As Terry Pratchett's great sage Granny Weatherwax put it
'Sin young man, is when you treat people as things including yourself, that's what sin is.'
It's an unlikely reference to find in a book which appears from the outside to be a psychology text book, and yet that's just one of the 'spoonfuls of sugar' found in the book "Rewriting the Rules" written by Dr. Meg Barker, senior psychology lecturer and a founding member of BiUK (the same Meg Barker of recent 'Pink List' 2013 fame).
Yet in another way, it's only to be expected. Because the crux of her book is the comparison and juxtaposition of the current rules of gender, sexuality, love and attraction depicted in pop culture versus how they work in reality without society's imposition of what is viewed as 'normal' and acceptable. And normal - as we all know - means Sex And The City (with specific episodes and events highlighted to illustrate various case studies), Friends and plenty of Hollywood blockbusters thrown in (oh Mrs Doubtfire, how we love thee).
However those fizzingly light references are artfully mixed with some profound psychological insights, a dash of eastern philosophy and a few heavyweight quotes from Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre and Judith Butler. It's not just the big philosophers either...for those familiar with today's fish in polyamorous ponds, relationship scientist Bjarne Holmes, The Ethical Slut authors Eastern and Hardy, and More Than Two blogger Franklin Veaux also get a mention.
In fact the whole book is a dichotomous mixture of wisdom and self deprecating wit with serious clinical terms and sit-com humour. In this way it is far more palatable than other psychology text books. And yet it is still a reference book; because the uncomfortable truths which sit in it, need digesting more than once, and each chapter undermines many of our society's traditional rules (which with some expansion could have each been a book in themselves). Which means that it's no less valuable as a guidebook, but it IS a different kind of book. It does itself rewrite the rules of what we might expect from books. A single book dismantling self, and gender, and attraction, and monogamy, and love, and conflict, and break-up and commitment? Make no mistake, for the uninitiated this is not a cover to cover read; moreover unless you've been exposed to some non-normative thinking in the past, you may not even make it all the way through quite simply because it will challenge too many ideas at once.
And yet since the principle takeaway from this book
'is that clinging to the common rules too rigidly, often paradoxically, ends up with us being less likely to get what we were aiming for in the first place'
...the beauty in this book is that it may sit on your bookshelf for months and years before you dip into it again. And then only because in your misery over a 'failed' relationship you recall reading something about how break-ups can really be re-framed as positive change. Or perhaps having considered yourself heterosexual all your life a sudden surprising liaison with your same sex colleague will leave you guiltily bewildered until you check in with the 'sexuality and gender' chapter and read about how we all evolve, and change along a continuum for our entire lives.
Whilst I can truly say that if I had read this book during my youth (caged by my mind), I would have scorned it as a ludicrously over intellectualized and liberal piece of dangerous propaganda. But now in my 38th year I read it nodding along, unsurprised by its content and pleasantly comforted by some good analysis. In an ideal world I would have liked THIS book to introduce me to my medicinal philosophies that have been painfully swallowed through my own bitter (but enlightening!) experience because its language and style couch previously unacceptable truths in a respectable veneer of humble pedagogy. And had I read about those truths framed in the sugary language of Nick Hornby, Terry Pratchett and Frank Zappa the medicine would have gone down so much easier.
As it is, I hope that my recommendation of Meg's work helps others rewrite their rules more joyfully.
In her book "Re-writing the Rules" Meg Barker provides a refreshing, highly thoughtful and compassionate work that she describes as an "anti-self-help book". For Barker the starting point in developing more healthy relationships comes not via seconding guessing the manoeuvres of the desired "other", rather it comes via a relationship with self in all its complexity. Self is presented as both an on-going process of change and also as a plurality of differing aspects that dialogue with each other. Barker's insights are offered in spirit of openness and wondering-an attempt to explore the right questions rather than providing pat answers.
Part of the helpfulness of this work lies in the way in which the author focuses in on the nature of human relationships and current dominance of discourses around romantic intimacy. Barker skilfully weaves in both contemporary cultural references and philosophical acumen in critiquing the centrality of both heterosexuality and genitally focused intimacy. We are invited to move from a position of certainty and polarity, to one in which we seek to cultivate sensitivity to nuances and subtlety. Sexual minorities are not exempted from the danger of losing touch with our desires; the demands of identity politics often asking for a degree of labelling and certainty that some may feel less than comfortable about.
