Rewriting the Romance Script

many romances

Photo illustration by Mark Riechers (CC0)

Listen nowDownload file
Embed player
Original Air Date: 
February 13, 2021

We take a look at the romantic tropes of modern love and how they’re changing. Do the old dreams of true love and happiness ever after fit our new lives and new identities?

the new coffee date, on zoom

Living in this COVID-19 quarantine makes it especially tough for those looking for love, or at least a good date. But according to dating coach Logan Ury, there may be a silver lining to this enforced isolation — maybe even the jolt they need to break out of bad dating habits.

A man and woman share a plate of bacon.

There’s a popular joke on the internet whenever a gender reveal party goes awry or a wife complains about babysitting her husband: Are straight people okay? Author Jane Ward investigates.

A wall with the asexual flag colors

One of the first assumptions we make about a relationship is that it begins with sexual attraction. But what about desire without sex? Angela Chen explores the contradictions — and the possibilities — of asexuality in her new book.

Still from "Talking about Adultery" with a woman's exposed garter.

Filmmaker Bara Jichova Tyson had every reason to be cynical about romance after what she saw growing up under Communist rule. But it turns out love can come along when you least expect it — including while you're filming a movie about cheating and failed relationships.


Show Details 📻
February 13, 2021
February 12, 2022
February 11, 2023
February 10, 2024
Author and Behavioral Scientist
Angelo Bautista
Professor and Author
Journalist and Author
Full Transcript 📄

- It is "To the Best of Our Knowledge." I'm Anne Strainchamps, and today we're gonna talk about relationships and romance, because it's that time of the year. So let me introduce today's producer, Angelo Bautista. Hey, Angelo.

- Hi, happy Valentine's Day.

- Thank you. Same to you. Hey, Angelo, why did you wanna do this show about relationships?

- Well, I have been in a relationship for about six years now. His name is Matt. We first met in college, but he got a job and I still had school, so we ended up doing the long distance thing for about four years.

- Wow, that's a long time.

- Yeah. It was a lot of video calls and plane rides every month.

- Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to Flight 239 with service to Fort Myers.

- Four years of plane rides every month? I'm trying to calculate that.

- I haven't done the math, but I think it's over 100 planes.

- But now you guys live together.

- Yeah. In January of 2020, we finally closed the gap. And what do you know, two months later, the entire country shuts down. So I went from seeing him once a month to being stuck with him 24/7. Feel free to log off early if your workload allows. Keep going. Feel free to keep working, but you could stop if you want.

- If you're done with work, feel free to stop working. Oh.

- It must have been pretty different being together all the time, sharing the same space.

- It's been really difficult. I mean, as difficult as any relationship can be. But for the longest time I had this idea of what finally being together would be like, and now that we're together, I've realized, wow, I really don't know very much about being in a relationship. It wasn't a meeting. It was an interview. It doesn't matter. But she does she know what I do? Oh yeah, you told them.

- But you'd been together for four years. What didn't you know?

- Sometimes it feels like a relationship. Sometimes it feels like, oh, we are glorified roommates. What are we actually doing together? And I'm learning a lot about emotions and needs. Yeah, I don't know. It feels like trying to ride a bike again and I just never learned how to ride a bike. Your closet is a mess.

- It's been worse.

- Fair.

- Well, you know, in some ways I think everybody's going through something like this right now because all of our relationships changed. Some of us have suddenly spent 24/7 living together in a way that we were completely not used to, and some of us have been stuck living far apart from each other for many, many, many more months than originally intended. So I think in some ways everybody's kind of trying to figure out this new script of what does it mean to be in a relationship today.

- Have you fed Cleo?

- This morning?

- Recently.

- In the mid-morning.

- Okay. Yeah. So this got me thinking a lot about the kinds of assumptions and ideas and stories we tell about what love and romance look like. And for Valentine's Day, a day meant to celebrate love, I kind of wanna break down these ideas about dating, about commitment and sexuality, all the ingredients that make up relationships, and to try to rewrite the romance script.

- Okay, so as I mentioned, Covid-19 has already done a lot of that rewriting. Bars and restaurants are closed, so it's kind of hard to go on a date. Everyone's masked and staying six feet apart. And even if you did manage to find that someone's special, I'm pretty sure you're not supposed to kiss outside your quarantine pod. But as they say, love finds a way. Steve Paulson called Logan Ury at the dating app Hinge to confirm.

- Logan, I think a lot of people assume that the Covid lockdown has pretty much destroyed the dating scene these days, but that's not exactly true, is it?

