The couple relationship in the 21st century

Each phase has its ups and downs, but one thing which all the academics agreed on is that a couple which lasts in the long term is the one that continues to demonstrate respect and support towards one another, no matter what life throws at them

With the much-hyped occasion of St Valentine’s Day just around the corner, it was fitting that this week there was a conference held in Valletta on the topic of The couple relationship: evolving contexts and emergent meanings. It was held under the aegis of the President’s Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society, the National Centre for Family Research, the International Commission on Couple and Family Relations, as well as the University of Malta.

A very interesting mixture of leading foreign and local scholars gave a broad view of what is happening from India to the United States, from China to Egypt, from the Middle East to Europe and, of course, Malta as well. The topics covered ranged from the problems which are faced by couples, including the stress and challenges presented to the relationship when children arrive, to the changing diversities of today’s couples (such as gay marriages, intercultural marriages and second marriages). The issue of what it means to be single in a world which seems to only cater for couples also provided much food for thought.

And then of course, there was the subject of romantic love.

One thing which was soon clear as I listened to all the speakers was that no matter what our culture, religion or ethnic background, when it comes to relationships, everyone is basically going through the same issues and is looking for the same thing.

What makes us fall in love and enter into marriage (or set up home) with another person comes from a deep-rooted need to connect and to feel cared for and cherished; to feel that, when we are at our lowest points, there is someone who has our back. In fact, research has shown that this primal need can be traced back to our feelings and experiences as babies and children, and to whether our parents, or any other primary carer, fulfilled this need or not. If we are given that security and comfort as children, it can go a long way to help us eventually form healthy relationships. Some can overcome this lack of bonding and become resilient and self-sufficient; others, in contrast, spend their whole lives searching for that ‘someone’ with a big, gaping emotional hole which no one can really fill. No wonder then, when two people come together who have had very different upbringings and childhood experiences, they are entering into this union while carrying with them their entire life’s baggage which can be traced back not only to how they were brought up, but how their own parents were brought up.

How close we get to one another in a relationship and the ensuing power dynamics between the couple are sometimes a result of the couple relationships we were exposed to while growing up. It was found that the one thing which no couple can really survive is when one or both show contempt towards the other – it is a devastating emotion from which few can really recover, which is wholly understandable. For how can you live, day in, day out with a person for whom you feel nothing but scorn?

Another theme which was explored was whether marrying of our own choosing as a result of romantic love as opposed to more practical, arranged marriages (which still exist in some cultures) has really given us the type of relationships we yearn for, or whether our expectations of never-ending love have created a bar which has been set impossibly high? While my immediate reaction was to balk at the very concept of an arranged marriage, on further reflection I realised that the practice of a huttaba (matchmaker) in our own Maltese culture used to happen not that very long ago. Discussing this topic with others who were at the conference, we realised that in our society we have always had our own unique ways of checking out suitable romantic prospects – it is not uncommon for people to ‘ask around’ about a prospective boyfriend and girlfriend to see if they come from a ‘good family’ or “which family they come from” (“ta’ min huma?”). It was pointed out to me that Gozitans often refer to Maltese parish priests to make a few discreet inquiries when the boyfriend or girlfriend comes from the other island.

While this certainly does not fall under the umbrella of an arranged marriage, the underlying message is that as far as possible, parents (especially) would prefer their children to marry someone in their own social class or who has had a similar upbringing. Although this does not necessarily guarantee a successful relationship, I can see the advantage of a similar background in order to avoid cultural clashes further down the line, especially on the thorny subject of how to raise children.

Of course, checking up on someone we have just met has been made even easier these days through Facebook, and I would hazard a guess that the first thing someone does when meeting someone new is to look up their profile where people provide you with an astonishing amount of self-revelation.

In a changing world where people ‘hook up’ on Tinder based on looks just for a one-night stand rather than go through the gradual dating process of getting to know one another first, the influence of the media cannot be overlooked. I feel that the extreme commercialisation of romance has had a detrimental effect on what we expect from our partner or spouse. By this, I am not just referring to St Valentine’s Day, which starts being advertised and promoted the minute we pack up our Christmas trees. Everything that has to do with love seems to come not only with a price tag (the more expensive the better) but with the need to flaunt it to others, otherwise it doesn’t seem so wonderful.

This is why we get girls posting a photo flashing an engagement ring with the caption, “And I said Yes!” to announce their engagement on Facebook, and the elaborate proposals which are duly filmed and uploaded on YouTube for the obligatory gratification of getting lots of ‘likes’. Not only does there have to be the grand romantic gesture, but it has to be publicised and validated not only by friends and family, but by complete strangers. Meanwhile, it is very easy for those who scroll through other people’s impossibly happy photos to start feeling dis-satisfied with their own relationship and wondering, mutinously, why they never get such gushing declarations of love from their significant other.

The huge build-up sometimes continues up to an elaborate Hollywood-style wedding, even if it means going over budget and starting off married life in huge debt. When young brides speak about wanting to feel like a princess and having a fairytale wedding, I know that this is the result of being fed this narrative by the media which encourages this fantasy. The problem is when they come down from the clouds with a thud, long after the honeymoon is over, to a pile of dirty dishes, with both of them being too tired and grumpy to talk, and no one feels like making dinner.

The real crunch, of course, is when you start getting used to one another, and the excitement of the wedding, setting up home, and even of having children, subsides. Each phase has its ups and downs, but one thing which all the academics agreed on is that a couple which lasts in the long term is the one that continues to demonstrate respect and support towards one another, no matter what life throws at them.

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