TED talk: Rewriting the Rules of Relationships

Last Friday I was very privileged to be part of the TEDx Brighton 2013 event where I gave a talk which tried to summarise my Rewriting the Rules book into ten minutes! Hopefully it’s a good taster of the main ideas in the book, as well as applying a couple of my favourite metaphors for relationships: the crab bucket, and holding the precious object.

You can see the clip here (second talk in the afternoon) and I’ve also included the text and images from the talk below. The StoryStream of the talk is here. It’s well worth checking out the whole event because there were some amazing talks from digital feudalism, the flawed education system and sustainable housing, to endometriosis, hip-hop, and Indian dance-meets-climatology.

Relationship Uncertainty
I want to start with a list of advice about relationships which I’ve found in various self-help books, problem pages and magazine articles:

  • Never waste an opportunity to say ‘I love you’: Don’t be the first to use the L word.
  • Take her at face value: Figure out the hidden reason why she’s upset.
  • Don’t use complete sentences during sex: Talk dirty, he’ll love it.
  • Work at your relationship: Be spontaneous.

Confusing right?

As a culture we’re currently in a state of relationship uncertainty. At the same time that we’ve opened up to same sex marriage, government insists that monogamous coupledom is the only good basis for a family. There has never been greater gender equality, but there’s a constant pull back to the view that men and women are from different planets. And, whilst some commentators argue that we should loosen our views around affairs and infidelity, others argue that we should tighten restrictions around people watching online porn – because this is seen as bad for relationships.

Why are we in such uncertainty? First of all, declining religion, unstable jobs, and the fact we all move around rather than staying in smaller communities have all meant that we look to romantic relationships to meet all of our needs in a way we never have before. Love has become the new religion.

At the same time we’re encouraged by the media, by advertisers, and by each other, to be independent individuals who fulfill our own goals in life and are true to ourselves no matter what.

This creates a tension as we long for belonging, togetherness and connection with a partner, at the same time that we strive for individual freedom, independence and personal fulfillment.

There are two main things that we tend do when faced with such uncertainty: Either we look back to the old rules that have been around before – and cling onto those for some sense of security, or we create new rules – but often we cling onto these just as tightly.

For the rest of the talk I’ll explore these two paths, and then consider an alternative: embracing the uncertainty that we find ourselves in in our relationships.

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Is taking care of ourselves a relationship responsibility?

Recently Diabetes UK have been running an advertising campaign that sits uneasily with me and with a lot of my friends. In their posters they show images of people hugging their loved ones and crying, with slogans such as ‘If not for you then for your family’ and ‘so you and your family don’t suffer‘. The idea seems to be that people in high-risk groups should get tested early for diabetes so that they can do something about it before amputation, blindness, heart problems or other health implications mean that they become a burden on their loved ones.

My immediate reaction was to feel angry that this – otherwise excellent – charity was using guilt tactics to frighten people into action. I also disliked the implication that other people might have so much power over what somebody chooses to do with their own body.

However, I had to reflect that – when it comes to mental rather than physical health – I have used a somewhat similar argument myself. I am a great believer that we all need to build some form of self-care into our lives in order to be in an okay place emotionally and psychologically. It is when I don’t have a moment to myself that I get overwhelmed when stressful things happen, respond badly to conflict, or make mistakes at work. Similarly, clients who I work with in therapy are often constantly engaged with work, family and friends. When I encourage them to build in time for a ‘daily kindness’ to themselves, or for quiet reflection, the major block that they frequently come up against is all their obligations to other people in their lives. They don’t want to let down their managers and colleagues, their partners and parents.

For many of us the argument that we will feel better if we look after ourselves doesn’t get very far because we see self-care as being self-centred or as spoiling ourselves. When we’re depressed we don’t feel that we deserve this. Or perhaps it doesn’t fit the self-sacrificing image that we want to have of ourselves.

However, the realisation that we will be better for the other people in our lives is often the thing that helps us to make that first small shift towards building in some time for self-care. For example, we might notice that a small amount of self-care can leave us less exhausted, more able to hear other people, and better able to manage extra pressures. We might also see that we are a better role-model for others in our lives if we demonstrate that we are able to say ‘no’ to things or to prioritise looking after ourselves.

So how is this different to the Diabetes UK argument that people should take steps towards better physical health in order to be in a better place for their loved ones? I think it comes down to the complex tension that we all face that we are, at the same time, independent individuals, and unavoidably involved in interdependent relationships with the other people in our lives. There are a few elements of this that I want to tease out here, but I don’t think there are any easy answers. Rather I hope that this blog post might be a starting point for people who want to talk about such matters, and that it will set out some of the territory in a way that is helpful.

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Monogamy and the Rules of Love

Last night there was an interesting Radio 4 documentary on the diversity of romantic relationship structures around today. One of the experts is the excellent Esther Perel – author of Mating in Captivity.