- No, it's not. And you know, I had the same question. I was really wondering how are people going to respond to the pandemic, and are people gonna take 2020 off from dating? So there's been a couple of interesting things that have emerged from that. But I would say the biggest one is the rise of video dating. That's sort of the new coffee date. That's that chance to have this low-pressure vibe check and say, is this the kind of person I wanna see again?

- I was gonna ask whether there's actually an upside to dating on video. I mean, maybe it encourages, I don't know, deeper conversations. Maybe there can be a different kind of intimacy than you would have when you have all of that stuff going on when you're across the table for someone in the coffee shop.

- In terms of silver linings, a couple things I can point to. So one is, you know what, we hopped on a video chat, it wasn't great, and I was happy that I saved the $21 on the cocktails and didn't put on too much eyeliner, blah, blah, blah, right? So another really cool thing that we've seen is this intentional dating. And so that's people who started out the pandemic alone, quarantining, sheltering in place by themselves and said, I don't want this. I don't wanna be by myself. And so we've seen people in some ways become more selective and more self-aware, and then that's leading to better relationships. So this was the jolt to the system that a certain group of people needed to actually prioritize dating and relationships. And I think for that group of people, this has been a really helpful wake-up call.

- Yeah. So I wanna back up for a moment and talk about the dos and don'ts of dating more generally. Now, your job title at the dating app Hinge is Director of Relationship Science, which sounds pretty highfalutin, I have to say. What does that mean?

- I totally agree with you. Originally, there was a perception that, oh, love is this organic, natural thing and it can't be studied. But now the direction is relationships are the cornerstones of our lives, our health, happiness, and overall life satisfaction hinge on them. And so this whole field has emerged that studies attraction, connection, what makes relationships last, and then we basically research that and then help educate our users so that other people can learn from the people who have found success.

- What do you think are the most common mistakes that people make and how if you really are introspective about your dating history and what you're doing wrong, you can go in a different direction?

- The mistake that I see most often is that people are repeating the same patterns over and over again, and they're leading to bad results, but they don't realize it. And so there was this woman that I worked with named Maya, and she thought that love is something that happens to you. Love is something where you shouldn't put effort in or else it's not romantic, and that one day, you know, she would be at the farmer's market and she would reach for the perfect tomato, and the other guy would reach for it too and they would have this soulmate connection and everything would be easy after that. Maya is the type I call the romanticizer. They expect it to be effortless and for love to find them.

- Right. Can you give me one other story of sort of a different kind of mistake?

- Yeah, yeah. So then the second kind is called the maximizer. And this is definitely the people that I see the most in my dating coaching practice. This is a real quote from a client. "You know, I like my girlfriend and she has all these good qualities, but could I be 5% happier with somebody else?" And, I know, I mean, it does sound ridiculous, but I'm like, these are really the things that people say to me. And so this type of person, they love research. They're always going to Wirecutter and saying, what's the best wireless keyboard and what's the best spoon? And they have this idea that there is a total set number of people that they might date, and they need to turn over every stone, and only at that point when they're 100% certain can they commit to someone. They're terrified of settling, and they always think, what else better could be out there? And they don't realize that they've probably already dated somebody who could be a great partner. At a certain point, you just have to find someone and commit to them and make that relationship great. And the thing is, the maximizer is obsessed with the objective perfect choice. But what matters way more is how you feel about your choice, not making this supposedly perfect choice.

- And there's a third common mistake that you write about as well.

- Yes, and the last one, the hesitater, they have unrealistic expectations of themselves. These are the friends and the clients that say, "I'll date when I lose 10 pounds. I'll date when I have a more impressive job. I'll date when I have my life together." And they have this story in their head that one day they'll wake up and be perfect and then they'll be ready to date. And what they're doing is that they're underestimating the cost of not learning what type of person they're interested in, not experimenting. And most of all, not getting better at dating. And dating is like standup comedy. You cannot do it without an audience. And I don't know what you wanna call dating without an audience, but it's not dating.

- Right, yeah. Now you say that you think dating has actually gotten harder with all of the online dating sites, which sounds counterintuitive. You'd think that it's so much easier to meet people now, but why do you think that it's actually more difficult?

- I think for the average person, there's just so much choice and it's really overwhelming. And I really have people in their 20s and 30s that come to me and say, "I just wish that I was in an arranged marriage. I just wish someone else would make the choice for me. Like, I don't even think that I'm qualified to make this choice." And there's also this really interesting theory from Eli Finkel, who's one of the lead thinkers in the field of relationship science. He's at Northwestern, and he has this book called "The All or Nothing Marriage." And the idea is that the history of marriage actually mimics Maslow's hierarchy of needs. And so we used to marry for security, we used to marry for our basic needs, and then over time, with industrialization and everything, we started marrying for love. And then we were marrying for belonging. And now we are actually at the pinnacle of Maslow's hierarchy, and we are marrying for self-actualization.

