December
29th 2009
Lessons for Girls #16: Romance is for your pleasure and enjoyment

Posted under: Gender, happy endings, women's history

Professor Zero has posted an excellent addition to our occasional series, Lessons for Girls, which I have entitled “Romance is for your pleasure and enjoyment.”  Go read the whole thing–it’s not long, but it’s a great reminder for us girls that our romantic and sexual relationships are for us to enjoy, too.  Here are a few of her words of wisdom:

Since my mid thirties. . . I’ve had recurrent trouble with men who (a) think one should have sex to serve and please them; (b) are not sure one should have it to please oneself, unless that can benefit them with some kind of visual show; (c) are convinced women want them and that they can therefore get away with various types of poor behavior and not be frozen out.

Eventually this shook my sense of reality that I went to see a therapist, who reminded me of ideas (A) and (B) (in the second paragraph). Even though these ideas had once seemed obvious to me, it was amazing to me by that point to have someone confirm that they really weren’t “too selfish.”

.       .       .       .       .       .

So, girls: dates, and “relationships,” should be more relaxed/pleasant than ordeal-like, and it’s OK to be in them for you (as opposed to in service to the other person).

Corollary: beware of advice about how you should “work on” relationships and how they are “work.” Also beware of advice about how you need to compromise more, and how the burden of “communication” is on you.

My friendships don’t seem like work and struggle, they seem like pleasure and growth; my better relationships with men have felt like that too; I would really beware of all the warnings about the “work” of a relationship just because romance is involved; I think these are a trap.

I never had the “pleasure” of dating in my 30s, as I’ve been extremely well acquainted with Dr. Mister since I was 23 years old–but most of my female friends who dated men in their 30s have gone through this–sitting through one bad date after another–and they made the same realization that Zero reports.  (Interestingly, the decision to stop going on bad dates was usually quickly followed by meeting a really great guy–I’m not saying there’s a direct magical causation, but I think there is perhaps a correlation between getting very clear in your own mind what you’re looking for, and then finding it.) 

I think Zero makes a great point about the use of the word “work” in relationship-speak, especially since it’s women who buy and read the majority of relationship advice books and videos.  Perhaps “effort” is a better word–it takes some effort to maintain a long-term relationship, but if both partners do their fair share, they’ll continue to replenish the fountain of goodwill that should be at the center of every friendship.  (I like Zero’s formulation of friendships in general being about “pleasure and growth”–that just about sums it up, doesn’t it?)

Romantic relationships are not just zero-sum equations, in which what you put in is what you get out.  Both partners should get more than they put in, if it’s a good one, in a kind of multiplier effect.  Both partners should get more energy, pleasure, and fun from the relationship than they can generate on their own.  So my rule is, if it’s sucking away your energy, pleasure, and zest for life, cut the cord, pull the plug, chew your own leg off if you have to to get out of that bear trap.  (Pick your own cliché.)  As Liz Lemon on 30 Rock would say, “that’s a deal-breaker, ladies!”

(Confidential to Prof. Zero:  Why wouldn’t you want your parents to read this post?  If I am a parent, I would be happy to learn that my daughter wasn’t going to “cast her pearls before swine.”  Mental health is much better than catering to abusers and bullies, right?)

31 Comments »

31 Responses to “Lessons for Girls #16: Romance is for your pleasure and enjoyment”

  1. koshembos on 29 Dec 2009 at 11:21 am #

    I didn’t date in my 30s either, but I did date in my 50s. As a male, they say so, I see very little difference between what decent people of both sexes go through. The women I saw were not all nice and simple. Some women will take advantage of you at the drop of a hat (if you let them).

  2. Professor Zero on 29 Dec 2009 at 11:53 am #

    Wow, my comment turned into a post! Maybe I should post it myself — looking at it again, it won’t look too bad to my parents. I was thinking of their relationship as I wrote the comment, the way I have put up with men who are only as nice as my father is to my mother or less nice (he’s not as bad as it can get, but I would never marry a man like that), and the way my mother taught me that dating and marriage were one sat through for society’s sake just as one sat through one’s job to get one’s paycheck.

