Expanding our conceptions of healthy relationships

About a year ago, I was catching up with a friend outside a bar about the usual — bad hookups, good gossip, confusing crushes. He took a drag from his cigarette, inhaling deeply, and waving around the glowing cig, mentioned in passing what might seem to many like an oxymoron:

“I feel so much healthier now, work has been so stressful recently that I really needed this.”

Of course, this could simply be in reference to my hopefully glowing company, but given his wide gesticulation and loving gaze onto the shining ember I’m pretty certain he was referring to his dirty little vice. To many people in this country, who’ve been fed a specific narrative about the importance of physical health, it’s easy to dismiss this as an addict’s delusion, but I’m interested in considering the repercussions of this statement. There are many different kinds of health and ways to be healthy, and different people value different ones. My childhood pastor is probably much, much more worried about my moral shortcomings (mostly that time I stole a candy bar on my way home from school, possibly the queer thing) than he is about the tar gently hugging my aching lungs. Whereas this thought process is common enough, it rarely gets applied to relationships, wherein we’re fed a picture perfect narrative of Brangelina, Charles and Diana before the divorce, or that one pair of grandparents who celebrated their 60th anniversary on a game show they lost. And so my question is: are we being fed a single model for a healthy relationship when a multitude of others may exist?

As much as the perfect relationship looks different for everyone, hopefully, we all know a few of the key tenants they all might share: communication, trust, mutual respect, and, if you wish, a sex life as fulfilling as your best karaoke performance or drunken selfie. These elements of a relationship look different for every couple but remain essential overall. Many mischaracterizations of unconventional relationship styles in the past have resulted from an omission of these tenants: stigma against polyamorous relationships always seems to forget all parties are consenting and happy, and people love to push fast, quick and fun sexual libido onto individuals and couples for whom it just isn’t going to work. Often, it seems that individuals get confused when they try to make other individuals’ relationships conform to their image of what one should look like. I’d posit that we do this because of the specific relationship model we’ve come to uphold, based on whatever evidence we have.

I’d also suggest that much of this evidence comes from the books and movies we consume. Mass media showers us with potential holy texts for relationships, and many of us chose a couple to stick by. I, for one, have often quoted some of the more iconic lines of “Sex and the City,” (such as Charlotte’s “Everybody knows you only get two great loves in your life”), and I structure most of my introductory paragraphs to this column like a monologue Carrie might have four to six minutes into an episode (and usually start with me in a bar, oops!). Others before us were convinced that men were martians and women appeared from seafoam, and some more desperate types might turn to Liz Lemon’s “Dealbreakers” on 30 Rock. We don’t necessarily love them because they’re always right (after all, who pretends to understand how Carrie ever got a second date?) but rather because each of these universes presents us with a compact set of values and morals, characters with narrow development who consistently rely on the same romantic philosophy, and a neatly categorized lens to analyse our own life. This process is flawed:  it’s hard to convince people in one fell swoop that this relationship can’t work for the same reason this one on TV didn’t, which is also why this acquaintance of ours is going through a rough patch. Even though we know they can’t work for everyone, whichever dating mantra that most appeals to us is going to determine how we perceive other people’s love lives.

At this point, feel free to call my bluff and remind me that my obsession with SitC is unhealthy, should be dealt with, and is not relatable to most other people. But I really do think there’s some truth to what I’m saying: everybody has been shaped by something, and if you’re like one good friend of mine who swears by Kundera, well aren’t you fucking fancy. To return to my initial question, there’s a distinction that needs to be drawn: all healthy relationships, to the best of my limited knowledge, should uphold standards of mutuality and respect. However, this emotional core is framed by a specific structure: monogamous, polyamorous, long distance, u-hauled, open but only to strangers on specific nights of the week between 10 and 12 p.m. I’d suggest that we remember to be open to how other people want to structure their relationships, and approach an attempt at a healthy relationship. After all, if we return to my initial friend, as long as he’s happy with his decision and aware of all consequences, can we really shun him for a few fags a day? Or am I really just using this platform to justify my smoking habit? Who knows, and you’ll never find out because this is my last column for a while. Bye kids!!


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