1990s >> 1993 >> no-1071-november-1993

What is Love?

A young man and woman have a good relationship. They are both kind, thoughtful people. They both go out to work — she earns less than he does, but they share their income. He does his share of the housework. They both feel free to go out when they choose and they enjoy each other’s company. Their sexual relationship is good unpressured and imaginative — and like the rest of their relationship, based on equality.

Naturally, they have arguments from time to time, but they are quickly resolved. Untouched by life’s bitterness, they cannot imagine anything much ever going wrong. Why should it?

Then something happens which changes their lives for ever. She becomes pregnant and he does not. Raised by TV and magazine images of cute babies and blissful parenthood, they still cannot imagine anything but greater happiness. Things start to change. Affected by massive hormonal changes acting upon her like a strong drug and discomfited by the realization of what is happening to her body, the woman becomes moody, alternately bad-tempered and clingy.

He is irritated by her moodiness, feels pressured by her unusual clinginess and put off by her sickness and tiredness. They go to a party one night and he becomes flirtatious with another woman. She feels betrayed, and disturbed by her own insecurity and jealousy. He is enjoying the light relief from his unease and resents what he sees as her interference.

The boat has started to rock. Differences have set in. At this stage they sit and talk things over and they feel better for it.

When she has the baby, it is an intense experience for both of them. She is overwhelmed by the levels of physical pain and he suffers with her. The birth, however, is straightforward and the arrival of the baby is a joyous moment for both of them.

Now the fun begins. She breastfeeds the baby — for good reasons — it keeps mother and baby close and the milk is biologically the correct food for the baby, protecting from illness. He feels left out.

He cannot share the childcare at this stage. She cannot go back to work straight away so they become reliant on his income — a subtle shift in power occurs. They are living off “his” income. She becomes worn out with being awake at night. She knows she is on duty 24 hours a day, every day and is desperate for decent sleep. He believes he should not have to get up in the night with baby as he is going to do the work.

They can neither of them really understand the rift developing between them — and hardly believe it.

This story has a number of possible endings. They might somehow muddle through, and with the help of kind friends and relatives come to understand each other — or it might end in a nasty divorce, the child having been badly affected by years of hostility followed by the loss of someone loved.

In the years BC (before children) equality between men and women can seem a fairly straight forward affair. Differences between men and women are far fewer than similarities. Even at this stage, it is likely that awareness of parenthood is closer to the surface for women than for men. Having, whether by instinct or socialization, spent much of her childhood playing with babies, real or plastic, a woman is more likely to have potential parenthood in her consciousness. A man is likely to have spent much of his childhood climbing, running, jumping, exploring, competing, “scoring” and involved in physical, playful tussle with his mates. Sexuality is approached from this angle — babies hardly come into it.

Until the 1950s, the expectations placed upon a man in capitalism were that he should sell his time and energy to an employer in order to provide food and shelter for himself and “his” family whilst “his” wife should do all the housework and all the childcare (and if necessary another poorly paid job). However unsatisfied or miserable they might be they should remain monogamous “till death us do part”. “Equality” did not come into it — the man must be (or at least appear to be) “in control of ” his wife.

What is extraordinary, and a great tribute to “human nature” is that some of these marriages worked at a human level. There could be a mutual respect, an understanding that both parties were doing what needed to be done. There was not always excessive jealousy or deceit — both parties could co-operate. Not surprisingly, it was equally likely that the arrangement would falter. There was little divorce, but often a lot of misery contained, hidden and denied within the home.

Times have changed, expectations have shifted. We no longer feel morally obliged to stay in miserable monogamy for years on end. Neither have we found a much happier alternative. If people do manage to remain happy as a couple or end a marriage in a civil and respectful way, it seems a matter of chance, something that happens in spite of prevailing conditions and social pressures.

Attempts are made at alternative arrangements; communal living for instance, open marriage, voluntary childlessness, lesbian and gay relationships . . . The most common is that of the single parent, living as the only adult in the household, overburdened, isolated and usually poor — hardly a happy alternative to a rotten marriage, though often a more peaceful one.

From the sixties and before there has been an ongoing struggle to escape institutionalized monogamous marriage with its associated double standards for men and women.

However, within the framework of our economic system making sexual relationships and procreation a happy affair has remained well-nigh impossible.

The majority of people meet their basic needs through work done for capitalists, and the work of pregnancy, childbirth and 24-hour care of small, needy and demanding human beings is not materially rewarded; it does not serve the capitalists any immediate financial purpose. This throws the parents with care of their children on to the mercy of partners who, already resentful at having to sell their lives and souls, can have very ambiguous feelings about having to meet demands at home. Otherwise they are minimally and reluctantly supported by the state.

In truth, the person (usually a woman) raising the next generation of human beings is undertaking an enormously important task in terms of the wider society but because the profit system makes no immediate gains from the work she is doing, she is left with many of her needs largely unmet — some of them very basic, adequate sleep and rest for instance.

Other needs are less clearly defined — autonomy, freedom of movement, free time, respect, appreciation, adequate adult company — to name but a few. And because the carers’ needs are unmet, she can not meet those of the children, the future women and men of the world. Hence the deep sense of parental guilt experienced by many, if not most, mothers.

Our present society has a property basis. This has historically included the idea of women as being the property of men an idea profoundly affecting the self-image of men and women alike — man as controlling and woman as controlled. Such an idea overlays any “natural” similarities and differences between women and men. It also sabotages the possibility of respectful, loving relationships between the sexes.

Many women are trapped in abusive relationships because they do not have free access to alternative living quarters or the basic necessities for themselves and their children. A lot of misery is caused by anxiety and arguments about money management, especially amongst those at the lower end of the income scale.

Women and men alike fall prey to neurotic and addictive illnesses because they cannot cope with expectations placed on them to relate to and support others in a callous, blaming, unsupportive world. Such people have often begun adult life vulnerable because their own parents were themselves deprived and hence unable to provide physically, emotionally or both.

The list of present-day miseries is endless, especially if we also look beyond the sphere covered by this particular piece of writing.

How much happiness, pleasure and satisfaction might we find in a society geared simply to meeting everyone’s needs?

Men and women are similar in most respects but different when it comes to having babies. In this respect, men’s and women’s needs differ. In a world which is geared to meeting everyone’s needs, and not to making profit for a minority, there is hope for really meeting the different needs of women, men and children. Such a world is surely the best breeding ground for reliably good human relationships.

Nicky Snell