LOUISE O'NEILL: Our roles in a relationship should be determined by individual strengths and talents rather than gender

I would never attempt to speak for all women, because there is no such thing as a ‘typical’ woman.

Contrary to some of the lovely emails and online comments I receive (I think you’re a talentless, attention seeking cliché too, random man on the internet), I have never claimed to speak for all women.

How could I? As much as I try to listen and learn from those around me who are of different races, religions, sexualities, my experiences are often very specific to my own culture and upbringing — that of a white, middle class woman in her early thirties.

I would never attempt to speak for all women, because despite what some would have us believe, there is no such thing as a ‘typical’ woman.

We, just like men, differ widely from person to person.

Our personality traits are not biologically determined by our sex — rather, it is true that the idea of gender, as the academic Judith Butler told us, is a social construct.

Since we were children, we have been offered ideals of masculinity and femininity and encouraged to emulate them, regardless of whether we feel comfortable doing so.

The beauty of feminism is that it wants to afford us all, women and men, the opportunity to express who we truly are, without having to conform to the stereotypes of how a ‘real’ man or woman should act.

As feminism has continued to play a larger role in my life, I have felt more comfortable with who I am, and more sure of what I want to achieve in life.

Except in one aspect — romantic relationships.

I am still struggling to learn how to be a feminist within a heterosexual relationship, how to navigate all the baggage that comes with that, and the expectation that both I and the man involved will be complicit in adhering to strict gender roles.

If the many, many conversations I have with my feminist friends about this topic are anything to go by, then I am not alone. 

The brilliant Una Mullally was kind enough to send me a copy of I Love Dick by Chris Kraus, a book that explores obsession and desire, mostly through epistolary form.

I was initially baffled by it, wincing at the narrator’s increasingly unhinged behaviour, until it began to dawn on me. We do this. Many women do this.

Having graduated from Disney Princess movies where the heroine is saved by True Love’s Kiss to romantic comedies where it is only through a lover that one can become ‘complete’, many women have been persuaded that a relationship is the end goal and that in order to achieve that goal, it is somehow acceptable to behave like a 12-year-old girl with a crush on a boyband member.

So we play games. We wait for him to text first. We screenshot those messages, sending them to our friends, analysing them, what do you think he means by that, there was no x and usually he puts two, do you think he cares about me?

We do a deep dive on Facebook or Instagram, shocked when we suddenly realise we’re looking at his second cousin’s best friend’s wedding album from 2010. 

We become obsessed, consumed. We expend so much energy wondering what the man is thinking about, what he’s doing, who he’s with.

We wonder how he feels about us, barely giving a cursory thought to how we feel about him.

We think and we think and we think and we believe that this drama is romantic, that it indicates the depth of our emotions, and in doing so, we lose the most important thing of all — ourselves.

As Caitlin Moran said in How To Be A Woman, “You can tell whether some misogynistic societal pressure is being exerted on women by calmly enquiring, ‘And are the men doing this, as well?’”

I’m generalising here, but I don’t think they are.

I don’t believe that men have been conditioned to see a romantic relationship as a tool with which to validate their very existence and thus they are much better equipped to compartmentalise, refusing to allow a new relationship to impact the other elements of their life — their careers, their friendships, even their fitness routines — in the same way a woman might.

I’m not writing this article to further perpetuate stereotypes.

I know there are many women who will recoil at what I’ve described above and will have no experience of the frenzy that I’ve outlined, either in themselves or in their friendship circles.

So too, there will be men who do identify with it.

I’m simply trying to point out that this behaviour is not biologically inherent and to examine how our culture encourages women to buy in to this and perform the role of ‘female person in a relationship’.

Even the conventional concept of marriage seems designed to keep women in their place. 

In a patriarchal society, a woman must wait until her partner is ready to propose.

Her partner must ask for her father’s permission to marry her.

Her father will walk her down the aisle until he hands her over to her new custodian.

Then she must change her name, transferring her allegiance from her father’s family to that of her husband.

If she and her husband decide to have children, then the mother will naturally become the primary caregiver, despite the fact that 40% of women are now the breadwinners.

It seems, once again, that traditional heterosexual relationships support an element of passivity in the female participant that, I have to confess, makes me queasy.

But times change. People change. I can see how many of my friends are attempting to forge new ways of navigating their relationships.

During the marriage equality referendum, there were fears expressed that gay couples would ‘redefine’ the idea of marriage.

While I don’t share those fears, I do hope that they might recalibrate it for the better, that they might offer us an example of relationships in which our roles are determined by individual strengths and talents rather than by mere virtue of our specific gender.


Lifestyle

To instantly power up your look, veer towards the hard shoulder.Bold shoulder: How to instantly power up your look

Plums are a wonderful autumn fruit, useful for all sorts of recipes both sweet and savoury. In Ireland we are blessed with wonderfully sweet plums.Currabinny Cooks: Juicy plums work for both sweet and savoury dishes

The rise of home skincare devices doesn't mean that salons and clinics no longer serve a purpose.The Skin Nerd: Don’t try this at home — new treatments in the salon

Millions of gamers watched Fortnite reach breaking point on Sunday night, with ten seasons of mysterious storyline culminating in meteors hitting the island and everything disappearing.GameTech: End of beginning for Fortnite as Chapter 2 finally goes live

More From The Irish Examiner