Fairy tales, Bollywood and Hollywood movies, and even contemporary stories all seem to end with the promise of “and they lived happily ever after.” As a child, I was intrigued and enchanted by such fairy tales. As a young woman, I would seek towers from which to let down my hair (which wasn’t easy, I can tell you, since my hair barely touched the nape of my neck, but I was confident my prince would manage).
As a grown woman, having observed relationships between men and women, I have grown disgruntled with that misleading fairy tale ending. It seems to me that many women do marry men with the expectation of living happily ever after, but eventually find that happiness is far more elusive than the stories make out, no matter how wonderful and attractive the man may be. Don’t get me wrong—I am not saying that women close their eyes and leap blindly into relationships. I am, however, calling into question the promise of love and happiness that is implied or overtly stated at the beginning of any romantic relationship.
My friends in relationships with men describe both minor and terrible violations of that promise: from husbands requiring their wives to seek permission from them before picking up the phone (“he gets upset if I talk to my friends”); to husbands or boyfriends telling their partners to “get out,” to leave the house, sometimes subjecting them to verbal or physical abuse. I have also heard two other important dissatisfactions among friends: many men’s lack of knowledge of how to please a woman physically, and men’s inability to hold a woman’s heart in trust.
There often seems to be an imbalance of “rights” and “expectations” between men and women in relationships. And sometimes it has to do with how a boy has been raised. If boys learn from their parents that women can be treated like property, women who do not consider themselves anyone’s chattel will rightfully rebel, leading to unhappy and unsustainable relationships.
Over the years, I have been acutely interested in what makes relationships work and what leads them to fail, and I have found a critical element that unravels even the most passionate of relationships over time: the failure of communication. This is something about which men and women are generally not taught by their families, in schools, work places, or by the popular media. Communication of expectations, communication about conflict and resolution, and the manner in which communication is conducted are vital issues for any relationship. For communication to occur, there has to be a willingness to listen on the part of both parties. Preceding that is the necessary characteristic of humility. Communication is one of the things I hear women of all ethnic backgrounds seeking when they tell me they wish to be respected as equal partners in their relationships.
Without the censuring presence of a prying society, what would more women honestly say about their current and past relationships? How would they rate those relationships in terms of how satisfactorily they meet their needs? What do women most frequently complain about? What do they think men should do to enthrall them, to keep passion alive over the course of many years?
What are the skills that men ought to have to keep women engaged physically, so they look forward to the prospect of sex, rather than dread it as an inevitably one-sided, selfish act? I wonder how many men know that sex is not equivalent to intercourse?
While men understandably don’t instinctively know about women’s bodies (until taught somewhere down the line by a woman), men, especially in South Asian and other largely patriarchial cultures, often feel an entitlement that makes me uncomfortable. A dear friend’s husband once confided in me that his wife just doesn’t like to have sex. “It drives me crazy,” he said, “Sometimes I think I’ll go insane.” I knew there had to be more to it than that; my friend is a very spontaneous woman, ready and willing to give love and be loved. I asked her about it, and her response was simple: “It is always forced.”
I went back to her husband, and asked him if he had been paying attention to her pleasure at all. He said he just didn’t know how. Even if a woman is married to you, I told him, it does not mean that she has to gratify your sexual desires; she is not obligated to do so, just as you are not “obligated” to do so. That exchange and my own experiences have convinced me that the last frontier of feminism is in the bed: Whose pleasure is the focus in a sexual relationship?
Happiness is not a passive consequence of the act of marriage. This is my frustration with “and they lived happily ever after.” Happiness, pleasure, and fulfillment take a lot of work, very difficult work: being present and loving during conflicts, keeping your heart and mind open, and building constant resolution-oriented communication and fairness into every relationship.
Women are the fabric of society—we are sisters, mothers, friends, daughters, and wives. Each woman is unique in the way she thinks, laughs, reads, and walks the globe. In keeping women happy, laughing, satisfied and enjoying life, we improve the world.
Ritu Primlani is a feminist and stand-up comedienne who is currently writing a book on how to make love to women. She is also the founder of Thimmakka.org, an environmental non-profit based in Oakland, Calif. Contact Ritu at primlane [at] yahoo [dot] com, or (510) 851-2229.
Please email responses to primlane [at] yahoo [dot] com
1. How would you, on average, rate the past and current relationships you have had, with 0 being the worst in terms of lack of communication, trust, and physical pleasure, and 10 being the highest (your partner was/is present, pays careful attention to your needs, or meets other criteria you may have)?
2. How many “10s” have you experienced?
3. How happy are you in your current relationship (0 -10)?
4. What do you need in order to give a relationship a 10?
5. What is most important to you in a relationship? Can you elaborate?
6. If you are comfortable commenting on your sex life, would you rate it (0-10)?
7. Are you willing to have the author contact you for an anonymous in-depth survey?