Thursday, January 1, 2009

In a Relationship

"I've been in a relationship with myself for 49 years, and that's the one I need to work on."
--Samantha, Sex and the City: The Movie

Well, I hope your New Year's was more fun than mine-- I have a massive cold, so I lay on my couch inertly watching Sex and the City: The Movie. At least I knew I'd recover when I was able to get up to write that quote down.

Anyway, we all know that I hate the term "Just Friends" (as if friends are irrelevant compared to romantic partners! Hmmph!). But I never thought I'd reach this day, as well: The term "in a relationship" bothers me. I never really thought about it until the beginning of this week, when someone asked me "are you in a relationship" and I said "no". It's an odd question, really, because we're all in relationships. Even hermits (why am I always using hermits as examples? Sorry, hermits) are in relationships with the little forest creatures. The philosopher Schopenhauer's most significant relationships were with poodles. If you have a strong feeling towards something, it's pretty safe to say that you have a relationship with it.

"But Ily" you say, "Everyone knows that 'in a relationship' means 'a romantic relationship'". Well, of course, I know that too. But why aren't people saying what they mean? Why not "are you dating anyone?", "are you in a romantic relationship?", or "do you have a boyfriend or girlfriend?". I suppose that "relationship" is a more general term for boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, or partner. But why, from the phrase "in a relationship", do we assume it ends there?

"In a relationship" belongs to a group of what I call "coded phrases". I find them fascinating. I'll explain them best through another example: "What do you do?" To answer that question literally, you'd say something like "breathing" or catalogue everything you really do. But we all know that question means "What is your job?" I believe these sort of questions reflect values that we may not really want to have (but that our culture may encourage). When we say "What do you do?" and assume that means "What is your job?", we're assuming that your job is the most important thing you do. And we may or may not really believe this. It's the same with "Are you in a relationship?". By not stating the sort of relationship, and yet assuming that it's a romantic one, we're privledging those sorts of relationships over others. Whether that's the way we really feel or not.


Anonymous said...

This is a great point. Next time I'm asked if I'm in a relationship I'm going to say, "lots of them." I'm polycurious anyway, so let them squirm. :P

Anonymous said...

Yep, the whole glorification of romantic relationships is a real pain. I was asked recently if there was I had a special person in my life. I replied that I had a lot of special people in my life but was not romantically involved with anyone. We put romantic relationships on a pedestal to our own peril - when something (the relationship) or someone (the person) has to be our "everything" we are bound to be disappointed. No wonder most friendships last longer than most relationships (or so I've heard).

Happy new year. Hope you feel better soon.

Ily said...

Thanks, Sea and Sasha...
I think glorification is okay in theory, but I just want people to have choices about that. 'Choices' seem to be a major theme around here! There is usually less pressure in friendships, which is probably a good thing.

Yvonne said...

OK, my computer is freaking out, so apologies if this goes through twice:

That is one of my least favorite questions as well. And don't get me started on if/when the person next asks (after I say "no") "Oh, why not?" As if being single is inherently unnatural. Argh!

Happy New Year! And thanks for the link in an earlier post to the Salon article about the gal in her 20's who was "still" a virgin. Great stuff.

Anonymous said...

I really don't think most people think about it that way...I don't think people ask "are you in a relationship", meaning a romantic one, because they think romantic ones are somehow better...romantic relationships are the only ones that any one asks if you're one says "are you in a relationship with your mom" because everyone (assuming they know they're mom :-/) is in some kind of relationship with they're mom...whether its good or bad...therefore, I think it makes complete sense that "in a relationship" now means in a romantic relationship, not because they are better, but because it is a general way of asking the question, and really, what else COULD it mean? :-P

Ily said...

Madeline, you're right, it does make sense. "What do you do?" also makes sense. I think it's interesting, though, that non-literal statements seem to "make sense" to us, that we somehow don't get bogged down in considering all those other relationships.
One reason I wrote about this is probably because "Are you in a relationship?" is something I hardly ever get asked. (Yvonne, I can't believe people ask you "Why not?" Even though I guess it's supposed to be a compliment, it's sort of an annoying one.) So when someone said it to me recently, it sounded like I was hearing it for the first time, and that made me take a step back and think about it.
But yeah, I don't think like most people, I'll readily admit that...hopefully it adds some interest. Just call me the anthropologist on Venus ;-)

DJ DJ said...

Great post Ily! I've posted my own rants on this topic, I think the relative invisibility of non-romantic relationships is a problem on many levels. No matter how great a romantic relationship you're in I think it's hard to be happy if you don't take other relationships seriously.

I also think that there's more resistance to this than we think, especially in highschool and college. It seemed like my friends there were always looking for words other than "dating" to describe their quasi-romantic relationships and were always appropriating romantic words to describe their friendships. If there were a better language out there I think that people of that age would appropriate and use it.

Anonymous said...

I think you're right, DJ. A lot of my friends (I'm in college now) talk about their closest non-romantic relationships in romantic terms and sometimes -- with certain gender configurations -- get mistaken for gay couples, even if they're straight and have partners. And generally they're cool with that, which I think is helpful to everyone. Maybe the language we need will spring from people like them.

Mary Maxfield said...

This is an amazing point that I don't think I've ever really considered before. The "just friends" thing bothers me every time I hear it, but I hadn't thought much about "in a relationship." The idea of coded phrases really intrigues me because if we don't realize the values supported by our language, then how can we shift them, keep them cohesive with our true value systems? I have my antennae up now for other offending phrases. Danke!

p.s. I also watched Sex and the City on NYE. (Random!) And that line you quoted was totally my favorite.

Anonymous said...

I've never thought about "are you in a relationship?" in this way before, thanks, interesting; "What do you do?" has always been massively offensive to me though, it's treating other people like appliances or gadgets.