I want to talk about Valentine’s Day. I want to tackle a category of “jokes” that come up year-round but especially around Valentine’s Day.
I can best summarize this category of “humor” as “Henny Youngman/Take my wife … please.” (Thanks Jennifer Carlson, for the suggestion). In case you are not familiar with Henny Youngman, you can get up to speed here:
In a modern-day context, it looks like this*:
Honest Valentines for Married Couples – a progression of “honest” valentines where the level of hostility and resentment toward your partner increases commensurate with the length of your relationship
Another page of “honest” valentines:
Hilarious Realistic Valentines One Husband’s Been Sending to His Wife
I just don’t have anything clever to say about this one:
13 Brutally Honest Valentine’s Day Cards Guaranteed to Keep you Single Forever
In fact, a lot of this “humor” is framed as honesty (“it’s funny because it’s true”) or “truth in advertising.” The subtext of course is that any representation of a healthy, loving relationship full of communication is, obviously, a lie. If not a lie, certainly short-lived (i.e. the relationship is new)
Here’s more of what I mean:
What You Can Do After Sex, Based on How Long You’ve Been Together – an infographic explaining that the longer you’ve been together, the less post-sex physical contact you should expect
It also takes the form of assuming that we won’t be honest or direct with each other. That we should approach everything our partners say with a touch of suspicion and expect to have to play Sherlock Holmes to understand what they need, what they are asking from us. And, in turn, that we can’t speak directly or honestly because that would be “too rude” or “too harsh.” Everything from advice on “the rules” of dating to how to decipher the difference between what we mean and what we say. The expectation that we will always be triangulating meaning from indirect communication. You know, stuff like this:
An honest-to-goodness translation guide (it looks like a foreign language dictionary) called, “What women say and what they really mean …”
From the grand dame of useless self-assessments meant to foster self-doubt and fears of inadequacy (Cosmopolitan Magazine), you can take this 44-page test, Quiz: 50 Guy Phrases Translated
Or how about the idea that what we both want out of a relationship is fundamentally different. For example:
The somewhat-recently created holiday, Steak & BJ Day. (In case it’s not obvious, that site is totally NSFW) This holiday exists because men through sheer social and cultural pressure did what SHE wanted for Valentine’s day so now she OWES him, right? (And of course it’s assumed that women don’t like sex or giving/getting oral sex. Because that’s true, right?) Would it really be so hard to talk to each other about we each really want out of the day (anything from an impromptu trip to Paris to nothing at all) and come up with something mutually appealing? [Side note: My partner and I DID do this and it wasn’t hard at all to create a yearly Valentine’s tradition of staying in with a Cary Grant movie, Chinese food take-out and some sex. All we had to do was talk to each other about how we would like to celebrate our relationship. As with any yearly tradition, subject to change as we change.]
Here’s a video called, “Things people with dates can’t do on Valentine’s Day.” I believe it’s intended to offer comfort to people who are single on Valentine’s Day. But instead of pointing out what’s POSITIVE about being solo (yep, there’s good in being single), the creators choose to push the relentless idea that what YOU want is inherently what your partner does not want. That the day will be, by necessity, unsatisfying in some way for each of partner.
And, the last category takes the form of lists of things that men and women: must do, shouldn’t do, should do, have to do, can’t do, etc. All sorts of advice telling you how to “be successful” on Valentine’s Day. I am not bothering to post links on this one because if you can’t Google and find a dozen instantly, then you are asleep at your screen.
*I am not intending to single out any one “offender” – I’ve chosen a few examples to illustrate my points but the authors of these pieces aren’t bad people.
Now, up until now, most of the links I’ve posted comment exclusively on hetero match-ups because men and women are sooooo different and hence all the humor. But queer couples face our own unique culture of expecting our relationships to go from great to crap. For example:
“Lesbian bed death” – the idea that after a certain amount of time, you can expect to not have sex with your partner. Ever. All you will do is own many cats, wear ugly clothes, drink a lot of tea and get bad haircuts.
