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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Monday, 22 Aug 2011, 14:12

What's wrong with heteronormativity?


Yesterday a couple of things happened in quick succession which left me feeling strange and sad. They both called something into question which I have thought about, spoken about, and written about so much for so many years that I regard it as obvious. Having it questioned left me struggling to find words at all.


Reflecting on this today I'm reminded that, of course, this is not something which is obvious to everybody. So I thought I would write a post where I try to articulate what it is that I usually take for granted: that there is something wrong with heteronormativity.


Apologies that this blog entry ended up being rather extensive. If you don't have time to read it all then you can jump to 'the short version' which I've provided at the very end.


What is heteronormativity?

The first thing that happened was that a group of colleagues and I received a response to a complaining letter which we had written to a television company. We had complained about a recent documentary about sex which they aired. One of our main problems with the programme was that virtually all of the sex that they included in it was heterosexual sex (heterosexual couples kissing and cuddling, or – when it got more explicit - somebody with a penis penetrating someone with a vagina). A small part of the final episode was given over to considering why some people are attracted to the 'same sex', but the vast majority of representations of sex were heterosexual. The response from the television company was that they didn't really see a problem with their representations given that 'the majority of the British population is heterosexual'.


After receiving this email, I took a bit of a break and read a few news articles which my friends had linked to online. I found a particularly interesting one about a legal case where a woman wanted the right to wear a collar to work because she was into BDSM (bondage and discipline, domination and submission, and sadomasochism). After finishing the article I looked through the comments which people had written on the website. I was struck by how many of them argued that the woman should keep her sexuality to herself, 'leave her sexual proclivities at home like most people', stop 'going on' about what she does in private, in her bedrooom, etc. A similar issue has recently come up in psychotherapy and counselling, whereby some people have argued that lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) counsellors should not let their clients know about their sexualities, and that being open about them could be harmful.


All of these are examples of heteronormativity: the idea that attraction and relationships between one man and one woman are the normal form of sexuality, that sex itself should involve a penis penetrating a vagina, and that any other forms of sexuality, or gender, are not normal, or at least not as normal as this.


The first example which I gave of heteronormativity is pretty obvious. The argument from the television company is that it is okay to present heterosexuality in virtually all of the examples of sex on the show because 'the majority' of people are heterosexual. The second example is perhaps a little less clear, but none-the-less I think it is an example of heteronormativity. People generally have no problem with a person wearing a wedding ring to work, having a picture of their heterosexual partner on their desk, or talking about what they did with their heterosexual partner at the weekend. The suggestion that it might not be okay to wear clothes, or have conversations, which imply that a person is lesbian, gay or bisexual, or a BDSM practitioner, is heteronormative because the same kinds of things which are challenged - or regarded as strange - here go unquestioned for non-kinky heterosexual people.


These second kind of challenge also reveals that people are generally assumed to be heterosexual (and interested in heterosexual, non-kinky, sexual practices) unless proven otherwise. This is another example of heteronormativity. People who are not heterosexual (or who are kinky, or non-monogamous, or otherwise outside the heteronorm) have to make a decision whether to let people know this or not, whereas people inside the heteronorm know that people will make the correct assumptions about their sexuality, relationships, gender, etc.


Why is it a problem?

So what the television company, and (by implication) many of the people commenting on the collar story are saying is that heterosexuality is normal, and therefore it is fine to depict it as such, and to see people as strange who do not fit within it, and to put different restrictions on their behaviours than we do on heterosexual people.


I'm guessing that many of the people concerned would agree that homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are bad things: it is not okay to be prejudiced towards, or to harm people people on the basis of, their sexuality or gender. However, they don't see a problem with regarding people outside of heteronormativity as somehow 'less normal' and treating them differently on the basis of that.


