Expectations Versus Reality in Relationships: Adrienne Rich's "Living in Sin"

Relationships end for a variety of reasons, the most common being that people enter relationships with certain expectations which, when unmet, start and fuel the domino effect which eventually leads to the end of the relationship. How one perceives a relationship is altered by various conditions such as age, experience, and personal background. Differentiating between what is real and what is imagined in a relationship is also tailored by these experiences in life. In her poem "Living In Sin," Adrienne Rich examines how one woman's perceptions of her physical environment, her motive for entering the relationship, and the tone of the relationship are altered when she differentiates between the relationship she expected and the relationship as it actually is.

In her idealistic relationship, the speaker's physical environment is free of daily domestic responsibilities. There is no need to dust or wash the windows because, as she expects in her fantasy life, the studio will "keep itself." There are definitely no leaky or noisy faucets in need of repair. And in the dream relationship, there are no creeping insects, just a "picturesque" mouse found attractive by a cat. In actuality, however, the speaker's physical environment needs cleaning; she battles dust on the furniture and grime on the windows. A noisy, leaky faucet in the studio needs repair. She also spots an insect in the kitchen that acts as the representative from the "village" behind the moldings. Her dream world is infested, probably with roaches.

The narrator's motive in the relationship was initially the romantic desire to live with the man she loves, but eventually her motive is simply to bear the routine and break the now boring nature of the actual relationship. She wanted in the beginning to escape from restrictive religious beliefs and live with her musician boyfriend in his studio. As the title suggests, the narrator believed the relationship was a sinful one. Living with her boyfriend implies a daring departure from behavior normally expected of her, either by herself, her parents, or society. Still, the light of each day reveals just how dull and routine her life has become. The stairs shake each morning at five o'clock with the arrival of the milkman; each day she has to make the bed, dust the furniture, and look out dirty windows while listening to the leaky faucet. To the speaker, any complaint her real self expresses is considered "half heresy" by her romantic self.

The speaker also reveals a difference in the tone of the anticipated relationship and that of the actual relationship. Rich uses a single line in the poem to express the positive tone of the speaker's idea of the perfect relationship: "A plate of pears,/ a piano with a Persian shawl, a cat/ stalking the picturesque amusing mouse. . . ." This sentence denotes the feelings of completeness and beauty that are anticipated by the speaker. "A plate of pears" is aesthetically arranged in the studio; the musician's piano is romantically draped with a Persian shawl; the mouse is "picturesque" rather than stereotypically disgusting. Evidently, however, the thrill is out of the relationship because all the other lines in the poem bring to light the speaker's disenchantment with the reality of her situation. The poet's rhetoric illustrates the speaker's feelings of disappointment and pain: the milkman's steps cause each stair to "writhe" under his "tramp" at five each morning, the empty wine bottles left over from the night before are described as "sepulchral," when she makes the bed, the speaker is "jeered by minor demons." In addition, her boyfriend's actions iterate her boredom with the relationship. He yawns while attempting a few notes at the piano, declares it out of tune, and gives up. He also expresses indifference by shrugging his shoulders while looking at his unshaven face in the mirror on his way out for cigarettes. As evening approaches, the speaker finds that she has revived only some of her love for the man--a love that had diminished during the bright light of day. Even in the middle of night she wakes, sensing the coming daylight that is as "relentless" as the milkman.

So we can see how perceptions of a relationship change when there is a differentiation between the ideal and the real. These perceptions alter when one begins to see a relationship for what it really is. Yet, seeing a relationship for what it really is causes growth and eventually to improved choices in relationships, thus initiating a sort of backward domino effect. May we all experience such a positive venture in our human relationships until we finally arrive at the unhidden ideal that doesn't end.

--Carol Irwin