Editor’s Note: FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth for February, 2022 is Redefining Love. We invite submissions on the many layers of love, throughout the month. If you’d like to contribute, kindly email your articles to firstname.lastname@example.org
As cis-women who grew up at the cusp of the digital transformation in the 90s, there were no real-life templates for ideal love and successful relationships. The American sitcoms at our disposal further warped our idea of love with postfeminist depictions of (white) heteronormative romantic love in series such as Friends, that led us to believe that love could only be experienced if we possess conventionally good-looks, sex and gender expressions.
From the misleading archetypes in Indian mythology that epitomised conjugal love and self-sacrificing wifely devotion, to the conventional soap operas that have for long situated ideas of compromise, fidelity, and subordination for women within the contexts of the crisis of the everyday heteronormative relationships, the value of compromise in its gendered nuances still remains confined to the everyday mundane and invisible frame.
Let us for a moment walk into this territory of love and heteronormative romance where often, the success and sustainability of the relationship is rooted in the everyday compromises mostly expected and made by women. The socio-cultural scripts employed in the normalisation of ‘compromise‘ implicate particular, gendered subject positions that shape the normative romantic structures, love and intimacy through variegated intensities of pleasure, pain, and innumerable invisible adjustments.
Repetitions of tailored sacrifice in the everyday
From childhood to adulthood, we are trained to cater to the needs of others. Our mothers abide this training as an altruistic ‘care-giver‘ for the men and the children in the house “using all their attributes, if they use them, for others, but not for themselves… guided by the constant need to attune themselves to the wishes, desires, and needs of others” (Miller, 1986, p. 62). The ideal figure of the working woman is someone who juggles between her work and a chunk of additional responsibilities of child care and household chores.
Every woman our age would have been given detailed training on the glory of ‘compromise‘ by their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers for sustaining a long-lasting romantic relationship, even when our ‘natural‘ instinct may not be aligned.
At the same time, we have learned to recognise the implications of such a training, often in moments of epiphany where we end up questioning and politicising our personal spaces, our “feminine” nature and culture. It is more common to realise compromises in the everyday, the mundane – the spheres where women seem to navigate between the private and the public. For instance, some of us may not be comfortable with the misogynistic rituals that go down at a typical Hindu wedding because they are symbolic of the same binaries and gendered assumptions that we are trying to do away with.
Or some of us may not be comfortable with the idea of moving to the groom’s house or staying with in-laws post marriage. Or perhaps, even if we do, we wish to continue embodying the same (meritoriously achieved) autonomy post-marriage. After all, this agentive capacity was built over decades of resistance, carefully knitted with rebellion, generational trauma, and self-hate at our natal family which was also a site of violence, shame, dishonour.
To top this up, in a patrilocal scenario, women are presented with another set of affinal kins whose nuts are even harder to crack because they are old, stubborn, and rugged. So what can she do? She compromises. Sometimes just performing her gender role unconsciously but often even consciously because “lose a battle, win the war“- that kind of thing.
She is told to be “patient,” or just to “let this one go,” or “it is just for this one time,” and that “she can’t change everyone, so why doesn’t she?” She is told to be adaptive and mouldable for the sake of love, and the magnitude of her love is measured by the depth of her disproportionate sacrifices.
She is also told to “just be successful” by completely invalidating the fact that even successful women are not new to compromises and that success alone does not guarantee freedom and the agency to enjoy that freedom without having to compensate or feeling guilty about being a successful woman. What is striking here is that there are no such equivalent rules of compromise for the male counterparts – they can just exist, control, violate, with absolute impunity.
Compromises in intimate relationships
Further, compromises concerning issues pertaining to sexual intimacy are also a part of the tropising of the self-sacrificing figure of women in romantic love. These compromises are reflected in the astounding orgasm gap (nearly 70% of Indian women do not have an orgasm every time they have sex, compared to 80% men who do), deprioritisation of female pleasure, lack of awareness around the female sexual anatomy, but also sexual and emotional intimacy in general.
Another study conducted with young women reveals how “making do” is still a very pragmatic solution to women when choosing their partners (Sieg, 2008). Further, the study aligns with our subjective heteronormative experiences of disappointment with the lack of intimacy with men, accompanied by a perennial desire for greater, nuanced emotional closeness and a more mutual sharing of life’s responsibilities.
The other extreme of this tabooed aspect is when the value of compromise travels from a bedroom to a courtroom with rape survivors, mostly women and young girls being manipulated to compromise and marry their rapist(s), or compromising and forgetting they are survivors of marital rape and drop the idea of a divorce because they are not sexually content.