Why do I think this is such a problem? There are many reasons, but here I am going to focus on three rather practical ones. First, rather obviously perhaps, heteronormativity is bad for people who are outside of heteronormativity. Secondly, it is based on some quite problematic ideas about what is normal, and whether that should be what we base our treatment of other people on. And finally, perhaps less obviously, I would argue that heteronormativity is also bad for people who are within it.


Heteronormativity is bad for people outside of it

Psychologist Catherine Butler wrote a short story, which was eventually produced as a film, called 'homoworld'. This imagined a world in which heteronormativity was reversed: where being gay and lesbian was seen as the norm, whilst heterosexuality was regarded as peculiar and requiring explanation. It is a useful exercise for people who are heterosexual themselves to reflect upon what it might feel like to be outside of the sexuality norm. For example, the characters in homoworld have to decide whether to come out (and deal with the stress of possible rejection or prejudice) or to hide their relationship (and deal with the stress of keeping such an important thing secret). They also have to cope with questions from others about the ways in which they decide to commit to their relationship or to have children. On a very everyday level, they are surrounded by lesbian and gay representations: on billboard advertisements, in pop songs, and on the street where it is generally only lesbian and gay people who are kissing or holding hands.


It can be useful also to check out the heterosexual questionnaire, and the straight privilege checklist, to get a sense of how heteronormativity feels for those who are outside of it. These tools raise awareness of the fact that it is not just outright homophobia which is bad for LGB people. It is also tough if everybody around you feels that it is okay to ask what you think caused your sexuality, or to question whether you are really that sexuality, or whether it might be better just to keep quiet about it. Similarly, there is a degree of privilege, comfort and security, in having a sexuality which nobody else feels discomforted by, which isn't used as a reason to question your masculinity or femininity, which isn't the basis of derogatory language (e.g. 'that's so gay'), which is not seen as the totality of who you are, and whereby you are not expected to speak for everybody else who has that sexuality. The monosexual and cisgender privilege checklists are similarly useful in relation to bisexuality and trans.


Psychologists know that dividing people into 'us' and 'them' is often the first step towards treating 'them' differently, and even cruelly. So we can see that heteronormativity and homophobia cannot be as easily disentangled as people might hope. When we heternormatively separate 'normal' heterosexual people out from other groups (e.g. LGBT, BDSM, non-monogamous, asexual), we reinforce divisions which then make it easier for those groups to be ridiculed, stigmatised, and attacked. We know that biphobia, transphobia and homophobia still exist at worrying levels: there are still countries where people can be put to death for these things, and in the UK the extent of LGBT bullying and discrimination is still extremely problematic. If we are serious about ending hate crime and prejudice we need to look beyond just criminalising transphobia, homophobia and biphobia, towards addressing the heteronormative society which suggests that it is acceptable to see LGBT people, and other groups, as 'different'.


Heterosexuality might not be normal, and why are we so concerned with normality anyway?

This is all very well, you might say, but the television company is right that surveys have found that most people are heterosexual. Perhaps it is just bad luck for those who are outside of heteronormativity. We can't stop presenting heterosexuality as the norm just because it is hard for a few minorities that we do so. Facts are facts.


There are many answers to these challenges. First we might think about the findings of those surveys which are mentioned. The percentage of heterosexual, and non-heterosexual, people found in such surveys depends an awful lot on the questions which are asked and the way that they are asked. In the UK, the national census does not ask questions about sexual identity for precisely these reasons. The national treasury estimated that between 5% and 7% of the UK population were LGB, whereas the International Household Survey found that 1.5% of people said they were LGB. However, a further 3.8% said that they were 'other', didn't respond, refused to respond, or reported that they didn't know. Given high levels of stigma and prejudice we might well suggest that these surveys are actually measures of 'out' LGB people who are happy to use this terminology (which not all cultural groups use, for example). The NATSAL survey, which asks about 'sexual experiences' rather than sexual identities, found that 8-10% of people in the UK had had sexual experiences with a partner of the 'same sex' in 2000. This had gone up from 3-5% of people in 1990, so clearly experiences, or at least reporting of them, is not static over time. Also, people may well answer differently to a postal survey (whether they answer at all, and whether they answer honestly) than to an in depth interview, for example. This could partially explain why Kinsey's famous study in the US found that over a third of men reported some 'homosexual' contact.


