Many if not most books on relationships out there are not good. Sometimes the author had a spot of luck and generalises. Sometimes it’s just stuffed with common knowledge, or advice meant to make people feel in control. Of course, most of them are also horribly gendered, and subscribe to differences between men and women at ridiculous levels, and/or assume relationships to be heterosexual.
Rewriting the Rules by Meg-John Barker was way better than that. I found it well-structured, and coming from excellent principles. It moves through a set of topics, starting from dealing with oneself, going through different points of relationships with others, such as starting out, having sex, separating, dealing with conflict, and ends on a couple of very good practical observations. All chapters discuss cultural rules we may apply without thinking (about gender, sex, behaviour in general, partnerships vs friendships, etc), and how they can be harmful and beneficial. This discussion is both very practical and very differentiated, which makes for a nice change compared with most other books of this type. I’d recommend it without hesitation for people looking to read and think about relationships and friendships.
Here follows a summary of the chapters according to my spotty notes, mostly meant for myself:
- Self. The self is not a static, fixed thing, but an evolving and fluid entity. You are different depending on your surroundings. Stop comparing yourself absolutely, instead acknowledge uncertainty. Instead of thinking about being on the spectrum of hard and soft, think about firm and kind.
- Body. We treat our bodies as objects we’re not satisfied with and which we aim to fix, as if they are separate from us. Find beauty in all bodies and in yourself. Don’t be harder on your body than on a friend’s, and don’t you dare shame a friend for their body. Find out what makes your body feel good, and do it once per day. Don’t separate body and self. When do you feel embodied, when separate?
- Partnership. We assume our partners will be The One, centre of our life, saviour-like, and that we are not enough on our own. Being single, as a consequence, is presented as a horror. Be more detached. Reduce the focus on relationships, because you can get needs met in other ways, and relieve thereby he pressure of others having to be perfect. Especially when living together: Get some space and distance. Love is cultivated, it does not happen (or stick around) magically.
- Sex. Fluid, not gender dependent, jeez people. Listen to yourself and each other, that’s enough. (Nb also do your dang research.)
- Gender. Women taught to please people. To make themselves smaller the more successful they are, so that they don’t seem threatening. (This chapter said a lot more, but that’s what I found in my notes.)
- Monogamy. Consider relationship types. Consider what separates friendships and relationships. Work with and on your understanding of those boundaries, they can be restrictive and harmful.
- Conflict. Do not avoid. Do not go in for right vs wrong. Go for needs and feelings. Conflict is not avoidable, so you need a good way of dealing with it. Take care of yourself first, because all conflicts will go poorly otherwise. Do this both by being kind and by reflecting on yourself. Make a list of baggage. Don’t be afraid of a timeout. use it to reflect with compassion and kindness on both sides. A will to help and forgive needs to be the basis, together with firmness in how we allow ourselves to be treated. Be genuinely curious. Take responsibility for your own feelings. How others feel is not your fault, and it is disrespectful to try to make them feel differently about a thing. Don’t deal in always/never style absolutes.
- Break-up. God, the cultural baggage. Appreciate the pain involved. Look out for storytelling emerging in response and editing the past – memory is something we do. Be aware that there are many stories and you are actively choosing one. If you thought you had The One, this will be much worse. Everything happening here is a great source for heavy projection during following relationships. Look towards amicable endings and how people can stay in each other’s lives. Reflect on alternatives – eg you can move out without breaking up. Make a list of behaviour that you and your partner struggle with and find alternative explanations. Break-up is a stupid word and removes the opportunity of transforming a struggling relationship into something better-suited. The glass is already broken [reference to a koan] – so cherish and enjoy, but be prepared for change. Acknowledge that this will be painful, do not disregard the pain. Humanise, don’t demonise. AND DO NOT TIE IT TO SUCCESS/FAILURE.
- Commitment. Imagine what a good commitment ceremony would look like. What vows do you choose? What would you wish your partner to choose? (Consider the same for friends!) Public or private? What does commitment mean? Can we get around the forever aspect and still make it beautiful? What about exclusivity? Possessing? Sexuality? Money? Space? Can we have meaningful vows when everything can change? No is an okay answer, Yes, too. Check for yourself: do you want a house? Children? What about time-limited commitment? “Let’s navigate the tensions between freedom and togetherness”. Don’t be so focused on the future or the past. Pull yourself back to the present and be open and compassionate: towards each other’s freedom. towards flexibility. Be committed to other people, too – in varying degrees.
- Practical advice. Build both kind and reflective self care into your life. Write, eg dialog between aspects of yourself, comics, etc. Find a thinking partnership with a friend, or a discussion group online. Find forms of self-care that work for you, genuinely, embodies. Don’t get stuck on perfectionism and navel-gazing.
- Final warnings. Don’t go changing everything at once. Don’t forget the culture you come from, because you can’t. Don’t use all this to become too self-focused and forget about the people around you. You and others will be hurt in the process in any case, because you’ll make mistakes. Don’t make others follow you. Own your mistakes, act accordingly, then forgive yourself. Do not deceive. Ground yourself in practical things to avoid being tangled up and confused.