It’s Sunday morning, and I am scrolling through my Flipchart news feed when I land upon The Guardian’s “Dear Mariella” relationship series with the following letter:
My father’s terrible behaviour means I can’t be intimate with men
“The dilemma: I’m in my late 30s, single, no children and I’ve never been in a long-term relationship. I have dated a bit over the years and I’ve tried online dating, but that has never led to anything meaningful. I do have sex sometimes, or spend some time with a man, often it’s even nice, but I can never be relaxed or be myself with men. I am the eldest of three and my parents used to have serious relationship problems. Over several years my dad regularly and loudly threatened to kill himself if my mum left him, he had extreme mood swings, and during these episodes he often confided in me about their sex life. Through sessions with a psychologist, I have come to the realisation that a part of me is still in that room with my dad, being forced to listen to his crying and extremely intimate stories, too shocked to say anything, and those experiences have left me scared of being fully intimate with men, even now. I am trying to figure out what I can do to move on and take better care of my slightly wounded self.”
My internal response to this letter differed significantly from Mariella’s “expert” advice, which disconcertingly substantiated the underlying assumption that being a single woman in her late 30’s is pathology in need of psychological redress. As Mariella states,
“The legacy of your father’s self-indulgent and irresponsible behaviour is clear to see and I wish I could feign surprise that it’s embedded itself so deeply in your psyche […] you need to keep talking to your psychologist, but along with those hopefully healing sessions it’s time to start simply challenging yourself to interact differently. […] I’ve no doubt that to date every iota of your emotional intelligence has been employed in keeping you safe from repeating the past in your encounters. Now it’s time to take a step into the unknown and see what transpires when you approach relationships with improved courage. There’s no doubt that we are shaped in youth and shape-shifting in adulthood is achieved with great difficulty. You need to be strong, resolute and prepared to put yourself in the emotional firing line. There will be men like your father out there, but who better than you to spot them and swerve away from that danger?”
I am not saying that the letter writer did not suffer significantly from her father’s (presumed) mental illness, I merely contest the assumption that singlehood is a marker of pathology, and couplehood demarcates a healed and/or healthy adult psyche.
Where does this thinking come from? And why are we, as a society, unable to conceptualize as healthy (and normal) anything that deviates from a typical trajectory of escalating sexual and emotional intimacies culminating in a long-term monogamous commitment?
The letter writer did not provide information regarding the quality of her non-sexual relationships and friendships. Likewise, she did not share information about her work satisfaction, community engagement or overall quality of life. Yet Mariella seems unfairly (and a bit dramatically) convinced that pathology lies in the psyche of the letter writer, and that “every iota of her emotional intelligence” has been directed towards a resistance to coupling.
Mariella’s assumption clearly articulates the “compulsory” expectation that women form long-term partnerships with men. As Reynolds and Wetherell state, “women’s lives, their experiences and their relationships have evolved in the shadow of this powerful but often tacit set of regulations about appropriate forms of desire and intimate partnership.”
There is an expectation that “normal” women will naturally gravitate towards long-term intimate relationships (preferably with men) that ideally result in [monogamous] marriage, and that women who deviate from this trajectory “can be seen as having problems in forming intimate relationships and be targeted for therapeutic intervention.” Inherent within constructs of femininity are prescriptive mandates of sexual expression that control female sexuality. These mandates are revealed only through violations—in other words, “those who lack ‘rightness’ help define what is ‘right’.” Both the letter writer and Mariella reinforce the ‘rightness’ of long-term committed coupling by pathologizing single, sexually active women in their late 30’s.
Angela Willey argues that the policing of normative femininity functions to code monogamy as desirable and non-monogamy as undesirable. It is through our inability to imagine alternatives to monogamy while at the same time living out these alternatives – often represented as personal failings/deficiencies eg. Cheating – that its obligatory status is revealed. As argued by Willey, “the policing of femininity reinforces monogamy’s compulsory status by naturalizing coupled forms of belonging. […] Through the deployment of particular systems of language and racialised and classed signs […] alternatives to monogamy are associated with deviant womanhood and systematically discredited.”
