Relationships vs. individuality

Relationships vs. individuality

It must be my culture that’s more Latin-European (and then cosmopolitan due to travelling and working in a multicultural environment) than North-American – Anglo-Saxon but, really, for me the modern concept of “dating” sucks. To be honest I’m not even sure to fully understand it, I mean where’s the line between “dating someone” and “having a relationship”? At what specific moment does a date become a gf/bf (apparently people have sex with their date but don’t consider themselves yet in a relationship)? So I looked up dictionaries for a better grasp of the concept, but traditional dictionaries don’t really give a great insight. Wikipedia, though has a full article about Dating and here’s how it is defined there:

“Dating is any social activity undertaken by, typically, two people with the aim of each assessing the other's suitability as their partner in an intimate relationship or as a spouse. The word refers to the act of meeting and engaging in some mutually agreed upon social activity. Traditional dating activities include entertainment or a meal.”

It’s a little bit clearer, yet there’s something I find silly about it: The key point in this definition is obviously “each assessing the other's suitability as their partner in an intimate relationship or as a spouse”. Unfortunately, the notion sounds quite ill-conceived, in my opinion, and for two reasons:

  • On a date, people may not be themselves: that can be voluntarily (pretending to be what they’re not) or unwillingly (the pressure of the situation might quite well alter people’s behavior and therefore distort the perception of who they actually are).
  • Like it or not, life changes us and life in a relationship changes us even more. Therefore it is very possible that someone who did actually match the other party’s expectations in the first place becomes totally incompatible in the long run and there’s no way you can predict it (otherwise there wouldn’t be so many divorces).

But what bothers me even more than the dubious logic of dating, is the underlying mindset which I would call the “shopping mentality”. Kristine Gasbarre in a piece she wrote on this site refers to sociologist Chris Morret: “the American dating process has become similar to other means of shopping for a product”. Kristine continues like this:

 “So when a woman dates a man and he doesn't possess all the "features" she requires, she briefly deliberates and continues shopping (Is passionate about his work, check. Loves to travel, check. Forgot to ask how my meeting went, uh-oh. Completely unacceptable.)"

(This passage could be as well re-formulated the other way around; it applies for both men and women…)

In the same order of ideas, I find the expression “I’m on the market” deeply disturbing when it comes to our sentimental lives; it’s just another confirmation that business logic is taking over the domain of relationships.

Here’s the big problem: while in business there are objectives that can be clearly formulated, which basically come down to “make a maximum profit”; there’s no such thing in relationships, there is no clear and measurable goal to set; relationships are about feeling happy and passionate, and making it last; but happiness and passion are not concepts that you can quantify or rationalize.

Similarly, when you’re shopping for a good or a service, unless you’re a compulsive shopaholic, generally you have a clear idea of what you expect from it, why you need it and what the criteria are for it to match your specific need. But relationships are not about goods and services, they are about persons and guess what, you never know what to expect from anyone (and sometimes even from yourself, actually) no matter how well you know them, because we’re evolving, changing, aging in ways that are mostly unpredictable, not even mentioning our moods that can make us react differently.

As far as love-life is concerned, my motto would be a paraphrase of JF Kennedy: “Ask not what a relationship can do for you, ask what you can do for the relationship.” If you want a relationship that works, you must be able to value selflessness over individualism, you need to be someone that enjoys giving over self-gratification (or maybe finding self-gratification in the act of giving?).

It must be a generational thing, but our beloved Community Manager Lyz and I had a heated argument commenting this article. While I advocate changing oneself to make a relationship work, Lyz is a proponent of the principle that “a good relationship gives you the space to be "fully yourself."” Actually, I don’t fundamentally disagree with that statement: indeed, in a relationship it’s necessary to manage a supra-privacy (personal) within the couple’s privacy; it’s necessary that you have your personal space and not be totally “eaten” by the relationship.

But then she adds: “Sure, sometimes people need to change but no one should ever change for anyone else. Change needs to come from yourself and for yourself.” And that’s where I’m not comfortable with her vision: her wording is focusing on the individuals (“anyone else”, “for yourself”) while, in the debate my point is about changing for the good of the relationship.

Transitioning from being single to be in couple is in and of itself - I’m stating the obvious - a change. Not just a change in the way you live, your schedule, your concerns and your status but, more importantly, a mutation of your identity. You’re still yourself but with something huge added: you’re part of a team; you’re invited to think and speak more in terms of “we” than in terms of “I” and “you”.

I’m under the impression than the current generation of young adults has a hard time accepting this idea that a relationship necessarily induces an alteration of individuality (or they understand it, therefore they prefer remaining single). This seems to be confirmed in Kristine Gasbarre’s text I cited above, when she refers to Jean Twenge’s work on “Generation me” and “Narcissism Epidemic”.

Lyz summarizes her point: “You should be in a relationship with someone who loves ALL of you, obnoxiousness and all. And that does happen. I've been with that guy for over 8 years.” In other words, if you sense that the other party disapproves of some aspects of your personality cut your losses and seek until you find another person that’s more accommodating. This actually sounds like a very rational and logical approach, but the problem I have with it, once again is that it is very centered on the individual. The subtext is something like “I am exactly what I consider as perfect, take it or leave it. It is out of the question that a relationship challenges the way I’ve been constructing myself.”
But the point is precisely that we get into relationships to continue constructing ourselves in a different way.

In my personal case, very differently from what Lyz describes about her marriage, I married a woman that on a matchmaking website’s scale, would qualify for “Very poor compatibility”: totally different social backgrounds, different beliefs, and very contrasting personalities. Moreover we met each other in a setting that was tension-charged, more likely to generate conflict than a romantic affair. However, against all odds we just happened to become totally smitten with each other. Typically, that kind of encounter is associated with extremely intense but short-lived love-affairs, and it could quite have been that if we didn’t have a profound willingness to change significantly in order to make it work… and so far, 15 years, it worked, notwithstanding very tough crises. I am not saying it was easy to change, quite the contrary, sometimes it happens in pain. Nevertheless, changing, giving up on things we used to think as somewhat important before we met each other didn’t end up making us unhappy and frustrated; it’s the opposite: it’s very rewarding to see how it has strengthened us both as a couple and as individuals.

What was important though is that it was not “Change coming from yourself and for yourself.” It’s teamwork, building an interactive dynamics that makes changing not only acceptable but wanted from both sides. It can’t happen unless you deeply feel that the entity “couple” goes first, above individuality. To put it simply, it’s love.