So we can question whether heterosexuality really is the norm. By some ways of assessing normality (number of people who identify as heterosexual on a survey), we could argue that it is. However, if we turn to behaviour, particularly if we include all of the groups who fall – in some way – outside of mainstream heteronormativity, then we would conclude that it is not. In fact, non-kinky, monogamous, 'opposite sex', relationships and attractions would certainly be the minority if we considered all those people who have had some kind of 'same sex' sexual experience, those two thirds of people who enjoy some kind of BDSM practices or fantasies, the high number of people whose gender identity doesn't fit into traditional masculinity or femininity, and all of the people who are in some way non-monogamous.


But even if we went by the most conservative of statistics, we might ask how big a minority it has to be before we include a group of people as part of the norm, or at least stop treating them as different from everybody else. Analogies could be made here with other minority groups such as ethnic and religious minorities, and those with certain disabilities, although there are clearly different issues with different types of 'difference', and they often intersect with one another. Discussions of sexuality often focus on trying to prove, or disprove, naturalness or normality, but we might ask a bigger question of whether either of these is really a good foundation to base our treatment of people on. We can think of example of very unusual things (being highly intelligent, or a person like Gandhi or Nelson Mandela) which we would agree are good, and very 'normal' things (like being unkind or standing by when others are in trouble) which are not. We might also start to ask questions about why we focus so much on some divisions that it is possible to make between people (about sexuality and gender, for example) and not on others (for example, about eye-colour, food preference, or handedness).


Heteronormativity is bad for people within it

My final point is that heteronormativity is not just problematic for people who are located outside it. It is actually pretty bad for those inside it for many reasons as well. These have been particularly brought home to me in my work as a sexual and relationship therapist. Almost every seemingly heteronormative client who I've seen in this capacity has expressed an overwhelming desire to be 'normal' and often a desperate fear that they might not be, which has frequently made their life a misery. Normality is often privileged over everything else including having pleasurable sex, positive relationships, and open communication.


First, given the degree of stigmatisation of those who are outside heteronormativity there is a lot of pressure on those who are inside heteronormativity to stay within it. They know that stepping outside means, at least, being questioned and seen as less than normal, and, at worst, being attacked, oppressed, and discriminated against. This means that heteronormativity can feel like a dangerous and precarious place to be, especially in these days where everyone is also expected to be quite sexually adventurous in order to prove that they are interesting people with exciting relationships. The lines between heteronormativity and the 'outside' can seem pretty blurry. Where, for instance, do bicurious women fit, or metrosexual guys, or people who buy the fluffy handcuffs and jewelled riding crops sold by mainstream sex shops, or those who have a new monogamous arrangement where it is okay to occasionally get off with somebody other than their partner at a nightclub?


So those who have some kind of desires and inclinations beyond rigid heteronormativity, and who act on these, often live in some degree of fear of others finding this out and of how they might be treated if they do.


Others try to remain completely within heteronormativity, but this often brings with it problems as well. Many people, for example, simply do not tune into their sexuality at all for fear of what they might find if they do so. Instead, they focus on trying to have a certain kind of sex with a certain kind of partner the number of times per week which they have been told is 'normal'. Quite often, this results in problems such as people being penetrated finding it painful or difficult and/or people penetrating finding that they lose their erection or ejaculate too quickly (see Statistics on these kinds of 'sexual dysfunctions' go up to between a third and a half of people, suggesting that they are extremely common. However, we might question whether it is right to see these as 'sexual dysfunctions', or as 'societal dysfunctions' whereby people are being told to have a certain kind of sex which isn't really what they'd most enjoy. Sex therapists often find it useful, when working with these kinds of problems, to get people reading about the vast diversity of sexual practices and fantasies that human beings have, either by reading collections of fantasies and/or making checklists of what they might like to try. It can also be helpful to question the idea that everybody needs to be sexual in order to be regarded as healthy or normal. All of this involves questioning heteronormativity.


