Rewriting the Rules

Our contributor Meg Barker’s book, Rewriting the Rules, is out this week, published by Routledge. Rewriting the Rules provides an alternative to the many self-help books about relationships by locating relationship difficulties in the cultural messages which people receive rather than in their individual psychology or biology. In addition to this, the focus is on questioning and exploring various possible rules of love, rather than putting forward one single set which will work for all people and relationships. The book examines the rules around attraction, love, sex, gender, monogamy, commitment, conflict, break-up, and the ways in which we treat ourselves. In each chapter dominant social rules are considered, and there is an examination of the ways in which these might be challenged, the alternatives that various groups have put in place, and what it might be like to move beyond a rules-based model. Drawing on interdisciplinary research on love, sex and relationships, Rewriting the Rules aims to be both academically informed and accessible to the general reader.

Routledge link:

Meg’s blog:

A review of this book by Michael Gratzke:

“Meg Barker’s Rewriting the Rules: An integrative Guide to Love, Sex and Relationships has been published by Routledge under the banner ‘Psychotherapy/Self-help’. The author is indeed ‘a therapist specialising in sexual and relationship therapy’. (She is also a senior lecturer in Psychology at the Open University). The book comes – therefore – with excellent credentials. No online doctorates here. The author is a bona fide expert in her field, not a jumped up journo dabbling with people’s feelings whilst making a quick buck.

The twist – however – is that the book comes flagged by the author as an ‘anti-self-help book’. All chapters of the book are divided into three sections outlining the ‘rules’, introducing ‘alternative’ rules, and finally challenging the reader to embrace the ‘uncertainty’ of not following any set rules.  Instead we are invited to embark on some self-reflective thinking – aided by a small number of  written exercises or drawing tasks some readers may find bemusing, others helpful. Incidentally, the drawings interspersed in the text (by the author herself?) add an unusual DIY flavour to a book by such a prestigious publishing house.

The reader’s journey starts thus with a small number of first assumptions about people: according to Barker, a person is not a singular, static entity but always in the ‘plural’ and in flux. We are different people in the way we relate to different people and we are not the same today we were ten years ago or will be in ten years from now. If you accept this you have suitably limbered up to for some thought-provoking claims about love, sex, gender, monogamy, conflict, break-ups and commitment. Meg Barker makes you question commonly held beliefs about all of these. Why should romantic or erotic love be held in higher esteem than love for your siblings or friendship? Why do so many of us seek the One True Eternal Love when all the evidence points at love being plural both in time (serial partners) and in space (the prevalence of non-monogamous relationships)? Do love and sex have to coincide in a romantic relationship? Is it OK to seek sexual gratification or even emotional validation outside your main relationship? After all many people do.

The author slips queer-feminist thought from controversial writers such as Gayle Rubin and Judith Butler into mainstream relationship therapy and due to a lack of jargon it may very well make sense to a lot of readers who would usually not have engaged with such a radical approach to gender roles and the way we love. Compulsory (heterosexual) monogamy is the ideal propagated by conventional self-help books and psychology textbooks. Barker – on the other hand – contests that any relationship style (conventional or not) can get too tightly controlled by rules. Her acceptance of non-monogamous relationships may startle many readers; the lesson to be learnt is however to ask questions about the rules which we allow to govern the way we think about ourselves and our loved ones, not blindly to accept that other lifestyles were somehow better.

In the latter part, the book moves on to more technical and less surprising advice about dealing with relationship conflicts: they are completely normal. Try to communicate well, take time out when needed, always see your partner as human and aim to understand the full picture by putting yourself into their shoes. There may come a time when the negative behavioural patterns in a relationship cannot be overcome any more. You and your partner should accept that. Breaking-up is common and should not become part of a negative inner monologue. Don’t go through your life blaming yourself or others!

If there is any criticism to be levelled against any part of this book, it would be that the section on common wedding vows, which Barker dissects on a linguistic and ideological level, does not take into account that to many people who get married the vows may just be part of the public ritual. How literally do we really take these words? Women today often don’t use the traditional promise ‘to obey’ any more but many other phrases in these vows have been handed down to us and may not mean very much in married life.

Throughout the book the author challenges her readers to question the social rules governing the ways we see ourselves, we see others, especially the ones we love, and the ways in which we are supposed to experience this love. In the final chapter Meg Barker nevertheless offers her own ideas on fulfilling romantic relationships. These include being emotionally available (‘being present’), being tolerant of our partners and their needs and feelings (‘flexibility’), being compassionate, and to preserve as much as possible the ‘freedom’ of our partners to make their own choices. As a feminist, the author is after all mindful of power imbalances in relationships caused by differences between genders, generations and income levels. Having read her book, though, many readers will find that Barker’s mix of provocation and sound advice is a liberating experience.”

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