The pressure to conform

I went to a wedding of a family friend the other day.  I don’t really have any regular contact with this person – I only see them once every few years at family gatherings – so I was a little surprised to be invited.  However, I thought it was nice to be considered as weddings can be expensive, so I decided to go along and celebrate the day with them.

My partner was also invited, so I asked him if he wanted to go.  Being the introvert he is, not really knowing the bride and groom, and with the fact that the wedding was out of town (requiring a full day of travel), he asked me if I wanted him to go.  If not, he’d rather decline.  I thought about it for a second, decided I was fine to go on my own, and RSVP’ed for one.

Well, you would have thought I’d announced the death of our relationship (or perhaps just the death of social conformity).

“Why isn’t he coming?”

“He doesn’t want to.”

“But he’s your plus-one!!!”

“So what?”

“Well, he should go to keep you company!!”

“I don’t need to be kept company.”

“But…it’s just not done!!!”

This continued at the wedding.  Why wasn’t my partner there?  Did he have another commitment?  Was our relationship okay?  And of course, the dreaded: You know, it would be nice if you two got married one day (my answer to that is always, “Nice for who?  Because I’m pretty sure you mean nice for you, not me, in which case, your vote doesn’t count since you are not, in fact, a member of the relationship”).

I found all of the attention paid to this incredibly insulting.  For one, my partner asked me if I wanted him to come along, and he would have if I had said yes – and that’s pretty much the only part that matters to me.  So I think our relationship is going to be just fine, thanks.

And secondly, I’m a fully functioning, independent human being.  I am perfectly capable of attending social events and other occasions, on my own, talking to people, on my own, and achieving a whole range of things in life, all on my own.  While I love my partner and enjoy my relationship, I neither need, nor want us, to go everywhere or do everything together.

This got me thinking a lot about conformity.  For all the progress we have made, there are still huge social expectations around relationships.  A good example of this is so-called gay marriage.  Same-sex couples are now seen as somehow more acceptable because they are able to get married, just like everyone else.  And while this certainly is a great achievement for a human rights perspective, couples (gay, straight or otherwise) that choose not to get married are somehow still breaking the rules.

Even on a smaller scale, couples are expected to eat meals together, share finances, sleep in the same bedroom and attend any and all functions together.  Anyone who dares not to do one or more of these things is somehow seen as quirky or less committed to their relationship (and heaven forbid if you are a person who might be single – and enjoy it!)

There is no doubt that social conformity is something that has been prized throughout human history.  We look at the behaviour of others to figure out what is expected and acceptable for ourselves.  Fitting in matters – sticking with the majority opinion when learning something new makes sense from an evolutionary perspective.  The group might have knowledge that the individual does not.  Conformity is an important part of our success as social animals.

But what about when we pass up opportunities because we’re afraid of what others might think of us?  When we live a life that doesn’t make us happy, because that’s what’s expected of us?  What about daring to be different, and prizing our individuality and uniqueness?

If I feel such pressure to fit a particular one-size-fits-all mould, I can only imagine how same-sex couples, or those who maintain less conventional relationships or lifestyles, must feel.

So what should we do?  I think we should be true to ourselves.  I think we should continue to defy social expectations where they don’t fit with our own values.  And I think, whenever the group starts to pressure us to conform, we should point out to them exactly what they are doing.  Hopefully one day, there will be a little less pressure and a little more acceptance, and celebration, of our diversity in all things.

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