- So this means that you wanna find a partner who helps you self-actualize, basically, who encourages you to flourish yourself.

- Yes, so the best marriages of today, the marriages that achieve that are better than probably any marriages in history. But that many people are also divorcing or ending marriages for reasons that our grandparents could never imagine. You just can't imagine somebody, you know, 80 or 100 years ago saying something like, "You didn't help me become my best self, and that's what marriage is for, and therefore I'm ending this relationship." And obviously, you know, there's a lot of reasons and no-fault divorces, and we can talk about the whole history of marriage, but just specifically what we expect to get from marriage and who we expect our partners to help us become, all of that is really different. And so you have increased choice that makes it hard to decide. You have increased expectations, which make the decision feel really stressful. And then once you're in the relationship, you have increased expectations of what that relationship will give you, which makes more of those relationships end.

- So I wanna back up for a moment. You've found your partner, you've been with this person for months, maybe years, but you're not sure this is the one, that this is your life partner. Do you have any advice on what to do at that point?

- Yeah, so I have a framework called hitchers and ditchers. Hitchers are people who stay in relationships too long because of the sunk cost fallacy. They say, "Well, I've already spent five years in this. I guess I should keep going." And just the status quo bias, right? We tend to prefer the path of least resistance. And so sometimes with those hitchers, it's about helping them understand that they've really tried for a long time, but they've outgrown the relationship. The other people are ditchers. And these are people who stay in relationships way too short. After the three- to six-month mark, that honeymoon period, they say, "Oh, you know, she has this imperfection, or he could be more ambitious." And then they just move on, and one kind of silly but fun thing that I ask these people is the wardrobe test question. And so I say to someone, if your partner were a piece of clothing in your closet, something that you own, what would they be? And answers that I've heard include, "My boyfriend is a wool sweater. It keeps me warm, but then it's itchy and I need to take it off." Or, "My boyfriend is a scrubby old t-shirt that I would wear to the gym, but I wouldn't want somebody to see myself in."

- So what is the item in your wardrobe that your husband represents?

- My husband is a pair of onesie pajamas that I have that I really love. They were a gift and they feel like wearing a hug. They feel like being home. Whenever I put them on, let's say like on a group trip or when we go to my husband's parents for Christmas, there's just something about it that sort of seems to be my essence, and it seems to delight people when I wear these like checkered onesie pajamas. And it's really my happy self, my at-home self, my supported self. And yeah, I just, I love wearing them and I love that that's how he makes me young.

- Logan Ury is the Director of Relationship Science at the dating app Hinge, and she's the author of "How to Not Die Alone." Steve Paulson talked with her. Coming up, are straight people okay?

- I do wanna talk about what you call the tragedies of heterosexuality. What is the tragedy?

- Oh, well.

- It's "To the Best of our Knowledge" from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. There's a popular joke on the internet whenever a gender reveal party goes awry or a wife complains about babysitting her husband, the punchline, are straight people okay? Here's Jane Ward.

- As a queer woman, I didn't know about this until I had a child.

- It's Dan Smith.

- Can we hear from the straight ladies in the audience? Straight ladies, where are you at? Straight ladies, straight, straight, straight.

- My wife and I started spending a lot of time with straight parents. These are the parents of our child's friends at school. So many of the straight women that I was interacting with seemed quite miserable.

- It's ridiculous. Straight guys, I don't know what you've been doing until now, but it is clearly not enough.

- And I found that this was kind of a common theme in lesbian standup comedy and just lesbian popular culture in general.

- How would I know that the girl I'm dating now until now has exclusively dated men? It is so easy to impress her.

- This question of are straight women okay, it really seems like straight women often experience a lot of suffering in their relationships.

- I ask her how her day went. She orgasms on the spot.

- And so it was this general conversation among lesbians about what on earth is going on for straight women that got me thinking about this project.

- Step it up, guys. Do whatever you've gotta do to take care of your ladies, because I don't have time for all of them.

- That project is Jane Ward's new book, called "The Tragedy of Heterosexuality," which caught the attention of our producer Angelo Bautista.

- I just wanna preface this by saying there are a lot of straight people that are gonna be listening to this, and I'm sure many of them have very wonderful, fulfilling relationships. But I do wanna talk about what you call the tragedies of heterosexuality. What is the tragedy?

