Interesting research. I wonder what, if anything, does this say about sociocultural attitudes towards gender roles, relationships, romantic expectations, or other factors that may contribute to conflict between partners. I’d be curious to see research like this involving other countries across the world.
In her fascinating Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, [Stephanie Coontz] surveys 5,000 years of human habits, from our days as hunters and gatherers up until the present, showing our social arrangements to be more complex and varied than could ever seem possible. She’d long known that the Leave It to Beaver–style family model popular in the 1950s and ’60s had been a flash in the pan, and like a lot of historians, she couldn’t understand how people had become so attached to an idea that had developed so late and been so short-lived.
For thousands of years, marriage had been a primarily economic and political contract between two people, negotiated and policed by their families, church, and community. It took more than one person to make a farm or business thrive, and so a potential mate’s skills, resources, thrift, and industriousness were valued as highly as personality and attractiveness. This held true for all classes. In the American colonies, wealthy merchants entrusted business matters to their landlocked wives while off at sea, just as sailors, vulnerable to the unpredictability of seasonal employment, relied on their wives’ steady income as domestics in elite households. Two-income families were the norm.
Not until the 18th century did labor begin to be divided along a sharp line: wage-earning for the men and unpaid maintenance of household and children for the women. Coontz notes that as recently as the late 17th century, women’s contributions to the family economy were openly recognized, and advice books urged husbands and wives to share domestic tasks. But as labor became separated, so did our spheres of experience—the marketplace versus the home—one founded on reason and action, the other on compassion and comfort. Not until the post-war gains of the 1950s, however, were a majority of American families able to actually afford living off a single breadwinner.
— An excerpt from “All the Single Ladies” by Kate Bolick. It’s a long but interesting read.
Hat tip to my friend Colette for sharing this with me.
Hanna Rosin of Slate has an excellent piece about a peculiar trend in America: people (particularly young ones) using the label of fiancé to refer to a partner they have no intention of actually marrying.
Someone will introduce me to his or her fiancé. But what they mean is more like my “steady lady” or my “steady man.” It could mean the person they are living with, or the father or mother of their child. It could also just mean the person they’ve been dating for a long time. It could be that they only use that title in the presence of outsiders (i.e., me) because it gives an official, respectable status to a relationship that’s otherwise amorphous. It could mean that someone has actually proposed, or bought a ring, but usually not. But what it definitely does not mean is that they are choosing a wedding date or checking out venues or pricing caterers or otherwise making any kind of concrete plans for marriage. In many parts of America, fiancé has become a permanent relationship status (permanent, that is, until it’s not).
I known of several relationships like this, although as Rosin notes, it’s sort of an open secret — few engaged partners explicitly admit that they have no intention of ever marrying. They take on the label largely in response to social expectations or familial pressure. There’s also the fact that many of those who do genuinely wish to marriage simply never get around to it.
The aspiration for marriage won’t die in America, even though fewer people are getting married or think they can afford to get married. People no longer think of a wedding as a milestone that happens somewhere between high school and having children. They think of marriage as what sociologists call a “capstone”—that is, something they earn after many other things are in place in their lives, like a good job or a nice house. But they might never get the good job or the nice house. “We intended to get hitched,” Bug Smith told me. “But we just kept finding other things to do with the money. Fixed the porch, got a new engine.” Smith and many others get lost in a free-floating longing for marriage that never gets fulfilled but finds temporary home in the liberal use of the termfiancé. (I once had a guy tell me that he and his girlfriend were “married.” Then he pointed to his chest and added: “Married, in my heart.” Which means that, technically speaking, they weren’t married.)
Indeed, marriage does seem impractical nowadays. Even if you set aside the current economic troubles (which has no doubt exacerbated this trend) the money and time invested in a wedding just seems redundant, especially since the fundamental sense of love and companionship would remain with or without an expensive institution. But like most social trends, it’s not that simple:
In the meantime, while fiancés are waiting for marriage, life goes on. People live together for longer periods. They have kids: Among Americans without a college degree, 58 percent of first time births happen outside marriage. People share huge life events with each other even though they’re not married, and yet the culture hasn’t adjusted by producing any new terms to describe these novel attachments or arrangements. Describing someone as “the guy I’m living with” or “the mother of my child” might be accurate but it’s not all that efficient, and a little clinical. Girlfriend or boyfriend belittles the relationship, and partner feels like something people in New York and San Francisco say, so fiancé fills in the gap. It conveys at least the correct level of emotional attachment, which is: something like spouse but not quite.
