Pure Relationships:
The Search for Love among Hungarian Academic Women

Maj Olsen
Paper presented at conference "Postkommunismens Antropologi", 12-14 April 1996, Department of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen. Published in "Anthropology of Eastern Europe Review" 14(1) 1996

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"The guys I go out with appreciate that I am smart. I would not go out with a man who had a different opinion about it. That is partly why I don't fall in love with Hungarian men, they would not appreciate it. They appreciate it as a friend, but they would not consider starting something with me. Not that it bothers me, but it's something you know straight away, they would not even try to flirt with you."

The woman quoted above believed the only possibility of finding an egalitarian relationship, was to find a Western European or American man to live with, either abroad or in Hungary. Her experience of Western men was that they are more interested in equality and more supportive of modern gender roles than Hungarian men, and that Western men would appreciate her intelligence. Besides, she saw Hungarian men as spoiled and immature.

During eight months fieldwork among academic women in Budapest, I have repeatedly heard them talk of their dreams of emigrating to United states or Western Europe or meeting a Western man in Hungary. In this paper, I will show how dreams about the West are closely linked to the women's feelings that Hungarian culture places limitations on them. Ideas about the West are part of a dream of freedom to create 'pure relationships'. I have chosen to describe the ways in which Hungarian women talk about the West and about their personal barriers and limitations in Hungary as a starting-point for this analysis because talk is "one of the principal media through which persons and societies produce and reproduce themselves" (Ries,1994:38). Though my informants remarks were addressed to me as a Western European, Danish female anthropologist, there is no reason to believe that what they have told me is different from what they say to each other or that the idea of going West comes up while talking to me. As will be shown, most of the women are "international" in their ways of living.

Changes in gender relations are not to be sen as a result of the transition in the post-communist societies. Rather, they are part of the transition. The conditions under which individuals live are affected by the structural changes from "communist societies" to "democratic systems" and "market economies." However, the way individuals act and perceive what is happening is also a part of the transition. Individual lives are "structures in operation" (Lindquist, 1994:7). In periods of massive societal transformation, where old structures are dissolving, individuals have more influence on creating new frames for living. "Individual action and the unplanned have more weight than usual, relative to system constraints, in shaping outcomes" (Verdery, 1992:3).

While the formal conditions for choosing one's own lifestyle have expanded with the political changes in Hungary, personal choice is still limited, though for other reasons than previously. For example, one need not rely on friends and family for practical purposes to the same extent as during Communism. Cash can now purchase what once had to be done through favors, but the majority of the population is struggling to feed their family and pay rent. What impact have Hungarians' increased political freedom had on gender relations? In addressing this question, I will rely largely on interview data with five Hungarian women.

Dreams about the West

All the women referred to in the following have travelled or lived in the United States or Western Europe and would in general like to travel as much as possible. They all speak at least one foreign language. Some of them dreamed of either living in Western Europe or the United States, while others emphasize their "international way of thinking" as a philosophy of life. Most of them talk about gender roles and relationships in the West as more egalitarian. They view women's possibilities to behave the way they like as being more free than in Hungary. The dreams of going West are frequently mentioned whenever a comparison between Hungary and the West is made. When talking about women's conditions and relationships, the West not only appears more desirable. They also criticize aspects of specifically Hungarian or Eastern European society.

Mária (a pseudonym, as are the other women mentioned), is a 23 years old, has a university degree and a job at an American fashion company that she likes. Mária's leisure time was spent with her Hungarian boyfriend and doing aerobics every day after work. Even though she was still in love with her boyfriend after 4 years together, she searched for role models on which she could base the relationship. Her parents had divorced, and she saw what she regarded as miserable relationships around her. For Mária, the misery of the Hungarian people was one reason why love relationships do not work for Hungarians and why people divorce:

"Lack of money and other material problems give people stress and make them nervous, and they argue a lot. On the streets of Budapest you can see who is Hungarian and who is from the West because the Hungarians look much more unhappy and depressed. There are not only material reasons for the problems, but also forty years of Communism. Before, people could not say and do what they wanted to. Nowadays some big changes have taken place, and it is difficult to adjust to these. The feeling of loss for the Hungarian people is inherited through generations. The parents are sad and then the children become sad too."

Mária believed that even young Hungarians are still suffering from the experiences of their forefathers on the losing side in two world wars and when the Communists took over after World War II and Maria explained her own difficulties in finding a better way of living as a result of this legacy.

Among the young women whom I interviewed, three explicitly stated that they would rather have sexual relationships with Western Europeans or Americans than with Hungarians. Two of them had dated only foreigners, and the third claimed that she would never have a Hungarian boyfriend again.

Enikö, a 20-year old student of German and English, expressed her personal philosophy of life and her view of ideal relationships by telling me about a woman she had always admired:

"She had an open view about the world. I am trying to have the same. I would like to have an international view of things. And I like the way she lives in her marriage. There are no rules for what the husband and the wife should do. It's very modern."