Moving from sex to romantic relationships more broadly, we can see that heteronormative models of everyone needing a opposite-sex partner to spend their life with can be very tough on those who are single, or who go through relationships break-ups, as well as sometimes encouraging people to stay in relationships which are not good for them, and sometimes meaning that people leave relationships too quickly due to expectations of the 'perfect' match.


What does an alternative look like?

It is often easier to point out what is wrong with something - like heteronormativity - than it is to offer anything else to put in its place. To end this blog (which has become rather long already!) I will try to offer some quick ideas which might be of help to people like the television companies and commentators who I mentioned earlier, if they are convinced by my arguments.


First of all it is vital to point out that it isn't just heteronormativity that is a problem. Any kind of normativity would be equally problematic. There is a tendency for those who step out of one kind of normativity to quickly produce their own form of normativity in its place. This is pretty understandable because being on the outside is a scary and precarious place to be, and we seem to be drawn to seeing the world in 'us and them' kinds of ways. However it is also unhelpful, and reinforces the very divisions that we are saying are so problematic. For example, it isn't great for LGBT people if, on coming out, they are faced with a whole load of new and rigid rules about how to be properly lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans. Similarly, for the person who is struggling with sex in the ways which I wrote about above, it isn't great if the only other option that they can find is another kind of normativity where everybody is expected to be hugely sexually creative and try everything once.


So the answer is not just to come up with another kind of normativity that we expect everybody to adhere to. However, what we can do is to replace the normativity model with what Gayle Rubin calls a model of 'benign variation'. This is the idea that there is a diversity of sexual desires, practices and relationships, and – so long as they are engaged in consensually and ethically – they are all equally fine. Here we are not concerned with how normal something is: a person can equally take part in something which is completely unique to them, or which most other people have experienced.


What would this look like in practice? Here are a few ideas, but I would be very interested in hearing other's thoughts.

  • Programme-makers, advertisers, magazine editors and so forth would be less concerned with representing what is 'normal' and would instead go out of their way to ensure that the full diversity of sexual practices, relationships, bodily forms, and so forth, were represented in their materials. In addition they would take care not to present any sexual practice, identity or relationship as ridiculous or problematic on the basis of its unusualness.

  • Instead of asking whether something like wearing a collar to work was a more or less normal activity, we would afford each person with the same rights to express their sexuality or relationships through their appearance.

  • Researchers in this area would be less concerned with questions of what are, or are not, normal sexualities, and with trying to find explanations for certain sexualities. Instead they would attend to documenting the diversity of sexualities that exist, to exploring the lived experiences of different people and communities, and perhaps to examining which ways of understanding sexuality are most positive in terms of decreasing stigma and discrimination.

  • Educators and parents would be keen to ensure that young people grow up with an understanding of the range of possible relationships and identities available to them, rather than the idea that some of these are better than others. The focus would be on ethics, consent, and communication, and on tuning into our own bodies, desires and feelings.


The short version

What is wrong with heteronormativity?

  • It leaves people feeling alienated and alone.

  • It is bad for LGBT people and other people who are outside of it.

  • It sets up an 'us and them' which enables homophobia, biphobia and transphobia to exist.

  • It is questionable whether the 'normative' form of heterosexuality actually is normal.

  • Our treatment of others should not be based on how normal, or not, they are.

  • It is bad for those who have some desires or feelings outside the 'norm'.

  • It puts pressure on those who are inside it to stay inside it, and may prevent them for finding the kinds of sex and relationships that work for them.


What can we do about it?

  • Move to a model of sexual diversity rather than normality/abnormality.


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Sexual Nature: Happily Ever After

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Sunday, 29 May 2011, 16:04

Happily Ever After?