Available to listen again here:


There was also a discussion of the same issue in advance of this programme on Radio 2 earlier that day:


The marvellous Laurie Penny reflected on the topic in the Guardian today:


Same Sex Marriage: Opening Up and Closing Down

This year I was invited to 10 Downing Street for a reception celebrating the same-sex marriage act which passed into UK law recently. I felt truly ambivalent about attending the event because I see both highly positive and very negative aspects to this change in the law. So here I want to offer some reflections about possibilities that this shift has the potential to open up, as well as what it risks closing down.


Me and Jen Yockney (of BCN) at No.10

Opening up

Clearly the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act does something extremely important in legally accepting that relationships between two people of the same gender are as legitimate as those between two people of different genders. Whilst civil partnerships brought us some way towards this, marriage is the way in which our society currently recognises relationship commitment, so the cultural impact of this on people who love people of the same gender cannot be underestimated.

As David Cameron rightly remarked in his Downing Street address, the potential impact of this on people’s everyday lives is immense. Whilst many lesbian, gay and bisexual people currently experience painful responses from family members when they come out, and even total exclusion from families, the message that same gender romantic relationships are as real and valuable as different gender ones may well help matters a great deal. Parents at such times often express concerns that they have lost the opportunity to see children reach the important social milestones in life such as getting married and having children, and clearly now this is not the case.

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Same-sex marriage – inclusions & exclusions

I’ve been invited to 10 Downing Street for their same-sex marriage celebration tomorrow. Here’s the report from the Open University website:


Meg will be part of a reception celebrating the passing into law of the marriage (same sex) couples act.
Dr. Meg Barker has been invited to a reception celebrating the passing into law of the marriage (same sex) couples act at 10 Downing Street on Wednesday 24th July.
Dr. Barker has been included because of the work of BiUK: a group who are now on the Department of Health National LGB&T partnership group as a result of The Bisexuality Report, which was published by Open University Centre for Citizenship, Identity and Governance (CCIG) last year. The act will mean that many bisexual people with same-gender partners will now be able to marry their partners just as heterosexual people and bisexual people with other-gender partners are able to do. However, the fact that civil partnerships were not extended to other gender partnerships is still a matter of concern in terms of bisexual equality. There are also remaining issues around ‘spousal veto‘: an aspect of the new law which means that trans people will need their spouses to consent to the granting of a Gender Recognition Certificate if they apply for one.
It is important not to call same-sex marriage ‘gay marriage’ because, of course, it applies to many bisexual people too. The name ‘equal marriage’ is also not accurate as there are remaining inequalities regarding trans people, and also those in openly non-monogamous relationships, who were generally excluded from the debates this time.
Dr. Barker said ‘I am delighted to have been invited to the Downing Street celebrations next week and hope to take the opportunity to raise some of these important remaining issues with the Prime Minister there.’
There’s more on my general thoughts on the commitments we make to each other – in marriage or otherwise – in the commitment chapter of Rewriting the Rules.

Desire and long term relationships

Esther Perel did a great TED talk for Valentine’s Day this year on sex and desire in long term relationships. Much food for thought.

After Happily Ever After

Readers of this blog might be interested in a new documentary by filmmaker Kate Schermerhorn about the need for a rethinking of the institute of marriage. The film follows her quest for the secret to successful relationships, and comes up with surprising answers, many along the lines that I explore in the book Rewriting the Rules.

Here is the trailer for the film:


And here is a piece Kate wrote for the Huffington Post:

Unwanted Relationship Advice: Why Are We So Afraid To Think More Creatively About Marriage?

After six years of work and the craziest emotional roller coaster of my life, a documentary film I recently completed about marriage has made its way to audiences, some of whom have even been thoughtful enough to send me relationship advice. Thank you kind strangers, particularly Dora, who tracked me down to say that I needed therapy.

I guess Dora was concerned because she knew that I had started the film, “After Happily Ever After”, together with my second husband, looking for the secret formula to marital bliss. She also knew that our romantic quest hadn’t exactly ended with happily ever after. Read more…

Rewriting the Rules: Out now!

“We all struggle with relationships but now the rules have changed. We need a new rule book, and this is it.” –Dorothy Rowe, Psychologist and Writer.

“Meg Barker reveals, step by step, how unpacking and rewriting the ‘rules’ can not only free our relationships from the ties that bind us, but also offer a path to deep self-knowledge and acceptance. A beautifully explicated journey to the heart of loving.” – Dossie Easton, Marriage & Family Therapist, Co-author of The Ethical Slut.

“To tackle the dos and don’ts that flood intimate relationships advice, Meg Barker’s sharp, insightful, open-minded and friendly guide is here to help you navigate the mazes of modern love. Meg’s pen is like a benevolent friend who’s hand you don’t want to let go. Hold on to Rewriting the Rules.” – Esther Perel, Author of Mating in captivity.

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.

Monogamy and its discontents

There’s a new film coming out about monogamy which looks very interesting: questioning the common model of falling in love and happily-ever-after. It includes the great author Esther Perel talking about the paradoxes involved in wanting to nurture love and to keep hold of desire. Check out the trailer here.

‘Same-sex’ marriage

On March 11th a letter from two Archbishops was read out in 2,500 Catholic Churches in the UK arguing against proposed changes to make marriage available to people in ‘same-sex’ relationships.

According to the BBC, the letter states the following:

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