By Lesley | February 24, 2011
Earlier this week, an article entitled How to survive as a SAHG (stay-at-home girlfriend) was making the rounds on Twitter, and elsewhere in the social-media-verse. It starts off innocently enough, with the author explaining that she was laid off last year, and offering her tips on how to get through a patch of unemployment without losing one’s mind. In retrospect, the first red flag should have gone up for me when I read “…I’ve always been someone who’s really into keeping her boyfriend happy (that’s how I was raised)…” in the first paragraph. This clause is flag-worthy for two reasons. One: the implication that being “really into” keeping one’s significant other happy is a special characteristic—don’t we all want the people we love to be happy? And two: “that’s how I was raised” seems odd in this context, as this is a sentiment most typically employed to describe social niceties, like not swearing in public (obviously, an upbringing I lacked).
While it’s true that women tend to develop a sense of their responsibility in relationships early on in life, I wonder at how many are explicitly raised for the purpose of creating happiness for a man they’ve yet to meet, and of those who are, how many might be happier with their lives if they decided on this arrangement of their own accord, and not simply because “that’s how I was raised,” like being in a relationship is on a level with going to church and keeping your elbows off the dinner table. “That’s how I was raised” implies “this is all I know” and further “I am not interested in other people’s perspectives on this.” I have a problem with it not because I think it’s bad that people are raised in certain ways, or even because I think it’s wrong, but because I am of the opinion that successful, intelligent adulthood requires a questioning of the things one took for granted as a child, and even if one decides those values are all worth keeping, one should at least come to that conclusion independently.
The proffered suggestions are not bad, at first: don’t sleep all day, keep the house reasonably tidy, take care of dinner plans. All smart approaches to keep one’s mind busy when one is stuck alone at home. But eventually we come to the “tip” that knocked me from patient understanding to sad, sad head-shaking. I’ll just quote it for you:
Sexy Time: Everyone knows there is nothing more important in a relationship than that special time between the sheets. I have eight to nine hours everyday to send out my resumés and clean and make dinner, by the time he comes home from work I am well rested. Frankly, there’s no real reason (time of the month aside) why I shouldn’t be ready and willing when he is. I try very hard to keep my boyfriend happy and this is a key part of doing so.
I lost my sense of humor here, and not just because of the troubling suggestion that a stay-at-home partner should be Sexually Open for Business at any hour, day or night, automatically accommodating their partner’s sexual desires regardless of their own interest. Because being the partner at home means sex counts as one of the few things you’re good for? That is distressing (and frankly, preposterous) enough, but what really struck me is that first sentence: “Everyone knows there is nothing more important in a relationship than that special time between the sheets.”
Everyone knows. I can speak only for myself, as a thirtysomething cisgendered lady married to a cisgendered guy for eight years, and monogamously partnered for thirteen, but I do not know this. I do not know it at all. Thus, I offer a thoughtful rebuttal to the notion that nothing is more important in one’s relationship than the time you spend fucking.
Lusty/sexy feelings are grand, and definitely important, but in most circumstances, positioning them as the foundation of your long-term relationship is limiting and unrealistic. Arguably, they’re not even the ground floor, but rather belong in an upstairs bedroom. If you want to have lots of sex, for heaven’s sake, don’t get married. Ideally, don’t even live together. This is not to suggest that there aren’t married/partnered/cohabitating couples out there fucking like rabbits on a daily basis—there are! But it may not be true for you. It’s not true for a majority of long-term partnerships. Frankly, that isn’t what such partnerships are for. You don’t need to be partnered to have loads of sex; you can do that in all kinds of circumstances. If you are establishing some degree of formal commitment in your arrangement—this can range from legal marriage to signing a lease together—it is important to understand that your relationship at that point ceases to pivot on sex alone, or even primarily. You are now financially responsible to each other, and maybe emotionally too.
So if long-term partnership isn’t for sex, then what is it for? That is a complicated question with a complicated answer, and one that varies dramatically from one relationship to the next. A long-term commitment can be a romantic endeavour, but it can also be a practical matter, a financial arrangement, or a religious event, in the case of marriage. For example, the practical challenge that finally drove my husband and I to make things official (after years of wondering if legal marriage wasn’t gratuitous in our case) was my needing to get on his health insurance, which could only happen if we were married. We are married because we love one another, certainly, but also because it provides certain practical benefits, as anyone who follows the fight for same-sex marriage can tell you. At its core, any long-term romantic partnership is about trusting someone you love enough to share the entirety of your life with them. It is about tying your fate to the fate of someone else. Sure, there’ll be times when it’s all cocktails and fucking, but there will also be times when a reliance on your shared ability to get drunk and have orgasms is simply not enough to sustain you.
A successful long-term relationship demands that all parties involved recognize that while they’ll be together during the awesome times (see: orgasms), they’ll also be together during the inevitable tragedies and traumas. It means knowing that you will be there when your partner’s parents pass away, and your partner will be there when yours do. It means that if one of you gets cancer, or is in a terrible accident, or develops an addiction, or gets laid off, you will support and help one another, even if it’s difficult, distressing, or a drag. That is what makes a good partnership valuable, and precious, and amazing—the promise to stand side by side, out of a love far deeper than penetrative sex. Sure, you have the option to say, “Dude, your stupid chemotherapy is wrecking our all-important sex life. I’m out. Call me if you survive.” But please be aware that doing so makes you an asshole.
It probably goes without saying, but you should absolutely not feel compelled to stick around if your partner becomes abusive, or if you are no longer good for one another in other, more subtle ways. We cannot predict how time will change us, and whether it will change us in ways that complement one another, or in ways that antagonize. The fact is, partnerships are hard. They’re occasionally a ridiculous amount of work for very little measurable return. And conventional wisdom aside, long-term commitments are not and should not be compulsory for a happy life; not everyone wants nor is suited to this kind of arrangement, and trying to force someone to fit a particular mold of committed relationship when they’re not into it is asking for a world of hurt.
So what is the most important aspect of a relationship? In my typically humble and subjective opinion, it’s not the sexytimes, it’s not a shared religious background, it’s not a political agreement nor a passion for a particular sportsball game nor a mutual desire to have a bunch of kids. The times that I feel the most love and appreciation for my partner is when he is supporting me in my dreams, when he is believing in my intelligence and my nerve and my ability to do good shit; when he is being, as he has always been, my best friend. Even better, a best friend that I can also have sex with.