As a queer feminist cis woman in a relationship with a straight man, I find myself struggling every day against heteronormative patriarchy. It is a toxic cloud that I am holding at bay purely by the strength of my wit and my will. Some days are harder than others. Some oppressive interactions are more subtle while some are more overt. It leaves me feeling like I am teetering upon a tightrope, wondering what will be the element that will cause me to lose my balance, and with it, the independent identity I have worked so hard to cultivate. But through it all, I am learning some important lessons about how to resist and challenge the slow erosion of my independence and suppression of my spirit that is characteristic of what happens to women in heteronormative sexist relationships, and it is these that I wish to share with you today.
Lesson 1. You are in control of yourself.
One of the founding principles of heteronormative capitalist patriarchy is its ability to make women believe that they have no other option than to remain in relationships that leave them feeling unsatisfied at best, and victimised at worst. Once linked to men’s traditional role as financial provider, women are taught that to catch and to keep a man, and eventually, to bear his children, is the epitome of womanhood and the highest expression of femininity. The result of this schooling, even in an era where many women are now the breadwinners of the family, is that we stay with men who are not right for us and put up with behaviour that is selfish, disrespectful and often abusive. The fact that so many men act in these ways, that it is tolerated, normalised, and even becomes an object for comedy, is a sure sign of the sickness that pathologises our society.
So what can be done to challenge this? We need to learn that at any point, no matter how embedded we are in a bad relationship or an unfair partnership, how long we have been with them, how many kids we have together or what other people will think, we possess within us the ability to resist, say no and to walk away from situations that oppress us. Although it may be difficult to see an alternative or a way out, this is something we can strive for and work towards. We can speak to our partner about our needs and get out if our requests go unheard. We can ask for help in this process if we need it. We do not deserve to be treated badly and we were not meant to suffer in silence, unloved and unappreciated. We must remember that we have choices and that even though we cannot control the actions of others, we can control how we respond to them. And if that response is to remove yourself from a situation, then so be it.
Lesson 2. Retain your independent thought.
Another holdover from centuries of unbridled capitalist patriarchy is the notion that after marriage, or in the contemporary era, coupledom, man and woman are united and they become one entity. However, what we often fail to discuss is that in a union of people who, in the eyes of society, are not equals to begin with, the thoughts, opinions and beliefs of the person who is higher on the social ladder will undoubtedly win out over those of the person who is lower. We see this manifest in many ways, such as how men often get the final word in decision making (“Let me just check with my husband/I want to do X or Y but my guy doesn’t approve”) or disciplining (“Ask your father/Wait till your father gets home”). It is also apparent in how many women act as mouthpieces for their husband or boyfriend’s opinions.
Often the process of mind control takes place through a gradual chipping away at a woman’s independent thought. We enter relationships as individuals with our own ideas and opinions, but over time we may allow those opinions to be set aside in favour of those of the man we love, because we wish to please him. This in itself may be seen as honourable, but only in the context discussed above where your main aim is to keep your man, no matter how pushy or selfish or ungrateful he may be. In reality, it is dangerous and leads to an unhealthy self-denial, the practice of self-silencing and the disappearance of our individuality. Do not let this happen to you.
Lesson 3. Make space for yourself.
Something that can really help us retain our independent thought, listen to our intuition, articulate and act upon what we need is maintaining our personal space. This is space in both the physical and mental sense. Find some time each day to be alone with yourself, even if it is just a few minutes in the bathroom or a short trip to the store, and be intentional with this time. Bring a small notebook and write down your thoughts, or clear your mind of everyone and everything and just focus on your breath. Repeat a positive affirmation to yourself and remember that in this moment, you are enough.
Humans are social creatures. Loneliness is one of our greatest fears. But if you learn to be as committed to yourself as you are to your partner, then you will find it enjoyable to spend time working on yourself, developing your interests, pursuing your passions, and doing the things that make you happy. You can share these things with others if it is appropriate, and you should make and maintain friendships outside of your relationship, both to quell co-dependency and to experience the fulfilment that comes from being yourself and doing the things you want to do, whether or not your partner does them with you. This is key to lasting intimacy and also to maintaining monogamy, if that is the intention for your relationship. The sex and relationship expert Esther Perel has said: “We need multiple connections, multiple attachments. If you start to feel that you have given up too many parts of yourself to be with your partner, then one day you will end up looking for another person in order to reconnect with those lost parts.”
Make space for yourself to think your own thoughts and to see the world from your own point of view. This doesn’t mean shutting down debate or never compromising in a fair way, but really listening to your own feelings, making up your mind for yourself and not putting up with having those thoughts and feelings dismissed or ignored. But in order to make that happen, you have to set the example by not dismissing or ignoring them yourself. You have nothing to fear from being alone. You are complete unto yourself. You were fine before they came into your life, and if one day you break up, you will be fine after they are gone. Anyone who truly loves you will learn to see and respect that, and if they do not, then you’re better off without them.