‘For the (Dis)connected’ (Musings on Modern Gender Relations-Part 2)

30 Jun


By Rhea H. Boyden

Last Tuesday morning I got up at 6.30, had a shower, made a strong cup of black tea and turned on my computer to perform my ritual morning online interactions and reading only to discover that my internet had been disconnected. ‘Crap.’ I grumbled. ‘How the heck did I fail to pay the bill on time?’ I had a mini panic attack but then remembered that I was also in possession of a smartphone, so this was hardly a calamity.  I was also in possession of a press pass to the Schaubühne Theatre to see German Director Falk Richter’s ‘For the Disconnected Child’ that same evening. ‘What a funny coincidence that my internet should be cut off, today of all days?’ I smiled at the irony of it. One of the main themes in Richter’s modern piece is hyper online connectivity and its effects in our modern society.

After paying my phone bill and teaching all day, I then stopped at one of my favourite cafes to have a salad. I had intended to respond to a nice message I had received from a man the day before on my online dating profile, and I discovered upon logging on that he no longer existed and his profile had been deleted. My heart sank. ‘Wow, he only sent me the message 15 hours ago, did I not jump quick enough?’ I thought. Despite my negative experiences with online dating, I still keep going on the odd date. I refuse to give up on it.

After eating my salad, I walked alone in the pouring rain to the theatre and took my seat, notebook in hand, eager to see this experimental piece which brings together for the first time actors and dancers from the Schaubühne and singers and musicians from the Staatsoper. A collaboration, an experiment and a fusion of many different styles of music, acting and song. Will this work? It could fail miserably. The music of Marianne Faithfull, Schubert and Tchaikovsky on the same stage? A chamber orchestra one minute, an electric guitar the next? It did work marvelously, and after the 2 hour and 20 minute performance there were lengthy standing ovations.

One main thread of the performance is the scene from Tchaikovsky’s ‘Eugen Onegin’ where the leading lady, Tatjana, reveals her undying love to Onegin in a letter and he rejects her. He is unwilling to commit to her (or anybody else) and does not want to give up his freedom. This then becomes the main theme in a modern context throughout the performance of why so many men refuse to commit to women in modern relationships when there is so much to choose from all the time, especially in a modern urban environment. I can completely relate to this topic, and am happy that its relevance is being broached on the Berlin stage. Urban relationships, dating demographics and single life are my favourite topics to write about.

The leading lady Tatjana, is livid after being rejected and simply does not understand why, when she can offer Onegin everything he could possibly want. She screams out loud, furious about his emotional impotence. Another male character in the show says that maybe she was too forward, or too fast, or too honest, perhaps? She should try a little more reserve in future. Reserve, as many of us modern women know, doesn’t really get us very far either. We are well aware that traditional, lengthy courtship rituals are hardly existent in modern urban dating. If a woman is too reserved and doesn’t sleep with the successful alpha male on date three at the latest, well, he will likely just go and fuck the next girl, as he is too much in demand and there aren’t enough of his kind to go around and he knows he holds this power too. I know I have harped on about this topic before, but I am going to do it again, because, well, it is an important modern topic. I live it and experience it first hand in the big city.

I will come to a section in this essay where I heartily defend men and discuss women’s flaws (and my own flaws) so hear me out. It won’t be in the next few paragraphs, so if you are male and feeling a little sensitive, I apologise in advance.

In her depressing article in Salon magazine entitled ‘A New Era of Heartbreak’ Jaime Cone interviews  professor of sociology Eva Illouz who in her book ‘Why Love Hurts’,  discusses how changing cultural norms exacerbate the stress and pain of modern romance. Illouz points out that our modern capitalist society is responsible, in large part, for men’s lack of commitment to women. In the past, men’s power and status were determined in the patriarchal system where he could assert his masculinity by displaying his power over his wife and children (and servants if he had them).

In our modern society, however, a man’s masculinity is measured more by how much power he has in an organization or corporation, how much money he earns, and how much sexual power he can have over many different women. Having a family is viewed as more of a financial burden rather than an asset, especially in the economically unstable times we live in. The large dating pool on the internet also poses a problem; with so much to choose from, many men are unwilling to settle for one woman. Again, in a capitalist system, if one has too many options, one is less likely to commit to a purchase. Men have the significantly larger dating pool to choose from on the internet too, and they have a lot more time than women to play the field and can wait until they are 50 to settle down, if they want to settle at all. Women, ultimately, are the losers in this system and there is simply too much competition for the ‘good men’. Demographics prove it.