Mostly this is a class phenomenon. College-educated women flirt with not getting married, provide fodder for lots of movies about the glories of single life, but eventually they get married (even in the movies); among college graduates, only 12 percent of first time births happen outside marriage. But there’s a trickle-down effect. Everyone watches the same movies, so everyone has inherited the idea that marriage should be really special, maybe lavish, definitely worth waiting for, as Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas argue in Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage. But since many can’t afford that fancy wedding and don’t want to go “downtown”—a term women in the book use to describe a marriage on the cheap—they just stay engaged.
It’s also worth pointing out there an estimated fifty percent of adults are single, suggesting that people aren’t as eager or able to jump into a long-term relationship, let alone a marriage. Yet as the author notes, the allure nonetheless remains. Even those who are cynical and/or disinterested in marriage nonetheless see it’s appeal. In essence, we have a love-hate relationship with the institution, much as we do towards most traditions that we grow out of yet feel conditioned to love and honor. This sense of value is why fiance remains an enduring label despite its increasingly ambiguous status:
Sociologists Wendy Manning and Pamela Smock, who study changing family demographics, told me that they, too, made the mistake of assuming couples who said they were engaged were making plans to get married. But when they asked follow-up questions for a large qualitative study they recently conducted with young adults on “Cohabitation and Marriage in America,” they realized that wasn’t true. Instead the term engaged, for couples of all races, seemed to be a kind of placeholder, “a way to keep the relationship going without actually making the move to marry,” says Manning. Smock says she noticed that couples use the term fiancé or engaged in a “flexible” way, that is, when dealing with authorities on the phone, or in a social setting where they might want to “own” the person more or seem like more of an “official couple.”
David Lapp, a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, a pro-marriage think-tank, is doing research on working-class couples in Ohio. When he asked one guy he interviewed what he called his pregnant girlfriend, the guy said: “It depends on who I’m with.” When he and his girlfriend were with what he called “professional people”—like at a car dealership looking for a car, or with a potential landlord—she’s his fiancée, although he’s never actually asked her to marry him. Otherwise, she’s his girlfriend. As he explained it to Lapp, he calls her his fiancée in front of professional people because if people see them as married, there’s the perception that they’re more respectable and less liable to party and abuse alcohol and drugs.
Americans have unusually high marriage and divorce rates, because we are culturally attached to both old-fashioned commitment and to individual freedom. Other countries have solved this dilemma by letting go of the marriage ideal, allowing people, for example, to live together and still be considered a family, by the state and by their neighbors. Even by the guy at the car dealership, who doesn’t trust them any less for not having a signed marriage license. With 10 more years of fake fiancés, maybe we’ll get there, too.
Polyamory, a term which entered the Oxford English Dictionary seven years ago describes the practice of having simultaneous intimate relationships with more than one person at a time, notably with the knowledge and consent of all partners. Unlike “swinging,” the intimacy isn’t merely temporary or recreational, but a full-blown romantic and sexual relationship. (Polygamy, which is much better known, is a kind of polyamorous relationships involving more than one spouse.)
Needless to say, while the practice has become comparatively more common — an estimated 500,000 such relationships are said to exist in the US alone — it can be very difficult wrap one’s head around it. After all, isn’t sexual and relational exclusivity the cornerstone for deep, committed, long-term and truly loving relationships? How does one get around the jealousy and possessiveness that seem intrinsic to intimate relationships?
Well, aside from trying to do more research yourselves — including seeking out polyamorous people to engage with — the BBC offers a very good inside look at a polyamorous relationship involving four people. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to comment on it or explore the topic further, but it did certainly raise a lot of interesting reflection on the nation of human relationships, love, sex, boundaries, and the like. It’s important to note that just as with “conventional” romantic pairings, no two polyamorous relationships are alike.
It’s even more vital not to generalize or caricature what most of us immediately assume to be a degenerate or “lesser” kind of love. As with everything — especially interpersonal relationships — it’s a lot more complicated.
Please share your own thoughts, comments, or experiences. I’m hardly an expert on the subject and have only recently begun to explore it academically-speaking.
Courtesy of Slate, we take a look at how one society typically approaches the rather awkward issue of young people having sex.