- Oh, well, there are many straight people who have very fulfilling relationships. And there are many straight women who spend so much of their time complaining about their relationships. Marriage often benefits straight men in a way that it does not benefit women. So we see these enduring inequalities in the division of labor that women continue to do more of the household labor, more of the parenting labor, more of the emotional labor. And so when you kind of bring all of this together, you see that heterosexual relationships are often exhausting and unfulfilling for women. And this is not even to get into things like domestic violence and other really dramatic expressions of male power in those relationships. And so, there's a story out there about how it's so difficult to be gay or lesbian, or that being gay and lesbian makes for maybe a lonely life or depression, a life of discrimination. And I'm not trying to suggest that that's not the case for many queer people, but it's a story that I think is a kind of rhetorical habit that masks the fact that many of us are actually quite relieved to have escaped some of the miseries of straight culture, the predictability, the dissatisfaction, the boredom, the high rates of divorce, the antagonisms that just are quite normalized in straight culture and that aren't normalized in queer subculture.

- Hmm. So let's talk a bit more about straight men. How have straight men been hurt by modern heterosexuality?

- Well, one of the chapters in the book looks at pickup artists, or what's now referred to as the seduction industry, straight men who spend anywhere from $1,500 to $3,000 for a weekend of coaching, like a bootcamp on how to seduce women. And I did some ethnographic fieldwork, sat in on many of these trainings. And one of the things that really struck me was how miserable so many of these men were, how they felt that heterosexuality was not working for them, that the kinds of women that they could attract, they did not find attractive, that they had been led to believe that heterosexual success was part of their birthright as men, and yet it was not coming easily. And a lot of them had shame about that, a lot of grief about that. So one of the things that became clear to me in that space was that many men feel that the terms of heterosexuality have changed and that women have a lot of control over sex in particular, and that it's something that women can withhold from men, and that men are confused about what women actually want. These seduction trainers, at the time that I was researching them, they were offering emergency classes on the Me Too movement. And you know, emergency class on toxic masculinity, talking to these men about how can you possibly go out and flirt with women without being perceived as the very kind of figure that's now at the heart of the Me Too movement. And so I think one way that men are suffering as a result of straight culture is that they are finding heterosexual seduction and flirtation to be really fraught. And it is really fraught, and it's fraught because of patriarchy. You know, we tend to focus on the way that patriarchy and rape culture in particular hurts women, but it also does set men up to feel confused about what is acceptable behavior in flirtations with women, and what does it mean to actually do right by women.

- Hmm. We talked a lot about straight culture so far. I kind of wanna dig into that a little bit more because I think straight culture is just so fascinating, but at the same time, very boring and seems to lack imagination.

- Yes.

- Why is that?

- I think because one of its defining features is normativity. Many straight people are following a particular kind of script about what heterosexual success looks like. Through a queer lens we can basically predict exactly what hetero, you know, what a straight wedding is gonna look like, what the reception's gonna be like, what straight porn is gonna be like, because it's just all so deeply scripted. And in queer culture, there's a lot more that is unknown. Many of us came out and maybe had sex for the first time, and no one had ever told us what that sex was even supposed to entail. Many of us have genders that already break the rules in so many ways that it would be impossible to have an investment in being normal because we already know that we're not. And so what this means is that there's a kind of freedom, a kind of unchartedness that you often see in queer life that you don't see in straight life. This isn't to say that there aren't totally out of the box, very interesting straight people. Of course, of course there are. But it is to say that in general, queer people find the heterosexual script with so many of the rituals in particular that straight people celebrate, the wedding, the bachelor party, the gender reveal parties.

- The gender revealed parties.

- Exactly, to all just be suffocatingly predictable and boring.

- You write a little bit about, or I guess you write against the prevailing idea that sexuality is sort of hardwired into us and that we are born this way. How does that affect straight people?

- I mean, I think one of the ways that it affects straight people is that many straight people have been led to believe that to be a good ally to gay and lesbian people means embracing the born this way hypothesis that gay and lesbian people have no choice in their homosexuality. And that if we could choose our sexual orientation, of course we would choose to be straight. And so I've heard just countless gay and lesbian people rehearse that narrative, and of course, straight people hear that too. But when you think about it, it's actually a deeply heteronormative and kind of, I think, sort of self-hating narrative. You don't hear people of color commonly say, of course if I could snap my fingers and be white, I would, even though we know that racism is real and relentless in the lives of people of color, but we also recognize that there's so much beauty and joy and cultural richness in racial ethnic communities that we want to honor and that no one would wanna trade in. And similarly, I think we're sending the wrong message to straight people when we tell that story, because it's a story that communicates to straight people that we believe that their lives look better than our own lives. And as I hope I've made clear in this book, there's actually tremendous joy and pleasure in queerness. And so many queer people would never ever choose to be straight, and I'm one of those people.

