The tragedy of a dodo relationship

8 minute read

When I started writing this post, I wanted to write a critical review on Het monogame drama (The monogamous tragedy) by Simone van Saarloos. It is more of an essay than a book, really. She tries to convince the reader of the value of the lifestyle of ‘the single’. A lifestyle, she beliefs, is more worthy of pursuit than being in a monogamous relationships. I feel the message contains valuable aspects, but I do not always agree with her style of writing. She brings forward strong emotional arguments that evoke a lot of resistance with me. Some of which are misleading in a way that is hard to get your hands on. However, I leave my criticism for what it is. I decided to single out the points I want to share with you, in my own words.

My main take-home message would be that there are some pitfalls to the culturally aspired monogamous relationships – let’s call them the happy relationship (no sarcasm intended). The message is that it can be valuable to consider a relationship in between friends and a traditional monogamous life partner. In general, there is no denying that our ideal of a happy relationship is not always doing well. Divorce rates in the Netherlands have risen sharply since the 1970s. In 2016, the official percentage of marriages ending in a divorce was 39.1%. We all want a happy relationship. So why do so many people want to separate after some years?

“Why were we crucified into sex?
Why were we not left rounded off, and finished in ourselves?”
– D. H. Lawrence, ‘Tortoise Shout’

In our culture, we are brought up to believe that having a happy relationship is a goal in life. In questionnaires, we are asked if we have a partner. Not who this partner is, or our best friend for that sake. With this mindset, a partner is reduced to a means to reach a goal. And our goal is to have a relationship. Written out like this, this is a despicable thought to me. It is not at odds with how I want to experience a partner. And I suspect it’s not how you want to regard your partner either. Simone even goes as far as to call this mindset unethical.

Many people think the challenge is to find the perfect match. When we have found this match, loving will be easy. The focus is on getting love. But love is not something you have or do not have. We are confused by our materialistic thinking. Love is an exercise, and it’s the exercise itself that matters. Love is the believe that something is worth our time. And where we invest our time, we will cultivate love.

In order to cultivate love, our connections to others need some room. Playfulness is the most important characteristic of society says Johan Huizinga. And that is where I want my romantic life to take place! Any playfield is a place that feels separated from the strain of ‘real life’ (whatever that may be) and creates room for creation. I love experiencing this creative playfulness while dancing.

It is a wonderful comforting thing to lie down and imagine having a partner that is your best friend, someone who challenges you intellectually, an emotional retreat and a beastly bedpartner. The tought alone makes me happy and inspires me. But is it fair to expect this all at once from anyone? Don’t we want to experience unconditional love as well? Where is the playfulness in all these expectations? When any of these things are missing, we tell ourselves that it is a ‘bad relationship’ and that we ‘deserve better’. Let me tell you something, you don’t deserve anything. The other is not responsible for fulfilling these expectations. These expectations suffocate the unique interaction that you two have. You are not responsible for keeping the other from their wanderlust, by compulsively creating tension. Everyone is exiting and inspiring, just by the simple act of existing. Think about that for a moment, before you continue.

Now, lets talk about the people who have failed to meet your expectations. Your past relationships. That’s right, the people who you have given all that loving kindness and attention. Sometimes for years on end. Where do they fit into this picture? When we enter a new relationship, exes take on a confusing role. We have an agreement with our new partner to be faithful to each other. That we are not interested in other persons in our romantic lives. But in the past, we were in a romantic relationship with someone else! Some people solve this mental riddle by finding some reason to hate their exes. They treated you like shit, and thus decomposed your sacred agreement. Others argue that their exes raised them to be the person they are today, and tolerate their history with them through this development. But development of the relationship itself should not be a rationale of its existence either.

The philosopher Slavoj Žižek states that when you gain a new insight, you feel like you have had that insight forever. So it is very hard to imagine why you have ever been with someone else, once you are in a relationship. But why don’t we stop comparing these people? We can move our focus instead to what makes them different and unique. Be interested. Be a student. And we will find that we don’t need to apologize our past relationships. Maybe, just maybe, we will find that loving connections can even co-exist!

“Wait, is he suggesting we should explore polyamorous relationships? That’s just greedy!” Yes, I just did. And here is why. In her book, Simone states that the presumed safety of a happy relationship makes us very vulnerable to change in our environment. We soon become completely reliant on our partner, and it anything happens to them, we could find we have no social safety net. The single, however, is apt to deal with change. The single never had any illusion of safety to hide behind. A single person experiences a lot more risk in his life. And risk and adversary always leads to personal growth. In my work in complexity science, there are many examples of systems that become stronger by applying stress to them. Or look at the dodo, a bird that evolved to be completely helpless for the lack of environmental threats! In a lot of ways, the polyamorous person resembles a single. You do not have an agreement with your partner(s) to shield yourself from external romantic relationships. And with that, a lot of other presumed safeties dissolve. If we shield ourselves from external stress, our happy relationship quickly becomes a dodo relationship. A miserable thing that is unable to adapt to changes in its environment and is predestined to die out. But without shielding ourselves to external influences, our relationships will become that much stronger and more fulfilling. So how can we find a way to incorporate this single-mindset into our romantic lives?

For this, Simone proposes 5 social rules

  1. See different people. Being fully dependent on any one person is destructive to both of your developments and will move you to a dodo relationship. 
  2. Divide your needs and do not crave attention. Romantic relationships need some level of concealment.
  3. Avoid superficial sex and small talk. Don’t be a consumer, but develop deep connections with both your friends and romantic partners.
  4. Be perceptive to people’s differences. There is no 1 to 10 grading scale for your potential partners. Every person is unique, so every connection is unique. You are not jealous that your friends have other friends as well, because deep down, you know this. You would probably even feel worried if one of your friends fully depended on you! Why don’t we apply this mindset to our romantic lives?
  5. Have safe sex. It is a place where you connect by seeing each others passion and vulnerability simultaneously. Know what your boundaries are and be sure you trust the other with them. But be open to surprises… 😉

Contrary to Simone, I believe these rules can be applied just as well to our happy relationship. Also, I don’t feel a polyamorous relationship is very durable on the long run. The added insecurities might be undesirable when, for example, raising children. However, I do feel many people could benefit by experimenting, playfully, with the idea. It gets you out of your comfort zone. It lets you re-define what your core relationship values really are. I have found it to be a very healing experience.

Love and relationships are not a static thing. Your relationships don’t have to always ‘get better’. It’s OK to take a metaphorical step down the relationship ladder now and then. Remember that love is not something to be found, it is in you. In your actions. In how you treat the people close to you. Now, go out and play!

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