The London Natural History Museum has been putting on a series of events in connection with its Sexual Nature exhibition. On Friday I spoke at the last of these events which aimed to explore what makes a successful relationship, along with anthropologist Volker Sommer.

The first half of the event focused on the kinds of relationships that take place amongst animals other than humans, and across different historical periods and the various human cultures around the world today. It is interesting that, when trying to answer these kinds of questions, we often try to determine what is 'natural' (by looking to other animals) or what is 'normal' (by looking across time and culture). We often assume that what is natural or normal must be what is good. But that in itself is worth questioning. Behaviours like taking antibiotics or being kind to animals could be seen as 'unnatural', and high levels of self-sacrifice for others or the ability to sing beautifully are 'abnormal'.

With that note of caution in mind, when we do look across animal species or human societies what we actually find is diversity. The Sexual Nature exhibition itself demonstrates the huge variety of relationship forms which exist amongst animals: from species of bird where many different females mate with the male whose displays are most visually attractive, to the male seahorses who give birth to their young, to the bonobo chimpanzees who use sex as a social activity to develop and reinforce bonds with other male and female chimps. Volker talked about the various forms of polygyny, polyandry, and polygynandry that have existed across the world at various times (, often relating to the physical environment that people find themselves in. For example, there are societies where women marry a man's brothers as well as the man himself, where men have sexual relationships with other men early in life before marrying a woman, where men have more than one wife who take on different roles in relation to work and domestic labour, and where the norm is for people to have 'trial marriages' - with someone of the same, or other, gender - by cohabiting for a while before making any legal commitment.

Diversity is also the case when we look at UK society today. The UK is one of the 10-20% of cultures worldwide which are held to be monogamous. However, as I mentioned at the event, statistics on infidelity in marriage of up to 50-60% suggest that we could say that non-monogamy is actually more usual, but that it usually takes the form of secret affairs, rather than the recognised forms of polygamy that exist elsewhere. There are also many forms of open monogamy which are commonly practised, from the 'new monogamy' where couples are – to some extent – open to emotional and sexual commitments with people other than their partners, to forms of swinging and open relationships, to polyamory where people form multiple romantic and sexual relationships. It is more useful to view relationships today as on a continuum of sexual monogamy (from one sexual partner to many) and a continuum of emotional monogamy (from one close intimate person to many). Individuals are negotiating their own relationship rules around monogamy, for example whether they decide whether to remain close to ex-partners, or whether online sexual contact is acceptable.

Returning to the question of what makes a successful relationship, it is clear that the answer to this is 'different things for different people at different times'. We live at an uncertain time where old rules of relating don't necessarily apply to the patchwork families and serial relationships that many people are experiencing. However, we remain in a situation where some relationship forms are considered far more acceptable than others, and afforded much more social approval, recognition and protection.

When asked for my prescription for a 'successful' relationship I suggested that, on an individual relationship level, they would involve people respecting each others' values, communicating openly about these (rather than assuming that they are shared), and being open to the inevitable shifts and changes that will occur in relationships over time. On a societal level it is important to recognise the variety of relationships that people are actually experiencing, rather than trying to squeeze everyone into one-size-fits-all models of relationships or family.

Find out more:

The Sexual Nature exhibition is open till October 2011

You can read the tweets from the 'Happily Ever After?' event by searching twitter for the #sexualnature hashtag.

There is more about monogamy elsewhere on my blog

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The Royal We

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Friday, 29 Apr 2011, 08:36

The Royal We

Also posted over on Society Matters

With the royal wedding fast approaching it is interesting to consider what advice could be given to Kate and William, or any other young couple marrying in the UK in 2011. If we bring together psychological, sociological and philosophical work on relationships, as well as the experiences of relationship therapists, what are the key things that we could offer to people on the point of tying the knot?