- Thank you so much for talking with me. I have been thinking about this a lot. Actually, yesterday I was watching the movie "High Fidelity" with my partner, and the whole time I was just thinking about the main woman in this movie, Laura, I don't know how to pronounce the actress's name, but she's caught between John Cusack's character and this other guy. And I'm like, gosh, if she would just leave both of these men and just get with Lisa Bonnet, this would be a much better movie.

- Yes. Yes, exactly. Exactly.

- Jane Ward is a professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of California Riverside. Her book is called "The Tragedy of Heterosexuality," and that was Angelo Bautista talking with her. Whether you're gay, straight, or bi, one of the first assumptions we make about a relationship is that it begins with sexual attraction. Maybe that feels like butterflies to you or flushed cheeks, or being tongue-tied and awkward, but what if that feeling is entirely foreign to you?

- I first came across asexuality when I was in my teens, and at that point I didn't think it had anything to do with me. I saw the word and I saw the definition, you know, someone who is asexual, does not experience sexual attraction. And I was kind of like, oh, that's cool. It takes all kinds of people to make a world. And I just never thought about it again.

- Science journalist, Angela Chen.

- My friend Jane ended up driving from Baltimore to see me. And we were at a Burmese restaurant. We were just hanging out for the day. And you know, as we're waiting for our food, I say, "Jane, I have a question for you. What does sexual attraction feel like?" And Jane was a little bit surprised. She kind of stumbled on her words. "Oh, it's hard to explain." But she gave me some examples like, "I feel warm. I wanna be near that person." At the point that this happened, we were both around 24 years old. Jane was a virgin and had never had sex, and I was not. I was already in the middle of my second relationship. And even though she had never had sex at that point, she would speak about lust and libido in a way that in some ways felt foreign to me. You know, it wasn't about behavior. It wasn't about what she was doing. It was about the attraction she was feeling. It wasn't like a light bulb moment, but it was a moment where I was like, okay, I did have sex with my partners and I did want it. But it was for emotional reasons and psychological reasons. It was never for sexual attraction reasons.

- Desire without sex. Angela Chen explores the contradictions and the possibilities in her new book, "Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex." I love that story and it fascinates me, partly because I don't think I've ever asked myself, well, what does sexual attraction feel like? I mean, how do you know you don't feel sexual attraction? You must feel something. I mean, why did you choose those two boyfriends?

- And you know, that's one of the things that's so complicated about identifying as asexual or ace is that you're spending all this time being like, oh, I don't experience this thing that other people experience. And then you have to explain to other people what is it that you don't experience that they are probably experiencing.

- Which means you have to tell them what they're experiencing and then say yeah, that thing, I've never felt that.

- Exactly. And I think the way that I tend to explain it is that we are attracted to people for many reasons, right? You know, intellectually, emotionally, and aesthetically. One thing that aces do is that we separate sexual attraction from aesthetic attraction. And so there were so many factors that made me choose those partners. It's not like in the absence of sexual attraction, everyone looks the same to me. And that's one of the reasons why actually it was so hard for me to realize I was ace.

- So what did it change for you to say to yourself, "Huh, I think I'm asexual. I think I identify as ace."

- I think it explained some experiences that I'd already had in my life and made them legible. You know, my friends always used to make fun of me about saying, you can never tell when someone's flirting with you. But I think on a bigger level, it started to have me think so much about what I call compulsory sexuality, which is this attitude that's very present that every normal person experiences sexual attraction. And that if you don't experience it, then there is something wrong with you. And I think that that message really affects people in different ways. One person I interviewed actually grew up in a very religious environment. And so at first it was very easy for him to be part of purity culture. But then after he was married and he realized that sexuality or having sex was not what everyone promised, it was actually very hard for him because everyone was saying, "It's amazing, it's God's gift." And he was thinking, "What is wrong with me that I cannot enjoy it?" So even in spaces where purity culture is very strong, we can see compulsory sexuality. And that is an attitude that affects many people regardless of whether you actually identify as asexual or not.

- So what does it feel like to fall in love and to feel passion for somebody else if it's not sexual passion? If there's not sexual attraction?

