Relationship listicle madness: All those "10 signs" stories are not going to change your life

Do you really need a listicle to tell you if your relationship is toxic, healthy, worth keeping -- or over?

Published March 3, 2016 11:57PM (EST)

 (<a href=''>oneinchpunch</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(oneinchpunch via Shutterstock)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

The internet is a treasure trove of information. Not only information we can actually use in one practical way or another, but also information about information, in particular about who sends and consumes it. It tells us, to take a bandwagon-jumping example, that Kanye West has said something misogynistic yet again, and it tells us, by some kind of second-order extension, that at least some people expect their pop stars to be ambassadors for morality and common human decency (not me: I want my pop stars to be assholes). In other words, the info spread throughout the globe by the internet in turn conveys meta-info about the people who propagate and receive it. This makes the internet an almost limitless resource for journalists, sociologists, and any armchair student of the human condition. In fact, since the worldwide web is notorious for its tendency towards misinformation, it's even arguable that this second-order, meta-informativeness is often more valuable than any practical information the web claims to provide.

This, at least, appears to be the case when it comes to all those listicles on relationships and how to determine whether they're 'healthy' or not. In case you aren’t already aware of these beauties, if you type into any half-decent search engine a sentence fragment like "signs your relationship," you'll be provided with a litany of romance-themed articles that's almost as boundless as the internet itself. These might come across as quite diverse and rich at first glance, but a few more seconds reveal that they all furnish minor permutations on the same single, basic theme: the trials and tribulations of working out what the hell a 'good' relationship is.

Given the opening paragraph of this article, it must be pretty easy to anticipate its next sentence. That is, quite apart from how helpful such "10 ways" or "10 signs" clickbait actually is when it comes to managing the entwinement of two sane adults, it's actually much more fruitful for any would-be student of human civilization. This is because it implies numerous things about human psychology and behavior, things this article will now attempt to tease out by looking at some of the most flagrant examples of this ever-expanding genre of internet literature.

Why Are We Doing This Again?

It seems that the first, and most patent, lesson to be learned is that there are apparently many, many people who enter into a relationship, but don't really know what a good or bad relationship is. They don't know the "7 Signs Of A Relationship That Will Last," don't know what happens when couplings are going well and don't know what happens when couplings are barely even going. They don't know the manifestations and symptoms of functional and dysfunctional relationships, so it's tempting to be drastic and conclude that, at bottom, they don't even know what a relationship is.

Not only that, but if they don't know the "8 Signs Your Relationship is Over," it's likely they also don't know why they entered a relationship in the first place. If they did know, they'd have had some idea or conception of what they wanted from their lover when entering into an entanglement with him or her. What's more, if they had such an idea or conception, then they'd have some basic criteria that should be met by any relationship. The satisfaction or non-satisfaction of this criteria would have told them all they needed to know about whether their new affair was a good thing or not, since the purpose of the affair was precisely to satisfy this criteria. Conversely, the fact that they needed to refer to a guide titled "13 Amazing Signs You're in a Healthy Relationship" strongly insinuates that, on the contrary, they had very few pre-conceived ideas of what they wanted from Mr. or Mrs. Right when first enmeshing themselves with him or her. By the same token, it insinuates that they don't know why or for what purpose exactly they're even in their relationship.

The above judgements might seem a little harsh, but if you take the time to read a few of these articles, my initial excesses are redeemed somewhat. In Cosmopolitan’s "Top 10 Reasons Couples Break Up," for instance, the most popularly reported reason for a parting of ways (at 39.7%) is "We just fell out of love." Now, maybe I'm being a little shortsighted here, but "We just fell out of love" is so uninformative and vague as to be tantamount to ‘We just broke up,’ which itself is merely tautological code for ‘I had no idea what was going on.’

Similarly indicative of marked ignorance are the 'signs' offered to the reader in "10 Signs You're in a Healthy Relationship" from Lifehack. The second of these, unsurprisingly yet also unbelievably, is that "You trust each other," while the seventh is "You accept each other for who you are." Both are fairly obvious qualities of stable pairings, so much so that their recurring appearance on these lists starkly hints at a large benighted subclass of people who possess only a very minimal knowledge of relationships, who haven't stopped to consider for themselves the possibility that mutual trust and acceptance are more or less the essence of healthy unions.

That we evidently haven't given much or any thought to what a relationship is about or why we might want one leads us to perhaps the most unflattering revelation hinted at by all these articles. Namely, the absence of forethought, awareness and consciousness suggests that a large proportion of us are starting relationships out of almost pure conformity. Maybe there are other explanations consistent with the mindlessness and ignorance we indirectly display by way of pieces like "10 Signs Your Relationship Is Over," but it would nonetheless appear that the most plausible is that we're simply imitating what we see all around us. Media and the world IRL show us couples getting together, going out and getting married, and we suffer questions from our friends and family on when we're going to meet someone or tie the knot.

It's only natural that all of this cultural feedback cues our thought and behavior in such a way as to make us more likely to begin and preserve relationships, even if the only motivation we experienced or understood ourselves when first getting involved with someone else was physical attraction, or the vague desire to emulate the 'happiness' of others. We feel the social pressure to start and keep relationships, so we start and keep relationships, largely to keep other people off our backs, and without really knowing what these relationships ask of us.