In this case, women’s self esteem suffers greatly too. Self esteem itself is a relatively new idea. In the past, when women were rejected, they may have been hurt but their whole sense of worth was not damaged because they knew what their status in society was and they still believed in their basic worth. In her book, Illouz takes Marianne from’ Sense and Sensibility’ as an example. When she is rejected by Willoughby she is hurt to be sure, but her sense of place in society and her basic self worth is not ruined by the rejection. In our modern mixed urban society, however, it is not clear anymore at all what class someone comes from and what their real status is. We all have to fight to prove who we are, what we are good at, what we are worth and so forth, to protect our precious self-esteem(s). Why else would a dating website try and market itself by naming itself Elite Partner and charge a huge price for membership? Call me a snob, but just charging a fee for signing up to this precious expensive ‘elite’ site in no way guarantees that you are going to meet refined, sophisticated people on it. I met the biggest sleazes and players on the site and came away feeling depressed.

In ‘For the Disconnected Child’ this theme of self-esteem is explored in depth in how Tatjana goes mad in analyzing why she is not lovable. ‘This is not my body!’ she wails. ‘What part of me is it, what part is unlovable? Is it this part?’ she cries, clutching at her stomach. She then sings her song: ‘The Island of the Unneeded and Unloved Body’ which I will quote from: ‘I walked and walked and walked. I arrived on the island of the unloved body, an eternity in fog, nothing more to hear, everything is silent.’

Illouz goes on to say in the Salon interview that in the 19th century Western men were far more open about their emotions and they were the ones who chased the women who they desired. It was the woman who held the power to decide who and when to marry. These days, however, many women are driven to become neurotic wrecks as they obsess over what they are doing wrong and why the man who they are dating refuses to commit. (I have plenty of first hand experience here, believe me).

In their bestselling book ‘The Complete Book of Rules- Time-tested secrets for capturing the heart of Mr. Right’ Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider lay down all the things a woman should and should not do when dating a man if she wants to get him to commit. To be honest, the book terrifies me.  It teaches women how they should apply all these manipulative tactics in order to make a man love them. And this is supposed to ensure a happy relationship? They say things like you should stop dating him if he doesn’t buy you a gift on Valentine’s Day, and that you should never see him more than once or twice a week, and that you should never phone him and so forth. Basically the book makes the woman responsible for making the relationship work and she has to make sure she is acting correctly at every move. It sounds like too much stress to me. I think I would rather sit at home reading and writing than go to so much mental effort to ‘secure’ a man. But it does show how things have changed since the 19th century. Women are told not to pursue men, that the men should be the ones pursuing them if they truly love them, but unfortunately as we get a little older we simply do not feel as pursued any more, as many men who we once considered our dating pool start to date younger women.

‘For the Disconnected Child’ talks a lot about internet dating and how women who are a little older attempt to use it. The leading lady Tatjana, who is over 40, a single mother and a successful business woman is constantly on skype with her mother and on online dating trying to find a man. Both give her a connection to the world. In her more frenzied moments, she asks her mother if she truly loves her and when she finds a man, she asks him if he truly, truly loves her. She is very successful in her career, but totally neurotic as she keeps meeting men with whom, in her words ‘the relationship is over before it ever really begins.’ Her self-esteem suffers greatly.  We see, however, that at heart she is a good person, who just wants to be loved. She is not evil, she is just confused.

Another scene in ‘For the Disconnected Child’ shows a woman on her bed making love to her cello. This represents objectophilia, naturally, and I find it extremely amusing, but I know of course that there is a serious element to it. I remember after the attack on The World Trade Center reading an article about a single woman who got herself a set of mini twin towers that she took to bed with her every night and claimed she was in love with them. Can we laugh at this? Don’t we all display a certain tendency towards objectophilia with our coveting of our smartphones and Macbooks that keep us many urban singles connected round the clock? Without this hyperconnectivity we would likely be lonely. I live alone and I sleep with my smartphone every night, and I quite often take my laptop to bed too.

Indeed, connectivity to Facebook, Twitter, Skype and countless other sites make it possible for so many of us to happily live alone these days. More and more people are living alone, and yet there does not seem to be enough dialogue on it, and singles are still stigmatized for it. In his book ‘Going Solo-The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone’ NYU professor Eric Klinenberg discusses the reasons behind the historic rise of single living in the past decades. The rich variety of interaction made possible by the internet is one thing he notes, but he also points out some other interesting ideas. The security provided by the welfare state (especially in Scandiavian countries) and the wealth generated by economic growth have simply made it affordable for people to live alone. Mass urbanization is also responsible for this trend. Many people who live in densely populated urban environments find themselves surrounded by like minded non-conformists who mostly moved to the city to do something else apart from getting married and having a family. Increased longevity is another reason we spend more time alone. Women, especially can outlive their spouses (if they ever have one) by years, so spending more and more time alone later in life is increasingly becoming the norm.

