Love myths

Since Rewriting the Rules was published I sometimes get asked to do email interviews with journalists on various topics. Some of these get published in an edited form and some never see the light of day, so I thought I’d post some of the original interviews here.

Here’s one on love myths.

How do we, in general, conceive relationships today? How strong are the ‘love myths’?

Love myths do still seem to be strong. A range of relationship styles are practised across the world (many cultures being polygamous or having relationships based on things other than romantic love). Despite this, the western ideal tends to be finding ‘The One’ perfect partner and remaining with them for life with the expectation that the relationship will generally provide happiness and fulfill all of each persons’ needs. We know that this model is common because very few other models are ever considered in mainstream media (magazines, movies, TV programmes, etc.) and psychologists like Bjarne M. Holmes have found that many people to follow those love myths. Interestingly he has also found that believing strongly in such myths often means people having worse, rather than better, relationships.

Psychologist Terri Conley and her colleagues have found that people generally think that a life-long monogamous relationships is beneficial for a couple’s sex life, happiness and well-being, and for any children they have. However, there is evidence which challenges all of these beliefs and suggests that forms of consensual non-monogamy (such as polyamory and open relationships) can be just as beneficial. It seems from such research that around 4-5% of people in the US engage in some form of consensual non-monogamy.

What do we actually know about the reality of relationships today?

The statistics suggest that up to 50 or 60% of monogamous people have at least one affair or infidelity. However, it is notoriously difficult to get exact numbers on this because people are often reluctant to open up about it even on an anonymous questionnaire. This tells us that even within supposedly monogamous relationships, non-consensual non-monogamy is actually norm.

Also, we know that people often think that they share understandings of what monogamy means in their relationships, but that frequently they eventually find out that they differ (and that can often cause a crisis). For example, it is very common for one person to think that looking at pornography or having cybersex, is okay, whilst the other person disagrees, or for there to be disagreements around remaining friends with ex partners.

When did this idea of marriage as an institution, based on love only, start to exist and why?

Indeed the western love ideals are very new. Historian Stephanie Coontz suggests that they date back only to around the 1950s and the invention of the nuclear family. Before this, marriages were frequently entered into for factors to do with family, money, work, childcare, etc. rather than for romantic love (although that doesn’t mean that romantic love was never involved).

Also our idea of what you should get from a romantic partner has altered over time such that there is a lot more pressure on partners to be ‘everything’ to each other as communities and religion have dwindled, and worklives have become more precarious. Partners are often expected to provide belonging, excitement, validation, security, and to help us meet our goals in life.

Paradoxically, this pressure makes it less, rather than more, likely that people will stay together, as it is often impossible for people to match up to the huge, and often contradictory, expectations upon them. For example, Esther Perel writes about how difficult it is for relationships to provide warmth and stability at the same time as passion and excitement.

What is the most contradictory rules of love, as you see it?

I think that so many of them are contradictory. For example the pressure to be highly monogamous and to get all our needs met by one person often makes it more likely that people will be tempted elsewhere. The pressure to be happy at all times with each other makes it more likely that people will conflict. The pressure to have ‘great sex’ makes it less likely that we will relax and enjoy sex with a partner. The pressure to stay together forever makes it more likely that we will break up!

The answer, as I see it, is to open up these rules of love to exploration and to really think about which are useful to us, which we don’t need, and which might even be damaging.

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).