Relationships Today

Perhaps the first thing to say is that, whilst Kate and Williams' situation is rather an extreme one, it also illustrates very well some wider patterns that are present in relationships today. Many commentators have linked their wedding to the recession, and certainly marriage is often found to be an almost 'recession proof' industry. When things are bad economically, people still want to get hitched.

Also, the desire to wed remains despite our knowledge of the high chances of the marriage ending at some point. In terms of UK statistics, one in ten marriages will not last five years, and somewhere between a third and a half will eventually end in divorce (more exact statistics are difficult due to yearly fluctuations). Of course, there is probably even more pressure on in the case of the royal wedding, due to the high rates of separation in William's family (three out of four of the Queen's children having been divorced).

So what does it mean that people, Kate and William included, are choosing to marry despite all of this? Perhaps it speaks to a great deal of hope that is being placed on romantic love, to the extent that some have suggested that it is almost a new religion in its own right. At a time when work is precarious, and when many people do not have strong religious beliefs, relationships are often the place that they turn to seek out validation, meaning and belonging. This is quite a change from past times when relationships generally served more practical purposes to do with finance, work and the raising of children. As historian, Stephanie Coontz, puts it: 'people have always loved a love story. But for most of the past our ancestors did not try to live in one'. These days we do try to live in a love story, seeking out The One and hoping for a happily-ever-after despite all the evidence against this being the most likely outcome.

The pressure is on relationships to fulfil us in every way throughout our – increasingly long – lives. However, we also know that relationships are a point of great potential struggle and pain. Living up close alongside somebody for many, many years may be one of the most difficult things that any of us do. Indeed, Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson argue that romantic relationships are the most dangerous places to be because they are where we are forced to confront ourselves and to learn about how we are capable of behaving. It might be possible to keep up a shiny, happy veneer with our work colleagues, our neighbours, and even our families once we are no longer living with them, but our partner gets to see us when we are at our most tired, stressed and ill.

This is something that is well captured in the Christian wedding vows. It really will be for better and worse, richer and poorer, sickness and health, and at the worse, poorer and sicker times we all (us and our loved ones) have the capacity for cruelty, coldness and cowardice. There will be times when we find ourselves frustrated, angry and bored with the love of our life and scared about what that may mean, as well as times when we see the loving gaze slip off their own faces to be replaced by something else. Such times can be terrifying if we have invested in this relationship the idea that it is a constant validation that we are okay and secure. It can be even harder if what we were expecting was some kind of constant perfection and happiness.

This may sound depressing and defeatist: an argument for not marrying at all, but it is not. Even if we didn't get married, or form romantic partnerships, we would still get intimate and connected to people, and these struggles would still arise. What I am arguing against are the industries that continue to sell us dangerous myths of perfect people and eternal happiness: the ever-smiling billboard, television and movie couples, and the self-help books and magazines that promise to reveal the secrets of 'successful' relationships which will lead to impossibly happy-ever-afters. This is what so many publishers, advertisers and film-makers sell, because they know that people want to hear it. But our constant saturation in these messages is the very thing that is leading to so much pain and struggle and heartache. And the image of the perfect love may well result in us leaving a relationship too quickly assuming that there must be something wrong with it, or staying in a tough relationship too long because we don't want to admit to 'failure'.

Perhaps instead of loading all these expectations and pressures onto Kate and William, and every other marrying couple, we could offer something different: a recognition that relationships will be tough at times and that there aren't any simple tricks to constant happiness. As Beck and Beck-Gernsheim have pointed out, along with wanting a great deal from relationships, relationships themselves have changed so much in the last few decades that we can feel lost and uncertain. Old rules, for example about rigid gender roles in relationships, no longer apply, but there are no new rules out there for us to follow either. As they put it: 'love is becoming a blank that lovers must fill in themselves'.

If love is a blank then the thing that is, perhaps, most needed to fill in that blank is communication. The wedding gift that we might give to Kate and William, based on all the relationship therapy and research about relationships, would be communication.

