Eater of Trees

Relationship Performativity

Posted on: July 16, 2011

One of the common tropes about relationships that I’ve come across is that you’re supposed to do them in a certain way. Or that certain traits clearly are necessary to show you love someone, or a bit more often, that they’re indicative of romantic love, or just, coded as indicative of wanting a romantic relationship.

Many of these have nothing inherently romantic about them. There is probably some indication of at least some level of friendship, obviously, as they do tend to involve spending time and/or energy on another person, which, tends to be a clue of at least some sort of relationship.

An obvious example would be the concept of a date. This is significant enough to the concept of Serious Romantic Relationships as constructed by mainstream society that, in fact, the phrase “Person A is dating Person B” is interpreted as synonymous with a Serious Romantic Relationship.

At least as I have gathered,* a normative date seems to exist of arranging in advance with a person to go out and do something, more normative choices seem to be watching a movie or eating at a restaurant, or both. And some amount of formality is also normative, for example planning it in advance, putting some extra effort into looking nice, etc.

But there is nothing inherently romantic about formally arranging to go have a meal with a friend and dressing up, it is just as possible to do this with a nonromantic friend. And this by no means means that this is the only way to performatively date, either; planning to talk to a friend on IM and calling that a date, or going out for supper with a partner spontaneously because you’re bored is just as much relationship performativity, just a bit less normative.

There are of course other examples of relationship performativity. Examples coming to mind off the top of my head are such things as commemorating anniversaries, or Valentine’s day, or certain varieties of presents are coded as romantic, such as flowers or chocolate.

Nonromantic relationships are also performative, it must be noted. The tropes tend to be a bit less formalized and are treated as less Serious Business than romantic relationship performativity. Though for example I’ve seen going to bars together, or watching TV together coded as nonromantic relationship performativity, or doing something for Mother’s or Father’s day is often coded as child/parent relationship performativity.

This does further lead into an obvious way in which relationship performativity can become oppressive. In coding certain behaviors as expressions of a relationship, their absence can, in turn, become coded as absence of a relationship. For example, forgetting an anniversary could be read as a sign that you don’t particularly care about your partner, or not remembering to thank your friend when they take time for you could be read as being apathetic or uncaring about their support, and not, for example, a manifestation of ADHD, which tends to just result in terrible short term memory, and so such forgetting is a manifestation of a physical inability to consistently remember such things.

This can also lead to a situation where because a person does not feel they can fulfill performative relationship tropes that they feel that they are unable to have a legitimate relationship, for example a person with minimal ability to handle subtext or other varieties of normative flirting could feel that it is impossible for them to ever have a relationship at all.

The fact that relationship performativity can be oppressive does not necessarily mean that it, in fact, always is. Relationship performativity, especially when open to personal interpretation, can be an immensely valuable thing. Compulsory or exclusionary relationship performativity, however, can rapidly become extremely oppressive.

The concept of relationship performativity also ties into the deconstruction of relationship classification, as it is entirely possible for relationships that are not remotely romantic or sexual or other common tropes of Serious Romantic Relationships to be performative in ways coded as romantic, or for a person to have multiple performatively romantic relationships, or, on the other hand, it is entirely possible for romantic relationships to not be performative in the slightest, or for relationships that resemble close friendships in terms of performativity to be romantic in terms of the emotions present in said relationship. In short, there is nothing remotely inherent about relationship performativity tropes, and people should be free to choose or discard such tropes based on what works for that person.

*The closest thing I’ve ever done to a formal normative date was entirely nonromantic, and my relationships are more likely to involve mutual ranting about Judith Butler’s cissexism than dates, so I’m not necessarily the best at saying “this is how dating works!” based on my own experiences, though the tropes frequently show up in media, or have happened to my friends.

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4 Responses to "Relationship Performativity"

Not to mention I find conforming to these tropes to be utterly boring (in theory; I’ve never tried but they don’t sound interesting in the least).

Awesome post.

Yeah mostly I avoid normative relationship preformativity. (or normative preformativity period, really; that’s probably an autism thing.)

[…] Relationship Preformativity « Eater of Trees […]

[…] A poem. by me (Savannah Logsdon-Breakstone) Relationship Performativity and Deconstructing Mononormativity by Emily Emily Emily what is an indistinguishable when it’s […]

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