There’s a lot of information about society in relationship advice writing.
The first thing you can safely deduce doesn’t even come from the content, just the sheer amount of advice columns that are produced: we love it. We are all hungry little advice piggies, desperate for rules and guidance, squealing and oinking with fear and displeasure about the almost total freedom we’ve been given to conduct our affairs.
In secular capitalist society, the expectations around relationships have never been more lax. A combination of birth control, market forces and the death of religion have killed off almost all of the “traditional” rules that used to govern sex and relationships, eliminating them in the historical blink of an eye.
The upside of this is that many of those rules were stupid and harmful, especially the ones about being gay, female, or non-white. These days we recognise that being gay is actually cool and good, a big win for everyone involved. The downside is that now we have to try and come up with our own new rules, which is difficult when we live in such a competitive and atomised society.
On what basis do we draw up those new rules? Everyone has their own opinion about what is permitted and forbidden, what is cruel and kind, what is selfish and what is just self-preservation. Especially for younger people, this lack of an intuitive commons – things you can just expect other people to know, or standards of behaviour that ground a relationship – means that relationships have undergone a real turn towards contractarianism of the Hobbesian variety:
Heterosexual marriage has always been based on a contract, but it used to be one whose terms were pre-filled by society on behalf of the two parties. New relationship contractarianism, at least as I see it reflected in relationship advice writing, is people desperately trying to work out these terms for themselves. Consider this:
I find this anecdote incredibly depressing, filling out all the heartbreaking little details in a sketch of what seems to make people so unhappy in this new regime. Leaving aside whether it’s generally reasonable to expect that boyfriends can just go to strip clubs whenever they want now, has this guy actually met his own girlfriend?
Call me a weirdo, but “is it okay for me to cheat on my monogamous girlfriend by going to a strip club” seems like something that an attentive and considerate partner should be able to intuit based on what they know of the other person’s personality and needs.
I can only imagine how oafish this guy is about the more delicate, daily details if this is how clumsily he handles such a large and obvious relationship object.
The problem here is not that the girlfriend has inadequately prepared the thousand-page magistrate’s judgement on every single detail she expects from a relationship, it’s that her boyfriend is a dick!
This kind of contractual relationship negotiation relies on what seems to me a very grim view of what it means to be human. A contract is a legal instrument that is negotiated by two individuals who do not care about each other personally and are trying to protect their own interests from the other party’s claims on them. Is this really a good basis on which to model an intimate relationship?
But as I said above, the problem is that we simply do not have enough of a shared understanding of each other to do much differently. And this brings out the slightly less romantic and more practical objection to making a relationship an endless series of tense border skirmishes: it is extremely inefficient.
My strong intuition about all this is that human needs are common enough, and stable enough, that we should be able to construct at least some moderately durable basis for relating to each other. I’m not claiming there is some plug-and-go, 220-240 volts standard that every partnership has to replicate, just that this seemingly endless, neurotic, lawyerly approach is hopelessly duplicative.
That would be okay if it were a good time, but I would honestly rather spend time pulling my own fingernails out than “negotiating my relationship rules”. Jesus Christ, take me now! No thank you.
I don’t want to go back to strict patriarchy, but there’s got to be something better than this.