mean is a sexual relationship. Sex and love are seen as intertwined. Sexual compatibility is reckoned to be vital in demonstrating whether a relationship is right or not, and sexual problems are seen as a sign of something wrong with a relationship. At the same time, however, there is a big taboo over communicating with each other about what we really want when it comes to sex.
Chapter 4 looks, then, at the rules of sex, discovering that the thing that is vital to most people is the overwhelming desire to be normal. One problem is that recently there has also been increasing pressure to be having great sex, and quite a lot of problems come with trying to be sexually adventurous at the same time as forcing ourselves into a one-size-fits-all kind of sexuality. The chapter wonders what it would be like if we prioritised our pleasure over being normal, and mutual enjoyment over trying to prove how great our sex life is to everyone else. Practical ideas are given for how people can figure out what turns them on and communicate about this to partners.
Chapter 5: Rewriting the rules of gender
We can’t explore the rules of love and relationships without exploring the rules of gender because those rules are with us all the way. Couples are meant to be two opposites coming together to make a whole. But at the same time this is seen as quite a problem because they speak different languages, want different things, and even come from different planets. We’re told that we need experts to help us learn how to understand the opposite sex in order to make our relationships work.
Chapter 5 illustrates this way of thinking about gender with the recent incarnations of the Rules girls and Game boys (women following the self-help book, The Rules, and men following the online seduction communities described in the book The Game). However, there is a big problem. If gender was really at the root of all troubles in relationships then wouldn’t relationships between people of the same gender be perfect? They’re not.
This chapter explores alternative possible ways of looking at gender and understanding difficulties in relationships. It ends with the idea that nowadays all relationships involve people who want to be together at the same time as wanting to be free to pursue their own goals, which inevitably causes conflicts along the way.
Chapter 6: Rewriting the rules of monogamy
Continuing the idea that relationships are difficult because we all want to be free at the same time as we want to belong, chapter 6 focuses on monogamy. The rules of monogamy are that people must be faithful to each other in relationships, and that breaking this rule means that you are a bad person and will probably signal the end the relationship if you are discovered. Anything outside of monogamy is seen as freaky or dangerous.
Chapter 6 suggests that there are some problems with the idea that monogamy is the normal and natural way to be, given that 50-60% of people cheat or have affairs. Also it is often unclear where the line is between monogamy and cheating. Is it okay to have close friends of the same gender as your partner? Is it alright to fantasise about someone else or to look at online porn? What about staying mates with your ex or kissing a stranger in a nightclub? This chapter looks at the ways in which various groups are currently rewriting the rules of monogamy, and what other ways of relating might look like.
Chapter 7: Rewriting the rules of conflict
The main unwritten rule of conflict is that it shouldn’t happen at all. Once we have found the right person and have publicly declared that we are together it seems that we need to keep proving, to ourselves and to others, how good the relationship is. It would be shaming to be overheard rowing by our neighbours, to acknowledge to colleagues that we look tired because we had an argument with our partner last night, or to tell our family that we are going through a rough patch.
Chapter 7 suggest that, paradoxically, trying not to conflict is a good way of conflicting more, and in more difficult ways. It looks at the way in which we commonly allocate blame in conflicts, deciding that the other person is totally wrong and we are totally right. An alternative is suggested where we practice thinking about how things look from the other person’s perspective, and learn about the baggage which we bring to each argument which makes us less likely to see it clearly. The chapter ends with a practical step-by-step guide to resolving the inevitable conflicts that will arise in any relationship.
Chapter 8: Rewriting the rules of break-up
One possible outcome of conflict, of course, is relationship break-up. Break-ups, like conflicts, are seen as something to be avoided at all costs, perhaps because they are regarded as a sign, not only that the relationship has failed, but that we ourselves may be a failure: at relationships, and perhaps even more broadly than that, as a person. The tendency to polarise people into right and wrong, good and bad, is almost overwhelming during break-ups as we, and everyone around us, are drawn into figuring out whose fault the break-up was, and the casting of blame.
Chapter 8 examines the rules of break-up and the implications of these for relationships with exes, current, and potential partners. There is more and more need for people to manage break-ups and relationships with ex partners in ways which will not devastate the wider family or friendship network involved. However, the stories that are we get about good guys and bad guys do not make this easy. Again, alternatives are suggested for how people might view relationships that have ended or changed into a different form.
Chapter 9: Rewriting the rules of commitment
Finally, one of the main rules about successful relationships is that they are the ones that last. Despite all the evidence of uncertainty in relationships, more and more people want to commit to each other through marriages and other forms of public ceremony. We promise each other that we will stay together forever whatever happens, sharing everything we have, and meeting our goals together.
Chapter 9 proposes that often, when we make these promises, we don’t think quite enough about what they mean to us and the other people involved. Often relationship therapy is a process of realising that ‘when I meant X, you thought I meant Y’. For example, does being together mean having no privacy or might we still have some things we keep to ourselves? Should partners be prioritised over friends, or family? Does commitment mean spending all our time together, living together, having a joint account? Do we agree on the goals we have and when we expect to meet them? It is worth unpacking the way each person interprets the promises made to find out where we are on the same page, where we differ but can compromise, and where we have an inevitable tension which probably will bubble up from time to time. Chapter 9 also wonders what alternative commitments we might make to each other if we were rewriting these rules from scratch.
Chapter 10: Rewriting your rules
Chapter 10 is a brief chapter drawing the book to a close. It includes a review of why rewriting the rules is seldom easy, reiterating the point that has been made throughout about the importance of finding your own way rather than trying to get it right. The chapter also includes some practical suggestions about how readers might continue with the journey they’ve begun by reading Rewriting the Rules.