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How much of our relationships are defined by us?
And if not us, what are they defined by?
I was scrolling on Facebook the other day, as one does to dull the pain of being alive in this nightmarish hellscape we call modern society, and came across a prompt in one of my groups that I found intriguing.
“I found a nomad soulmate, then I realized he/her _____.”
It was one of those open-ended prompts meant for quirky and/or pithy replies intended to provoke a chuckle or a sense of “heh, that is/was me.”
I decided to share my own reply:
I found a nomad soulmate, then I realized we are constrained by the limits placed on us by capitalistic society.
Sounds cheeky, but let me explain a little.
We often think of capitalism as an economic system, perhaps even political, but rarely do we consider just how much impact capitalism has on our lives.
My perspective is that capitalistic society impacts us beyond just the economic aspects of our lives.
For some context, I saw that prompt fresh out of a 5-hr long deep conversation with my ex. We hadn’t seen or talked with each other much in the past 4 months since our relationship ended and with all that time and space, we were able to have a (painful, yet much-needed) discussion about why things didn’t work out.
One of the main takeaways from the conversation (for me), was that neither of us had wanted a traditional, cis-gender, heteronormative, exclusive relationship with the other, yet somehow, that’s exactly where we ended up. Partly that was because we didn’t know what we did want from our relationship. The other part was that dominant narratives about how (romantic) relationships should be are all pretty much the same, and center cis-gender, heteronormative, monogamous relationships as the “baseline”.
We didn’t have an alternative model to follow, and we didn’t know enough to create our own, so we ended up with something neither of us wanted or liked. Sad story, but it is what it is.
I hear you asking, but what does capitalism have to do with any of this?
Let’s go back a few centuries, before capitalism took root in our societies1. Most of human society was organized in communities and people generally didn’t view consumption and amassing material wealth as their ultimate goal. Yet, somehow here we are in modern society where people are obsessed with buying new things, keeping up with the Joneses (or the Kardashians), and generally view themselves as separate from their fellow humans. Here, we start to notice that capitalism has changed societies.
Under capitalism, we’re encouraged to buy more, to use more, to consume more - because more is always better. Yet, living in collective communities, doesn’t promote this need to buy/use/consume more.
For example, imagine you needed a vacuum cleaner to clean your house. Would you go out and buy one if you know your neighbor down the street had one they would gladly lend you to use? And because they lent you their vacuum cleaner, would you not pay it forward and lend your other neighbor your lawn mower when they needed it? And would they not in turn, then lend neighbor #1 their electric chainsaw to remove the dead tree in their yard?
So now among the three of you, you have one vacuum cleaner, one lawn mower, and one electric chain saw – and all of your needs are met.
Capitalism sees this, and decides – isn’t it better if each of you has a vacuum cleaner, a lawn mower, and an electric chain saw? That’s nine things we could be selling nine instead of just three, we’re losing out on a profit of six items!
So it sets out to sell you the idea that each of you is an individual, no longer part of a community. It’s in all kinds of messages we receive - on TV, on the radio, ads, movies, books, everywhere we turn. We don’t notice it, but we start to believe that we are no longer part of a larger community, that we are individuals.
And we start thinking, oh no, I can’t possibly borrow a vacuum cleaner from my neighbor, I must have one for myself.
And so our communities become fractured into ever tinier parts.
We start seeing the prevalence of the idea of a nuclear family unit. It is (thus far) the smallest viable unit2 by which to separate ourselves. A cis-gender, heterosexual couple with 2.5 kids, a dog, and a white picket fence (to keep the neighbors separate from ourselves, of course).
25 people organized as one community has a much smaller consumption (of vacuum cleaners, lawnmowers, and chainsaws among other things) than 25 people organized as 5 families. For a system driven by the idea that “more is better”, it is easy to see why communities are deprioritized and the nuclear family unit is promoted.
To this end, romantic relationships start being valued over all other kinds of relationships - over friendships, over parent-child relationships, over relationships between siblings - because the romantic relationship is the foundation for a nuclear family unit, the smallest viable unit to promote maximum consumption.
And so that becomes the dominant narrative that we see everywhere we look - 1:1 partnered (married!) couples who view each other as their “other half” (soulmate?) and behave as if they own each other. Ultimately putting a ton of pressure (burden?) on one other person to be their “everything”.
How can one person be someone else’s everything?
How can one person be expected to fulfill every single need of the other person - and expect the same in return?
Is it not inevitable that such a staggering amount of pressure, expectations, and stress placed on this “special” relationship with one other person ultimately crumbles and fails?
Or, when one of those two people chooses to opt out of this “agreement”, there is inevitably a huge sense of betrayal, loss, and pain - again, leading to the collapse of the relationship?
All this… because capitalism wanted to sell us more vacuum cleaners.
Well, I suppose that might be an oversimplification of things. But I hope you see a little bit of what I’m getting at with this.
Of course, this is a much bigger and more nuanced conversation that I can hope to cover in a short post like this, but I think that opening ourselves up to seeing the ways in which things bigger than ourselves impact us is an important part of living better lives.
How we think of and treat and manage relationships (not just romantic ones) is so highly dependent on external forces that we have hardly any control over.
That said, even in this context, we can choose to exist differently. We can choose to define our relationships on our terms. And maybe not expect one person to be our everything, our soulmate, our media naranja.
I don’t know what relationships should look like, I definitely don’t have a template for navigating them. But I guess the first step is maybe just being open to the idea that things could be different.
I don’t know. I’m just on a journey to figure things out - and to figure out how best I can exist within these systems that are designed to produce certain effects/outcomes from us, while simultaneously dreaming of, exploring, and creating alternatives that feel better for me (and us all).
What do you think? Is the role of capitalism in your personal life something that you’ve even considered? Is it something you’re thinking about now? Am I just batshit off my rocker?
If you are keen to continue the conversation, hit reply and say hi. I'm always eager to chat with people who want to expand their lives beyond just what we’ve been told to expect from it and to dream up better futures for us all.
P.S. There’s going to be a follow-up to this post about some of the responses I got to my comment so hit subscribe if you’d like to read that when it comes out.
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I don’t have specific data here and I don’t feel like looking them up to prove my point, so you could even consider this a little “thought experiment” if you aren’t convinced of the premise of this.
Individuals would technically be the smallest viable unit, and with some things, yes it is important to have our “own shit” but humans are still creatures of community, and the nuclear family unit is the smallest collective possible.