Sleepovers have been normalized in the Netherlands for decades now, and as social scientist Amy Schalet’s research suggests, the results have been generally positive. By demonstrating acceptance and respect for their kids’ relationships, Dutch parents, on average, enjoy more communication with their kids about sex and relationships than American parents do, which in turn means the kids are more likely to get the health care and education they need to prevent STIs and unwanted pregnancy. Subsequently, the teenage pregnancy rate in the Netherlands is nearly four times lower than ours.
Schalet also discovered that the Dutch way helped minimize negative stereotyping about gender, love, and sexuality. In the U.S., there’s a tendency to see sex as a battle between boys and girls, with parents falling for “the stereotype that all boys want the same thing, and all girls want love and cuddling.” But because Dutch parents respect teenage relationships, they have a more holistic view, understanding that most young people of any gender want a combination of both.
As usual, it seems that taking the more open-minded and communicative route is the most effective. Demonizing and restricting sex has historically never had much of a positive impact, and this is borne out by empirical evidence.
Balancing a long-term relationship with the more “primal” forces of human sexuality has always been a difficult act.
While almost everyone agrees that the ideal romantic relationship should entail both emotional attachment and sexual attraction, it’s curious to note that these two forces are often simultaneously seen to be adversarial as well.
Sexual urges can undermine fidelity, or lessen the “depth” of one’s attraction to their partner (e.g. the relationship is sustained only be base sexual attraction and nothing more. Conversely, a romantic relationship devoid of intimacy can become stale and “degenerate” into a mere friendship (not that platonic relationships aren’t valuable).
Indeed, for most people, sex is what elevates a relationship to its highest level of exceptionalism and uniqueness. It’s what demarcates the difference between any other “normal” relationship, and one that is “special.” So needless to say, like most interpersonal activities, sex is a complicated double-edged sword.
Now, some research suggests that this strange balance is not only even more complicated, but that it has an innate biological origin as well:
Studies on the length of relationships have shown that couples in harmonious, stable and trusting long-term relationships have higher blood levels of oxytocin (a chemical that regulates attachment, promotes cooperation and facilitates sensations of joy and love) than people who are [in mismatched] relationships. These happy couples also reap other benefits in terms of longer lifespan, lower rates of alcoholism, depression and illness, and more rapid recovery after accidental injury.
But there are conflicting chemicals at work in sexual relationships that sometimes prevent them from ever becoming long-term. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the limbic system – the brain’s primitive reward centre. It mediates both the sex drive and addiction to drugs. Brain scans have shown that the rapid rise in dopamine levels during orgasm is similar to that seen in a heroin high. But dopamine falls rapidly following orgasm in both males and females and is replaced with rising levels of a hormone called prolactin…
At first, rising prolactin causes sleepy post-orgasm contentment…But once this sleepy feeling of satiation has passed, prolactin may go on rising and cause problems for couples wanting to sustain a long-term sexual relationship. In both men and women excess levels of prolactin can cause loss of libido, anxiety, headaches, mood swings and depression.
…this may go some way towards explaining why many relationships are burnt out after a year. In reproductive terms, 12 months is long enough for fertilisation to take place.”
Needless to say, the implications of these studies are interesting, if not concerning: does this mean that most humans are innately incapable of having long-term monogamous relationships, as we seem to be finding out ourselves through experience and social trends? What are your thoughts?
Clearly, more research should be done.
Though I don’t discuss it on this blog as often as I should, human sexuality is a fascinating topic to me. Indeed, I think it deserves far more attention and open discussion than it receives, and I lament how taboo and misunderstood our sexual natures are (though our society, at least, seems to be increasingly open to talking about these things).
Indeed, as much as many of us don’t care to admit it, sexuality is a central concern in human existence: like all animals, we are sexual by nature, and like all social animals in particular, sexuality is a major component in our identity, relationships, and well-being. We’ve been socially-conditioned to view sex as a debased or even unfortunate aspect of human nature, to the extent that many of us don’t even like to confront our sexuality privately.
Needless to say, all this can have some unhealthy implications and consequences, so I’m pleased to see a well-written article in AlterNet that addresses not only the unfortunate result of our sexual misapprehension, but that also reveals how dated concepts of gender roles only complicate matters further. The article discusses the long-existent (but of course largely undiscussed) disparity between male and female sexual satisfaction — what it curtly calls the “orgasm gap” — in which less than 25% of women actually orgasm from “traditional” intercourse.
