We all live with the unspoken knowledge that there are certain rules we have to follow or fulfil when it comes to relationships. For example, for each person there’s “the one” – the one mate who will complete us and be everything to us. And conflict in relationships is a problem, and having conflicts might suggest that your partner is not “the one”. And being attractive is essential because that’s how you’ll find and keep “the one”. And once you find “the one”, the relationship must be monogamous and must remain sexual throughout your lives. And romantic relationships are more important than friendships or other types of relationships. And you shouldn’t speak to your exes after you’ve separated from them, because obviously they weren’t “the one” and there’s nothing that a relationship with them can offer you. And so on.
But actually, as Meg Barker points out in her accessible and important book, Rewriting the Rules, we need to question these rules. They may be holding us back, causing us to be unhappy, making our relationships unsuccessful. Reflecting on them might make us aware of what’s not working for us, but it could even make us reject some of these rules. We can even – gasp! – come up with different ways of living. In each chapter, then, Barker explores what the rules are (for example, the rules in regard to sex, or conflict, or commitment) and why they might be problematic for some people/relationships, then she discusses alternative rules, then she closes by analysing what it would mean to go beyond rules and how we can embrace the uncertainty that comes with not following these rules exactly.
Barker’s book belongs to what I call the “anti-self-help self-help” genre or even “beyond-self-help self-help”. In this field, the texts are not about positive thinking, making friends, and succeeding at work; they do not offer simple, step-by-step instructions for living a happy, easy life. Rather, works such as Barker’s and books by Oliver Burkeman, who is one of the lynchpins of this genre, invite readers to think, reconsider, and reflect. And these authors do this in part by insuring that their ideas are backed up by academic research, so that there is a solid foundation for their claims and suggestions. This does not mean, however, that these books are written in academic, impenetrable language; on the contrary, perhaps because writers such as Barker and Burkeman are not just throwing wild ideas that haven’t been proven at readers, they are able to be very clear and approachable in their style.
Barker thus has a great balance between the theoretical and the practical in Rewriting the Rules. She uses examples from real people where appropriate but interestingly she also uses examples from TV programmes, films, books, and advertisements, which has the added benefit of showing readers just how entrenched some of these rules really are. She then demolishes these often unhelpful rules and invites us to consider new ways of thinking.
It turns out that the assumptions they thought they shared were not shared at all.
For example, in regard to monogamy, some of the rules that people tend to believe that they have follow are that “[r]elationships should be sexually and emotionally monogamous (with emphasis on sexual monogamy)” and “[i]f you break this monogamy in any way then you have done wrong, and the relationship will most likely end if you are found out” (p. 98). Barker then explores how in fact, there are continua in regard to how much sexual and/or physical contact a couple has, how close they are emotionally to one another and to others outside their relationship, how much they might disclose, what sort of boundaries they have, how much freedom people in relationships have, and so on. She writes that where problems may occur in relationships is that people assume that they are at the same place on the various continua, and then discover that they are not. It turns out that the assumptions they thought they shared were not shared at all. So what would be helpful, as Barker suggests, is to have open discussions regarding where we actually are or want to be on these continua, and where our partner/s is/are. We can then find ways of being that work for us and our partner/s.
Indeed, communicating about things frankly, recognising that people change over time and also change depending on with whom we are interacting, and being flexible are the keys here. While this might sound simplistic, in fact many people don’t do these things, and what Barker offers in Rewriting the Rules is a way of exploring beliefs that we have been raised with and that we may have taken for granted.
As she sums up her text, “clinging to the common rules too rigidly often, paradoxically, ends up with us being less likely to get what we were aiming for in the first place”, and she then gives some examples of this from the book, such as that “[y]earning to find The One means we are less likely to find a fulfilling relationship, as nobody can ever be totally ‘perfect’ or ‘right’” and [t]rying to force ourselves to have ‘great’ and/or ‘normal’ sex means that we are less likely to enjoy sex as we’re not tuned in to what we actually find enjoyable” (p. 168).
So what are you waiting for? Explore the rules and perhaps even rewrite them so they suit you better. Let Meg Barker be your guide as you rewrite the rules of relationships.