Data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) indicate that over 1,100 rape cases were compromised after going to courts, with an average of 191 rape cases compromised every year since 2014 without the consent and agency of the survivors. The reality is worse for women and girls from DBA communities where acquittal and trial in rape cases is not just a legal but a caste and gender based matter. The patriarchal nature of compromise makes sure that inequalities continue being perpetuated by caste, allowing dominant caste individuals to get away with negligible repercussions.
While these realities speak volumes about the masculine nature of law in the country, Baxi’s (2014) work looks at how exogamous horrors of “transgressive” sexual relations and miscegenation animate the ways in which women’s sexuality is regulated within the natal family. Baxi shows this when she argues that the laws on rape, kidnapping, and abduction situate violation in the realm of the collective rather than being representative of individual women’s experiences of coercion or consent.
Sexual transgressions, overstepping gendered and caste-based lines, are remedied not through a disavowal of familial ties but through a re-assertion of the primacy of the sanguinal family as an institution that recuperates and rehabilitates the fallen woman, thereby reifying the traditional familial institution as merciful and benevolent.
The anxiety that one can find underlying the pressing need for a compromise in these cases shows that the national socio-sexual order is based on patriarchy’s “correct” performance and that when everyday violence takes on a spectacular form, it must be repressed at all costs.
Gendering control and violence
Despite the existence of ideas of compromise reflected in heteronormative relationships resulting from unbalanced gender hierarchies, and disproportionate care work by the female counterparts (Oakley 1974; Sniezek 2005; Elliot and Umberson 2008; Hochschild and Machung 199), we learn to navigate between overthrowing some of these norms and adherring to some.
This adhering can be seen in the script of ‘standing by your man no matter what’ rooted in the female gaze of fear. In thirties, for instance, these insecurities manifest through the fear of abandonment, financial uncertainties, loneliness, unfulfilled sexual desires and so on. The need to feel secure, safe and to be seen and touched, seems to become the focal point of many compromises women would make from choosing to live with an abusive partner to settling down for someone clearly not good enough.
Women’s disproportionate vulnerability to power and control is also very much linked to the idea of compromise in hetero relationships( Rand and Saltzman 2003, Dobash and Dobash 2004, Dutton and Goodman 2005). Take Nate, for example, a young cis-gendered male character from a popular teen TV show on Prime, Euphoria. Interactions between Nate, and her love interests Maddy, Cassie and Jules highlight the existence of the unsaid ordinance for women in love which are to either adhere to the norms of the gender binary as regards one’s femininity or being punished, singled out, or scorned for it.
Women are expected to choose to remain committed to male partners even in the face of infidelity, emotional neglect, economic hardship, and violence. A study reveals that often women believe that the most valuable thing she has to offer in a relationship is her passivity— that she would not cheat on him, use him, or stop believing in him under any circumstances. In fact, there is also a gendered expectation for women to have romantic explanations for their partners’ emotionally and physically abusive behaviour (Wood, 2001).
Can the Bad Romance ever end?
The truth is, that all the fairytales and stories of a prince charming rescuing a damsel in distress that we hear growing up, form our romantic beliefs and keep us in abusive relationships where we see ourselves as altruist heroes forgetting one compromise after another. While there are more complex perspectives on femininity, gender, sexuality etc., and women are more emancipated, we are still far from being sure that our ideas and practice of love is a result of individual choices and not the “romantic love myth” designed to not only keep us in compulsory heterosexulaity but to also live with the burden of ensuring its success.
Everyday compromises might seem small, invisible, but define the lived experiences of being the less powerful one, overriding experiences of rape, torture, violence and control. Many would argue that times have changed and that women are more empowered than before. But being empowered and being free are not the same. The onus of women empowerment still lies with women, where feeling empowered and seeking justice or being strongly opinionated seems like asking for too much space.
This walk in the territory of romantic love and heteronomative relationships must leave us with some cogent questions. Are we asking for too much? Can the anti-sexist utopia heal our wounds of fear and insecurities? Can we, with our cis-hetero partners create the glamour of an our everyday life without the need to be apologetic or compensate in way or another?
How would the world be where sexism and heteronormativity are not the bedrock of romance and women’s bodies are not the site of sacrifice, shame, disgust, honour and violence? And where masculinities are not conceived in opposition to femininities or perhaps not conceived at all?
Abza is a Research Fellow at University of Queensland, IIT Delhi. Her research interests include Gender and Communication, Gender and Digital Platforms, Gender and Digital Media, Digital Media and Society, Technology and Society, Social Media Analytics. Gazal is a policy advocacy specialist working in the field of child rights and gender intersectionality in South Asia and East Africa
Featured Illustration: Ritika Banerjee for Feminism In India