Promising forever

This is part two of a series beginning with What are you looking for?

Once I opened the wardrobe in the bedroom of a guy I was going out with, looking for towels, and I found a list: ‘What I am looking for in a partner’.  He’d been reading that awful, stupid book, The Secret, which told him to tell the universe what he wanted and this would ‘call it’ into being.  So he made a checklist of all the things he was looking for:  tall, white, professionally employed, et cetera; and the horrifying thing is, I was a pretty close match.  The relationship blew apart pretty soon after that, not because of my chagrin at being typecast, but because we were completely incompatible — sexually, emotionally and in our values around relationships.

Ever since then, if I even get a whiff of a ‘checklist’, I run a mile.  Guys post their list on their Manhunt profiles, or in chat, they’ll ask “what are you looking for” in the expectation that we’ll swap lists and tick off all the items we have in common.  It is desperately boring.  It’s a mercantilist take on human relationships, like a buyer and a vendor meeting in a marketplace and negotiating over an exchange of goods.  Guys who partner up on these terms often treat them as a contract, and cry foul when their partner turns out to have undisclosed interests or dimensions: “He didn’t tell me he wasn’t over his ex!” 

Most importantly, they’re operating on what I have called a logic of sameness, which assumes the most important predictor of a good relationship is matching — either literal similarity between the partners (‘pets who look like their owners’ syndrome; partners who could be twins) or close fit between your partner and your checklist.

The former is called homophily and it’s an incredibly reliable pattern in studies of dating and relationships: people tend to partner up with people who are similar on salient characteristics like class and religion.  The latter is an ego thing: it’s the belief that ‘I design my life, and I will design (ahead of time) the kind of partner I want, and I will choose a person who fits the bill, and we will have the kind of relationship that matters to me’.  I meet these guys in their thirties, bewildered by never having had a relationship longer than a few weeks or months (if that), saying in their profile “looking for the one”, painting themselves as the Last True Romantic.

In those brief, abortive relationships they never manage to ‘get outside their heads’, to see the person in front of them, to perceive them as a stranger — to have an encounter with the Other.  They can only see their checklist and keep measuring him up against it.  If you ask the Last True Romantic to set aside the checklist and play it as it goes, he’ll bridle, refusing to ‘lower his standards’.  And there’s the truth of it.  His ‘standards’ are a shield, there to protect him from the radical uncertainty of trying (and often failing) to live in relationship with an other.  He wants a Long Term Relationship instantly, skipping over the steady, day-to-day negotiation of differences.  He can’t manage the day-to-day, he can only manage Forever.

It’s a powerful desire, fundamentally egocentric, and it’s the same desire that drives the demand for gay marriage.  But that’s a topic for another post.

Author: Daniel Reeders

I study the cultural dimensions of the social governance of health.

4 thoughts on “Promising forever”

  1. I’ve been called crazy because my answer to “What are you looking for?” is almost always “Someone who surprises me”. The two significant relationships I’ve had have both been with people who’d never have fit a checklist if I’d constructed one.

    I have a (possibly unfounded) theory: as a man, you’re surrendering a whole bunch of things by getting into a relationship with another man—a particular social status and freedom; the I-Don’t-Give-A-Fuck attitude that so many twentysomething homos have; and, for the more repressed, at least a few shreds of masculinity. No matter how much “footy and mates” talk you might spout, being in a relationship means there’s absolutely no denying that you are exactly what you are.

    For so many guys, being in a relationship is a tacit admission—consciously or not—that they’re “less of a man”, so they try to take out as much insurance as they can beforehand.

  2. I wonder how much of “the list” is constructed with a view to a “product”? That is in our society we have consumerised most aspects of living (even exercise and water) and now we are assuming that a relationship can be consumerised. If i can get a car with all the features i want, if i can get a pair of jeans that fits well, why can’t i get a partner by shopping on line? The way the websites are constructed is about categories, stats and features (likes movies and quite nights at home) There is only the photos and the personal details to put in something that gives another person a hook to see more personality. (I’m sure we can categories the photos; i’ve traveled, i get naked in a bathroom, work did this pic for me, face pic with phone and others)… I have always been attracted by the way people hold themselves and how they interact with others and the mannerisms they have.

    What is an alternative way of reducing the amount of people one has to meet and consider? In years past communications meant that you only had the opportunity to meet people who could be face to face, to have a pen friend was an odd experience. Now the world has access to my profile and i to these, shouldn’t that mean i can find the perfect partner? Often i think it’s just overwhelming.

    1. Your comment really highlights the two ways these sites can work — as a meeting ground where we give off signals that invite further exploration over a coffee or wine, and as a catalogue of potential matches. In the former it’s a process and in the latter I’m a product. Market value has a huge role in the latter but surprisingly little in the former, which is more like a dance than an exchange. Lovely thoughtful comment, thanks for posting!

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