A man in his early 30’s opened up to me about a romantic setback. The relationship had lasted about a year, and he was emotionally invested in it quite deeply. His former girlfriend abruptly ended the relationship without a discussion on her reasons, and in her breakup speech, by his account, had been critical of his body’s aesthetics and his personality on points that she had never mentioned before. Her responses to messages that he sent, asking to discuss the possibility of getting back together, had ranged from indifferent and mocking to cruel. It remained a mystery to him — how she had seemed to be happy until just a few weeks previously and abruptly gave him marching orders.
In another case, a woman in her mid-30s spoke about how her 14-year marriage had centred around her presentability. Unusually attractive In her early 20s, she had married a wealthy businessman who took pride in flooding her with expensive clothes and accessories — choosing even the car she drove. However, there was a cycle that she discovered in his behaviour — oscillating between pride in public settings, and humiliating her in private. His private criticisms and subtle acts of cruelty culminated in a divorce that left her feeling worthless and empty.
Most of us wish for romantic relationships and marriages with a deep intimacy — an authenticity that you share with just that one person — an emotional and ideological safe space where you can just be without the fear of being judged or condemned. Such relationships are indeed possible, they require a deep self-awareness, compassion for your partner, and a suspension of the transactional relationship that we have with most of the universe in general. However, people with these traits are harder to come by. Whether it’s the rising tide of narcissism driven by Social Media; or the declining worth of human relationships as professionals, corporations, and pharmaceuticals take over as enablers of health, happiness, and succor — the compassion and empathy required for profound and intimate relationships is in very short supply. The result is that many relationships involve the objectification of one or both parties.
Shallow or superficial connections have their purpose as a basic level of social contact when one lacks the energy, time, or inclination to engage deeply. Tinder is fun, if low-commitment amusement is what you’re looking for. However, to be the objectified partner in a relationship that one is deeply invested in can be a cause of suffering, unhappiness, and deep psychological damage.
To understand this objectification, let’s look at one of the most virulent forms of objectification today –internet pornography. Psychologists differentiate pornography from erotica using a simple test — while erotica may appeal to consumers for its artistic qualities, pornography in itself exists solely to arouse. Consequently, those consuming pornography do so in a short cycle of arousal and disgust. This disgust stems from the dissociation of the image of the body on the screen from the person it contains — thus once arousal is achieved and gratified, the image reverts to its state of being an inanimate object and its non-erotic aspects take centrestage. This pattern of engagement manifested in both the cases above — in the case of the man — the attraction that his girlfriend felt for him turned to revulsion and disgust; in the case of the woman — as a repetitive pattern within her objectification being the general theme of the relationship.
When we love people, we love them as a sum of certain features and certain imperfections — a choice that we make each day based on our mental model of happiness. However, if one person in the relationship has a unidimensional view of a the other as a trophy, a sex object, or a provider, there will be unhappiness.
Objectification is not necessarily through debasement. Objectification can occur through elevation too. In the movie “The Philadelphia Story”, Tracy, played by the mesmerising Katherine Hepburn, is peeved that her fiancé George thinks of her as “cool and fine” with a “beautiful purity” and likens her to a statue that he “worshiped from afar”. In just one line, he denies her human vulnerabilities, and her anxiety stemming from her failed first marriage. Her anxiety is heightened now that her former husband is in the vicinity of the wedding venue. She responds stating that she doesn’t want to be worshipped, but loved. George fails to understand the depth of what she is saying — to his own detriment.
So, how do you know if you’re objectified in a relationship? It’s not easy, but try to get a bird’s eye view of the relationship. Is your value tied to a single factor? As a husband or boyfriend, are you a lover, companion, confidant, and provider in some measure, or are you reduced to just one of these? In other relationships — are you the “Gay Best Friend”? “Mother of His Kids”? The free therapy provider because “you’re the only one I can really talk to”?
If a tagline can define your relationship, you need to see if the relationship is grossly asymmetrical. Asymmetry is natural in every relationship — one person is always more involved or committed than the other. However, a drastic mismatch in the way that two people view the relationship needs to be addressed.
So how do you resolve this?
First — an analysis of how the relationship is structured, with a deep exploration of the level of commitment of both parties. If you do detect an imbalance, discuss this with the other party. Sometimes people who lack self-awareness or sensitivity need to wake up to their lack of depth. This discussion may be life changing to people who wonder why their relationships are fragile or lack intimacy and depth. Such a joint exploration could be an important exercise for a relationship that has lost its intimacy and may lead a joint effort towards permanence and meaning.
Second — a deep discussion of expectations and a mutual commitment to performance. Work through these until you’re on the same page and have tried everything that you can think of. It’s always heartbreaking to revisit the things left unsaid.