In another conversation she talked about "an international way of thinking", which was also part of what she appreciated in her German boyfriend. She believed her own relationship was more egalitarian, with more mutual respect and sharing of housework, compared to those of her friends because he was a West European.

Andrea, a 26-year old student of ethnography, had a Japanese boyfriend who lived in New York. She had just received a scholarship to go to Tokyo for two years. She described how all Hungarian men, in her opinion, had exactly the same pattern of flirtation that they would invariably follow. She found this pattern both ridiculous and rigid, and it made her lose any desire to enter into relationships with Hungarian men. "This culture forces me to be a certain kind of woman," she insisted. Andrea said that she would like to explore what she expressed as "the more masculine side" of her identity; for example, to dress in a more masculine way, but she felt that neither men nor women would respect her if she did not dress in the very feminine style of Hungarian women.

Katalin, who is quoted earlier, said that when she had talked about equal rights for men and women she was called a feminist. She emphasized that "feminist" is a very negative word in Hungary, meaning "not a real woman." She felt that when she chose to follow her ideal and be herself - an ambitious and intelligent student -Hungarian men did not see her as a potential partner. Katalin knew many foreigners in Budapest, most of whom she had met at her job at an English-language newspaper or at the American Studies Department at the University. She was very ambitious about her carrier and her dream was to make films. To her, films could be a way of changing little things in society. She had considered a political career because "that would be an obvious thing to do if you want to do something for your society." But she found all politicians corrupt and would not want to end up like that herself. "I just read too much about the corruption of power." Ester, a university teacher and mother of a five-year old girl, had spent some months in the United States. She had been an active member of a women's movement. Together with other women "with Western experience" she had worked for equal rights for men and women, women's right to abortion and against wife-battering. She had now left the movement because of internal conflicts, frustration because things changed too slowly and lack of time. Ester's husband was American. I asked her if she believed her marriage was more egalitarian than Hungarian marriages and she answered "No, I thought it would be different, but it isn't."

Eva, a 23-year old secondary school teacher, had just started going out with a Hungarian man, a manager in a private company. She wanted to marry a man with a higher income than herself, but in all other aspects she talked very much about equality between the partners in a relationship. She was investigating the possibility to emigrate to a Western country because she was fed up with the living conditions in Hungary and living with a government that she had not chosen herself: "Why should I suffer from this, I didn't even vote for them?."

Causal explanations for limitations

As indicated above, conducting relationships in a Western way, "an international way of thinking," or actually going to the West is discussed as a way of avoiding certain conditions in Hungary that the women view as hindering their possibilities to become happy: these obstacles include lack of money, traditional men, pessimism about relationships, inability to change their physical appearance to a more personal style, and general hardship in a society.

These women emphasize that the West is the solution to their personal problems. To understand why, it is necessary to examine how the women explain the obstacles to self-realization. The various explanations are in reality intertwined, but for analytical purposes they can be divided in four types of explanations. I call them individual, situational, cultural and historical.

1) Individual explanations

Individual explanations involve a feeling of lack of personal capabilities to realize one's own ideals and achieve fulfilling relationships. These explanations are related to the women's psychological self-understanding and what they see as individual weaknesses. Enikö, for example, partly blamed herself for not being able to fulfil her ideals for relationships. When she talked about flirting with other men and her partner's reaction, she said: "Sometimes I think I am just terrible when I do all these things and it has a bad effect on the relationship."

Mária believed it would only be possible to maintain a relationship different from that of her parents through awareness of her own behavior. Her lack of belief in 'Hungarian relationships' was explained by a general pessimism in the country. This pessimism had become part of herself through her parents, and she saw "personal development" as one means of becoming more "positive" and make her relationship work. Mária believed that if she did not "work on herself" and if she and her boyfriend did not "work on" recreating their love for each other together, they would end up breaking up like everybody else.

2) Situational explanations

These refer to conditions in the women's immediate surroundings which limit their freedom. They are related to the specific life situation of the women and are often articulated as lack of time or money to pursue desired activities.

Katalin mentioned that one of the reasons why she and many of her friends at the University did not have boyfriends was lack of time because of studies. They did not have time to make themselves beautiful and attractive to men. Furthermore, she complained that there were very few men at the Faculty of Humanities and that they did not have enough time to go out and meet men in other places.

Four of the five women mentioned in this article lived with one of or both their parents. They would all like to move away from home to obtain more personal freedom, but did not have the money to do so.

3) "Hungarian culture" as an explanation

Certain timeless traits of Hungarian culture are invoked as restricting women's possibilities to self-actualization and to obtain their ideal relationship: "Because the culture is like this I cannot be myself".

During my fieldwork I heard certain characteristics about the Hungarian character that were considered obstacles to women's personal fulfillment. Most of the explanations concern characteristics of Hungarian men:

"Hungarian men do not appreciate my intelligence".

"Hungarian men are very spoilt"

Or "Hungarian men are looking for their mothers in their relationships."