And for queer men, I don’t know that there’s a clever phrase for it but generally speaking, the recurring “truism” that gay men can’t get married or make a long-term commitment because they are too sexually avaricious, too promiscuous, too likely to cheat on you, etc. Or, if one of you is a bit older and more well-off, he will eventually drop you for a younger guy.
In the lingo of anti-racist and anti-sexist work, these kinds of behaviors are described as microaggressions. Singularly, no single one is overly impactful. But it’s the daily pattern, the ceaseless repetition which is cumulative and props up a systemic oppression. In this case, all of these jokes, cuts and digs help set and re-enforce relationship norms/expectations that I find troubling. For example (not all-inclusive and in no particular order):
— It is inevitable that your relationship will deteriorate over time
— This means physical affection (yep, including sex) will get less satisfying and less frequent over time
— You can never accept that what your partner is telling you is the truth; you have to search for the “hidden meaning”
— You and your partner are fundamentally different and will never see eye-to-eye on the “little things”
— Your partner does not like you the way you are and it would be so much easier if you just came around to doing things “the right way.” A variation on this is talking about potential partners as “mold-able,” “trainable” or “good raw material”
— It’s important to always have the “upper hand”
The reason I am so passionate in my distaste for this flavor of humor is that it sets us all up for the idea that a long-term relationship with a partner is an exercise in diminishing returns in which each year together constitutes an additional factor of production. I intentionally borrowed jargon from economics because so often that’s how we talk about relationships (and people in them) in popular media – wins and losses, zero sum games, assets and liabilities, keeping score, balancing, accounting, etc. Everything from little “tips” that involve passive-aggressive behaviors to get what you need whether it’s more help around the house or Valentine’s Day.
The reality for most of us in long-term committed relationships is that there are ups and downs. That how rewarding our relationship is at any particular moment is often directly correlated with the amount of time and energy we have available to put into it. At various moments we will have more or less time and/or energy. Fluctuations in time aside, in my limited experience, the relationships that really last are the ones that start with respect and layer on love, affection, sweetness, commitment, etc. Because if in your core, you really respect your partner, you aren’t going to cut them down when they’re already down. You’re going to reach out a hand and say, “hey, things seem hard for you right now, how can I help?” Your partner is someone you respect and not a collection of annoying habits/traits or a unfinished items on a to-do list.
Sure, giddy, new relationship mojo fades and changes over time but if what it changes into is resentment and contempt – that’s not a partnership anymore, it’s meager coexistence. It’s tolerance rather than love or appreciation. I don’t want to tolerate or be tolerated; I want to love and be loved. Please, have all the conflict you need in your relationship: argue, disagree, debate, struggle, take space and regroup. The French have a saying that loosely translates to, “a couple is not a real couple until they fight in public.” Your partnership should be so strong that you can disagree when you need to without worrying about the judgment of others; that’s good advice! But when you resolve the conflict, move forward together – genuinely together and not sniping behind each other’s backs.
All stripes of this Henny Youngman humor (not to mention an entire section of Hallmark stores dedicated to the theme, “Happy Anniversary/other holiday! Here’s everything I hate about you presented as a joke/comic drawing) props up the norm that partnership means slow-building contempt for each other; it normalizes the inescapable inevitability that, given enough time, both partners will resent each other. I’ve been in relationships like that, and I admit in some cases I stayed longer than was good for either of us, growing more aggravated by the day.
Maybe I’m not qualified to say since I’m only 6ish years into my own relationship. Of course we have ups and downs, minor aggravations and a few arguments that don’t go as well as they could but this undercurrent of resentment and contempt that passes for jokes — we are all supposed to laugh at it because “it’s funny ’cause it’s true,” we are supposed to accept that that’s how relationships ARE. So, being the stick-in-the-mud that I am, I DON’T laugh at sentiments like these. I think, “if all you have left is resentment, the time to leave was a while ago.” We have so many friends who are married (or partnered), who we’ve seen go through some tough and stressful times who are kind and supportive and physically affectionate – who don’t cut each other down in front of others or show signs of contempt or resentment. This is why I feel like it can’t be “just us.” We are not sparkly unicorns (except when we are, but that’s another post entirely).
