Sunday, August 16, 2009

Love is "Woman's Whole Existence"?

I recently came across some blog posts about polyamory at Feministe. In one of these Eleanor Sauvage stated that "The problem with many of our contemporary relationships is that we’re meant to be everything to another person: to fulfill all and every need" and in another linked post, Frau Sally Benz elaborated on this:
at the heart of nonmonogamy is we believe it’s impractical to assume that one person can be everything for another person. I personally think a lot of relationships have problems when you expect your partner to completely fulfill you mentally, emotionally, sexually, physically, and spiritually. It just doesn’t make sense to me. I think a lot of the time, people view love as their search for The One – the person who is 100% compatible with you, your perfect match.
Judging by what Julia writes in Byron's Don Juan, the idea that a romantic relationship should fill one's life to the exclusion of all else is hardly new, at least not for women:
Man's love is of man's life a thing apart,
'Tis woman's whole existence; man may range
The court, camp, church, the vessel, and the mart;
Sword, gown, gain, glory, offer in exchange
Pride, fame, ambition, to fill up his heart,
And few there are whom these cannot estrange;
Men have all these resources, we but one,
To love again, and be again undone. (Canto I, verse CXCIV)
I'd like to look very briefly at what the romance genre has to say about monogamy and the idea that a romantic relationship could or should form a "woman's whole existence."
According to the RWA's definition of romance one of the two basic elements which make up every romance is "A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around two individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work." This element, as defined by the RWA, can, I think, be broken down into various parts
  • "two individuals" - Admittedly there are some more recent romances which include more than two individuals in the central relationship, but those are relatively rare in the genre as a whole.
  • "falling in love" - It may sound like stating the obvious, but these novels deal with a particular kind of love, the kind one "falls" into. The central couple are not two people who fall into friendship with each other, nor is the "central love story" in a romance going to be about the love of a parent for a newborn baby. Romances deal with relationships that have a sexual component, even if the sexual attraction between the individuals is never expressed explicitly in physical terms during the course of the novel.
  • "struggling to" - The struggle may be the result of external factors which keep the central couple apart, but perhaps one may also get the impression from this wording that all relationships require some adjustment of the part of the individuals involved. The path of true love tends not to run smooth for both external and internal reasons.
  • "make the relationship work" - This is very closely related to the previous point, but the wording does, it seems to me, hint that relationships require something to make them "work."
So how many people can there be in the central relationship in a romance? What is it that distinguishes their love from other kinds of love? Does the love between the individuals in the central relationship exclude other kinds of love and relationships? Why do they need to struggle? Do relationships require work? And, finally, does the romance genre present monogamous relationships as completely fulfilling the protagonists, "mentally, emotionally, sexually, physically, and spiritually"?

Those are far too many questions for me to attempt to answer in just one blog post, so I'll just take a quick look at the last one. It has been argued that some secular romances presented readers with a heroine who
is set in a social limbo: her family is dead or invisible, her friends are few or none, her occupational milieu is only vaguely filled in. As a result, her meeting with the hero occurs in a private realm which excludes all concerns but their mutual attraction; the rest of the world drops away except as a backdrop. (Jones 198)
In a romance of this type, it probably would be fair to say that the hero meets almost all of the heroine's mental, emotional, sexual, physical and spiritual needs. He may care for her, feed her, understand her sexual needs better than she does herself and provide a focus for her intellectual life (since she spends much of her time trying to understand him). It should be noted, however, that Jones was writing only about a small number of Mills & Boon romances from the early 1980s, and that she herself found some which seemed to open up the heroine's world to give her horizons which stretched beyond the hero.

As far as sexual needs are concerned, however, it's probably uncontroversial to state that in most romances, past and present, the central couple would be expected to find fulfillment for all of their sexual needs within their monogamous relationship. The situation is rather different when one looks at other needs.

As far as spirituality is concerned, Barrett states that "in Christian romance novels [...] God enter[s] this union, making it, for Christian women, ideal. This triad—God, man, and woman—forms the Christian marriage." Inspirational romances, then, present marriage as a relationship involving three individuals, two of whom are in a sexual relationship, and the third of whom supports the other two mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually. Sexual monogamy does not preclude the creation of a "triad" to fulfill other needs.