    I want to somehow include those points but today I can’t compose them diplomatically, subtly, generally, and universally enough for a post on my own site, because I’m desperately trying to write something else.

    I am honored, flattered, etc. that you’ve made this post and I’ll think about doing a revised and expanded one on this sometime next month.

    :-)

  3. Professor Zero on 29 Dec 2009 at 12:00 pm #

    P.S. Mental health is better than catering to abusers and bullies, yes, but I was not brought up to believe that applied to me. That is why the post is challenging to the family, although perhaps it will go under their radar because perhaps they do not realize they taught me that. ?

  4. perpetua on 29 Dec 2009 at 12:00 pm #

    How many women did I know in my 20s who seemed to believe that suffering was a key component of relationships? They embodied the typical scenario of the cold/distant/controlling/ cheating men and their long-suffering girlfriends whose constant stream of excuses for their menz’ behavior always ended in a plaintive, “But I love him!” I could never get them to answer the simple question “What in fact do you love about him? What is *loveable* about him?” They appeared to believe that every man “deserves” love regardless of merit or treatment of others and that it is of course women’s jobs to give that love even when they get nothing back. The big payback is that love supposedly transforms Bad Boy into Devoted Husband and Father. (Which of course he never does.) I’ve lived this scenario myself in the dark days of my early 20s (my personal great depression). Women give and serve and sacrifice and work, men just do whatever they want. And why shouldn’t they if they don’t have to do anything and can still be loved, accepted, etc? Obviously, this is not the story of all heterosexual relationships, but it repeats enough to be striking. It astonishes me how few women equate love with respect, equality, and genuine mutual fulfillment. But then again, why should they when so little in our culture encourages such a view? And we wonder why so many marriages fail! (The whole monogamy problem is just the tip of the iceberg.)

    Over Christmas, I went to see “Up in the Air.” There was one particularly disturbing scene in which two female characters, one older and one younger, talk about expectations from a partner. The younger one lists a whole series of qualities she expects to find in a partner (all basically superficial – professional, color of eyes, height, etc). And instead of saying well, when you get older you look for other things like kindness and respect, the older women basically responded by saying, “oh when you get older you’ll learn to settle for almost nothing.” And adds (seriously!) “Don’t ever marry a man who makes less than you do.” !!! I know these ideas are social commonplaces, but I’m still always struck when I encounter a model of relationships (or attitude toward relationships) that is diametrically opposed to how my own works/ how I would consent to one in my own life.

    I would add my own lesson on romance: Mutual respect is the foundation of all happy and fulfilling love.

    @koshembos – while there are of course jerks of both sexes (and I’ve heard horror stories aplenty about dating some women) what Professor Zero and Historiann are talking about is an essential asymmetry of power between women and men and how that manifests in the dating world (and reinforces patriarchy and gender imbalances).

  5. Historiann on 29 Dec 2009 at 12:14 pm #

    Perpetua: I think you’re right that this pathology isn’t restricted to those who are 30+. It’s sad for me to contemplate those young women who put up with so much for so little, just to say that they have boyfriends. Ugh. I call this the “All about Jim/King of Queens” syndrome. These guys get away with what they get away with in personal relationships because they can.

    That scene from Up in the Air is disturbing–women indeed can treat men like consumer objects, but I think they face more cultural pressure to take it, rather than to dish it out, as it were. Yes very much on the “mutual respect” point. And, when you live with someone and/or see them on a daily basis, basic manners go a long, long way. I know this must sound extremely bourgeois of me, but saying “please” and “thank you” when someone does something for you or the household, even when it’s part of hir usual routine of responsibilities, goes a long way. There is no real love without kindness, and no genuine affection without respect.

  6. Historiann on 29 Dec 2009 at 12:18 pm #

    THIS JUST IN (via The Daily Beast): For “all the single ladies” out there who like men: Karl Rove is single again!