In her article in The Daily Telegraph – ‘Being Single by Choice is Liberating’, Hannah Betts also says that living alone provides busy urban people the solitude they crave and need when dealing with the stresses of every day urban living. The large majority of urban singles in their late 30’s and early 40’s most certainly do not want to live in flat shares, and if they can afford it at all will rent or buy their own flat. And of course there are moments of loneliness, but loneliness is part of life no matter whether you are in a relationship or not. I know that since I started writing two years ago, that I really need my solitude and I feel very fortunate that I am able to afford a centrally located Berlin flat that I can withdraw to to read and write. I continue to go on the odd internet date, but honestly, I am fairly content with my single life at the moment. I rarely feel completely alone as I am constantly on Facebook, Twitter and Skype and I see my students, colleagues and friends in Berlin every day.

In Berlin, one in three people live alone and the number is rising exponentially. Almost a third of Britons now live alone and the number of British people going solo has risen by more than a million in the past 16 years. According to The British Office for National Statistics that number is expected to rise by another 2 million by 2020. People who live alone make up 28 percent of U.S. households, and today an incredible 50 percent of Americans are single. With these statistics we certainly do not need to feel alone in our aloneness. And yet, single living is considerably more expensive than being coupled and thousands of tax laws still favour married couples.  In their article in the Atlantic Monthly, Arnold and Campbell explore at length the many tax laws that overtly provide legal or financial benefits to married couples. The article was so long and so depressing I could hardly stand to read it. Of course I worry about money. I am a freelance English teacher and writing is hardly a job I do for money, but more for the passion and joy of it. Arnold and Campbell quite simply state that ‘marital privileging marginalizes the 50 percent of Americans who are single.’ Married couples save thousands by filing jointly. Will tax laws change in the future as the social structure changes and marriage and family life becomes less and less the norm?

Despite the huge advances made by women in the past half a century we still very much live in a patriarchal society. Berlin may be a haven for non-conformists, but Germany in general is still very much a patriarchy. In barely one in five households in Germany is the woman the main breadwinner and more than half of these women are single mothers. In Dax 30 registered companies (German Stock Exchange) there is a total of only 13 women board members. Enormous subsidies help cement traditional gender roles in place in Germany. German housewives are automatically given free health insurance, and the system of half day schools make it very hard for German mothers to hold down a full time job. There is also a severe lack of day care centre places for children of working mothers.

Leading the international life that I have always led,  traveling between my three homes of Ireland, Germany and the United States, I have pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I will not be getting married and having children. I have a huge family spread across these three countries and I have little desire to get myself entrenched in the German system of child raising which I view as being full of flaws. In one month, I will be 38 years old and I don’t have a man at my side and that is fine for now. I have a mother in California who is suffering from Alzheimer’s who I visit every year, family on the East Coast of the U.S. who I visit frequently too, and going to see my friends and family in Ireland at least once a year is also a priority for me. This is my life and it is the way it is. I have plenty of people around me all the time and presumably I will find another good man to date again at some point. I have been single for well over a year now. I simply do not have a ticking biological clock. I do not feel like having a child. I want to write, even if writing is a lonely pursuit at times. It is the one thing that brings me huge joy. I am fairly good at being alone. I am a very sociable person and I love being around people too, but I have gotten Berlin nightlife out of my system and quite enjoy my own company at this point. I spend most Saturday nights alone reading, writing and editing and for the moment, at least, it makes me perfectly content.

I do feel sorry, however, for the women in their mid to late thirties who still really feel that they would like to have a family and are simply not finding men to help them fulfill this wish. We are still very much encouraged in our society to believe in family values and try to have a traditional family, when this model is now increasingly unrealistic.  It is a fact that one in two children are now born to single mothers and in nearly 40 percent of all American households the woman earns more than her husband. Men only completed 40 percent of Bachelor and Master’s Degrees in 2010 in the U.S. and more than 50 percent of Ph.D candidates are women. A serious change in gender relations is happening right before our eyes, and yet mainstream culture still romanticizes the fairy tale wedding and happily-ever-after model. I am not that cynical, and I still believe in finding love, but I also have realized that I have to be completely responsible for myself and my years of day dreaming that I would find a man to be at my side are over.

In her book, ‘The End of Men’ Hanna Rosin shows us statistics and stories of how difficult men are faring in our modern economy and how women are marching ahead in their careers. She talks about the collapse of industry in the United States and the recession that started in 2008 as being responsible for the huge number of unemployed American men. The new economy jobs are far more suited for women and many women simply do not want to date unemployed or underemployed men. They are too busy with their own careers to bother with it and find having such a man a burden, as harsh as this may sound (especially if they are single mothers with full time jobs). Many of Rosin’s data and anecdotes are interesting and enlightening but my main problem with her is that she is married and has three children, so I really wonder why she thinks she has such a right to make it her topic to discuss mass male unemployment and sexually frustrated career women. I am passionate about writing about single urban life, because I am single and lead an urban life. If I were happily married and had three children, on the other hand, I would probably stop banging on about it and write about something else entirely.