Many modern romance heroines and heroes have family and friends who provide emotional and mental support, and although many romance heroines still seem to have a rather magical ability to heal the hero's emotional trauma, in some novels, including Janice Kay Johnson's Snowbound, someone else may help to meet these needs.

Heroines, as well as heroes, often have careers and hobbies which provide intellectual stimulation that the central relationship cannot provide. AAR's Jean Wan recently commented that
Art is possessive and artists are obsessive and for many of them, love and art are mutually exclusive. When I encounter artists, musicians, actors, and such in romance novels, I often wonder how likely it is that characters of such creative brilliance can find equilibrium between their soul mate and their artistic soul. Many books never address this issue because the characters are given talented proficiency rather than brilliance, which is fair enough; few people are brilliant in real life.
As she observes, in addition to depicting characters who derive emotional or intellectual pleasure and stimulation from pursuits outside the central relationship, there are some romances which deal with characters for whom their art can perhaps be thought of as a third party in any relationship they form, and those romances, although rare, suggest that this can be made to work.

I'd also argue that there's an extra-textual dimension to the romance genre which reaffirms that the reader has individual needs which can be met outside a monogamous relationship with a spouse or partner. Barrett observes that
Since Christian novels are resolved in the always-loving nature of God, the reader, too, finally experiences God’s love when she puts her book down, as woman after woman testified during our discussions of reading.
The testimony of readers who spoke to Janice Radway confirms that secular readers, too, find that reading can fulfil needs that are not met elsewhere: "romance reading was important to the Smithton women [...] because the simple event of picking up a book enabled them to deal with the particular pressures and tensions encountered in their daily round of activities" (86). Of course, different readers will read for different reasons, but reading clearly does offer something to readers which other activities, and other relationships, do not provide. Interestingly, Dot revealed to Radway that some husbands considered books a threat to their monogamous relationship with their wives: "I think men do feel threatened. They want their wife to be in the room with them. And I think my body is in the room but the rest of me is not (when I am reading)" (87).

Romance reading, then, both intra-texually and extra-textually, can undermine the idea that the ideal monogamous relationship should meet both partners' "mental[..] emotional[...], sexual[...], physical[...], and spiritual[...]" needs. Instead it seems to me that most romances, while insisting that monogamous relationships can meet all of an individual's sexual needs, affirm that it is healthy and desirable for individuals to also have other relationships and interests.
  • Barrett, Rebecca Kaye. "Higher Love: What Women Gain from Christian Romance Novels." Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 4 (2003).
  • Jones, Ann Rosalind. "Mills & Boon Meets Feminism." The Progress of Romance: The Politics of Popular Culture. Ed. Jean Radford. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986. 195-218.
  • Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. 1984. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina P., 1991.


  1. Fantastic food for thought. Thanks for writing this.

  2. That's a nice slice through the landscape, Laura! This quote makes an interesting connection:

    "Interestingly, Dot revealed to Radway that some husbands considered books a threat to their monogamous relationship with their wives: 'I think men do feel threatened. They want their wife to be in the room with them. And I think my body is in the room but the rest of me is not (when I am reading)' (87).

    Have you read Alan Bennett's short novel The Uncommon Reader? In it, the Queen discovers reading and horrifies the royal household by "selfishly" spending time immersed in books rather than being a stateswoman 24/7.

  3. Thanks Heather and RfP! Glad you found this interesting.

    RfP, I haven't read any Alan Bennett at all.

    Re Dot's comment about "my body is in the room but the rest of me is not," Tania Modleski analysed a similar description of romance reading which appeared in a Harlequin advert. Instead of locating her analysis in the personal context of a marriage, as Dot did, Modleski interpreted it in a much broader social context, and perhaps because of that she felt rather more ambivalent about it:

    A television commercial for Harlequin Romances shows a middle-aged woman lying on her bed holding a Harlequin novel and preparing to begin what she calls her "disappearing act." I can't think of a better phrase to describe at once both what is laudable and what is deplorable in the appeal of such fiction. In once sense, of course [...] women should stop vanishing quietly behind the scenes and start making themselves more visible [...].

    In quite another sense, however, women's longing to "disappear," their desire to obliterate the consciousness of the self as a physical presence - increasingly difficult to do these days when mass culture has turned women into delectable sights for consumption - surely cannot be completely condemned
    . (36-37)

    Modleski, Tania. Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-produced Fantasies for Women. 1982. New York: Routledge, 1990.