On Relationships

Max Chis | staff writer

I have autism. My younger years were often spent in a state of real or perceived social isolation. The kind of socializing that was normal and easy for others had to be painstakingly learned over the course of many years and often required a great deal of mental effort to apply. I felt disconnected, and often I was. So relationships came rarely to me.

For a long time I felt like this made me a failure. I felt like, since I wasn’t in a relationship, I must be unloveable, less worthwhile, and should be ashamed.

Those feelings are, were, and will continue to be, bullshit. But it’s bullshit that a lot of us have trouble shaking. Not surprising, given how virtually every aspect of our culture is permeated with this myth of the absolute importance of the relationship. Nearly every popular film ends with the guy getting the girl and the two of them going on to live happily ever after. Romantic comedies in particular are built on the premise of someone who is single and miserable, or in an unhappy relationship, but then someone comes into their lives, sweeps them off their feet, and imbues their life with happiness and meaning. Commercials of every sort advertise the allure and joy of relationships, which they tell us will be improved if we buy their product. We have a holiday, devoted entirely to celebrating love, suffused with an army of flowers, chocolate, and cards which the culture tells us must be purchased in large quantities in order to truly declare our affection. And for how much these cultural pressures exert themselves on men, in our society they exert themselves on women many more times over.

For the time being, let’s pass over how so much of our culture’s obsession with relationships is a scheme to sell bullshit we don’t need, and focus instead on the problem of holding up relationships as the key to a meaningful and happy life. The reverse of this view of relationships  is that people who are single, for whatever reason, must therefore have a life that is less meaningful and happy. So in other words people who have difficulty making relationships for whatever reason, people who are asexual or aromantic or otherwise uninterested in relationships, or people who simply never had the chance to be in a relationship, are consigned to some empty other-life, permanently excluded from the meaning and joy that allegedly permeates the lives of those in committed relationships.

“Alleged” is the key point here. Even in committed relationships, it doesn’t always work out. . To be sure, relationships can be wonderful, enjoyable things. But they aren’t always. In fact, some relationships are abusive, or unhealthy, or simply unsatisfying and draining. These are situations where the people within them would be better off without them. Yet our love-worshipping culture tells them they should stay in, they should try to make it work, because they’ll just feel unhappy and alone if they leave it. When a relationship falls apart, as they sometimes do, the surrounding culture tells us that the value of its former participants, particularly for the women, has dropped. They are no longer part of the privileged class of people whom romance stories, holidays, and giant, heart-shaped boxes of overpriced chocolate are all about. As a result, they might feel cut off from our society, and may even think they’re the less for it.

So our culture serenades these unfortunates with films of unhappy relationships that got a spark put back in them and then everything was good and happy again! Of people who broke-up and were so unhappy and all they wanted to do was be back together with their old love again! The underlying message being that even if you think the relationship isn’t working out, deep down you need it. So people stay in bad relationships, hurting themselves and possibly hurting the other person as well, because the culture tells them that, despite the unhappiness, despite how draining or outright hurtful it is, it’s still better than being single.  I recall speaking once to a friend who felt like she had to “lower her expectations” and be with someone who would make her unhappy, just so she could be in a relationship.

There’s something dangerous in having so much of our happiness be dependent on other people. As Mr. Rogers observed “Love is generally confused with dependence.” And if we look to other people, and their willingness to be in a relationship with us, as an indicator of our worth and our right to happiness, we’re bound to be miserable, because we can’t control other people. We can’t make people love us, and we can’t make people stay with us. By being dependent, we give someone else the power to determine our own happiness–or, more often, our “happiness”–and when has that ever worked out?

Even with relationships that are healthy and happy, they’re not everything. Anyone who’s in a relationship can attest to the fact that being in a relationship didn’t solve all of their problems, didn’t make them unilaterally happy all the time, and it didn’t suddenly fill their life to bursting with meaning. Again, relationships can be a wonderful thing in a person’s life. So can a healthy diet and regular exercise. So can a satisfying job and financial security. And so can mental health and emotional stability that not all relationships necessarily provide. We don’t celebrate those, but they can be just as valuable to a happy life, if not more.

In the end, we don’t need relationships. We may want them, but we can and do live without them, and have just as much an opportunity to live meaningful and fulfilling lives. ♦

Photo: “Lonely At the Top, Eh?” by Harsha K R. Photo via flickr.com. Released to public domain.

Max is a senior psychology major. Like most millennials, he has no idea what to do with his life and is terrified of adulthood.

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