Hanna Rosin managed to upset quite a few men with her book too. One man who read the book after publication said that she completely misconstrued his interview with her. He had told her that although it was challenging at times, he was quite happy to stay at home with his children while his wife held a full time job. Rosin simply said that he found it quite challenging, leaving out the bit where he said he also found it fulfilling. Another man said that yes, he found it rather demoralizing that he lost his full time job in manufacturing and that he now had to depend on his wife, but did Rosin have to use the most depressing photo of him that made him look hangdog in a New York Times article about the book? Rosin shows that she has one characteristic that clever ladies are often accused of having and that is manipulation. Rosin can have her cake and eat it too. In other words, she can be married, have three children and still bang on about how hard a time all these poor women are having finding eligible men. I seriously think a single, childless woman is a better candidate to broach this topic.

On the topic of manipulative women, there is a scene in ‘For the Disconnected Child’ where a man is going completely crazy screaming at his new girlfriend. ‘Why, oh why?’ he demands of her ‘Does your relationship status on Facebook still say single, when mine has said in a relationship for the past 2 weeks?’ He goes crazy with rage at her accusing her of wanting it all and not really loving him. As he screams at her the whole scene reaches a crescendo along to the music of the Staatsoper chamber orchestra. It seems quite incredible that traditional German classical musicians from the German Staatsoper are playing their instruments alongside a man screaming at his girl about her Facebook status. What an astoundingly modern piece of theatre this is.

Of course to be a truly modern piece, ‘For the Disconnected Child’ should have touched on homosexuality. Berlin, like most big urban centres has a large gay population. They somehow overlooked this completely in the performance. I have many gay male friends in Berlin and I would be nothing without them. Some of them are my closest friends who I have known for years. I have closer and deeper bonds to them than to any heterosexual male. A few years ago, I was dating a guy who I was quite into, and one autumn afternoon I slipped on a slimy leaf, fell flat on my face and cracked my front tooth. The guy I was dating didn’t seem to really care about it and offered me no comfort. I knew then that he did not really care about me very much. It was my gay neighbour, however, who invited me over to watch a movie and cheered me up after this incident.

A few weeks ago another dear gay friend of mine who used to live in Berlin and who now lives in Spain visited me for a long weekend. We had a marvelous time together and he took me out to a lovely restaurant and bought me a huge bunch of flowers on the morning he left. It has been an awful long time since a straight man has done the same for me.

Yet another gay friend of mine is one of my closest friends in Berlin and I meet him every week. He is a writer too and we read and edit each other’s writing constantly. We provide each other with constant mutual support and feedback and I love him dearly. Apart from these three guys, I have at least another three dear gay male friends in Berlin who rank very high on my list of important people. I would imagine it is the same for many other single urban women too.

And what of the accusation that we many singles are all incredibly self-centred, narcissistic and solipsistic? Well, what can I say to this? Sure, I am a little self-centred, I am a writer. Aren’t most writers a little egotistical? I am now on word 4,142 of this essay. It is surely self-centred of me to take up all your time and presume you will read this far, but I am very happy if you take the time to do it. In fact, singles are not as self-centred as society would assume. We are well-connected and support each other constantly. We are very busy with interesting projects to help people all the time. I am a teacher, for one thing. Patience, caring and compassion are demanded of me every day. Many singles actually find married couples to be more self-absorbed, especially those who have children. Sure, we get that raising kids is a lot of work and demands a certain amount of tunnel vision for a few years, but my other single girlfriends also complain of feeling completely forgotten by their former girlfriends who are now married or have kids. So, what can you do? Mutual tolerance and respect of each other’s lifestyles and an open dialogue is essential.

Since writing my other extremely long essay on this topic a few years ago which I entitled ‘Musings on Modern Gender Relations’ I like to think that I have matured a bit more and have come to accept more who I am. I don’t beat myself up as much as I used to, and I am fairly content with my life. To be sure, I have my ups and downs and moments of desperation and irritation like everyone, but I somehow realize that I am on my path and still just trying to lead an honest life that makes me happy. Because in the end, I am the one who has to live with me and also learn to deal with long stretches of solitude which is the result of not having secured a man and gotten married. In ‘For the Disconnected Child’ they talk all about how horrible this silence can be in your single home. ‘The silence grows ever louder, oh take away this terrible silence!’ Learning to love the silence and using it productively is surely one of the biggest challenges of modern single life and I like to think I am getting better at it as I grow more and more used to it.

Photo of Schaubühne by Doris Antony

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