A Wedding Gift: Communication

I'll use the wedding vows that Kate and William will be making to demonstrate both the importance of communication these days, and also the ways in which it might work. We make a lot of explicit, and implicit, promises to each other all the way through relationships, but we often fail to think much about what these promises mean, or to check whether they mean the same thing to both people. Research suggests that young couples actually often disagree quite strongly about the things that they thought they had both signed up to.

Kate and William's vows will be the ones from the Church of England 1662 Book of Common Prayer. This means that they will go something like this:

'I, William Arthur Philip Louis Windsor, take you, Catherine Elizabeth Middleton, to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward; for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and cherish, till death do us part; according to God's holy law. In the presence of God I make this vow.' (and vice versa)

And later: 'With this Ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.'

There are a lot of promises in there. To pick out some key ones, it seems that in marriage people are promising the following:

  • To stay together, through whatever happens, till death
  • To love each other throughout this time To have, or belong to, each other
  • To be sexual throughout the relationship (with my body I thee worship)
  • To share their worldly goods (usually understood as living together and sharing money)

In terms of the first promise, it might be useful – giving the statistics on separation – for couples to talk through this commitment. Would they want to stay together in exactly the same way, for example, if they found that they were fighting all the time in ways that hurt themselves and those close to them, or if one or both of them changed such that they found themselves with very different life goals. Some recognition that people and relationships change over time would be helpful here, and perhaps thinking about what they might do when such changes happen. Would the relationship staying in its current form be prioritised over their well-being? The idea that relationships can shift and change might take the pressure off a little as it offers something in between staying together exactly as we are, or completely ending the relationship.

In terms of loving each other throughout, it is worth talking through what love means to each person and how they express it, or like to have it expressed. People often feel very differently about this, for example, with one person liking regular declarations of love and big romantic gestures, whilst the other prefers practical signs that the other person has taken them into consideration (by doing the washing up, for example), or thinks about them during the day (the odd text message).

In terms of having and holding, it is very important to consider to what extent people belong to each other and to what extent they are free. This is at the root of so many big relationship conflicts. For example, one person might make a decision about their career which the other would have expected to be consulted upon, or one might think that they were free to be closer to certain friends than the other is happy with.

There is also often an expectation that marriages will stay sexual throughout, but there tends to be very little communication about what sex means to each person and what they actually enjoy. Research has found that people who have been in relationships for over a decade still haven't told their partners all of their sexual likes and dislikes, and of course these can change over time. It is useful to talk through what people want sex for, which actually differs quite a lot (e.g. from a release, to an affirmation of their attractiveness, to a reassurance about the relationship, to an expression of intimacy, to a sense of a physical need that requires regular fulfilment), and also recognise that this will fluctuate through the relationship too.

Finally, it is well worth communicating about what will be shared and what will be separate. Does sharing worldly goods mean having joint finances, for example, or keeping some separate? Do we expect to spend all our time together, or to have periods of separation? What are the limits on what would be acceptable (e.g. can we go on holiday with other people, or work apart for a while)? And what about space? Are we planning to live together, sleep together? Will there be any separate space? Who will be responsible for keeping shared space clean and tidy (and to what extent)? Or for caring for children, pets or plants? Will we have any things we keep private (e.g. certain activities or information)?

It is likely that with all these kinds of questions and more, there will be some aspects that both people agree on, some where they disagree but are able to reach a compromise which meets each other's requirements as well as possible, and some where they simply can't agree. These last ones occur in every relationship. They are points of tension which are likely to crop up every now and again, but can be a lot easier to cope with if there is awareness of them and respect for difference (rather than each person trying to force the other into their way of thinking). It can be very hard to respect that, while you would like to share everything, the other person really values keeping some things to themselves, or while you like lots of public displays of affection and 'I love you's', the other person prefers more private intimacy. Also, of course, both people will change over time, so it is worth revisiting these promises and seeing whether things have altered and any renegotiation is necessary, rather than 'you've changed' being a fatal accusation.

