I have been sharing the ten things I learned from the tumultuous start to our relationship. Catch up with the series here. This week’s installment is about how societal roles and expectations can mess with your relationship.
When John and I first started dating, we were both struggling with various life difficulties. We had both just come off long-term relationships that had upended our lives and were both in the process of rebuilding. Restructuring your life is tough. Trying to date while you go through restructuring, will downright test your resolve. One of the most surprising lessons I learned during this time was how much pressure society puts on couples, especially newly forming couples trying to come up together. When we say society, it’s the people around you (friends/family) imposing societal expectations on you. It is hard enough trying to figure out your lives without having to live by other people’s rules. Here are some of the societal norms we broke and why it worked for us.
Pressure to DTR
When we first started dating, everybody wanted us to DTR-define the relationship. My family were the biggest culprit; “So are you and John together?” “What are you and John?” The one we laugh about the most was, “What are John’s intentions with you?” My answer never satisfied them because I genuinely didn’t know. John and I had agreed not to rush and put labels on what we had. If we wanted to be together, we would be. If we didn’t, no hard feelings in the end. That was our approach. We felt like the pressure to DTR would inject an obligatory feel to what we were doing. If we declared we were a couple, we would have to do couple-ly things.
Interestingly, the person who told us that we needed to “DTR” got engaged, married, and divorced before John and I even decided to marry. Labels are for boxes, don’t let them put you in one.
On one of the first dates that we went on, John asked me if I wanted to have kids. I had said yes. I didn’t answer with much thought and fully expected that he wanted kids. He didn’t, and funnily enough, I had lied. Why had I lied? My answer was based on what society expected of me. As a woman, I am expected to get married and bear offspring. I had never stopped to question the expectation. I remember feeling guilty whenever I entertained the idea that I might not want kids. When I returned the question during that conversation, he had been vague and noncommittal in his answer. But I could tell something had changed in the general vibe of the date.
John later told me that that date had almost been our last. He was firm on his decision not to have kids and would not have wanted to stand in my way of being a mother. The only reason he didn’t break up with me was that we weren’t in a relationship. As I previously pointed out, had we labeled this…thing we had, he would have had to make a decision. Anyway, the kids’ discussion came up soon enough. I was having medical issues, and my OBGYN recommended a hysterectomy. John was surprised when I told him that I was going to get it done. I remember him asking, “I thought you wanted kids?” “Umm, actually, no. I don’t. Rather, I am indifferent to whether I have them or not.” That was the first time I had admitted how I really felt about kids.
Society has a defined view of success. This view involves checking specific boxes along the way. You graduate college, get a good job, marry a (successful) partner, buy a house, and start a family—the quintessential American dream. People put immense pressure on themselves to accomplish all these success markers within a predetermined period. The sad thing is that some of us feel like failures when we miss one of these arbitrary landmarks. Why? Ambition is ok; in fact, it is good. Just be careful how you measure accomplishment.
A lot of miserable people have checked every one of society’s boxes only to realize they are stuck in a mundane, cookie-cutter existence. Shows like HAPPYish (Showtime) and the cult-classic American Beauty, tell such stories. In the Broadway hit Death of a Salesman, the lead character Willy’s despair results from his failure to achieve his American dream of success.
We looked at success differently, and this helped us grow together at our pace. Success for us was less tangible. It was a feeling. If we were happy, regardless of our station in life, we were triumphant. This attitude was critical in those lean times when we were flat broke and sleeping on other people’s couches. That is when we made some of the happiest memories. Cooking together, talking, and sharing a $3 bottle of wine was our perfect night. If you are not happy without, chances are you won’t be happy when you come up.
Bringing Home The Bacon
When did society decide that the Man had to be the breadwinner? Perhaps it was in a forgone age when humans lived in simple nomadic groups that mainly foraged for their food. In this hunter-gatherer age, the stronger of the species was called upon to hunt and bring home the bacon. Maybe it’s a more recent phenomenon, one that was propagated by society’s biased allocation of wealth that favored men. In Victorian times, for example, men inherited wealth, and women married into it. Whenever it started, it’s ingrained in us.
As a girl, if you tell your Mum or Dad that you are dating someone, the first question will most likely be, “what does he do?” They immediately want to know if he can provide. As if you are utterly incapable of providing for yourself. Anyway, when I met John, he wasn’t in the best of shape financially. Neither was I. The expectation would have been for me to find a financially stable partner. A capable “breadwinner’ with whom I could start a family, have two and a half kids, and a dog. I didn’t do that. Instead, I bet on a broke guy with ambitions that scared me and came up aces. When Michelle met Barack Obama, Barack was driving a beat-up yellow Datsun. Society wants you to marry rich, how about you build the empire together?
Being Man Enough
Furthermore, guys seem to have a complex about not earning more than their partners. It could be because their primal wiring is to be the provider, or society has programmed this into them, as discussed above. Whatever it is, it’s an issue. I have successful, single female friends who tell me that they sometimes downplay their success when dating. For the longest time, I out-earned John. He had to learn to deal with this new role of not being the primary wage earner as society expects. We would knowingly smile at each other whenever a waiter would hand him the bill, as they always do. For some men, this would be difficult, but not for John. His vision was more longterm. Plus, he also recognized how sexist and old-fashioned it was to have an issue with being out-earned by a woman. Secretly, he knew I wouldn’t out-earn him for long.
By choosing to radically redefine our roles within our relationship and setting our own success markers, we succeeded in unloading a lot of societal baggage. The fluidity of our relationship is a significant contributor to its success. Our families have slowly come to understand that we do not live by other people’s rules or expectations. We are answerable to no one on how we chose to live our lives. The truth is, they gon’ talk, either way, might as well do you.
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