  7. Susan on 29 Dec 2009 at 12:57 pm #

    Oh, then Rove is available for those of us who are single? Just what I’ve been waiting for :)

    But otherwise, yes to all this. Of course living with someone takes effort (I like that word) but that’s true of being a room mate, not just being a romantic partner. And any friendship or romance requires some attention: to stay in touch, know what is happening etc. That doesn’t mean that you don’t get pleasure out of the friendship or romance, but that it’s not automatic.

    My take on this is that you shouldn’t accept in a romance anything you wouldn’t accept in a friendship.

  8. perpetua on 29 Dec 2009 at 1:02 pm #

    re: Rove – I don’t know, I hear Charlie Sheen’s about to be single too! What a happy week for women everywhere.

  9. Historiann on 29 Dec 2009 at 1:31 pm #

    Yikes. I’m sure Charlie Sheen will find yet another dumba$$ to fall for him whom he can threaten with knives again really soon. (I hadn’t heard they were divorcing–just that he allegedly attacked his wife with a knife and threatened her life, and spent Christmas in the Aspen pokey.) Jeralyn Merritt at TalkLeft has been following the details, and of course it’s big news in the Colorado media in general.

    If it weren’t for Celebrities Behaving Badly in Aspen, and the National Western Stock Show, there wouldn’t be anything going on in Colorado in late December and January! Celebrities Behaving Badly is a very important local industry.

    I like Susan’s formulation that you shouldn’t accept in a romance anything you wouldn’t accept in a friendship. I have to tell ya, I refuse to keep “friends” who hold me at knifepoint and threaten my life! But that’s just me–YMMV.

  10. perpetua on 29 Dec 2009 at 1:43 pm #

    Oh, Historiann, you’re so picky. I guess I’m projecting in my assumption that Mrs. will divorce Sheen. I guess once you shoot one of your girlfriends (“accidentally”!) you think you can do anything to a woman. . . Actually, this makes me think about the obvious link between some of the dating dynamics in Prof Zero’s OP. We sometimes imagine that there is a huge gap between “normal” dating and abusive relationships. I often shiver at how close the two seem, how easy it is for many women (especially young women) to slide into one from the other. Once you view love as suffering and relationships as an ordeal you’re just a hop skip and a jump from being threatened at knifepoint with your children in the next room.

  11. Historiann on 29 Dec 2009 at 1:57 pm #

    Excellent point, perpetua. I think most abusers start small, by isolating a woman from her friends and family (or making it so difficult and costly for her to maintain those connections that she gives them up “voluntarily,”) rather than making the opening gambit violence with deadly weapons.

    Any relationships in which one person is assigned all or most of the responsibility, but little or none of the authority, is essentially abusive. (This is also true of work situations–beware that skewed authority/responsibility ratio!!!)

    It will be interesting to see how this affair affects Sheen’s career–he’s apparently the highest paid person on TV, and gets something like $8M per episode of his crappy sitcom. (Especially in light of Tiger Woods’ extramarital but entirely legal escapades. Maybe Tiger should have sold himself as a “bad boy” from the start–that’s what people seem to want in Charlie Sheen, and you have to admit that he delivers!)

  12. Homostorian Americanist on 29 Dec 2009 at 6:25 pm #

    I agree that the scene from “Up in the Air” is disturbing but the whole sentiment is kind of blown out of the water once you know what you know about the person who said it — which you know by the end of the movie. I think it forces a reevaluation of her seriousness in making the statement in the first place.

    But on to the matter of “work” in relationships. See Kristin Celello’s recent “Making Marriage Work: A History of Marriage and Divorce in the 20th C US,” in which she contends that the notion of relationships as “work” is a 20th-C phenomenon (borne of psychology and marriage counseling) and, even more importantly, that women were almost always supposed to be the ones doing the work. If the marriages failed, THEY had failed because it was always their responsibility to begin with.

  13. Comrade PhysioProf on 29 Dec 2009 at 7:19 pm #

    I think there is massive conflation about relationship “work”. On the one hand, saying relationships are “work” can mean something real, which is that having a deep realtionship can sometimes entail shit other than unicorns and rainbows flying out of the both your asses. On the other hand, as has been pointed out, relationship “work” is also used as code for, “suck it up, bitch, or else you’ll get no one”.