Hopefully a grounding of mutual commitment to communication, to respect for difference and change, and to understanding and forgiveness for behaviour when things get tough, will be a better basis for the rough and the smooth to come, than the expectation of perfection (in oneself and one's partner) and a fairytale happily-ever-after.

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Friday, 29 Apr 2011, 08:37


This morning I have been writing a response piece for Sexual and Relationship Therapy about monogamy, so I thought I'd blog about it too. The original article and my response will hopefully appear in the August edition of that journal.

Basically the author of the original paper is arguing that sex and relationship therapists should be actively addressing monogamy with their clients because lots of sexual and relationship problems are rooted in monogamy. Thinking about it she has a good point. Obviously relationship conflicts and break-ups about infidelity are about monogamy. But from my own experience working with clients, I think that many other relationship conflicts and tensions are related to this broad issue as well. People often find themselves in different places in their relationships, over how free versus how together they want to be: how much they want to share and how much they want to be private and independent. Often one person is feeling more constrained and striving for more independence whilst another is feeling more insecure and striving for more of a sense of safety. And this frequently plays out around relationships with other people (is it okay to want more friends outside the relationship? Or to be a bit flirty with a colleague?)

Also, common sexual difficulties are often related to monogamy. A lot of people who have painful or unsatisfying sex continue to do so because they are scared of losing their partner to somebody else (and this tends to make it worse). A lot of people feel that they must continue to have 'great sex' throughout their relationship in order to affirm it, which creates the kind of pressure which can make it difficult to relax and tune in to what they really enjoy. The idea of being a 'sex addict' is sometimes linked to struggling with being monogamous.

The author of the paper pointed out that we generally get the message that monogamy is easy and 'natural', and that our partners will provide everything for us (emotionally and sexually). That idea can leave people feeling like a failure when it doesn't work out like that in their relationship. Actually very few people seem to manage monogamy across a life-time. As many as 50-60% of married people have affairs, and a recent study found that one third of young people in monogamous relationships didn't agree on whether they had discussed what monogamy meant to them and over half of them disagreed on whether the rules of monogamy had been kept or not.

So maybe it would be more useful (in therapy and in general) for people to have open conversations about how they want to manage their relationships: how monogamous they want to be.

I came up with the idea of two continua of monogamy for the book I'm writing on relationships. The emotional continuum goes from having all your emotional needs met by one person, to having multiple loving relationships. The sexual continuum goes from complete sexual fidelity to having multiple sex partners. I think it's useful for people to think about where they are on those continua and whether partners are in similar, or different places.

For example, on the emotional continuum we might consider relationships where it isn't acceptable to have any other close friendships, or to stay in touch with ex-partners, or where it is acceptable to stay up all night talking with someone you've just met, or to have several people in your life who are equally important to your partner. On the sexual continuum we might consider relationships where any form of sexual thought about someone other than the partner is considered wrong, ones where it is okay to look at pornography online but not to interact with someone sexually, ones where certain sexual activities with other people are considered okay, or ones that are completely open to sex with others. Obviously there is overlap between the two continua too.

At the end of my response I concluded that the following things would be useful for therapists, but also more generally:

  • Challenging the assumption that we all have the same rules about monogamy and being open to others being in a different place to ourselves
  • Recognising that relationships of all kinds are difficult and most people struggle around those tensions of freedom and togetherness
  • Communicating about where we are at currently on those continua, recognising that this might change over time and in different relationships, and that we might end up agreeing, compromising, or respectfully agree to disagree
  • Being aware of the variety of different relationship styles that are available , including different styles of monogamy, the new monogamy, open relationships, swinging, and polyamory

There's a lot more about open non-monogamy in the paper Darren Langdridge and I wrote on this topic last year.

Permalink 5 comments (latest comment by Meg-John Barker, Sunday, 3 Apr 2011, 07:49)

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