relational voyeurismIf anyone who has ever met me had to describe what I’m like, one of the characteristics they’d likely include is that I often talk about the actor Ryan Reynolds. Like, really often. Generally, it’s hard to get through a conversation with me without him coming up.

Why can I not shut up about him? Is it because I think he’s really that great? Well, no. While I consider him to be a smart, funny, beautiful man, I don’t really view him as anything other than someone I enjoy watching in films and following on Twitter.

So why do I annoy my friends, family, and students with comments about him constantly and post so many Ryan Reynolds news stories and pictures on my Facebook wall?

Because it distracts people from badgering me about my real romantic life.

relational voyeurismWith the exception of a handful of people, I rarely interact with others without the first question to me being about whether I’m dating anyone or a demand for a status report on a current relationship. This has always made me feel uncomfortable. I have no shame in anyone I’ve dated (well, okay, that’s not always been true), nor have I ever felt ashamed of being single. Rather, it’s other people’s urgent need to know about my private life as well as the expectation that there’s nothing more interesting or important about me to talk about.

Thus, as a teenager I developed the response of making a joke about whatever celebrity I most enjoyed at the moment to get a laugh and focus people’s attention elsewhere. I also do this because I’ve realized over time that these questions are usually not a thoughtful attempt to check in and see if all is well. Rather, as soon as others know anything about my private life, they seem to feel invited to make comments, ask even more invasive questions, and — most irritatingly — give advice about how I should be running the relationship they have no part in and very little knowledge of. To me, it’s relational voyeurism.

relational voyeurismWe see this with the success of dating shows such as “The Bachelor” franchise, which invite us to witness private moments in a couple’s relational development as well as judge the hell out of them, like we know what we are talking about. There’s nothing wrong with vegging out to shows like this, but for some reason, this habit doesn’t end when we turn off the television. Rather, it becomes normalized and a standard for how we are supposed to interact.

And science help us if people actually see us with a romantic partner and we aren’t performing the relationship the way they think is appropriate. For instance, I’m personally not a big fan of public displays of affection, so I often get told that I need to be more affectionate by outsiders. If we aren’t putting on a show, then we must be engaging in relationships incorrectly.

relational voyeurismThese expectations culminate to create my least favorite romantic performance ritual — weddings. Why do we need to spend a ton of money and perform a ritual to prove to other people that we care about whoever our partner is? Why is this the only measurement of affection and love?

Shouldn’t the important thing be that the person you’re with knows how you feel about them? Why does everything from finding a mate to deciding to stay partnered for the foreseeable future need to be a huge production? This is real life, not a romantic comedy. What is going on in your relationship is no one else’s business.

relational voyeurismI’m not saying that if you want to do these things — be affectionate in public, send someone a token of that affection, or spend all your savings on a wedding — that you shouldn’t. Rather, I’m saying that maybe we should all take a second to think about whether the action or need is genuine or if it’s a social script we’ve been taught and haven’t ever questioned. And are we acting a certain way because we think it’s what our partner really wants or because we think it is what others have told us we are supposed to do? Are we actually listening to their needs, or are we forcing the relationship to conform to social norms so that outsiders are satisfied?

The people I keep closest to me understand my needs and consider a “thumbs up” (or thumbs down) sufficient when they ask how my love life is going, and I appreciate them very much. For everyone else, I’ve got around 10 hours of pre-scripted material about Ryan Reynolds, his recent films, and his facial hair choices all ready to perform the hell out of for you.

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