“Respectable” women moderate their sexuality to adhere to the confines of serial monogamy and the “good” woman is the standard by which all women are judged. Being ‘good’ “means walking a delicate line between being sexual enough to establish one’s heterosexuality and still remaining ‘respectable’ by not being seen as ‘too’ sexual.” Willey asks that we unpack our investments in coupling, particularly as it relates to raced and classed ideals of femininity to help us deconstruct and resist the naturalized inevitability of pairing off.
Mariella, the “expert,” could have reaffirmed the letter writer’s inherent human value by gently redirecting her to consider the social messages that she has absorbed that lead her to believe that ‘wholeness’ requires coupling. In addition, Mariella could have resisted the foregone conclusion of monogamy by extolling the virtue of independence and the proverbial joys of having an extra two feet in one’s bed. In other words, the pathology of the situation could just as easily reside in the societal scripts that romanticize dependent adult femininity, as opposed to being an inherent (yet treatable with professional intervention) psychological disorder of the particular woman in question.
Reimaging a multiplicity of potential life paths, irrespective of childhood wounds, would perhaps be far more valuable to the letter writer.
Assuming the role of “the expert,” I would write the following letter:
Dear reader, I am deeply sorry that you find pain in your current situation, and equally saddened that your father’s mental illness burdened your childhood with responsibilities you were powerless to resolve. It must have been terrifying to hear your father talk of taking his life, and equally disheartening to be saddled with the responsibility of being your father’s emotional confident. My heart aches for your childhood self and the injustice of having parents who violated your emotional and spiritual boundaries.
Regarding your non-coupled status and the discomfort it is causing you, it is unclear from your letter whether your grief is rooted in the pain of not finding a committed monogamous relationship, or whether your pain is rooted in the social stigma of being a single women in her late thirties. Regardless of where the pain is rooted, I think it would be beneficial to consider how you came to a place in your life where you associate psychological damage with the absence of a committed relationship. What messages have you absorbed over-time that have caused you to think less of yourself because you are not partnered? And why do you associate romantic partnership with a healthy adult psyche? I assure you, people in committed long-term relationships are not immune from the psychological distress of their childhoods. Although your father caused you great harm, it appears you have been additionally harmed by the societal expectation that healthy women will “naturally” gravitate towards directing their energy (sexual, social and economic) exclusively to one man in a committed, long-term relationship. Maybe it is time for you to question this internal narrative?
You are single and experienced childhood trauma, but I doubt you are broken. Maybe its time to renounce societal expectations that limit you to a prescriptive life trajectory that links ‘wholeness’ to couplehood. Love, connection and intimacy are not the exclusive domain of romantic relationships, and you are not damaged for resisting the call of monogamy. With luck, you have 40-50 years ahead of you to explore all facets of your psychology. Resist the urge to be disappointed by choosing the excitement of the unknown. I have a feeling many great adventures (love and otherwise) await your discovery.
- Frostrup, Mariella. May 13, 2018. “My father’s terrible behavior means I can’t be intimate with men.” The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/may/13/my-fathers-terrible-behaviour-means-i-cant-be-intimate-with-men-mariella-frostrup ↑
- Reynolds, Jill and Margaret Wetherell. 2003. “The Discursive Climate of Singleness: The Consequences for Women’s Negotiation of a Single Identity. Feminism & Psychology 13, 4: 489-510 at 489. ↑
- Ibid at 491. ↑
- Ibid at 490. ↑
- Willey, Angela. 2015. “Constituting compulsory monogamy: normative femininity at the limits of imagination.” Journal of Gender Studies, 24: 6, 621-633. ↑
- Ibid at 622. ↑
- Ibid at 622. ↑
- Ibid at 624. ↑