An interview with Rosie Wilby and Liz Bentley
‘Is monogamy dead?’, asks Rosie Wilby in her book of the same name. It’s one of the many questions of the day in an ever-changing romantic landscape. Others may include: How do you stay together forever? Should you even stay together forever?! Is there a secret to this whole love thing anyway?! Looking for answers, BEAST Editor Emma Winterschladen caught up with award winning stand-up comedian and writer Rosie, and psychotherapist Liz Bentley, ahead of their upcoming show Secret Life of Relationships next month (Wednesday, 20th March). They share their hard-earned wisdom on all the juicy stuff in life: long-term love, sex, serial monogamy, and that so-very-modern buzzword: ’micro-cheating’.
When and why did you both get interested in learning more about the psychology behind relationships, love and sex?
Rosie: In 2009 I decided to write a show called The Science Of Sex for Edinburgh. It was a spoofy science lecture on attraction and sexuality which went on to tour the UK and lead to me doing spoof couple counselling in character as ‘Doctor love’ at various events at the Southbank Centre and more. It wasn’t long before I realised that the psychology of romantic relationships was a fascinating area to explore further and that The Science of Sex was just the tip of the iceberg. Another two solo shows followed, then my heavily-researched book Is Monogamy Dead?, a TEDx talk, articles, radio programmes, podcasts and more. It was also a personal journey for me in trying to understand the relationship I was in at the time.
Liz: As an adolescent I became curious about sex and my parents relationship. I compared their cold separateness with those of my friends sometimes loving families and wondered why they were so different. Why did some stay together and some didn’t? What did “rubbing along” actually mean? This curiosity has never gone away.
Have your perspectives changed since you started writing and performing about love, sex and fidelity?
Rosie: My mind has definitely been opened by talking to people who are negotiating ethical multiple relationships. It’s helped me to think more about the important values of compassion, communication and consent, and to make sure I’m incorporating those into my relationships. It doesn’t really matter whether you’re monogamous or not. These things are so important but often absent.
Liz: I would say everything I experience changes my perspective; writing and performing internalises my thinking and hopefully helps others think and be curious too.
How do you both go about doing research for your shows?
Rosie: For all my shows, there’s a lot of reading books and interviewing people. For The Science of Sex I participated in some experiments with Dr Qazi Rahman at Kings College, London. He’s one of the leading experts in sexuality in the UK. Then for Is Monogamy Dead? a key part of research was my survey into ‘what counts as cheating?’. I wanted to explore whether monogamy was a universal ‘one size fits all’ concept or whether it was more nuanced and open to multiple interpretations.
Liz: Research for me most recently has been reading my diaries from when I was 15, they have been a big part of my blog ‘From Essex to London in 101 Boyfriends’. I keep all my work as a psychotherapist confidential, of course, however there are themes which are recognisable in us all when it comes to sex and relationships.
What’s the biggest revelation you’ve both had since diving deeper into these topics?
Rosie: Learning more about female sexuality has been eye-opening and stumbling upon the idea that women actually struggle with long-term monogamy more than men. I’ve watched this play out in the lesbian community where we tend to break up every few years, while gay male friends stay together.
Liz: Oh, it’s incredibly personal and something I’m about to share in the blog no. 98 of the 101! Old news for me in my personal journey, but new news in regards to writing about it (although the essence is touched upon in my last poetry anthology ‘Mind Full of Mad Verse’). It’s taken many years of therapy to shake off the guilt and shame about sex and my past.
Has the dating landscape changed since you both started working in the realm of relationships and love?
Rosie: Very much so. In the last decade, dating apps have become more and more like games. You hear people talking about ‘winning at Tinder’. There’s a lot of filtering to do in order to find good dating options. But they are still there. And I have now met my partner of two years on an app and it’s going well. So I did get lucky this time.
Liz: Oh yes, we’re on a different planet now with communication and technology, our brains can’t keep up with it, they physiologically can’t, and neuroscience has proved that. It may have been easier to hook up with someone in the old days, less transition, but you didn’t have the same choice. Having said that, sometimes the more choice you have the harder to chose and you could miss out on a meaningful relationship that’s under your nose.
