Joni Meenagh questions the social hierarchies of relationships
A dangerous woman thinks about how our social systems could be organised differently; she challenges the status quo.
For me, it’s about challenging how we think about relationships.
Recently I was filling out some paperwork for a medical specialist appointment. The form asked about my marital status. I sighed and looked at the options, considered my choices, and decided to leave it blank, instead writing in ‘really?’
Marital status remains a regularly asked, seemingly innocuous, question on many forms seeking demographic information. But what relevance does it actually hold for the people collecting it? My marital status is irrelevant to my medical treatment. There is a different section for my emergency contact, a person whom I can determine for myself; their relationship to me named by me instead of their ability to be my contact person determined by our relationship.
We are asked about our marital status because, historically, women are traced through their relationships to men. And while there has been progress in recognising a broader range of relationships (de facto, same-sex marriages or partnerships) women are still defined by their relationships to others.
Going back to the medical form, the options for title were Mrs, Ms, Miss, or Mr. Setting aside the fact that this ignores gender diversity, all the titles available for women clearly signal them in terms of their relationship to marriage. Mrs is a married woman who wants people to know she is married; Miss is an unmarried woman who wants people to know she’s unmarried; Ms is a woman who does not want to be defined by if she is married. Whereas Mr is just a man; there is no way of determining how a Mr feels about marriage.
‘Marital status’ is a poor indicator of our interpersonal relationships. It is based on a heteronormative understanding of relationship structures and does not allow for queer forms of relating. I know that from this heteronormative perspective I fall into the ‘never married’ category, but ‘de facto’ is a more accurate reflection of how my home life is organised. The only reason I don’t fit into the ‘de facto’ box is because that partnership is not romantic or sexual. We share every other aspect of our lives together, but through this bureaucratic lens we are ‘just friends’ or possibly even ‘just housemates’.
Similarly, the less formal ‘relationship status’ is also inadequate. The options listed here tend to go from ‘single’ to ‘in a relationship’ to graduated forms of commitment and relationship break down. So how do we recognise the grey area between ‘single’ and ‘in a relationship’? Is this not important too? And what about the different kinds of relationships we might be in? Do only our romantic attachments deserve recognition?
This is why the concept of ‘relationship anarchy’ appeals to me. It does away with the idea of relationship hierarchies and acknowledges the value in all different types of relationships. It is a thoroughly queer way of relating. According to The Thinking Asexual:
What relationship anarchy hinges on the most, for me, is the equality it seeks to create across the relationship board, so that sexual relationships are not superior to nonsexual relationships and “romantic” relationships are not superior to nonromantic friendships, and that equality means that a nonsexual and/or nonromantic friend has the same amount of access to love, intimacy, physical affection, support, etc. That means a nonsexual/nonromantic friend is just as likely to become an RA’s life partner or one of their life partners. Relationship anarchy provides the kind of respect, security, opportunity, equality, and love that a celibate asexual needs, especially if they are single or they’re not necessarily looking for just one romantic life partner to fulfill all of their major needs in a traditional romantic relationship.
When I think about my life and how I have done relationships, this is what I see. I see the friendships I have had that have provided me with more support (emotionally and materially) than any romantic or sexual relationship ever has. I see the joy (and the pain) that romantic connections have provided me. I see the fun and the playfulness that my sexual relationships have given me. And I see that all of these things overlap; that their boundaries are not clear and that I don’t want them to be clear.
Western societies are geared toward coupledom; social and economic rewards and benefits are conferred upon couples, with married couples at the top of the relationship privilege hierarchy. Being single is seen as a liminal state; as something that we transition out of and into over our lives. It is not seen as a valid state for a person to choose to stay in. Not in the long run, anyways. Single people are constantly met with a barrage of messages about how they should not worry as someone will come along eventually (like we’re stuck on the side of the road with a flat tyre), peppered in with messages about how they should work on themselves to be more open and receptive to that love when it does come around (don’t screw it up!). The result being intense pressure to make any relationship that comes along work – as in, conform to the heteronormative standard – and a sense of failure if it does not.
