Friday, August 22, 2008

Social norms harm relationship health

A friend of mine was recently in an intimate relationship with someone who was notably older. In addition to the challenges of navigating potential power imbalances in that circumstance, they faced harassment when in public. My friend told me about a couple of times when they were out at restaurants together (in typical dating fashion) where people actively discouraged their relationship through derogatory remarks.

The following is somewhat expanded and modified from my remarks in an online chat I had with my friend about all that:


I don’t know the extent to which external social pressures contributed to their eventual breakup, but it’s certainly quite different from the constant pressure to partner that accompanies the standard cultural expectation of a near-age, heteronormative, same-class, same-ethnicity, mating pair.

It’s unfortunate how arbitrary social norms restrict the range of relationship choices people have. Heteronormativity, ageism, classism, racism, etc., all serve to keep people apart when there is difference beyond just “boy-girl”. Additionally, the mainstream definitions of what is and can be a “relationship” and the expectations of what is to occur in a “relationship” also limit the range of emotional interactions in people’s lives.

Fundamentally, people need a diversity of emotional relationships in their lives that is not at all addressed by the extremist focus on the “traditional” nuclear-family model.


The stereotypes of what it means for an older male to be in a relationship with a younger female are definitely harmful to those who have found (or are seeking) a genuinely healthy relationship in that circumstance. It’s prejudicial and sexist to assume that a younger woman is just in it because of his ‘wealth’, prestige or power, or that she has some sort of “daddy complex”. It’s as if her role in such a relationship is necessarily immature and her only contribution can be her youth and sex.

While there certainly are no shortage of deeply unhealthy relationships in our society where older males use their position to exploit younger females, it is viciously belittling to paint all inter-generational relationships with that brush. (My friend’s response at this point in the chat: “Completely. What do they know? It's insulting to us both.”)

Here’s the thing, unless there is a lack of meaningful consent (such as in a relationship between an adult and a minor), no relationship should be looked down upon, and no assumptions should be laid about the values of those involved.

Consent is key.

Consent is challenging to achieve in a meaningful sense in this society due to the wide range of power imbalances. That is a big part of why I always recommend caution and a commitment to continuous work in relationships with significant age differences. Age difference does not preclude the possibility of a healthy balance in a relationship, but it does typically require more work to build and maintain that balance.

The abundance of adult relationships in our society which have sufficient power imbalances as to be non-consensual (as exemplified by the number of clients of women’s shelters) do not preclude genuinely consensual relations across socially defined divides such as age, class, culture, etc.

Even if — as seems to be the case — the majority of inter-generational relationships are not fairly consensual, it is wrong to assume that any given inter-generational relationship must therefore be non-consensual. Assumptions like that only make it harder for those relationships to find and maintain a healthy balance.

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