But I’d like to create a new trope, one that normalizes the idea that when you have a partner who shares the same values and general approach to life, then cooperation is a matter of communication and communication isn’t a chore. I want us all to expect our relationships to be enduringly great and to not settle for less. The existing norms tell us that contempt and resentment are normal and not a sign that it might be time to move on. They trick us into expecting less than we deserve. There’s no reason to stay in an unfulfilling relationship other than we’ve told ourselves that it’s “normal” to do so. I’m tired of that bullshit. I’m tired of this communal lying to each other. Given the ~50% divorce rate, plenty of people do move on but I firmly believe that if we were “allowed” to move on before things got interminably bad, maybe the phrase “amicable divorce” wouldn’t sound like such an oxymoron or an exception to the rule.
We should all expect not creeping contempt and resentment but deepening partnership and commitment to see the best in each other while loving the parts that aren’t yet the best. Because given a little love and optimism, maybe your partner CAN improve on remembering to turn off ALL the lights or put away a few more pairs of shoes. But given sniping and passive-aggressive remarks? Well, what have you ever been motivated to improve with that as fuel? Still believing in each other can make all the difference. This is the new trope I want, the new cultural norm.
What does this love and optimism, this commitment to seeing the best in each other look like?
It looks like Mike Howard, writing about how he and his wife worked through his career in a field where it is generally accepted that one partner will get a free pass to be a lousy partner because that’s just “how it is.” He decided that may be “how it is” but it wasn’t how he wanted to be as a partner to someone he respects and loves.
It looks like that moment when I want to say “I told you so” when the shitty thing I predicted would happen (and she did anyway, you know despite my foolproof advice) happens and I don’t say it. I don’t say it because when my partner is kicked down, she doesn’t need another kick. She needs a hand up and help brushing off. It means really understanding that being good to someone you love is always more important being right about one decision. You can talk through how to approach the same situation differently later, after the crisis moment has passed.
It looks like that time my mom told me (though she swears she doesn’t remember this): “people need love the most when they deserve it the least.”
It looks like some of my favorite musicians talking and singing about what it means to love each other, for the long haul:
“Skin” – by Chris Trapper
Because according to Chris (and I agree with him), there are many more songs about falling in love than about staying in love.
“Wait for the Tea to Steep” – by Mike Evin
I like this so much, that when I contributed to a fundraising effort, I requested a custom recording of this one as my thank-you prize.
“I Got You” – by Caravan of Thieves
“Invisible” – Gandalf Murphy & The Grand Slambovian Circus of Dreams
This has to be my favorite image of the moment when a general reluctance to be vulnerable gives way to trusting in letting someone else love me when I really need it.
[Sidenote: Yes, you should totally support these indpendent musicians by buying their music]
“Fine, we are too mean to each other. So what?” you ask. For starters, I want those of us who work really hard to create and maintain a relationship (and for many of us, a family) to counteract these cultural tropes. To put our own stories out there. Stories that talk about the real realities of what it’s like to share a life together, why all the hard work is worth it and why you wouldn’t want to not-share it. To reject these microaggressive memes. Don’t forward them without a bit of critical commentary, don’t create them, call out others when you see them and explain how they propagate a cultural norm that no one really wants to live.
And for the record, I am not a humorless prude. I am OK with laughing at our own foibles, shortcomings and some pretty offensive stuff. I just want a world in which we expect that our long-term partnerships will be loving, tinged with optimism, idealism and fun rather than resentment and disappointment. Is that too much? Probably. But I’m used to asking for too much; sometimes I even wind up with just the right amount.
What say you Internet? When have you accepting less than a loving and fulfilling partnership? Why? What’s great about your relationship? What do you do to help keep it great?