“Received wisdom” is a kind of cultural white noise: it comes at us all the time, and we mostly tune it out. It comes at us from TV, radio, Twitter, news, fake news, family, friends, fake friends, colleagues. A continuous feed of messages we’ve heard so often we don’t even hear them any more.
Left unchallenged, they become foundation notes for our lives. The effects of this can be incredibly intimate. These days, I only wear underwear from the company that advertises on all my favourite podcasts. Our closest relationships are at least as intimate as our underwear, and they can be influenced in the same way.
I work on isolating and questioning implicit signals about love and romance buried in the white noise. Let’s tune in for a moment and make a few of these messages explicit. First message: love (especially romantic love) is the best thing there is. Second message: it’s something money can’t buy. Third message: it’s what a truly good person wants out of life (as opposed to wealth, power, fame, success, power, etc.).
We also get pretty specific information on how love (and, by extension, a good and happy life) will happen. From earliest childhood, we are taught that our “happy ever after” will come when we are struck with passion for “the one.” Women, especially, are taught to be passive about this: some day our prince will come. That will be the end of our story: happiness forever.
Of course we know this is a myth. But simply knowing that doesn’t lift the weight of expectation it creates. The myth is operative in your social world, impacting your interactions with others. It’s likely also shaping your own subconscious desires, below the level of awareness, evading the watchful eye of your cynical mind.
The myth functions by setting a baseline for how love and life “should” go: a set of romantic norms to determine what is “normal.” And once that is established then everything else, however much it might be tolerated, is not going to be normal. Everything else is in the margins.
"What if I don’t have a prince? What if I don’t want one? Am I a bad person for caring about someone or something else instead? If money doesn’t buy love why is dating so expensive? Can I be happy without being in love? Is happiness the point of being alive?"
The margins are full of questions. What if my prince never comes? What if I don’t have a prince? What if I don’t want one? Am I a bad person for caring about someone or something else instead? If money doesn’t buy love why is dating so expensive? What if I’m unloveable? Can I be happy without being in love? Is happiness the point of being alive?
Being bombarded with difficult questions tends to make people anxious. Easy answers and simple stories are calming.
The simplest romantic story goes like this: a man pursues and eventually “wins” (eww) a woman. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in a baby carriage (cared for primarily by the woman while the man “provides” for his family). They live happily ever after. We worship this iconic story over and over, in everything from folk tales to rom coms to advertisements for kitchen appliances. Constant attempts to mimic the story play out—with varying degrees of success—in people’s real lives.
It is through this ritualistic repetition of a single pattern that romantic love (as we know it) is socially constructed. But when I say it’s socially constructed, I am not denying that it’s real. The process of constructing romantic love may begin with fairy tales, but what we end up with is as real as the law. And it is policed: deviation carries costs and conformity is rewarded. If you’ve ever been treated as weird for being single or for being polyamorous, you know something about social policing. Too many partners or too few … either way, you’re not normal. Normal people stick to the script: man and woman. Dinner and a movie. Engagement and wedding. House and kids.
"The process of constructing romantic love may begin with fairy tales, but what we end up with is as real as the law. And it is policed."
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with these rituals, of course. They can be valuable and beautiful for those who choose them. But “choose” is the key word. Rituals are a problem when they come with an expectation of conformity. Most people are opposed to the idea that everyone should be pressured into adopting a single religion. Yet our constant over-representation of a single “right way” of doing love has become a foundation note in our culture.
But how can we challenge this? It’s not easy. If you say anything critical about the simple romantic story, you’re liable to be labelled “unromantic” at best, and potentially much worse. To that extent, the ideology of “romantic” works like that of “traditional:” it insulates a bundle of ideas and practices, and protects them from any kind of challenge.
Again, however, knowing that doesn’t help. Tradition runs deep, often to our cores. It can shape our sense of who and what we are. Challenges to tradition can feel like existential threats, and provoke the same kind of defensiveness. That doesn’t mean traditions should be immune to critique, but it helps explain why they’re not easily ceded in the face of those seeking change.
But questioning tradition—including “traditional” romance—doesn’t have to present any kind of threat to its value. Sometimes a little conceptual reframing can go a long way.
I think it helps to think of romantic rituals as a kind of dance. Picture a traditional dance, say a waltz. A waltz is a dance for two people, with two clearly defined (and clearly gendered) roles. Lead and follow. It is a thing of beauty and a joy forever: it would be terribly sad to lose such a beautiful art form.
"But if, having taught someone to waltz, you put a gun to their head and force them to waltz for the rest of their lives, that’s a very different scenario."
But many other forms of dance flourish alongside the waltz. And even among those who waltz, there are more and less traditional ways to do it: women can lead, or two men can waltz together, or if you want you can bust out a six-minute jive solo then slip smoothly back into to your waltz. Those who choose to dance waltzes are breathing new life into the form. What they don’t do is run out and stop everyone else from twerking, moonwalking, Morris dancing, or performing a perfect 18th Century French gavotte. That’s not about preserving traditions, it’s about shutting them down.
Norms, expectations, scripts, and rituals are not necessarily constraints. Sometimes norms empower us: they expand our agency and our options. For example, learning the rules of the road is a crucial part of empowering oneself to drive. Teaching someone how to waltz expands their options on the dance floor: now they can choose to waltz if they want to.
But if, having taught someone to waltz, you put a gun to their head and force them to waltz for the rest of their lives, that’s a very different scenario. Likewise, being free to exercise choice in our romantic lives, to make our own decisions, and to live as we see fit, is exactly what transforms “traditional” romance from an imposed constraint into a beautiful dance.
At the moment, our romantic norms come with threats attached: conform or pay the penalty. In my work, I am trying to blunt these sharp edges. To reframe romantic norms as a kind of choreography respects the value of the rituals and stories we all know, without forcing them on everybody who wants to dance differently.
Image Credit: Ardian Lumi