MTR revisited

Someone was picking my brains about my MTR idea recently and she asked me “How is it different from FWB?” I was appalled! Friends with benefits was not my idea at all. I don’t really even know if I could pull off that kind of relationship. What she told me was that “the heart piece” was missing from my writings on the subject. The heart piece is this: I am talking about being in a loving, caring relationship with another human being. The only part that is different from the average, American LTR is that sense/idea/assumption that we’ll be together forever. Because the truth of the matter is that lots of relationships are not forever. In fact, most of them don’t.

Having lived in several other countries has given me pause for thought, especially when thinking about culture. Relationships have certain similarities all over the world, but there are some things that seem to be specific to Americans. The myth of “happily ever after” is stronger here than in any other place I have ever lived.

In Egypt, for instance, marriages are still often arranged. The families make the arrangement by considering a number of factors including socioeconomic status, religious values, and class. These days there are sometimes more options for couples to meet before marriage, but mostly the bond is set by the families. In this way couples do not usually have major issues of sameness/difference to work through. Couples are also set up with a home and accoutrements, so new couples don’t spend time struggling to make ends meet. Meanwhile, divorce is not much of an option. It exists, but doesn’t happen too often. So once a couple is married, they expect to stay married for ever. They are not thinking that if things don’t work out they’ll call a lawyer. Instead, they are thinking about ways to make the union pleasant. Moreover, when they marry they are not expecting their partner to meet all their needs. Since men and women don’t socialize with each other in general, they expect to continue to socialize with the persons they have been socializing with: women look to other women, family, mostly, and men to other men, friends and family both.

In Italy divorce isn’t all that common either. There, couples may wait for years to marry because there is an expectation that the couple purchase a house as soon as they marry – and housing is both expensive and hard to come by. I’ve been told that getting to that point helps bond a couple and draws them close before they have ever actually married. While they don’t have formal arranged marriages, couples often look for similarities in socioeconomic status and values before they wed. They don’t have romantic notions of marrying someone far different from you in order to change your station (think Pretty Woman). In fact, stereotypes to the contrary, I didn’t find Italians very romantic at all. Frankly they laugh at our movie’s happy endings, saying that they are too silly to be believed. Serious Italian movies tend to have a dark, gritty, feel, with a “realistic” ending (read: some main character dies).

Speaking of “our” movies vs “their” movies, this was the very point I set out to make when I started talking about other cultures. I’m not placing any value judgements on any of these points of view. Even my comment about not finding Italians romantic is colored by my own cultural values. What I am saying is that what Americans believe about love and relationships is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the only way to see love and relationships.

I won’t try to name all the American stories any more than I covered all those of these other cultures, but one of the original stories is poor girl meets famous prince who sweeps her away based on her…looks. The happy couple disappear into the sunset and we never hear another word.

We’ve added to our cultural base with all of our immediate access to media and now the story goes on to say that they are perfect soul mates for each other, that they “complete’ on another, that they are one another’s best friends. They also have to live in fabulous houses and own lots of stuff.

Now, think of these stories in the realm of dating. Why would you date someone who wasn’t going to meet all your needs, sweep you off your feet and increase your standing in the world? Why would you date someone who isn’t promising happily ever after?

Well, you know, you just wouldn’t. So even though our immediate access to information tells us the statistics about divorce, we all go along pretending that happily ever after is what we expect. What we want. And so everyone playing the game has to go along with those rules. We have to be offering “forever” and “completion,” or we get sidelined.

I began thinking about this in the first place when I found myself single and knowing that I would almost certainly need to leave the state I as living in to complete my education. Any time I mentioned this on a date, well, the date pretty much ended. No one was interested in spending any time with me if I was openly saying I’d have to leave. I really believe that some of those people would have stuck around if I would have lied and said that it was possible but not probable because that would have been enough to uphold the illusion of “forever.” But I couldn’t do that and so, I started thinking about different ways to manage relationships.

When I considered the relationships I had been in, and most of the people I knew had been in, what occurred to me was that none of them lasted forever. Americans engage in what’s called serial monogamy most of the time, going from one “committed” relationship to another throughout their lives. What seems to cause all the problems at the end of these relationships is that idea that the other person had been saying (for one year, ten years, or twenty years) that they would stay “forever.” That they loved only this one person and that was enough. That the other person was perfect for them.

Once things start falling apart, those are the things that partners say hurt the most. I wondered, why can’t couples just acknowledge that they don’t really know if they will last forever? Why does “I love you” have to also mean, “and no one else, forever and ever”? Why can’t a couple stay together as long as it works (which is what we do in America) and then gently, lovingly let go of each other? Why does it have to be severe and angry?

In my situation in particular, I wondered why couldn’t I date someone for a time with both of us knowing that the end was inevitable (ending with me moving)? Couldn’t I love someone and have them love me, knowing in advance that we would (probably) not be growing old together? Hadn’t I done just that over and over again already? Why do we need that promise? Especially knowing what we know about relationships in the US?


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Cyprian Troyer on February 19, 2012 at 8:47 am

    You’re correct that the source of so much of the animosity in divorce centers on betrayal and deception. The greatest betrayal is not finding out that a ‘partner’ was cheating, but rather finding out that all along, the other person had no conception of working towards a common goal – the marriage, the relationship. The great betrayal is realizing that the other person made all their outward promises of commitment when their only real intent was to stay in the relationship so long as it was convenient and served all their needs. Divorce lays the soul bare, and all too often it reveals far less in the other than was believed.


    • I agree – I know that there are people who are out to con us – believe me. And I also think that sometimes people make those promises because they think they are “supposed” to, that that is the next step in a relationship because that is what the fairy tale says. One of my main points with the MTR is – can’t we be loving AND honest?


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