The subtitle for Rewriting the Rules is ‘an integrative guide to love, sex and relationships’. The publishers (Routledge) and I thought hard about the best word to use in this subtitle to capture where the book was coming from.
We considered ‘new’, but of course whilst the ideas in the book will certainly be new to some people, they will also be familiar to others. ‘Alternative’ was a possibility, because the ideas in the book are an alternative to most of the relationship books that are out there (which tend to emphasise the differences between men and women as the way forward in dating and maintaining lasting relationships). However, most people today are rewriting the rules of relationships in some way and I didn’t want to suggest that the book was only of relevance to those who regard themselves as ‘alternative’ or outside the mainstream. We wondered about ‘mindful’ because I draw on some ideas from mindfulness therapy in the book, but that doesn’t capture all the approaches that I bring in (from psychology, through sociology and media/cultural studies, to various ideas from psychotherapy and counselling).
We ended up with the word integrative because an important aspect of the book is that it integrates ideas from many different places to develop an understanding of how we live our relationships through the ideas we hear about the ‘right ways’ to do them, and how we might resist or rewrite those ideas.
As well as being interdisciplinary (drawing of various fields of study), Rewriting the Rules is also integrative in the sense of weaving together different theories about how humans and their relationships work. For those who are interested, here is an outline of the main three philosophies which I bring together in the book. These theories are the ones that have resonated with me most over time (I like that idea of resonating, like a tuning fork which starts to vibrate when a particular note is played). They are: constructionism, existentialism and Buddhist mindfulness.
Constructionism is the idea that we build certain ways of seeing things (as individuals and as a society) and these then impact on our experiences and the ways in which we behave. These ways of seeing things vary across cultures and over time, which is one way in which we can see that they are constructed. For example, the ideal body image, which we look at in chapter 2, is very different in different cultures and throughout time, and impacts very strongly on how we feel about ourselves and how we behave towards ourselves and others. The explorations of narratives in chapter 1 and metaphors in chapter 3 are also constructionist ideas. A great way into how constructionism works is the book An Invitation to Social Construction by Kenneth Gergen. On a more personal level, Trevor Butt and Vivien Burrs’ book Invitation to Personal Construct Psychology covers how our individual ways of seeing the world influence how we operate, and Vivien Burr has also written an introductory book on Social Constructionism.
Existentialism is the philosophy that we are free to create our own meanings, to write our own rules and to narrate our own life-stories, within certain constraints that we can’t avoid because we are human (like the fact that we are in a world with other people, whether we like it or not, and that we will eventually die). Two existential philosophers who were particularly interested in relationships were Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who also rewrote the rules on their own relationship in ground-breaking ways. I draw on Sartre’s ideas a lot in chapter 7 on conflict and de Beauvoir in chapter 2 on attraction and chapter 5 on gender. The authors Emmy Van Deurzen, Ernesto Spinelli, and Mick Cooper, who are mentioned in the book, have all written great books about existential therapy which summarise many of the key ideas.
The method of existentialism is called phenomenology. In phenomenology we try to tune into experience: that of ourselves and the people we come into contact with (research participants, clients, and friends, in my case). In this book I’ve tried to tune into experiences of relationships: to get detailed descriptions of love, conflict, break-up, etc. Only once I have this have I asked questions like ‘how might this be different?’, ‘what is taken-for-granted here’, and ‘who is excluded from this way of doing things?’ Phenomenologists start with rich description and then move on to questioning, rather like how a good counsellor will really get to know you as you are, and will then ask questions about how you are seeing the world and whether that is useful or might be done differently. All of the examples given of people’s experiences in the book are real experiences of my own or of people I have spoken with. In some cases I’ve altered identifying features or amalgamated similar stories in order to protect the anonymity of the people involved.
Many people know Buddhism as an ancient Eastern religion, but lately several writers have brought the psychology and philosophy of Buddhism to a Western audience. In counselling and psychotherapy it is often called mindfulness rather than Buddhism. Generally the idea is that our suffering in life is rooted in the fact that we try to get what we want in life and get rid of what we don’t want. The way forward is to relax this pattern of grasping and hurling away, tune in more to the present moment in all that it is, and to recognise that everything changes. The notion of embracing uncertainty, which I finish every chapter by considering, is a Buddhist idea. The practice of mindfulness – a form of calm, open attention – is very similar to the phenomenological method described above. My favourite book on Buddhism is Buddhism without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor. Stephen’s ideas crop up several times in this book, as do those of other Buddhist authors. If you’re interested in mindfulness, there is plenty over on another blog I write: Social Mindfulness.
Although I do my best to integrate them, of course not all aspects of the theories and research I draw upon mesh together perfectly. In fact some may even contradict each other. It is useful to bring such ideas into dialogue with each other to see what emerges, rather than assuming that one is right and another wrong.
The counsellors Mick Cooper and John McLeod introduced me to the idea of pluralism in their book, Pluralistic Counselling and Psychotherapy. Basically the idea is that, because people are complex, no one theory works for all people all of the time. Rather different ways of understanding, and working with, issues work for different people, and different issues, at different times.
This idea really struck me when I was working on a textbook called Understanding Counselling and Psychotherapy. For that book we brought together therapists from different approaches to say how their approach understood, and worked with, the common tough emotions of fear and sadness. So one approach said that we get frightened and sad because of the messages we’ve received when we’re growing up about how we should be: feeling scared that we won’t match up to them, or sad because we aren’t matching up to them. For that approach it was important to give people a relationship in counselling where there weren’t any such messages and they were accepted as they were. Another approach said that fear and sadness happen because we get stuck in certain thought patterns, thinking we’re going to fail, for example, or remembering only other times when things have gone badly. This approach might suggest that we tune into our thoughts during the day and see how they relate to our emotions, then try putting in place a different way of thinking. As I was reading through these, and other, approaches that experts in each area had written about for us, I was struck by the realisation that they all made sense and had something to offer, and it would be impossible for me to find one of them true and all the rest false.
Pluralism means that ideas expressed can be contradictory and in tension with each other. Instead of seeing that as a flaw, pluralism would see it as inevitable as we try to make sense of something as complex as human emotions and relationships.
As well as being pluralistic, I aim to be pragmatic in Rewriting the Rules. This means that ideas are valued when they are useful and work for people, rather than because of some more arbitrary value like whether they are fashionable, or consistent, or can be evaluated as objectively true in some way (which pluralism suggests is problematic anyway since different things are true for different people at different times). The ideas in this book mostly work for me, and seem to be helpful for many of the other people I’ve shared them with. Obviously not all of them will necessarily be useful to everyone, and some of them may be more or less useful at different times. As I say in chapter 10, it is up to each reader to take on board what they find helpful, adapt other ideas to their own purposes, and leave whatever doesn’t work for them.