Breaking up with romance

When I turned 25 last year, I went through something of an existential crisis. Perhaps a ‘beginning of life crisis’ that my life wasn’t going in quite the direction I planned.

Only six months before, I had experienced a dual ending. My years away at university drew to a close as I submitted my MSc dissertation. The terrifying world of graduate recruitment loomed and, beyond that, three ‘m’s’ that absolutely terrified me: marriage, mortgages and motherhood.

Crossroads.jpgSecondly, my two-year relationship – the most serious and grown-up I’d ever been in – came to a drawn-out end when we realised that we just weren’t right for each other. I wanted to flee the country and work in tropical climes, and he wanted to play in his band and live the capitalist dream. And so we went our separate ways – him off to a snazzy graduate engineering job and I returned, unemployed, to my mother’s house.

Ten months later, after a period of living the dream abroad, I found myself back at my mum’s, still single and unemployed. To say it’s been tough would be an understatement. I’m still going through my ‘angry young woman’ phase (yelling at the TV, reading Marxist philosophy, getting increasingly frustrated with just about everything).

As the post-university and post-relationship haze has slowly lifted, I’ve been met with a horrible realisation: if you’re single and unemployed, you’re somewhat of a second-class citizen.

I’ve always been aware of the advertising strategies used to make women feel that they can have it ‘all’ (whatever ‘all’ is) by buying cosmetics and all manner of rubbish. But I’ve also noticed much more, since being single, that women are expected to be in relationships to be deemed attractive, successful and intelligent.

I recently started watching the dating show Take Me Out (admittedly more for the hilarious Northern humour of the ex-Phoenix Nights presenter than the blatantly sexist meat-market structure of the show). I was horrified. Thirty single, attractive and very different women all have to compete for a potential mate. You wouldn’t be surprised that in most cases only the most conventionally attractive women ended up being chosen to go on a date (and indeed most of the participants would fall into that category anyway).

My personal accomplishments and close relationships seemed to pale in comparison to the importance I placed on my intimate relationships

I became a bit despondent when I realised that almost all my nearest and dearest are in what Bridget Jones and her ilk refer to as ‘Smug Married Couples’. I was beginning to cave to peer pressure – not because my friends thought there was anything wrong with my state of bachelorettehood – but because I felt like the odd one out. And yes, I felt lonely.

Squidgy heart.jpgBut why did I feel lonely? I began to consider this and realised that it didn’t need a therapist to get to the crux of the issue: I’ve been in long-term relationships since before university, my favourite films are classic boy-meets-girl romances (whether Bollywood or Hollywood), my favourite book is Pride and Prejudice and my favourite TV show is Sex and the City. Even my own written work places romance at its heart (if you can forgive the pun).

What’s more, the women in all these big-budget depictions of romance are desperately seeking not just love, but a man. The behavioural patterns from earlier classics like An Affair to Remember and Casablanca where women are demure and passively accept normative gender imbalances continue today largely unchallenged in romantic blockbusters. Even the slightly more ‘unusual’ characters, such as Audrey Hepburn’s famous portrayal of Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, are rescued by men in the final scenes.

When you consider the extent to which these patterns are replicated, it is disturbing. Single women are presented as desperate for a man as Bridget Jones so effectively shows us. And the ways in which romance unfolds follows a depressingly predictable pattern: strong man wooing weak woman and woman being somehow rescued. Is romance a predominantly heterosexual experience? It would appear so due to the disproportionate lack of strong gay and lesbian characters portrayed in literature and on the big-screen.

These seemingly harmless films reinforce dangerous and entrenched gender ideals.

Unfortunately, my lack of a job meant I was consuming even more romance than before, curling up with romantic movies on a Sunday and re-reading all my old favourite romance novels. In my personal life, it was becoming increasingly clear that I wasn’t any closer to finding what I was looking for.

For a while I tried to fill this romantic-shaped gap by going on a few dates, but none sparked the excitement I wanted. I soon realised that my psychology was completely, dare I say, damaged, by my heavy consumption of romance. My personal accomplishments and close relationships seemed to pale in comparison to the importance I placed on my intimate relationships.

Last week, a friend revealed she was half-way through a year of sexual abstinence. “It’s amazing,” she told me, adding that she was feeling really creative, productive and that all her potential and thoughts that had previously been taken up with men, sex and relationships were now being channelled into her own pursuits.

As I start to fill my life up with great people and new projects, the idea of being in a couple becomes much less appealing

I saw a similar pattern in my own experiences of being single. I’d strengthened the relationships closest to me and was growing increasingly productive, yet my progress was hindered by my love-affair with romance. The recurring moments of loneliness were most acute after I fed my habit of watching romance movies, or re-reading my favourite love affairs.

In almost a year of being single, I’ve discovered how great it is. But I’m looking forward to the additional benefits of having a complete ‘year off’ from all things romantic and to carrying on learning to love my own company and feeling comfortable in my own skin.

Of course I would like to meet someone one day, and live with a couple of cats in a little cottage by the sea. But that isn’t the main goal of my life anymore. I have friends who are absolutely terrified of becoming single and who really view themselves as part of a unit.

Sculpture.jpgI felt like that for a long time and my love-affair with fictional romance made me think that I needed the togetherness of being in a couple, or the excitement of getting to know someone romantically. However, as I start to fill that area of my life up with great people and new projects, the idea of being in a couple becomes much less appealing.

It’s important for people to take a step back sometimes, to reassess, reflect and spend time alone. For me, that means breaking up with the pursuit of romance and giving myself 12 months off from men to see how my perceptions change over time.

So I’ve done what any loyal Bridget Jones fan would after a breakup: I’ve cut and dyed my hair, removed the self-help books from my shelf and have finally started getting on with the new most important relationship in my life – the one I have with myself.

Picture of a country crossroads in Northumberland taken from Wikimedia Commons. Anatomical painting of a heart taken from Wikimedia Commons. Photograph of an expressionistic sculture of two figures (one swooning) taken by Flickr user Rob Gallop.

Lex De Laney is a UK-based feminist and co-founder of a young development consultancy which contributes to gender and conflict analysis

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