  14. Professor Zero on 29 Dec 2009 at 7:39 pm #

    “We sometimes imagine that there is a huge gap between ‘normal’ dating and abusive relationships.”

    Right, but gender inequity puts “normal” relationships, whether they’re romantic ones or not, closer on the spectrum toward “abusive” than we always want to see.

    I see a lot of women putting up with a whole lot.

  15. Monocle Man on 29 Dec 2009 at 9:27 pm #

    What’s up with “dating”, anyway?

    I always thought that if you were attracted and she was attracted, then you paired off without too much fuss.

    Sifting through potential mates over dinner/drinks/coffee always struck me as implausible at best, and at worst something insidious that I do not have the time to discuss at the moment.

  16. Susan on 29 Dec 2009 at 10:57 pm #

    @ Monocle Man: There is usually some time between when you meet someone and when you “pair off”. During that time, as you get to know someone, you do things together — whether it’d dinner/drinks/coffee, movies, walks in the woods, etc. You do the things you do with friends. So it may not be “dating” as it was done in high school (or not done, in my case :) ) but it’s something.

  17. Monocle Man on 30 Dec 2009 at 5:46 am #

    Susan -

    To clarify, “pair off” here is to mean “be together”, “assume that you will see each other”, “fool around”.

  18. Professor Zero on 30 Dec 2009 at 7:39 am #

    Monocle Man is looking like a troll to me.

  19. Nels Highberg on 30 Dec 2009 at 8:34 am #

    What a wonderful message at this time of the year, or any time of any year.

  20. squadratomagico on 30 Dec 2009 at 9:12 am #

    I’m not sure if Monocle Man is a troll… in fact, I think his point has merit. I, too, don’t really understand the “dating” idea as I see it conventionally portrayed. It always has seemed forced to me, like interviewing people for the position of partner and checking them out against a prepared list of characteristics (such as the one Perpetua brought up from UITA). But perhaps my lack of understanding has to do with the way dating conventionally is depicted in TV, movies, and the NYTimes style section: getting dressed up and then going out for dinner with someone you know very little about, and chatting them up. I simply never have done this — in fact, I paired up quickly (and quite young) in exactly the no-fuss way Monocle Man describes. When that’s been your experience, the formal character of the dating scenario genuinely can sound odd.
    OTOH, Susan’s re-formulation of dating — getting to know someone, possibly in a non-commercial setting like taking a walk — makes a lot more sense to me. But again, that’s not the way dating appears, as a social phenomenon, on, say, Sex & the City, in women’s magazines, NYTimes, etc.

  21. Historiann on 30 Dec 2009 at 9:33 am #

    I enjoyed dating in my 20s–when you’re in your 20s, you can date anyone (and I did, which was probably in the end not such a great strategy!) Because I had gone to a SLAC where there wasn’t any dating–people were either totally unattached, or in pseudo-marriages–I enjoyed living in the big city and getting to know men from a variety of different backgrounds (most of whom I never would have run into in my SLAC-y environment).

    Dating in the 30s and beyond does become more like a job interview if you’re looking for a partner. When you’re in your 30s, you probably have a more scheduled life than in your 20s, so it’s harder to find “hang out” time. Hence, the dating game. (Especially since so many of my friends in their 30s and 40s have used services like E-harmony and match.com–what else would you call meeting someone you met online but a “date?”)

  22. Professor Zero on 30 Dec 2009 at 5:49 pm #

    I don’t like the dating concept and I’m old enough to remember the days when one didn’t do it — one just met men and lived with them. That works if you’re already both in the same sort of life and relatively unencumbered, so you already know you have certain things in common, and there are certain problems (like kids and exes and deep neuroses) that are less likely to come up.

    After 30, and especially if you’re not living in your home culture, you really want to get to know the person a bit so that you can even tell whether you’re interested in “pairing off.”