- I think it's, you know, a lot of love and attachment and caring. I think it's also aesthetic attraction. I would definitely say I'm aesthetically attracted to my partner. I think it's also infatuation or limerence. And even as I say that, these are all things that you can find in friendship, right? At one point I was doing this thought experiment and thinking about my feelings toward my friend Jane, which are not romantic feelings, and my feelings toward my partner, which are romantic feelings. How are they really different? I think that when you have a romantic partner, the stakes are higher. And I think that there's a lot of other emotional baggage that comes with it, but at the core, I'm not entirely sure if it's really that different. I think that we are encouraged to experience these emotions very differently because there are all these rules and assumptions about the role of a platonic friend and the role of a romantic partner and what is appropriate to feel toward one, and what is appropriate to feel toward the other other. And so many scripts pressure us to elevate romantic love above other kinds of love.

- And so then, what is the cost for people? I mean, it only matters to open this up and to begin to try to name some of these differences if you feel like by not naming them, somehow people are suffering. So where is the pain?

- I think the pain is when there are relationships or feelings that don't fit into one of those rules, I think that can create a lot of confusion and a sense that the relationship is not legible. For one example, two people who are of the same gender, who are very close, oftentimes there's this kind of implication, this joke like they're secretly gay for each other. Even the people themselves might be like, "Am I secretly sexually attracted to my friend? I don't even know." Or often people will have a friendship and they'll say, "What is this?" I think it's very uncomfortable for people. I think that creates confusion. Confusion about what it means, what it means about you, and possibly your sexual identity, what you should do regarding your current constellation of relationships. And I think that when you can try to stop thinking about things so much in the, is it romantic, is it platonic? And more in the sense of what do you actually want from this relationship, that gives us more self-clarity and more of an ability to design the types of relationships we actually want.

- Yeah, there are so many different roles people can have in our lives. We have remarkably few words for them. You know, few categories. Are there new words and new vocabulary for relationships that you can imagine?

- Absolutely. One word that came out of the asexual community is the word queer platonic. And it was created in 2010, so fairly recently as words go, by these writers who were frustrated with the way that romantic love was the center of everything, it was almost like a way to get out of the trap of language. If I say this is my friend, you both have these implicit expectations and baggage about what a friend means and how much you're supposed to see a friend and how much is too much. And if you say, I have a romantic partner, you both, even if you don't want to, have these conscious ideas or unconscious ideas of what it means to be a partner, but if you say, "This is my queer platonic partner," nobody knows what that means. There's no assumptions there.

- It's like, we're just off the map.

- Yeah, you're just off the map. And when you're off the map, then you can start to create them. You get to decide, here's what it means to be queer platonic partners. Here's what we are to each other. Instead of having to kind of work against the expectations that are already there when you have terms like friends, romantic partner.

- So what does all this mean for marriage then? We confer rights, you know, legal rights and privileges to romantic partners, but not for other types of relationships, not for friendships. Is that discrimination?

- I think that there's a way in which it could be better. And I am happy to say that I am stealing this argument from a philosopher named Elizabeth Brake who writes about this extensively. And people receive, as you said, a lot of rights for being married. And I think that the implication there is that there's an element of romance or sex elevates the importance of the relationship. The joke that people often like to make is that you can marry some random stranger and give them healthcare, but you can't marry your mother even though you might love your mother more, you can't marry your sister. You know, there's so many embedded in marriage is the idea that marriage itself, the qualities of that kind of love are more important than the care that you may receive from other people in your life, relatives, chosen family. And I don't think that's true. There have been legal arguments made that the rights that people receive in marriage should be available for all people who mutually want to join a union, regardless of whether it's a romantic union, regardless of whether it's a sexual union. I'm sure there's many logistical holes there that I will leave to the legal scholars to figure out. But I think philosophically that idea is very compelling. There are so many ways to receive mutual care and affection that are not just romantic relationships and marriage.

- Angela Chen is the author of the book "Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, And the Meaning of Sex." Coming up, 46% of men and 21% of women report cheating on their partner. That's more than half of us. Maybe it's time to rethink monogamy. It's "To the Best of Our Knowledge" from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. Think back to your eight-year-old self. What did you think being in love was?

- It's hard to explain, but the thing is, if you're in love, it means like you really, really like someone on the inside. You feel like kissing them. And when you break up, I guess that's called a love crack.

- There's a kind of love crack we don't talk enough about, infidelity. That's from "Talking about Adultery," a new movie by the Czech filmmaker, Bara Jichova Tyson. She's an an old friend of producer Charles Monroe-Kane. They lived in Prague at the same time and he caught up with her when he heard she had a new film out.