As a ‘single’ childless woman in her 30s I’m acutely aware of how our social systems disadvantage single people. While completing my PhD, I did not have a partner’s income or domestic labour to rely upon, the result being less down time and more debt. This makes it more difficult to get ahead now that I’m working. When I’m sick, I have to take care of myself. And because I work casually, being sick means loss of income. Plus there are the moments of intense financial insecurity when I’m between contracts! Couples benefits are apparent in more luxurious things too, like travelling or going out (a hotel room costs the same whether you’re on your own or with someone else).
Challenging the way our relationships are ordered and privileged is a dangerous idea. It challenges the idea that romantic love is the best kind of love. It challenges marriage as the foundation of society – a doubly dangerous idea within conservative society and the gay and lesbian community as same-sex marriage rights gain recognition.
Our society is structured in both formal and informal ways that encourage us to pair up and take responsibility for one another. This in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The problem lies in how certain types of pairings are privileged over others, and how pairings that occur outside of the heteronormative framework are rendered invisible. In doing so it renders ‘single’ people as lacking social support, instead of recognising the diverse types of relationships we all form to get our various needs met.
Reorganising the way we distribute and reward rights and privileges may seem like a threat to traditional types of relationships, but it doesn’t have to be. I think it is entirely possible to make these changes to the distribution of rights and privileges so that it doesn’t centre around marriage-type relationships, but around individual choice and community. For instance, when taking out a health insurance policy that provides coverage for one’s spouse, why couldn’t this coverage be applied to a person nominated by the policy holder? Changes like this would allow for families, friends, and communities to redistribute resources between them. If they so choose. Such a change would not prevent the passing on of benefits between married couples, but provide more options for those of us who choose to organise our relationships differently.
Under the heteronormative relationship framework there is too much emphasis placed upon the form a relationship takes and not enough emphasis upon the content. Instead of focusing on the structure of a relationship, we can focus on what it is that we get from our different relationships that we enjoy. What pleasure is derived from having someone in your life? By acknowledging this we can start to make ourselves more open to the possibilities of those relationships expanding; to finding support, being nurtured, giving, and growing. Instead of focusing on bringing a certain type of relationship into our lives, we can think about what ways of relating are missing and consider how we can fulfill our emotional needs for those particular kinds of relating, either through existing relationships or by forming new ones.
Life is fluid. Relationships shift and change, and the emphasis we place on them does not stay constant throughout their duration. I think that people understand this about friendships, but have a harder time recognising this is also true of romantic relationships. Emotions might be felt more intensely in a romantic/sexual relationship, but they are not somehow immune to the ebb and flow of life and individual needs. When two people decide to commit to each other in a romantic/sexual relationship, it is not as if they suddenly become one person; they are still two separate individuals with unique emotional needs and life circumstances. They are both on their own life journeys, even if they are each other’s travel companions.
When romantic love, and particularly the notion of ‘soul mates’, is held up as being better/greater than any other form of love, it gives us an excuse for ignoring or neglecting the other important relationships in our lives. It also creates a vicious cycle of unnecessary pain when a romantic relationship ends. It’s hard enough saying goodbye to a relationship with someone you’ve cared about without having that relationship imbued with ideological claims that either a) the love you experienced in that relationship was not as grand as it could have been, or b) that you will never experience a love as grand again.
Along with forming relationships in new ways, I think we also need to engage with them differently when they end. We can focus on what was good about the relationship, what pleasure or joy that person brought to your life. What did you learn from them? How did you grow? I think we focus too much on the pain and hurt when relationships end, and that’s not helpful.
Instead, we can choose to honour the positive memories and think kindly of the relationships that are no longer in our lives. We can remember their beauty and let them go, thanking them for what they gave us for however long that lasted. All relationships are temporary, even if they last a really long time. Focusing on the good they’ve brought us doesn’t make the hurt go away, but it helps.
Because any amount of beauty and joy that something brings to your life is a positive thing.
Joni Meenagh has a PhD from the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at La Trobe University. Her research explores young people’s negotiation of their romantic and sexual relationships in the context of new media environments. She is passionate about queer politics, particularly around negotiating relationships. Originally from Canada, Joni now lives in Melbourne with her platonic life partner and their three cats.