    *

    I am now trying to figure out the differences among relationship statuses and definitions, and I don’t understand them.

    spouse (I get it)
    longtime companion (I get it)
    established lover of some kind(I get it)
    person you’re seeing, who might become one of the above (I get it)
    friend with whom at some point, as one of the things you did, you’ve had sex (I get it)
    one night stand (I get it)

    then there are:
    “friend with benefits” (I don’t get it, is it one of the above? it seems like “person who lets you use them for sex”)
    fuck buddy (I don’t get it either, it also seems exploitative in some way)

    …all the people who try to get me into the last two statuses seem to be interested in using these statuses because are LESS than platonic friend status, whereas those on the first list (except one night stand, that could qualify as anything) seem to think you also get the kind of mutuality and respect a platonic friend would.

    I know I am missing some piece of understanding and I don’t know what it is.

    *

    I’ve never used an online service, perhaps I should, but it would definitely require interviewing people; so would any type of ad.

  23. Rich on 31 Dec 2009 at 6:49 am #

    I’ve never had any experience with these more “natural” alternatives to dating; these pairings that just emerge organically out of shared time and space. Girl meets boy. They start doing it. They live happily until they stop and move on. Truthfully, the way these meetings are being described here mystifies me.

    My impression, and I’m only relating my impression of the conversation here, is that they are being presented as if they are somehow more benign than dating. As if they’re these freeform things somehow less influenced by environment — or patriarchy for that matter — when who gets to share what time and what space is such a carefully regulated thing to begin with. Since the word dating presents its audience with the idea of taxonomy, of course it feels more regimented.

    My real introduction to heterostuff began when I started random coffee dating women from internet sites when I was in my mid 20s: what surprised me was how much I’d been taught culturally about what constitutes a bad date, that I had no idea what a particularly good one was. Perhaps I’m just fairly well adjusted for a male, or that most women are overly instructed in the art of managing conversation (often to their own detriment), but I found that I could have a great time talking to absolutely anyone for upwards of three hours in a coffee shop.

    I’m not so much a believer in chemistry, which is often just a polite way of whitewashing fetishes, I believe, and have learned to distrust instant attractions, but I found that I was ill equipped to judge how a date went and whether someone would be interested in meeting again. We don’t receive training in that.

    “I’ve never used an online service, perhaps I should”

    That’s so 2000. It’s too late. They’re in decline. “Everyone” is just using facebook(rich)/myspace(poor) for that sort of thing now. Evidently, some perfectly reasonable women I know in NYC use Craigslist to meet men, although none that I know where I live (middle of nowhere) would ever consider that (and all the local listings by women are written by men in Nigeria).

  24. Professor Zero on 31 Dec 2009 at 8:53 am #

    Oh good — the online era has bypassed me. How I meet men: at places and activities I would go to anyway. This works best if you’re in an area where there are a fair number of people who would be of interest to you, of course. Still.

    Chemistry as way of whitewashing fetishes, I see that, but I’m only attracted to the people I am, and I have never had good results from trying to “work on” creating chemistry. I think that’s another one of those myths propagated by women’s magazines — with enough effort, we could talk ourselves into sleeping with more men, attractive or not.

    Women are good hostesses and know how to talk. If they’re dating from internet sites, they’re also ready to talk. If they meet someone articulate and smart like Rich they’ll talk even if they’re not ultimately attracted. They might also have met some dud yesterday and be relieved to just talk to a human being.

    I agree strongly with the following, although I will comment below:

    “Truthfully, the way these meetings are being described here mystifies me. My impression, and I’m only relating my impression of the conversation here, is that they are being presented as if they are somehow more benign than dating. As if they’re these freeform things somehow less influenced by environment — or patriarchy for that matter — when who gets to share what time and what space is such a carefully regulated thing to begin with. Since the word dating presents its audience with the idea of taxonomy, of course it feels more regimented.”

    Those meetings *are* described in a mystifying way in this thread. Everyone is describing some form of dating. They’re not describing super formal prom rituals, or any kind of blind date including those resulting from ads. But it is simply not true that they didn’t size each other up, get to know each other, and so on, before becoming a committed couple. I know a lot of people who claim it was just oh so natural, but I say that just means they were well suited and it was comfortable and went well.