- It's funny because you say in the film at one point that, something I found really powerful, and maybe this goes back to your time I guess as a mistress, is adultery is boring, but betrayal is interesting.

- Mm-hm.

- That seemed mean to me.

- Well, I think that's part of the subject because I think it's such a fascinating subject. It is about adultery, but really it's about so many other things, like who you really are and what's your point of view on the world and yourself and your relationship and other people. And I think that adultery, it's such a loaded subject.

- Yeah.

- And if it happens in your relationship, it's real tragedy. But I think betrayal can happen in any kind of part of your relationship or to yourself too. You can betray yourself. You can betray other person.

- I understand like I can betray my wife and she can betray me in many, many different ways. But one thing that was clear in the film, especially in the beginning, is like sex. If I betray you by stealing money or I betray you this way, but if it comes to sex, that's the deep thing. Adultery, I think by definition, if you asked a million people on the streets, adultery has to do with sex. It doesn't have to do with anything else.

- Yeah, yeah, yeah. And that was one of my questions for myself. Like, why does sex make such a huge difference? Because actually this relationship, when I was in that relationship, you know, it was kind of a friendship with the sex, like a bonus part. And he loved his wife and he had his family, and I just, I fought in the beginning like, why is this not possible? Why? You know, the marriage is something else than relationship, like secret relationship between two lovers.

- Yeah, but if say you and your friend didn't have sex.

- Yeah.

- But had a relationship, would that have been adultery?

- Right.

- And if it is adultery, how come no one defines it that way? Like, what would I be more upset with, if my wife had a one night stand with somebody and didn't tell me, or if she had a very deep relationship with a man that was based on friendship, that was intimate on that level, which would bother me more? And I was really upset that the sex part would bother me more, 'cause that's dumb.

- Oh really?

- Yeah, and that's dumb. Well, why would I think that? Like, why in the world I should be jealous by the friendship, right?

- Yeah, I mean, I feel like, there is one way is to be like very philosophical about it and you have your theory and then it happens to you. And I think that's a very different feeling. And I think a more gut feeling, not very intellectual endeavor.

- Right. I'm in an open relationship until my partner sleeps with somebody else.

- Yeah.

- Really, adultery only exists if you have the relationship to start with. So the question is, what is marriage? And it seems like people just assume by society's standards and definitions what marriage is gonna be and they just live by it though. It seems like people when you were talking to them, they're gonna stay in that marriage for 20, 30 years even without having sex with each other.

- I know.

- That's what they're gonna do. And it's like, what is marriage then?

- Yeah, and why don't you allow somebody else, you know, why don't you allow your husband to have a lover or your wife if the marriage is a friendship, right?

- Right.

- It's like we like own the other person or something like that. I mean, I haven't met, and this was a little bit of my search too, I haven't met that many couples that I really looked up to.

- Oh wow.

- Yeah, and I just didn't know why. And I did actually met few through my life, you know, like thinking, I wanna have this when I'm old. But I met mostly people who were somehow sad or dissatisfied, but not just maybe with a marriage but also with themselves.

- This is shame. People feel deep shame.

- Yeah. That's interesting, right? Because society imposes this marriage is monogamous, or maybe the new generation, they thing of it a little different. So maybe you feel shame because of that. Would you feel shame if you are allowed to have multiple partners? I don't know. Or maybe you feel shame because you are a liar.

- So let me ask you another question about yourself if you don't mind. You of course grew up in the former Socialist Republic of Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic. And I'm wondering how living under communism, basically your whole young life, how does that affect all this?

- My grandfather was a communist general and he was really brainwashed. He believed in it so much. And funny enough, he had a affair for 10 years with his secretary and he was the one who really fought like the truth, the honesty, that all matters, and we have to all be like that. And then he betrayed himself and he betrayed these ideas. And it was just all, I experienced it all as a child. So I didn't really understand it. But it was a big drama in the family.

- Mm-hm. As you know, I also lived in the former Soviet Union, with you, as a matter of fact. And one thing I viewed from a lot of my friends who were teenagers or young 20s when communism ended is they really struggled with trust because their neighbors were spying on them. And there were so many issues. It's so horrible the experience of communism for everyone I knew who lived under it. And everyone to me all fought this thing that you just assumed everything was gonna be the worst 'cause you had experienced that your whole life, right?

- Yeah, but also you're like kind of trained by the system that there is nobody to be trusted. You do not trust people. So imagine you grow up in that and then you don't trust your partner and you don't trust your parents and your parents don't trust their friends. And this is just kind of the climate of like every relationship you experience. And I don't think you can build a good marriage on that. Or a friendship. I think trust is like the one thing that is the most valuable. I think people's lives, I really think that.

