Capitalism is fundamentally invested in notions of scarcity, encouraging people to feel that we never have enough so that we will act out of greed and hording and focus on accumulation. Indeed, the romance myth is focused on scarcity: There is only one person out there for you!!! You need to find someone to marry before you get too old!!!! The sexual exclusivity rule is focused on scarcity, too: Each person only has a certain amount of attention or attraction or love or interest, and if any of it goes to someone besides their partner their partner must lose out. We don’t generally apply this rule to other relationships—we don’t assume that having two kids means loving the first one less or not at all, or having more than one friend means being a bad or fake or less interested friend to our other friends. We apply this particular understanding of scarcity to romance and love, and most of us internalize that feeling of scarcity pretty deeply.
So Dean Spade is brilliant. This is a fact. But reading this (in an essay that I swear I’ve read before but maybe glossed over this part?) this morning really brought me up short.
Cause I mean, I’ve been thinking about capitalism a lot lately, as it seems to be malfunctioning pretty badly these days (understatement of…my life?). And when I’m not thinking about that (work), I’m a human and a single one in my early 30s with friends, so I am talking about love and relationships with friends. My own, theirs, other people’s, the ideal relationship…
But I never really thought about the idea of scarcity as applied to love. Or maybe I did, but not in quite the sort of click moment I had this morning.
I’ve been talking friends through the kinds of breakups I’ve had too many of, this month. The kind where you think everything is going great and then suddenly poof, freakout!
The kind that leave you going “What did I do? Am I just unloveable? What’s wrong with me?” because they didn’t stick around long enough for you to hate them, or even see their bad sides really. The kind that really throw you for a loop.
And after those breakups especially I see people in a tailspin, terrified that they’ll be alone.
I sent this quote to a friend this morning and she replied “YES!” and then “THEFT. I felt robbed,” by the breakup, by the time spent with that person that turned out not to be “worth it,” a “good investment” (my words, not hers). Financial terms applied to our love lives. What?
Think about how many times you’ve described a potential lover with words like that.
I think this in some way overlaps with my distaste for Internet dating. It’s applying capitalist models to love and romance, “shopping” for a partner. And then I watch relationships (including my own) devolve into inner competition, each person wanting a particular end and negotiating to make that end come about.
I’ve been single more or less for four years, since 2007 when my ex-fiance and I split up. In that relationship we were both waiting for the other to change, and when I finally extracted myself from it I felt robbed of my time, my “investments.” Yet I also still deeply cared for that person and put myself through emotional hell trying, for a while, to still be his friend.
Since then I’ve had flings and one-night stands and lovers. But nothing that really counted as a “relationship.” I’ve slept with close friends and gone on being friends. I’ve fallen in love.
And later in this piece, Spade goes on to say:
One of my goals in thinking about redefining the way we view relationships is to try to treat the people I date more like I treat my friends—try to be respectful and thoughtful and have boundaries and reasonable expectations—and to try to treat my friends more like my dates—to give them special attention, honor my commitments to them, be consistent, and invest deeply in our futures together. In the queer communities I’m in valuing friendship is a really big deal, often coming out of the fact that lots of us don’t have family support, and build deep supportive structures with other queers.
I think this is deeply important to me (and this part of the essay I DO remember having read before) since my breakup. bell hooks wrote of something similar as well, of deciding to forego one solitary “partner” in favor of many different types of love around her.
I’m almost exclusively heterosexual, but my community nevertheless supports me in my social justice work in a way that my family doesn’t. My friends are my family, and I love each of them slightly differently, and they fill in almost all the holes in my life. I can allow those friendships to change and grow, and not hold potential lovers to specific rules (most of the time. I was weirded out at first when a short-term fling kept contacting me–and then realized that it was silly to be put off by someone saying, in essence “Hey, you’re a cool person and just cause we’re not gonna be a couple doesn’t mean we can’t talk on occasion or even flirt on occasion.”)
Yet I still want what Spade calls “the romance myth.”
I don’t know if I could successfully be polyamorous. When I fall for someone, I tend to fall hard, obsessively, and in most of my past relationships, when I felt a powerful attraction to someone else, it was because my relationship was falling apart.
I don’t have the answers, except to say that maybe there aren’t any, just ways to think about how we can treat other people better, with more love.
That’s the goal of my politics, and it’s the goal of my relationships too, I suppose. I fail at both sometimes, but this essay was a nice reminder to keep trying, keep thinking, keep working.