  25. squadratomagico on 31 Dec 2009 at 9:15 am #

    Rich, here’s what I’m hearing from you:

    -”I can have a great time talking for three hours straight to absolutely anyone” — e.g., I don’t really care what my date is like as an individual. All women are interchangeable as long as I can talk about myself for three hours. Listening to them? Huh?

    -”Women ‘manage’ conversation too much.” — e.g. they can’t get a word in edgewise as you converse in your unrestrained manner. “Managing” conversation simply means being considerate of your conversation partner by trying to gauge whether they are interested in hearing every last thought that occurs to you. Your dates may be holding back because they are hoping not to encourage you to go one for another hour, as well.

    -”I’m ill-equipped to judge whether a date went well and whether she would be interested in seeing me again.” e.g., you had a great time talking in a “non-managed” way about god knows what for three hours. Her? not so much.

    Perhaps you are not the way you sound. But your self-presentation in the above comment makes it no surprise to me that you have a hard time getting second dates.

  26. Rich on 31 Dec 2009 at 10:25 am #

    “But your self-presentation in the above comment makes it no surprise to me that you have a hard time getting second dates”

    I never said anything about whether or not further dates occurred! I’m not sure it’s relevant to the point I was making. I always appreciate a good head shrinking though. :)

  27. Rich on 31 Dec 2009 at 10:25 am #

    “But your self-presentation in the above comment makes it no surprise to me that you have a hard time getting second dates”

    I never said anything about whether or not further dates occurred! I’m not sure it’s relevant to the point I was making. I always appreciate a good head shrinking though. :)

  28. squadratomagico on 31 Dec 2009 at 10:54 am #

    Rich, thanks for being so gracious in response to my snark. Perhaps I misjudged you: your initial comment really rubbed me the wrong way, obviously, but your comment just above was generous and friendly. So, thanks for giving me another view on you.

  29. Lessons for Girls 16: Romance is for Fun. And: Hold On To Your Computer, House, and Car. « Professor Zero on 31 Dec 2009 at 11:33 am #

    [...] is for Fun. And: Hold On To Your Computer, House, and Car. Jump to Comments Now I am in a post at Historiann’s, which does me honor and is an excellent way to end the year. It is part of her feminist series [...]

  30. Rich on 31 Dec 2009 at 3:53 pm #

    “your initial comment really rubbed me the wrong way, obviously”

    Well, I certainly do hope that my “talking to” instead of “talking with” was just a lapse of tiredness and not a subliminal message; same with my use of “that” describing people, in lieu of having to commit to who vs. whom. But I guess that’s part of my general point that I’ve never had to be particularly wary of my dates (like you have to be even of random males posting here) and have a hard time seeing why the more formalized version of the process is greeted with such loathing.

    Two people who have full access to every story they possess without repetition, every bit of a combined 50-100 years of personal experience, who are well rehearsed (and even have remnants of recent date’s experiences to summon from, “I actually know someone who lives in a fancy barn year round and takes care of absent rich people’s horses”), should get along famously for a few hours! A few weeks even. Where you go from there should be the tricky part.

    Maybe a bad date is, in fact, when such a course isn’t obvious — but you wouldn’t know that from the disaster stories we’re fed. Hell, now we have a sex industry colonizing the Left and telling us a “bad date” is when a prostitute is held at knife point or worse!

    “Those meetings *are* described in a mystifying way in this thread”

    I find that greatly reassuring. I’m also alarmed that I didn’t quite figure that out.

  31. Lessons for Girls 16: Romance is for Fun. And: Hold On To Your Computer, House, and Car. « Professor Zero on 02 Jan 2010 at 1:14 pm #

    [...] is for Fun. And: Hold On To Your Computer, House, and Car. Jump to Comments Now I am in a post at Historiann’s, which is an honor. Historiann’s title for my post, part of her feminist series Lessons for [...]