Equal Relationships -- A Rational Model: Part I

Let's begin with the basics, as I see them:

If you are a single, independent, adult human being, there are a few things that you need to take care of on a daily basis, namely:

  • Feeding/Watering yourself
  • Keeping yourself warm-enough/cool-enough -- which may include (depending on where you live): Obtaining or creating Shelter and/or Clothing
  • Eliminating urine and feces in a way that doesn't compromise your food and water supply ("Don't shit where you eat" and all that.)
Let's just call that: "List #1 - Survival Needs".

Once you've attended to "List #1", and depending on how deeply you are involved in traditional western society, you may also participate in a number of optional activities on List #2 -- such as maintaining a certain level of:
  • personal hygiene (wash your body, hair, and clothes)
  • physical appearance (iron your clothes, get a haircut, purchase clothing that is considered "appropriate" to certain circumstances, etc.)
  • culturally-accepted housing (a nicely-appointed and/or clean, free-standing house or apartment, rather than a refrigerator box)
  • culturally-accepted places to eliminate (a bathroom rather than behind the dumpster outside a local big-box store)
I'll call this: "List #2 - Optional Cultural Imperatives".

Now, I'm sure that there will be people who read this post and think that my description of that second list as "optionals" reflects a truly radical way of thinking on my part -- but I believe that List #2 represents activities which are, in fact, not "needs", but choices -- because if you don't choose to do them, you, as a human being, will probably not die.

Yes, there may be people who refuse to interact with you if you don't wash/launder, iron your clothes/cut your hair, wear the latest fashion or the "wrong" fashion, and/or live in a cardboard box.

However, there are many people in our society who don't do things in the optional imperative lists, and they are still alive.

Eating, maintaining your body-temperature within survival levels, and eliminating with an eye to sanitation are not optional, if you want to stay alive. (Well, actually, elimination can become less problematic if you're not eating, but then there's that whole inconvenient starvation thing -- which will become a problem, eventually).

How you eat, maintain your body-temperature, etc., is a series of options.

That's my starting point in this rational approach to equal relationship. If you want to argue about my initial assumptions, we're probably going to need a whole 'nother post just to deal with that discussion. Drop a comment, and I'll consider it. If you don't comment about these assumptions, I'll assume that you are with me so far.

So, let's say that I've chosen to participate fully in a specific set of "Optional Imperatives", based on the status quo beliefs of western society -- I'll start from a personal, anecdotal scenario:

Say I have a "regular" full-time job at a social service agency.

In order to "keep" this job, I need to arrive at a certain time, can't leave until a certain time, and am expected to wear a certain type of clothing, which is expected to be neat/clean (and ironed, in my situation).

Throughout the day, my human non-optionals (List #1) are part of my concern -- I need to stay nourished, warm/cool-enough, and eliminate. If I'm single person, able-bodied w/out dependents, when I'm not working, and depending on the particular optional imperatives I select, I may choose to: do my laundry, shop for groceries and housing articles, clean my house, cut the grass, pay the bills, etc.. As a "single unit", most people in traditional western society will hold the basic assumption that I, and I alone, am responsible for performing each and every one of these "expected" tasks.

Let's say I meet someone I like very much, and/or grow to love. We decide to move in together.

From my basic perspective, you essentially now have two "single units", with all their attendant individual needs and optionals, joining forces. In many ways, this is energetically efficient -- "two can eat as cheaply as one" and so on (I've actually found this truism to be true over the long haul).

It's at this point that the negotiation of responsibility-swap for fulfillment of the needs and the optional imperatives generally begins.

Maybe one person loves to cook, and the other person hates to cook (or is less than a stellar chef whose main cooking skills consist of two or three amazing dishes, the ability to open a can with panache, and baked-potato wizardry -- *ahem* -- that would be me). Maybe one person has a huge attachment to "correct" laundry-folding techniques, and the other person is of the toss-and-wash persuasion, with mad ironing skillz and am obsessive love of spray-starch (again -- me).

Or maybe, just maybe (I know this is a stretch -- stay with me) this newly-joined couple consists of a female who grew up in a society where females are trained to be home-makers and care-takers, and a male who grew up in a society where males are trained to be home-fixers and bread-winners.

Never mind that the female who grew up being trained to cook, clean, and launder might despise cooking, cleaning, and laundry, or that the male who grew up being trained to fix, take out the trash, and win the bread has a revulsion for fixing, taking out the trash, and bread-winning.

It has been my experience that, unless subliminal training about gender roles (which most of us have been saturated with from day one of our lives) are brought to consciousness and dealt with directly, they can set in pretty quickly, even in people who consider themselves to be "evolved", "enlightened", or (dare I speak the word?) "feminist".

So it is that many bright, progressive young couples that I know personally, or deal with professionally, end up having the same tired old arguments that I heard my parents having about whose "job" it is to do what.

In my humble fucking opinion, each of these individuals entered the relationship with their own list of "needs" and "optional imperatives". If they weren't together, every one of the needs, and all of the optional imperatives that the individual had opted for would be theirs to do.

They would both be bread-winning in the day and bread-making, lawn-mowing, laundry-doing in the evening/weekend (or hiring someone else to do their "optionals" for them, if they had the means). Even the very wealthy who can hire others to do all of their optional imperative activities still have to eat, keep warm, and take a dump for themselves (and don't plague me the rare exceptions, please).