What’s one thing you know now that you wished you’d known in your own relationships and love?
Liz: I wished I’d not been so hard on myself, it would have helped my self-esteem. It’s taken decades of therapy to feel worthy of someone else’s love. However, if life thus far had been different, I wouldn’t have my blog, performed hundreds of shows, written poetry, songs or enjoyed my career as psychotherapist which I value so much…. and maybe I would have settled with someone different and never met my husband.
Rosie: I’m learning so much all the time and incorporating it into my own relationships.
How do you think society views on long-term, committed love are changing? Do you see a big change with the younger generations?
Rosie: There was a survey which found that a quarter of young people thought that a marriage contract should work like a mobile phone contract, with the possibility to renew or leave every couple of years. My longest relationship is with my mobile phone provider. So I don’t think it’s a bad idea.
Liz: Rosie, that’s hilarious! Ditto! I think society now is far too reactionary, there isn’t enough depth or time to focus on the underlying complexities of relationships today. Yes, we can make too many judgements too quickly. For example, body language experts can only tell us something in the here and now, what they see, their view point. I work in colleges and there seems to be a constant struggle with being ‘ordinary’; it’s way too boring, but what does being ordinary mean? Is love ordinary? What are our expectations of relationships? Then there is climate change… this and our current political environment is taking its toll on how our younger generation are coping with their choices or lack of. My husband and I have four teenagers between us from ages 13 to 19, one boy and three girls. I listen and learn everyday from them.
Do you think love and sex are harder in the digital age of dating apps and beyond?
Rosie: In some ways, yes. The feeling of having so many options within easy reach may make it harder for us to settle with one.
Liz: As a heterosexual woman (with just 2% proven lesbian in me), I would say love and sex are softer in our digital worlds! Sorry, that was an appalling joke, but like most comedy, there is a very serious note, the use of internet porn can mean a struggle in ‘real’ relationships, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Do you think the definition of cheating has changed?
Rosie: A popular buzzphrase now is ‘micro-cheating’ which covers all those grey areas that I was hinting at in my survey. For some people, they do see it as a betrayal if their partner is exchanging flirty texts and emails.
Liz: This is indeed Rosie’s research subject. I also find myself asking what does trust mean. “Do you trust me?” I ask “what am I trusting you with?”
What’s the best advice you can give for anyone wanting to sustain long-term love – be it monogamous or within other relationship structures?
Rosie: Communicate! Try to be kind and do nice things for each other often.
Liz: I agree. Sometimes communication can be hard, if that is the case find someone to help, see a relational therapist. CBT won’t necessary help, it’s not about changing our thoughts, it’s about exploring our individual madness. Find your creativity too – don’t be ashamed of who you are or where you’ve been, literally. It may not happen over night – be patient and explore all your identities.
How have your different experiences in monogamous relationships shaped your views on love and sex?
Rosie: I have found serial monogamy a little exhausting. But it also means I’ve had lots of different partners to learn from and get to know. Many are still good friends. I do feel that’s important if you can do it.
Liz: if you are interested enough to read my blog from no. 1 through to no . 101 you will see how I did it in 60,000 words!
What can we expect with this upcoming show?
Rosie: My talk is a mix of comedy, some results from my survey, some other stats and ideas around relationship language – plus a reading from the book about my adventures at the lesbian sauna. Our in-conversation will be very spontaneous. Liz and I have seen each other’s performances develop over the last decade and know each other well. So I think that friendship will lead to a fun, organic discussion.
Liz: I will be asking more questions and giving insight from a psychotherapist’s point of view. I’ll read a bit from the blog and I’m thinking of ending on an uplifting song about the death of all relationships, with a Casio keyboard. I’m really looking forward to working with Rosie again, we bonded over comedy synchronised swimming at Edinburgh Fringe many years ago. Getting together again, well, anything could happen!
Secret Life of Relationships: Love, Sex & Fidelity
When? 20 March, 2019
Where? Arch 3, Cargo, 83 Rivington St, London EC2A 3AY
Doors open at 7pm, and the talk starts 7.30pm
For more info and to book tickets here