The structure of each chapter begins with a thoughtful reflection on the issues under consideration e.g. the rules of attraction, the rules of gender and then moves on to an exploration of the current set of beliefs that many of us find ourselves operating under e.g. "Relationships should be sexually and emotionally monogamous." Barker then gently begins a process of questioning and deconstruction that ask us to re-evaluate. Meg's own background in mindfulness practice and existential psychotherapy seem very evident during this process given the acute sense of awareness she displays and the degree of compassion towards self and others that runs throughout.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of this book is the depth of its meditation on the nature of friendship. The chapters on the nature of love and commitment rightly question the qualitative distinction that we make between how we relate to "Friends" and "Lovers". How might our relationships improve if we let go of the assumptions we make and unrealistic expectations that we often demand of those we have sex with?
Given the centrality of existential psychology within the book, themes regarding endings, loss and transition are thoughtfully and thoroughly addressed. Barker is highly aware that in times of pain we may naturally seek to retreat and defend ourselves, with this in mind she provides many helpful exercises and strategies with a view to developing greater presence, flexibility and compassion. As with the other discussions in the book, the aim of such work is not to prescribe a new "hipper", queerer orthodoxy, rather it seeks to explore how we might experience a greater sense of freedom, both for ourselves and those to whom we are connected.
I highly recommend this work to anyone interested in a philosophically and spiritually engaging examination in how we challenge and re-write the stories that we have inherited about how we "do" intimacy. Meg Barker has managed to produce a book that is at once contemporary, engaging and entertaining, while at the same time providing depth and vivid insight.
Has there ever been a time when it was harder to believe in a relationship that will grow with you and last the long haul? A time when who and what we want as a partner seemed less clear? Or a time when the pressures to conform to some glamourised ideal and for the partner we choose to do so too, has been greater?
These are questions that have enormous resonance in today's climate of "great uncertainty" about relationships says Meg Barker, senior lecturer in psychology at the Open University and a therapist specialising in sexual and relationship therapy. She addresses them in an original and challenging way in what she describes as an anti-self-help book "Rewriting The Rules".
Barker's contention is that we are led to believe there are rules that we abide by or else our relationships won't work. We are assailed with a ceaseless outpouring of guidance, strictures, morality often proposing confusing and contradictory rules about what relationships should be. Which adds up to uncertainty in an area of life with the highest risk of pain and distress although there is that ever present message that if you get it right transcendental happiness could be yours.
The pages of glossy magazines newspapers, TV, promote ubiquitous images of what a happy relationship looks like.
Most often this plethora of guidance and imagery relates to a traditional, heterosexual, monogamous style of relationship and we see ourselves as successes or failures depending on whether we make this rule-bound way of relating work.
In doing this we deny the possibility that a relationship which allows for same sex relationships, relationships where monogamy is not the bottom line, where we might. want a different way of allotting roles to different genders, can be as happy as the traditional Oxo family. Or happier, indeed, given that nearly fifty percent of marriages based on the 'til death us do part pledge, hit the skids. And on average after just eleven years.
Barker, in this intelligent, provocative book, asks us to consider the rule most of us buy into, that we must have a 'self' that matches the popular notions of desirable qualities, attractiveness and so on that make us loveable. If we fail to match up to the rules governing this demand, then how can we expect to be loved?
Likewise Barker with her humane intelligent approach takes us through the pressures and orthodoxies that ring fence what is good and bad, right and wrong regarding sex, gender,monogamy, conflict,commitment and suggests how we may re-think what are so often ingrained and unchallenged beliefs. Beliefs that make us strive to love by rules that may diminish rather than increase the chance of us having sustained, nourishing relationships.
This is a fascinating book, rich in research and reasoning, valuable in guiding us towards tolerating and even embracing uncertainty . Underpinning this, urges Barker, should be gentleness towards ourselves, our imperfections and fears.
The wonderful poet May Sarton declared on her eightieth birthday: "I am more myself than ever". And if we can learn from this timely book to take charge of creating relationships that area actually as we want, and learn from our own miscalculations, we may well be able to achieve that happy declaration far earlier in life.
Meg John invites the reader, to think about the rules of doing relationships, with ourselves and the people we share our lives with. They do so, in a gentle, yet innovative ways of understanding relationships. Whilst the path to self construction is/will inevitably be painful, the reward of acknowledging our freedom, empowers us to continue, to become, and to change—for the better. I will definitely refer to this, throughout my life.
Meg Barker puts forward an intelligent and convincing argument for reconsidering how we might approach love and relationships. She urges us to challenge the existing rules and embrace the possibilities of accepting uncertainty. If you're looking for 'The One' she would suggest there are many 'Ones', and asks us to nurture each of the relationships we have with people, as they can all be valuable in different ways. In doing this there will be less pressure on our 'Romantic' relationship and it will be more likely to succeed long term. Simple, but quite possibly effective.
This is an excellent book. Other reviews have gone into it's many good qualities extensively, so I just want to emphasise that it is easy to read, yet carefully constructed to lead you to think differently about love, sex, and relationships.