The concept of gender and genderization is enormous, complex, and constantly evolving. Anything that I would state as "global fact" about this subject would almost certainly be arguable, so I'm going to state the following purely as my opinion, and cite why I think my opinion is informed:
  1. The vast majority of people living in western society (at this point) view gender as a two-stroke engine: You are either Male, or you are Female.
  2. This two-pillared system of gender classification is fully institutionalized in US culture (when you fill out your medical forms, driver's license, census data, etc., etc., etc., you get two choices -- Male or Female -- most clothing stores have "Mens" and "Womens", and "Boys", and "Girls" sections -- and don't even get me started on public bathrooms).
  3. Genderization role-training begins in our society from the moment we are classified into one of the two "physical" genders by those with whom we interact (whether that gender identification is accurate, or not). This is borne out by studies where subjects where shown a film of, or interacted with an infant, and were told that the infant was either male or female. The study subjects were then asked to describe the infant. Consistently, the descriptors used fell into stereotypical gender-roles -- boys were "big, strong, active", and girls were "soft, little, quiet" -- even if they weren't actually boys or girls.
  4. Most (not all) little girls and little boys are given "gender-appropriate toys", nudged (or shoved) to gender-appropriate activities (in this area, I think that boys have it tougher in some ways, as a sissy is going to catch way more flack on the playground than a tomboy, generally -- but I think this, too, is a reflection of male-dominant thought -- cuz, of course a woman would want to be a man, but a man who wants to give up his male privilege is a traitor -- I could go on and on about how I think this influences the severity of the bashings gay men experience -- but I won't).
I'm not saying that this has not changed over my lifetime. The strictness of gender-roles has definitely shifted over the years. I'm just saying: It's not gone yet.

I'm also not saying that there are no physiological differences between males and females that might not contribute to them behaving differently.

I'm saying that I believe that, even if there are physiological differences that might contribute to people with higher levels of of a certain hormone tending to act in certain ways, I do not believe that testosterone makes you biologically destined to change the oil, or that estrogen makes you biologically engineered to cook a smashing souffle.

I believe that the definitions of "gender-appropriate" activity around the house is 99.999999999999.....% cultural training.

And that this training may not always show up clearly until you pair up with someone of the opposite gender.

It's been my experience that these days, while people are single, they (usually) realize that they are responsible to fulfill their own needs and optional imperatives. This hasn't always been the case -- a friend of mine who is now in her early 60s once said, when I asked her why she married immediately after High School: "Well, it was just what you did. You couldn't hope to make it on your own".

That's why I'm often shocked to hear my enlightened, evolved, feminist friends having some kind of weird argument with their spouse about who is "supposed" to vacuum under the sofa/screw down the loose bolt on the shaky front stairs railing based on a status-quo rendering of "gender-appropriate" roles.

Even lesbians are not necessarily immune to this. In lesbian couples where there is a self-identified butch/femme dichotomy, I've actually heard things like: "Well, you're the butch/femme -- you do it!"

Then there is the common problem of a couple coming together whose optional-imperative set doesn't match up all that well (often affected by class-background, family-of-origin training, and/or political views). Spouse A thinks that a salon-cut is imperative, while Spouse B thinks that a home-cut is just fine. Spouse A thinks that dust-bunnies on the basement landing are fine, but crud on the wall behind the garbage can is unthinkable, while Spouse B thinks that dust-bunnies will soon grow to dust-elephants regardless of their location, but believes that crud on the wall is just a sign that you are eating well. And on and on and on it goes.

And all this arises from the seemingly simple equation of just two independent units coming together.

Shorter PortlyDyke:
  1. I believe that when you come together with another human being to share resources, whether they be food, housing, money, whatever, that you come together as two individuals who, prior to entering your resource-sharing arrangement (whether you call this "marriage" or "living together" or whatever), have the innate human responsibility of managing your eating, temperature-control, and elimination needs.
  2. I understand that you may also bring other optional-imperative desires with you.
  3. I believe that you remain responsible to fulfill all your survival/optionals for yourself until/unless you make clear agreements to swap some of these responsibilities (ie. "I'll cook and you'll do the laundry. Agreed? Agreed.")
  4. I believe that frequently, relationships crash and burn around swapped responsibilities that are not based in conscious agreement, but rather on cultural entrainment and assumptions. I believe that this type of dysfunction affects relationships of all types, from opposite- and same-sex couples to nuclear or complex families and communities.
Does all this seem too simple? Want something even more complex? Just add CHILDREN (next post).

Posted byPortlyDyke at 8:30 PM  

3 comments:

TheCunningRunt said... October 20, 2007 at 9:20 PM  

(mini)Woman, Yooo Compleeeet Meee!

HTF you can come up with this shit on a daily basis is a wonder I'll never understand.

Not that any of is is rocket science - I feel exactly the same way! But to be able to so succinctly elucidate it as you did boggles my little male mind. ;)

I concur that we should all wipe our own asses, tie our own shoes and work out the rest on a contract basis.

Kudos for dragging this endemic dysfunction into the kitchen light.

And good luck with the dust bunnies!

NameChanged said... October 21, 2007 at 10:02 AM  

Well put. I often wonder though, if the "trading" of the responsibilities that my husband and I participate in is based on social construction, or on our own desires.

Can't wait for the next post, as the next "ingredient" is quickly approaching.

Llencelyn said... September 25, 2008 at 3:34 PM  

I realize I'm super late to this post, but I just wanted to say thank you for helping me crystalize my awareness of a behavior pattern of mine that is giving me great hope for the future of my pending entirely-too-hetero legal partnership. And for my sanity.

:)

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