Empathy or Envy: Amatonormativity and Hidden Costs

a photo of an art gallery, to the left is a bronze statue that appears to be a woman with a child on her shoulders. Directly ahead is a brightly colored painting that appears to be a man leaping out of his own body. Off to the right, there appears to be a triptrych of modern images of the crucifixion. There are a few nondescript/blurry patrons and distantly in the photo there is a painting, details unclear, but it appears to be a portrait of someone wearing a red outfit.

When I look at beautiful things now, I don’t wonder at the talent that must have produced it. Instead, I think of the stress that it probably took.

What happened behind the scenes? How many nights were spent sleepless? Exactly how heavy was the weight of the artist’s head in their hand?

The most beautiful things in life often come with very hidden and very private costs. At least a stressful thrumming. The artist pawing through thickets of uncertainty. Punctuated by the occasional blast of hot air up through the rib cage as elements fail to gel with one another. Pain, stress, and misery.

And so these days, I find myself looking on the works of artists not with envy, but with empathy.

Single, Lonely, “Left in the Dust”

As The Intellectual Homosexual writes:

As I get older, being unpartnered becomes more and more uncomfortable. I find that, in general, partnered people who have been in their relationship for a certain period of time quickly come to neglect the simple struggles of singledom. They have a social advantage of having each other, even when all else falls through the cracks. I say this, of course, as an introvert who does not have an easy time arranging outings, and might be more frustrated by these happenings than others, but it is something that I am growing increasingly resentful of with some of the people that I love most.

And it sucks. I can’t think of a better way to say it. It just sucks.

Society is structured to benefit partnered people. Socially. Financially. Any way you can think of, pretty much… the coupled people have it going on across the board, in the grand scheme of things. And the single people, well…we’re often left in the dust. There are a great many of us who don’t have someone to go home with/to at the end of the night…an automatic date for every occasion… and I can only speak for myself but I’m sick of acting like I’m okay with it.

I feel a strong sense of responsibility to fight this phenomenon… to make society more accommodating for the singular stragglers. But also I just want to throw up all of the middle fingers and snag my own unpaid romantic intern who is obligated to kiss me goodnight whenever I demand it.

And indeed, there are definite benefits to coupledom. The ease of companionship. The tax breaks. The ease of signalling socially “this person is important to me, and I, to them.”

Amatonormativity and Hidden Costs

But on the other hand, I’m troubled by the internalized amatonormativity that has resulted from society’s messages: “the assumption that a central, exclusive, amorous relationship is normal for humans, in that it is a universally shared goal, and that such a relationship is normative, in the sense that it should be aimed at in preference to other relationship types” (per Elizabeth Brake, who coined the term).

Because it’s really not true. Being in a relationship isn’t always preferable to not being in one. Because relationships, like art, have hidden costs. And yet with amatonormativity, there’s this lie that society pushes on us that it’s always better to be in one. Even if that relationship completely sucks.

True, it’s tough being single. But I’m disconcerted by this idea that relationships are always preferable. Because they can also be really terrible.

While I’ve been in a ton of relationships, I’m yet to find the rumored “unpaid romantic intern who is obligated” to do just about anything. Instead, I end up giving at least as much as I put in. Usually more. All the emotional labor. The 4 a.m. fights. Bed death.

And the hedonic treadmill (i.e., the tendency of human beings to return to a baseline level of happiness in spite of major positive or negative changes) means that the boost you get from the joys of coupledom fades so fast. You habituate. Stop enjoying it. And then you’re left with so much work to sustain what you do have. All the while feeling disconcerted by this change and never quite sure if it could end at any moment.

I try to remind myself when I see other people’s happiness, especially when I’m going through a relationship rough patch: I’m not seeing everything.

It’s easy to envy people when you don’t see and aren’t subject to the hidden costs they’ve paid.

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  1. Yet another great post. As a hinge (pivot, V – whatever the term) partner in a m/f(me)/f poly relationship, I feel envy from my female partner. Interestingly, those times of envy often coincide with some marital stressors. So my very unhelpful initial thought to her communication to me about the envy is “Why?!” At this point, I think of my marriage (or any committed relationship) as a pearl. A pearl beautiful to others, but sometimes an irritant to the oyster. Then, I move on with the discussion.

  2. Ooooohhh, I love this, Laura. Very insightful. It’s awful when envy from one partner plus stress in the relationship with another coincide (been there myself).

    I love the pearl metaphor. Very apt.

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