How Social Norms Can Limit Relationships

If you’ve ever felt like there was someone you were “supposed to” be with or a way a relationship was “supposed to” go – and who hasn’t – then you’ve felt the crush of societal values. It’s okay to feel this pressure, but what’s less okay is letting it control your thinking and decisions. For some of us, this happens in more obvious ways – just ask anyone who ever came out later in life. For many of us, it happens in more insidious ways, like shutting down a potential new relationship because your date checks or doesn’t check boxes you didn’t expect or following a relationship trajectory because it feels like that’s what you’re supposed to do. 

Societal norms want to tell you, in direct and indirect ways, who to date, how to date them, and what your relationship together should look like. By breaking down our own internalized biases and assumptions, we can not only foster more inclusive and better communities for each other but also build better dating lives and relationships for ourselves.

Social Norms Can Limit How You Find Dating Partners

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Many of us have a fantasy of meeting someone “organically,” whether that means at the gym (in a world where gyms are safe to go to again), through a mutual friend, or in a chance meeting in the natural wine shop line at golden hour. This fantasy leaves finding a potential partner up to the whims of the universe. But that’s not really how it works. You have to put the same effort into meeting others that you’d want others to put into meeting you. Tinder, Lex, and Raya are tools. Matchmakers are tools. We can help you find the partner of your dreams, but you have to participate actively in the process. Does that make it less romantic? I don’t think so. What’s more romantic than being willing to work to get what you want?

Social Norms Can Limit The People You Date

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Do you not see color? Congratulations, that’s racist. Do you believe trans women are woman, but also that you, a cis lesbian, could not ever date a trans woman? Congratulations, that’s transphobic. (And it’s especially so if you, a cis lesbian, would consider dating a trans man or nonbinary person.) Stay with me: As Abigali Curlew writes at Vice, “Let me repeat: I am not saying that it is imperative to be attracted to trans women. I am arguing that your attraction is shaped by preconceived notions and stereotypes of transgender folks. So, no, I am not shaming you […] I am merely asking you to critically reflect on the factors that might shape your attractions.” 

To start small, look back over the history of people you’ve been attracted to or dated. If you notice any trends or have a “type” who just happens to be cis, white, able-bodied, and making a certain amount of money in a certain type of job while wearing certain types of clothes, and you’ve dated more than two people, then you might be letting social norms control who you date. What would it look like to explore your attraction to all types of people? How would it feel to be less limited in your connections? If you’re someone who likes to think she knows what she wants, are you sure you want what you want, or are you letting others direct you?

Social Norms Can Limit Your Relationship

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A great way to think about relationship scripts and expectations is through the relationship escalator metaphor coined by Amy Gahran. On the relationship escalator, a series of progressive steps lead to a permanent monogamous marriage. You meet, flirt, fall in love and have sex, stop seeing other people, name the relationship, establish patterns around each other, move in together, get engaged, get married, easily stay monogamous, and eventually die in your shared home, possibly surrounded by your kids and cats. 

For many of us, this is the dream. But for many of us, it just doesn’t feel right. Maybe we tried the escalator, got divorced, and don’t know how to date in a world where we don’t want to get married again. Maybe we think we like living with partners, but when we do so we fantasize about living alone. Maybe we’re not monogamous, or are monogamous but consider a platonic best friend a life partner more than our long-term romantic partner, or want multiple partners, or want partners who are also married to each other, or don’t want any partners at all. 

No one is making you ride the escalator. But sometimes it feels like that’s the only option. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a relationship that leads to a monogamous co-habituating marriage. But if you’ve ever thought that you might want a different option, or if you haven’t, it’s worth reflecting on that feeling. Relationships don’t happen to us; they’re something we actively create together. Ask yourself, what do I want to create, and how do I want it to feel? You might be surprised at what you find.

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