Freudian echoes, anatomical mischaracterizations and gender stereotypes are part of the logic naturalizing the orgasm gap, but there is nothing natural about it. We know this because women who sleep with women have many more orgasms than heterosexual women, almost as many as men who sleep with women. Women also have no problem experiencing orgasm through masturbation and the same women who frequently have orgasms during masturbation report many fewer orgasms when they’re with a partner. Men are also not faster to climax than women; it takes women the same amount of time to orgasm during masturbation as it takes men, on average, to have an orgasm through intercourse: four minutes.
Setting aside how surprising a lot of that data must be — given that it’s contrary to everything we learn and understand about the sexual nature of men and women — what accounts for such a seemingly unusual disparity? Well, the article offers an interesting explanation:
Instead of being driven by biology, women’s rate of orgasm relative to men is a function of social forces. For one, we often bifurcate the sexual experience in line with gender norms: men are sexual (they experience desire) and women are sexy (they inspire desire). The focus on men’s internal wants and sensations also draws our attention to his satisfaction. Thus his orgasm, but not necessarily hers, becomes a critical part of what must happen for a sexual encounter to be successful and fulfilling. This is part of why intercourse – a sexual act that is strongly correlated with orgasm for men – is the only act that almost everyone agrees counts as “real sex,” whereas activities that are more likely to produce orgasm in women are considered optional foreplay.
Meanwhile, the idea that women’s primary goal in sex is to deliver a sexy body can focus her attention on how she looks instead of how she feels. This can lead to spectating, being worried about how she looks from her partner’s perspective, which decreases the chance a woman will have an orgasm. It can also lead to active avoidance of orgasm because of worries her face or body might do something unattractive.
I recommend reading the whole piece so as to get detailed understanding of the issue and its proposed solutions. Basically, the takeaway seems to be that we’ve created this artificial notion of what counts as “true sex” at the expense of women and, by extension, men (since one sexually unfulfilled partner can lead to a troubled relationship). Instead of obsessing over what supposedly should be done based on what social norms dictate, we should simply be pragmatic and do what works for both partners. That includes being honest about what works and what doesn’t.
Granted, I think a lot more people are more avant garde about their sexual lives than they’re willing to admit. The problem is that there is this pressure to conform to a certain social norm that a lot (if not most) people privately know is untrue. It’s sad to see relationships suffer because we’re trying to appeal to some arbitrary, dated, and sexist (to men and women) notion of sex that shouldn’t matter in the bedroom anyway.
Regardless, I’ve seen men and women alike feel guilty about not being able to orgasm through traditional intercourse, even though they pull it off just fine through other means. Basically, if it’s not “real sex.” it doesn’t matter whether or not it works — it’s still upsetting to the individuals pride or sense of masculinity/femininity.
- Is rapid population growth to blame for rising violence and terrorism in certain countries? An article in Foreign Policy cites a correlation, suggesting that the that problem requires not a military solution, but a public health one.
- A recent study shared by Raw Story found that, contrary to popular belief, men aren’t from Mars and women aren’t from Venus – in other words, neither gender is inflexibly different from the other. While gender differences exist to some degree, they’re hardly iron law.
- The BBC reports that bonobo apes, long known for their human-like display of empathy and emotion, demonstrate seemingly complex emotional behaviors – such as hugging and having sex for pleasure – even at a young age. It was previously believed that it would take sophisticated cognitive skills to do such things.
- NBC has obtained a chilling Department of Justice memo that outlines the legal case of assassinating American citizens through drone strikes. The document concludes that the US government can order the killing of American citizens if they are believed to be “senior operational leaders” of al-Qaeda or “an associated force,” regardless of whether there is any evidence that they are engaged in an active plot to attack the US.
- A study by the VA , reported in the Washington Post, has found that veteran suicides have hit record highs. Most of these veterans are in their 50s and served in Vietnam. What’s even more distressing is that this reflects a much wider national trend – suicides in the US increased 11% between 2007 and 2010.
- To make matters more complicated, another report in Foreign Policy raises questions about whether the growing media attention on veteran and military suicides is actually making the problem worse. Known as the “contagion” or “Werther” effect this long-observed phenomenon links increased reporting and publicity of suicides to an increase in suicides. The reasons are poorly understood, but it certainly makes an already difficult issue more challenging.
According to one study mentioned in Gizmodo, the answer may be yes.
