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Romance and insurance

March 26, 2010
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I want to talk about romance. Heartwarming, I know. But I’m going to start by talking about insurance.

Generally speaking, forms of insurance (in the broadest sense, not just the specific financial version) are a good thing. They don’t prevent the worst happening, but they make it easier to weather if it does. At the practical end of the scale, there’s the physical insurance offered by safety equipment: the climbing harness, the bike helmet. Things can still go wrong, but if they do, you probably won’t die.

Then there’s the more abstract kinds, which protect your options or your assets rather than your actual life. Totalling your car is bad, but if you were insured, you can probably get a replacement quickly enough that it doesn’t disrupt your life overmuch. Not getting into your first choice of university is bad, but if you have an insurance offer, you still have somewhere to go. Losing that essay or project or family photo album is bad, but if you kept a backup, you can get it back with (hopefully) a minimum of effort.

And at the most frivolous level, losing a boss fight to the computer is bad, but if you saved right beforehand, you can at least try again without having to replay half the game.

Car insurance, second offers, backed-up data, saved games – they’re rightly seen as sensible precautions, because anyone can crash a car, fail an exam, delete a file or mess up a game. Insuring yourself as far as possible is the sensible thing to do, to the point where lack of insurance, in serious situations, is outright blameworthy: lose an important essay and don’t have a backup? Sad and annoying, undoubtedly, but you will equally undoubtedly get blamed for not keeping a copy. Merrily coasting along, in almost any situation, without any form of Plan B is seen as inviting the worst.

With one notable exception.

If a couple sit down and make their wills, and talk through what they want to happen to the house, the money, the stuff, or the children (delete as applicable) in the event of one or both of them dying, that’s sensible, adult-minded, forward planning.

If a couple sit down and make out some other kind of contract, oral or written, and talk through what they want to happen to the house, the money, the stuff, or the children (ditto) in the event of the two of them breaking up, that’s bitterly cynical, fate-tempting, romance-killing cold-hearted calculation.

This bewilders me.

Or, more accurately, now it bewilders me. My first long-term relationship, as a teenager, very much operated on the “Talking about it will make it happen!!1!” principle with regard to breaking up. There was much talk of romance instead. I believe the word ‘soulmates’ may even have come up. Needless to say, it took me far longer than it should have done to a) realise that it wasn’t working and b) say so.

The modern concept of romance is lineally descended from the chivalric romances of the late Middle Ages, wherein a handsome and talented knight undertakes a series of impossible quests or unwinnable battles to win his lady fair. Naturally, he always succeeds, wins said lady, and marries her. The image of the yearning, questing man risking life and limb to please his beautiful but distant lady has been enshrined as the romantic ideal ever since.

The problems with this model are readily apparent. In particular it confines action to men and inaction to women (imposing unfeasible requirements on both), idealises a lack of communication between prospective partners (most romantic heroines are physically shut away, and only meet their hero when rescued), and generally treats the woman, and by extension love and marriage, as a quest-object to be obtained for reasons of prestige rather than something worth pursuing for its own sake. Most of this is only to be expected given the age of the tales in question – heterocentrism and rigidly sexed roles are hardly surprising in medieval texts – but this raises the point of why we still give credence to a structure that grew out of the moral codes and social expectations of a long-gone and very different (and worse) age.

What I want to focus on now, though, is another ubiquitous feature of the chivalric romance that I didn’t mention earlier, which is this: they always end with the wedding. The uniting, or re-uniting, of the lovers is universally treated as the end of the story, rather than the beginning of one. When the bells ring, that’s all folks, nothing to see here.

Chivalric romance did it, fairytales mostly do it, romantic comedy almost always does it. The wedding industry does it with a vengeance – for a bride, the wedding day is treated as the culmination of dreams, the best day of her life, for a groom, the end of an era, the farewell to his bachelor ways; in both cases the implication is of something being fulfilled and over. Our whole cultural model of romantic love treats the achievement of a relationship as the end of the story.

Which, upon thinking about it for even a minute, is really, really bizarre.

I think the mindset that talking about the end of relationships causes them to end quicker comes out of this, because the chivalric/fairytale/romantic comedy model of romance depends on the possible end of a relationship never being mentioned. The end of relationships goes against the Happily Ever After construction, whereby once relationship is achieved, nothing ever changes; and if starting a relationship is constructed as intrinsically a good thing, naturally ending one is construed as intrinsically a bad thing.

And so if you even bring up the possibility of a breakup, you are signalling that you don’t wholly buy the Happily Ever After model, at which point, for a lot of people it would seem, the world falls apart. You get accused of being unromantic, of being a cynic, secretly wanting the relationship to end, undermining the institution of marriage, and on and on it goes.

