As a work-in-progress adult, I strive to practice my politics. In this endeavour, I quickly realised the importance of translating my feminism in all types of relationships. Predictably, incorporating my intersectional feminism in a heterosexual romantic relationship with a cis-gender man required some work. Marked by meaningful reflections of relationship dynamics, it was not a surprise that much of feminism in romance goes beyond splitting the bill equally. Feminist relationships often exist outside ‘cultural prescriptions of what love should look like.’ It involves purposeful care, respect and affording dignity to your partner(s).
In this article, I loosely define “relationships” as close, often intimate relations or connections built over time, among two or more people. Similarly, feminist relationships refer to enduring inter-personal associations based on mutual respect and not gender power dynamics. While I wrote this list with romantic relationships in mind, the following are a chosen few good practices for any and all kinds of relationships—whether platonic, professional, familial, or otherwise.
Consent is a stand-in for respect of one’s bodily autonomy. The fact that it is stand-in for respect of one’s autonomy is less obvious. Consent is not merely an affirmative verbal or non-verbal expression; it is mutual and actively sought. Most importantly, consent is continuous i.e., it is a process and needs to be negotiated every time, whether for the same or a different activity. Therefore, any prior dating or sexual experience does not grant automatic consent.
Upholding this principle is imperative in both sexual and non-sexual contexts. A good rule of thumb is to always ask questions and never make assumptions. While drinking out of your significant other’s coffee mug might seem inconsequential, the principle of consent sets a precedent of respect for the other’s individuality within a relationship. The next time you want to speak on your partner’s behalf or use their computer, it’s good practice to check in with them first!
“Would it be okay if I do this?”
Also read: Understanding Consent Beyond a “Yes” or “No”
2. Confrontations of Power, Privilege and the Patriarchy
The absence of gendered expectations is a crucial condition to enable equitable partnerships. One partner must not be disproportionately spending unpaid emotional labour to care for the other(s), have their concerns invalidated and gaslighted, or be pressured to conform to sexist stereotypes. It’s important to confront gender power dynamics (and others of age, caste, class) to establish mutually-beneficial and emotionally secure relationships.
Confronting privileges is critical, especially in heterosexual relationships, which are the most common site of gender inequality and intimate partner violence. My heterosexual partner and I grew up with vastly different religious and caste identities, albeit in similar socio-economic environments. In my partner’s cognisance to their privilege, they better understand how I navigate the world as a woman, and are sensitive to my needs, and frustrations with the patriarchy. And such feminist men consistently report better relationship quality, stability and equality.
Generally, confronting inequality mobilises partners to take action and hold themselves accountable for reinforcing regressive stereotypes.
3. Honest Communication
It is almost hackneyed to mention that honest communication is vital for satisfaction in relationships. It’s still true! In a more feminist sense, it means that partners do not hesitate from expressing disapproval. Women face unique problems in learning to be assertive (social conditioning to conform, being labelled as ‘loud,’ ‘inflexible, or ‘difficult.’) But, feminist partners foster assertiveness and do not appease or self-censor.
Asserting oneself in a relationship implies a sense of security with your own demands and expectations. Additionally, it points to a sense of trust, and commitment towards the safety and comfort of all partners. Honest communication is a sign that partners have the space to feel comfortable with their authentic selves, and are not pressurised to compromise (Sorry Ms. Sima Taparia).
The biggest part of honest communication, I argue, is listening. Don’t interrupt, don’t make it about yourself and don’t attack them. Actively and positively engaging with a partner trying to rant, or even arguing, helps in patient understanding of their concerns. More often than not, they’re not trying to attack you. Hence, all partners in feminist relationships are heard, and the focus is the problem and not a person.
“I did not appreciate what you did earlier.”
“Okay, is there something I can do for you?”
4. Respect for Boundaries
Boundaries, unlike requests, dictate what you will do versus what the other person(s) will do. Boundaries set precedents, limits and actions which your partner(s) are expected to regard. The most important thing about boundaries is that all partners may have different ones, and it’s necessary to respect their preferences even if those are antagonistic to yours.
For instance, my partner prefers being left alone when upset, whereas I like being speaking directly to the issue without being interrupted. For many relationships, platonic friendships are (rightfully) equally necessary, and feminist relationships will respect those boundaries of friendship-relationship-work. Recognise that partners have a life outside of the relationship!
Additionally, these boundaries become particularly paramount in intimate and sexual situations. Since gender power dynamics are likely to dictate these contexts, feminist relationships constantly clarify and accept all partners’ boundaries and comfort levels, unconditionally.
“Hey I don’t like taking off my t-shirt.”
“Okay! As long as you’re comfortable!”
Partners in feminist relationships not only respect your choices, but also enable self-love. This means that disparaging or invalidating responses are near-absent. A feminist partner is unlikely to trivialise personal concerns, and will recuse themselves for their partner(s) to find spaces to cope and grow. This looks like non-judgmental interactions which humanise the struggles of a partner(s). In the same vein, it is very hard to extend compassion and care to others without practising self-love. ‘Me-time’ in feminist relationships is guilt-free and a necessary for individual and collective wellness.
Indeed, the truest hallmark of feminist relationships is the frequency of “NO.” However, the persistence of confident denial is incomplete without all partners respecting the word. The act of saying ‘no’ creates a boundary; The denier does so trusting that it will garner the partner’s acceptance. Saying no is not an invitation, it is not an opportunity to be convinced, and it’s not intimidating to do—it is an ordinary expression sans baggage.
“Can we hold hands?”
Intimate relationships are peculiar interpersonal interactions because of significant physical, emotional, time and financial investments. They are sites of constant negotiation, and more often than not, personal and collective growth. Gendered expectations often result in women sacrificing their personal goals, and physical and mental health for relationship security. Which is why, although every relationship is not perfect, it is refreshing to be in love devoid of sexism. Feminist relationships, whether romantic or platonic or professional, are rewarding and self-fulfilling for all partners.
Conclusively, feminist relationships are a reminder that everyone deserves to be in romantic relationships where they are respected, cared for and given space to grow. And just like intersectional feminism, respect and care in relationships should not be a radical idea.
This is by no means an exhaustive or representative list. Suggestions to add to this list are welcome in the comments section.
All images created by the author.