The researchers, from Texas-Austin University, studied 88 factors that made women appear more “exploitable” in the eyes of both men and women. Then, the researchers showed pictures of women that illustrated these characteristics to a sample of men, and asked them to rate how desirable they found them.
The results show that, across the board, men find women with some psychological vulnerability far more attractive than the average. Comparatively, physical vulnerabilities—such as being short—don’t make any difference.
Sadly, that initial attraction doesn’t necessarily convert into long and loving relationships: when the same men were asked whether they would be interested in pursing a long-term relationships with psychologically vulnerable women, the answers were overwhelmingly negative
I don’t place much stock into the conclusion of a single study, especially one with such a small sample size. But it’s just an inference, and I definitely think that more research should be done.
Indeed, this is still something worth keeping in mind, because based on my own anecdotal experiences, there does seem to be some measure of truth to this observation. I’ve known many men to be drawn to women that could be considered vulnerable – be they younger, petite, emotionally underdeveloped, financially dependent upon them, and so on.
Traditionally, in most societies, strong-willed or “feisty” women were seen as undesirable (think Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew), while obedience and dutifulness were traits to be admired. To this day, many men (and women as well) may regard an assertive female as crazy or “bitchy.” Times are changing of course, but these attitudes continue to linger.
Conversely, some women play the “low-ball” strategy, in which they make the most of this seemingly lopsided power-dynamic by appealing to the man’s patriarchal role as protector and provider (after all, when you claim power over something or someone, you’re also claiming responsibility).
Controversially, there may be some evolutionary component to this, given that a mate who is easier to control is more likely to produce more children for you (indeed, the more patriarchal a society is, the higher their birthrates, generally-speaking). I’m not quite sure what to think. Thoughts?
Every human relationship – platonic, romantic, and familial – encompasses two competing desires: for an equal partnership but also for power and control. This conflicting dynamic is unavoidable, as they are each reflective of a wider human tendency.
As social creatures, we innately want – and need – to work with one another amiably in order to be healthy, stay alive, and continue the species. Both our neurological and hormonal systems attest to this, as they facilitate and encourage intimacy, cooperation, and empathy.
At the same time, however, we have something other organisms don’t: an ego. Our higher cognitive ability grants us a sense of identity, purpose, and individuality that, while wonderful, can conflict with our collective and cooperative inclinations.
Thus every interaction we have with one another, particularly the most intimate, necessarily entails a struggle between these driving forces. We want to be in control of our relationships (and everything else for that matter), but we also desire the sort of equality and fairness that makes such partnerships thrive. And since the same goes for everyone else we deal with, we’re faced with a very complicated layer of internal and external clashes.
Again, we see this on both the macro and micro level: not just between individuals, but between societies, cultures, and the species as a whole. Human nature is variable and difficult to pin down, but it’s clear that we’ve always had a contradictory tendency to work wonderfully together (hence all the progress we’ve made in so many different human endeavors) but to also be utterly incapable of harmony and tolerance (hence why we still struggle with inequality, war, and other social ills).
Many other factors account for these failures of course, but the point is that we seem destined to fight with ourselves in trying to find a delicate balance between these two potent drivers. However, we have come a long way in this regard though: relationships, especially among younger generations, increasingly emphasize egalitarian values. War and civil strife are historically low, despite their continued horror. On the whole, we’ve gone father than ever in keeping our desire for power in check, significant lapses notwithstanding (remember, progress is never linear or absolute).
I think being cognizant of this dynamic is an obvious first step to promoting a cooperative and equal relationship with our fellow humans. But it will never be enough; it’ll take constant practice and a lot of trial and error to keep the equilibrium.
Besides, every relationship needs an element of both: we need those individual egos as much as we need parity. Compromise is the foundation of every relationship: when you love someone, you submit yourself to their needs, promising to do whatever you can to help them. But at the same time, no healthy relationship should consist of one-sided compliance. As much as we want to be there with one another, we also want someone with a mind of their own, and having entails dealing with differences in personality, desires, and the like.
This isn’t the case for everyone of course – a lot of people want full control, while a lot of others don’t seem to mind being obedient to their partners. But I think the trend is increasingly in favor of partnerships that offer the best of both worlds. Being able to live in harmony with one another without giving up your personal aspirations makes for a thriving relationship. There will always be a give and take to some degree, but that’s a necessary part of any close social interaction.
What are your thoughts?