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Obsessive Relationships

Columns | April 8, 2019

We all know that there is a definite negative connotation associated with the term “obsession.” As I understand it, we accuse people of being obsessed when they are consumed in either thought or action with a thing, idea, or (dare I say) person.  

One of these obsessions that society approves of and, in fact, celebrates, is a romantic partnership. I certainly am not the first to say this, nor will I be the last: our society is obsessed with love, and specifically, a romantic version of love. The obsessive love where one person becomes consumed by their affection and desire for another. We witness this constantly with our culture’s endless production and consumption of stories, paintings, movies, songs, etc. that all focus on finding and experiencing romantic love. And this is just the cultural part of our obsession with love; I haven’t even gotten into our social obsession.

We are told from basically the moment we can comprehend the world around us that we should seek the fairy tale vision of romantic love. From a very young age, children can classify themselves by gender and determine from those classifications what their gender should be doing. We can see this when  third graders use “gay” as an insult, suggesting that they are aware of what normative heterosexual trajectories look like.

As you get older, you might start dating, and being part of a couple takes on a complicated meaning. People start assuming that if you’re single, you must be lonely or undesirable, regardless of whether or not you have a  thriving social life filled with many close friends and non-committal sex partners. We see this on the hit TV show Sex and the City when  many other women judge  Samantha for never doing commitment in her love life, but rather having a continuously endless supply of men to fuck (not make love).

I have certainly felt this judgement for being single. Despite a few non-serious relationships, I’ve basically been single my whole life. And I really do love it… for now. But still, regardless of my very enjoyable single life as a 21-year-old, people love to shame me for not being—or even interested—in an all-consuming romantic partnership. My single status is never acknowledged as something I’m actively choosing to do or desire to do, but rather as an unfulfilled destiny.

A few years ago, my family and I attended my sister’s college graduation. After the ceremony, we had  the typical iPhone photoshoot in front of one of her college’s landmarks. Joining us was my sister’s boyfriend and his family—a boy she has dated for all four years of college (and will presumably marry). Standing there in their graduation robes, they posed heteronormativity with his hands on her waist while she draped her arms around  his shoulders. Staring into the iPhone’s lens, they each forced an overbearingly toothy smile.

As I stood there in the misty rain wearing oversized black sunglasses and a maroon lip with a large hot coffee in hand, my mother, quietly and unprovoked, whispered into my ear, “Don’t worry, you’ll have someone one day, too.” I couldn’t help but laugh hysterically. My mother channeled the prototypical rom-com mother who believes that all I need in life is a committed romantic partner to experience every achievement and moment of life’s great journey with. It was absurd, she was absurd and honestly, out of touch.

Nevertheless, this story perfectly illustrated a broader cultural phenomenon. My 23 year old sister basically hasn’t been single since she was 13 (I wish I were exaggerating). On the other hand, I’ve never introduced my mother to a guy I’ve dated. While this situation has a lot to do with my gender and queerness, my mother’s comment indicates the social phenomenon that we are all expected to want and find a partner while we are young and then grow old with.

What my mother didn’t realize is that I don’t want what my sister has. She says her boyfriend is her best friend, but this seems doubtful based on her own comments she has made about him privately. Nevertheless, she talks to him more than anyone else in her life, and despite hating the city her boyfriend wanted to live in, she was willing to move there after college. She talks about him all the time. I can’t think of a time in recent history where he hasn’t come up in our conversation. When our parents’ friends ask us the rehearsed lines for how to talk to a 20-something-year-old, they always ask her about her boyfriend; and they ask me if I’m seeing anyone as well.

My sister’s relationship with her boyfriend is certainly obsessive. It’s not just that she’s obsessed with him, but it’s that she has been told to be for her entire life. What’s more, it seems to me that being in a relationship itself matters more to her than the actual individual she is in the relationship with. In her ten years of non-stop monogamy, there have been several different boys. By jumping immediately into a new relationship after one ends, she insinuates that she is more interested in being in a relationship than actually having a quality connection with her partner. But in her mind, this choice to organize her life around a romantic partner is healthy and appropriate.

There isn’t a single ounce, inch, or atomic unit of this that sounds remotely appealing to me. Although society finds it unimaginable to desire being single, unbound to anyone, I would argue that I am actually not alone in any way. I fucking love my life. I have so many friends who are so important to me. I want to grow old with them, and I am certainly in love with all of them.

We limit ourselves by focusing our lives around one person. We’re told that every social interaction has to include both you and your partner, our partner is the person you place above everyone else, and the only person you can be in love with. It is much more interesting to consider the possibilities of intimate relationships that we share with our friends that go along with (not secondary to) the one we share with our partners. I’m not saying to give up monogamy or that monogamy is bad (who knows, maybe I want that one day, too). Instead, I’m just saying to stop prioritizing romantic relationships over friendships and so many other forms of intimacy. Life has so much to offer, and we all deserve both.