Validation Substitutes

The prevalence of conformity as the driving force behind many relationships also explains another aspect of the curious popularity of 'Signs Your Relationship' articles. Lists such as "13 Signs You're in a Toxic Relationship" might inform the innocent that passive aggression, jealousy and criticism have little place in a worthwhile ménage (it came as a shock to me as well), but they also provide all-important encouragement to those who already have the dim sense that they should escape from their sweetheart. What such people are arguably looking for in this kind of piece, is not so much specific information or guidance, but rather some support, reinforcement and rationalization for a visceral or unarticulated urge to break free. If they entered their relationship partly or largely because it was simply 'the kind of thing people do,' then they will most likely also need some reassurance that break-ups are also the 'kind of thing people do' when mired in a particular situation. Hence, these articles provide such reassurance, acting as substitutes for the validation we normally receive from those closest to us, and lessening our fears that we're doing something wrong or weird when transgressing the will-to-conformity that first pushed us towards Mr. or Mrs. Wrong.

Much the same can be said for the articles which share the "15 Signs You're in the Right Relationship." Here, the attraction is once again the reassurance and reinforcement it offers, but on the sunnier side of the good-bad spectrum. If we read this kind of piece, it's often because we currently lack the kind of social encouragement that drove us into our relationship to begin with. We're unsure and insecure about its value, but we know that if we could somehow find it a cheerleader, this would be enough to overcome our uncertainty and insecurity. It would be enough precisely because cheerleading is all-too often the main thing for many of us in starting a relationship. This is why we gravitate towards these articles, so that we can renew the sense that we're doing something socially acceptable and laudable. They offer us the confirmation that our love affairs are 'good' and that we, therefore, are also 'good.'

But as useful as "15 Excitingly Obvious Signs It's a Good Relationship" may be in providing simulated approval and acceptance for our love lives, it and its kind may in fact perpetuate the very problem they claim to ease. By pointing out such "excitingly obvious" hallmarks of a sound coupling as the ability to be "honest with each other," they nourish the fundamental problem that leads so many of us into their arms. As stated above, we often lack a conception of a healthy or successful relationship because we're not accustomed to considering what exactly we want from another person, and while these articles offer a rough conception of their own, they do nothing to encourage us to form outlines suited to our own particular circumstances or to decide what's in our best interests. Because of this, they fail to encourage us to think for ourselves, instead encouraging us to continue living according to what other people claim is 'right' for us. This effectively feeds into a culture where we don't have our own notion of what's ideal for the particular person we are, and because we don't have our own notion, we have to keep returning to such all-knowing counsels as "20 Signs You're With the Man You Should Marry."

This might be tolerable if these kinds of article offered sage advice, but the problem is that there are so many of them saying so many different things that our ability to arrive at a coherent notion of a good relationship is seriously undermined from the beginning. In Cosmopolitan's "Ten ways to know your relationship is over," for example, number seven is "You start daydreaming," in that you start entertaining regular thoughts about being single or dallying with someone new. As valid as this might be, it's nowhere to be found on The Huffington Post's "10 Signs Your Relationship Is Over," an omission which must surely leave the daydreaming individual in a relationship at a severe loss. Both articles are apparently written by or with the input of relationship counsellors, so how is the daydreamer to evaluate her situation? Is she to accept that reveries are a serious indication of her relationship's failure, or is she to disregard her tendencies as harmless flights of fancy? Well, if she were sensible she'd make the call based on her own self-knowledge, on whether she was already prone to daydreams or boredom prior to her relationship. However, if she were inclined to do that, she probably wouldn't have referred herself to these 'self-help' lists from the get-go.

No User’s Manual

Besides their often irreconcilable differences of opinion, there's also the problem of what these lists actually mean and how to use them. The aforementioned "Ten ways to know your relationship is over" declares in its very brief intro, "We've got expert advice on how to know when it's time to call it a day with your man," but despite its bold claim to impart the ability "to know," there's no mention whatsoever of how many of its ten "ways" should be met before anyone would be wise to consider actually breaking it off with their partner. Is it only one, half or all of them? The fact that this kind of thing isn't detailed would suggest that the list and its myriad counterparts aren't actually meant to be practically applied. Instead, they seem once again to function mainly to encourage and reinforce those who already kinda want to end or to preserve a relationship, but who lack the encouragement from their immediate social environment to do so with confidence.

Still, if we can never learn to end or continue relationships without the aid of masterpieces like "15 Signs You're Finally in a Healthy Relationship," then we may find ourselves returning to them perennially, pushed by our inability to determine for ourselves what a relationship that benefits us or not actually looks like. That the number of these broadly identical yet minutely divergent articles is only ballooning would imply just as much, but it also implies other things as well. As described above, these lists offer a window into the possibility that far too many of us know very little about relationships, even though we enter into them every single day. They indicate that we often begin seeing someone else without any pre-established ideas of what we want from our new entwinement and what it should be doing for us. If this is the case, then they also reveal that our love lives are frequently a matter of conformity, and that we pursue them largely to fit in and be normal.

However, more than informing us that we’re hopeless conformists, such pieces as "10 Signs Your Relationship is Worth Keeping" allude to a deeper, potentially more disconcerting truth. Just as they intimate that we don't know all that much about our reasons for involving ourselves with someone else, they correspondingly intimate that we don't know all that much about our very own selves. They hint that we have only a hazy idea of who we are and what we want in life, since if we knew ourselves more thoroughly, we would most probably have a firmer handle on how our relationships should be and how they should enrich us. We wouldn't need the dubious advice of “7 Signs Your Relationship Won’t Last,” because our self-knowledge would have enabled us to advise ourselves, safe from the threat of confusion such listicles present.

That said, as things stand, many of us do require its advice, and this requirement is if nothing else a testament to how we're becoming increasingly alienated from ourselves in the informational, click-baiting overload of the 21st century. The sad irony is, however, that these "Signs Your Relationship" articles and the whole subculture surrounding them are only likely to alienate us from ourselves even further, until maybe, just maybe, we're dragged to the low point of clicking on a post with the title, "10 Signs You Have No Idea Who You Are."

Simon Chandler is a music, culture and political journalist.

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