- Yeah. You know, and of course the wall comes down, the Velvet Revolution happens, and you're quote-unquote free.

- Yeah.

- And I would say the one thing I also experienced from a lot of young Czech people is that desire became free. Something that wasn't free before. So how does that then affect people when suddenly the wall comes down, you can go crazy and then your freedom becomes your desire?

- Yeah, your freedom becomes the desire and then you don't also trust anybody, and it's just a terrible mix. No, no.

- Right, it's a terrible mix. Oh no.

- I know, I know.

- No wonder none of my relationships worked out I had with women there when I first moved there. I had terrible dating experiences. I think for that common there.

- You were, yeah, I could see that. I could see that.

- You know, it's funny how we go back to your film. So I'm watching the film, I'm really into it. It's really arty and then suddenly the film goes blank and there's some text messages pop up on the film. I was like, what? It was between R and B. Tell me who's R and B.

- Okay, so the text cards are these passages of two people exchanging messages, and those are two characters. One is really me, B, and R is my husband, now my husband, and he is challenging me about the film through the film. And we are having this like intellectual conversation about my past, about the ideas, what the film's supposed to be. But it's based on real events because I did met my husband through this film when I was looking for my subjects, I was looking through friends, I was posting online. And one ad I had was on a dating site and I met him and he was single. He wasn't married.

- Well, wait. You met your current husband while making this film on a dating site 'cause you wanted to interview people on a dating site.

- Yeah.

- That's romantic actually. I like that.

- I met few people on the dating site for my film, like as the subjects. But yeah, he was big part of the film process and we talked about it all the time and we talked about his ideas and about adultery and what does it mean.

- So you're making this film on adultery, which is a pretty deep film. I mean, you're getting really deep into some of these issues. You're in the midst of it, you're making, it's probably very stressful. You fall in love.

- Yeah.

- You fell in love while making a film about adultery.

- Yes. This relationship kind of transformed my idea of what, you know, love or trust can be. And I was always experiencing relationship as stars like fireworks and kind of goes down the hill a little bit later. And this wasn't like that, but I have a whole lifetime of experiences and he did too. So we were didn't know how is it gonna go.

- I have to ask you a question, of course. Before the film was made, did you believe in monogamy? Is that something you believed in before you started making the film? And then did that change in the making or from falling in love?

- I didn't really believe in monogamy, but again, I come from, you know, Czech Republic and I think the relationship between men and women is a little different there. So yeah, I thought like of course everybody cheats on their partner. That's how it is. So, my starting point was, okay, if everybody cheats, despite of that, how can you have a good relationship? And I don't think that anymore. I feel like you're attracted to other people through your life, pretty much almost everybody probably is, but if you act on it or not, I think it's a choice and you can make that choice. I don't think you just fall in love walking on the street, that you sleep with that person five minutes later. You know, it's like you're making a choice. And I think you have time to think about that choice.

- Hmm.

- And if you have a good partner or somebody you really value and important to you, you can hopefully talk about it. I don't know.

- In the end, I want to go back to a question that you asked the child, the literal first second of the film. And I'm very interested in the question, but I wanna know your answer. And that's, what is love? Like what is it?

- Love is to me trust. Like 100%, not 90%. You know, like you don't keep your little back door open. But, yeah, I don't know. I feel like I didn't have that for maybe never. And also--

- Wait, wait. You said you didn't have that before?

- Yeah, I feel like this whole like real trust that you love somebody and they love you back for who you are and you trust that. I think something like that. Maybe something pure that you experienced as a child. As we get older and we have our traumas and experiences and dramas, we harden, and I always felt love is something that I was hoping that's something that's as pure as when, you know, you're not hardened yet.

- Hmm.

- So I hope I have that now.

- Bara Jichova Tyson is a Czech artist and documentary filmmaker based in New York and Prague. Her first feature film is called "Talking About Adultery," and that was Charles Monroe-Kane talking with her. And that's it for this hour. Happy Valentine's Day. Let's use it to celebrate all the people we love, whoever they are. "To the Best of Our Knowledge" comes to you from Wisconsin Public Radio in Madison, Wisconsin. Angelo Bautista produced this hour with help from Charles Monroe-Kane, Shannon Henry Kleiber, and Mark Rickers. Our technical director and sound designer is Joe Hardtke. Our executive producer is Steve Paulson. I'm Anne Strainchamps. Be well and join us again next time.

- PRX.

Last modified: 
February 08, 2024