I get that contemplating the end of a relationship is an unpleasant and scary prospect. I get that. But surely contemplating your own death, which people do every time they sit down to write a will or fill in their organ donor card, is a much more unpleasant and scary prospect? And we manage that. Making your will is seen as a sensible and wise thing that grown-ups do. Acknowledging that you will one day die is not seen as detracting from the magic of life or read as an admission that in your heart of hearts you don’t want to live anymore. Yet this language comes up all the time in the context of relationships, from which I can only conclude that breaking up is actually worse than dying. (You heard it here first, people.)

Break-ups happen. Quite often, they happen for no more interesting reason than that the people involved grew apart: people change, for any number of reasons. (Same way that, without there ever having to be an amity-busting row, we gradually grow away from friends.) Recognising that you’re quite likely to have this happen to you isn’t cynicism, it’s common sense. People break up all the time, and blithely assuming that you are the special snowflake who will find The One first time is about as likely to go well as assuming that you’ll never need car insurance because of your mad driving skillz.

Looking at it from this angle, it seems utterly bewildering that so many people do the metaphorical equivalent of sticking their fingers in their ears and going “Lalalalala, I CAN’T HEAR YOU” when reminded of this relatively common sort of mishap. Who wilfully sets themselves up for that kind of fall? And there’s the point that, unlike forms of insurance which require actual material outlay – insurance payments, buying safety equipment, a second hard drive – a contingency plan for breaking up with your partner can be as simple as just saying to them “I hope that if we break up we can do it like adults.” That’s all that’s needed to signal that you recognise that breakups happen, and you’re prepared to approach that eventuality like a grown-up. Thirteen words. Costs nothing.

Of course, it’s difficult. Saying all manner of things is difficult; even to someone who you rationally know loves and cares for you and will understand, it can be hard to voice anything that sounds like doubt or dissatisfaction. But in this case I’m convinced that the reason it’s so hard is the pesky romance model, within which the continued existence of the relationship itself is prized far above the happiness of the people in it. Never mind if considering breaking up, or actually breaking up, would make both (or all) of you happier; it invalidates the infallibility of the romance! Shame!

Screw that.

J and I have talked about what to do if things go pear-shaped, and have mostly come to the conclusion that we’re both level-headed adults and could handle it. It’s not like singledom would suddenly destroy our senses of self-worth.

And you know what? Having that out in the open between us makes things better. J has the freedom and the wherewithal to leave at any time, and knows that it wouldn’t kill me or anything. And knowing that, the fact that so far he’s choosing to stay is all the more amazing. Because having someone unforcedly, uncompelledly, choose to be and stay with you is amazing. And romantic as fuck.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Paul Skinner permalink
    March 27, 2010 12:56 am

    “Yet this language comes up all the time in the context of relationships, from which I can only conclude that breaking up is actually worse than dying”

    Well in my opinion it is.

    But that’s because death is in fact the least ominous prospect in life. Partly because once you’ve attained death you no-longer care.

    However, when you’ve attained the end of a relationship you still do care.

    But this is being nit-picky. I agree with everything you say here.

  2. sophia b permalink
    March 29, 2010 8:47 am

    Yes.
    Got into my last relationship after having my ex turn into an abusive stalker after we broke up. It was made pretty clear that if my new guy behaved like that he’d be reported to the police pretty quick. More than that we new we were embarking on a long distance relationship, and i personally was not sure how well that’d work, as i need a lot of physical contact generally. We talked several times over our relationship and new that as long as we both behaved reasonably we wanted to remain friends, as that was important to us.
    Broke up about a month ago, after two years. it happens, and after some inital awkwardness we seem to be working as friends, which makes me quite happy. apart from the skepticism i get when i mention we’re still friends.

  3. wickedday permalink
    March 29, 2010 12:40 pm

    I’m glad that everything seems to be going well, or at least well for the circumstances, and I hope you and your ex stay friends. I’ve seen too many people break up and then avoid one another like the plague, and it seems like such a shame.

  4. wickedday permalink
    March 29, 2010 12:45 pm

    Interesting point. I note that it depends on an atheist or at least non-afterlife-believing perspective, though – actually, it’d be interesting to think about how the relationship/death comparison holds for, e.g., Mormons, or other denominations who believe that marriage is either a prerequisite for heaven or one of the goodies you get when you get there.

    Although I guess from an afterlife-believing perspective, everything you do in life counts as insurance for after death, not just making your will.

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