Other cultural traits focused upon how a woman is supposed to behave; for example:

"If the Hungarian woman does not care for and look after her husband she gets in trouble with her mother in law."

Or "A woman must care about how she looks even if she is busy and poor. Looking good is not a question of being rich; it is a question of self-respect."

In other cases, the explanations related to Hungarian culture are more abstract, as when Andrea complains that "this culture forces me to be a certain kind of woman."

4) Large-scale historical, societal causes

These explanations related to large-scale historical societal changes mixed with Hungarian cultural attributes. Hungary's presumed political-economic stagnation (or deroute as some see it) is explained not as epiphenomena of the transition but as a result of a historical development. Mária, for example, explained the misery of Hungarian relationships in terms of a Hungarian pessimism derived from Hungary "choosing the wrong side" in wars and the suppression by the Russians during the communist period. Eva, said she would like to emigrate because she was fed up with Hungarian suffering and with not knowing "what's coming."

The individual and situational obstacles to self-fulfillment are seen as difficult to cope with, but at least subject to change. Individually based problems can be remedied through awareness of one's own actions and personal, psychological development. Situational problems can be coped with by changes in life-situation such as change of job, graduation or marriage. Going to the West is sometimes a way of changing these life conditions, but material problems are rarely mentioned together as a motive for emigration by my informants. Obtaining a better standard of living was never given as a motive for wanting to marry a foreigner or emigrate to America or Western Europe.

The two latter types of explanations, based on cultural ethos or historical tradition, were the most frequently mentioned in conversations I had with Hungarian academic women. Hungarian society, seen as the outcome of its history, is given as the cause for a lack of success in relationships or in being oneself. Both large-scale historical, societal development and Hungarian culture constitute barriers over which the women have no influence. "Society" and "culture" are seen as obstacles to personal freedom. Some Hungarian women try to change these obstacles by becoming active members of women's movements or political parties, but most of my informants did not believe in any kind of political action. For them there seems to be two ways to cope with such obstacles: to cope with them in whatever way possible or to get away. To marry a Western man in Hungary can be seen as a combination of the two, a way to obtain the best from the two worlds. Ester, for example, believed her relationship would be more egalitarian because she married an American.

The way out of a dead end

In her article on litanies about suffering in post-communist Russia, Nancy Ries writes: "When a social situation is simultaneously unacceptable and unchangeable certain predictable phenomena emerge in the realm of discourse:

(1) a depressed and fatalistic stance, where the powerlessness imposed upon them is internalized and romanticized and

(2) a tendency toward magical thinking and utopianizing" (Ries 1994:46).

As in Russia, powerlessness in Hungary is romanticized through talk about suffering. Most Hungarians enjoy talking about historical tragedies: the country is depicted as victimized by unfair neighbors. By talking about themselves as victims of history, the women inscribe themselves in a Hungarian tradition of complaining about suffering. They use a way of talking which is very common in Hungary. As Ries found in Russia, litanies of suffering have become "the dominant mode of public discourse" after the end of Communism (Ries 1994:47; see note 1). Eva's reason for wanting to live in the West is particularly interesting in this case. By saying that she wants to get away from suffering caused by the political system, she is herself part of the discourse of complaining about suffering.

There is an obvious utopian element to the notion that love relationships in the West or with a Western man in Hungary are easier and more satisfying. Hungarian men may certainly be more conservative in their opinions and practices of gender roles than the average Western man, but the discussion of love in Western societies is not based on any kind of empirical comparison. The women do not talk much about actual man-woman relationships in the West. Rather, the West functions as a kind of reverse image of Hungarian relations. It contains all what Hungarian relations are not. The utopian character of "the West" is also imaginary in the sense of location. All the women have spent some time in certain Western countries, but their dreams of emigrating and their belief in "modern" ideals are rarely connected to a specific place when they talk about it. When I asked Eva where in the West she would like to live, she answered: "Just in an English-speaking country." Enikö believed her relationship was more egalitarian because her boyfriend was West European, not German. "The West" is truly an imagined utopia of ideal personal relations. It has "Occidentalist" functions for Hungarian women, inasmuch as the West operates as a mirror for their own society (see note 2).

Going West to find pure relationships

That the women reproduce Hungarian culture by complaining about it does not mean that they do not also try to change their own situations and recast their gender roles. They clearly want to change this aspect of their lives and of their society which they find so unfulfilling. Some of them see themselves as pioneers in the field of love and feel that they must invent new ways of living. They say they want to live in a different way from their parents, but also different from most of the relationships they know. However, Mária was convinced that "There are no good models to look at."

The women seem to be searching for what Anthony Giddens terms a "pure relationship", the type of relationship that "exists solely for whatever rewards that relationship as such can deliver" (Giddens 1991:6). It is a relationship which "is not anchored in external conditions of social or economic life" (ibid.:89). This kind of relationship is democratic in the sense that the two individuals are equal. The notion of pure relationship could be seen as contrasting with what they perceive as the relationship of their parents, which is (1) hierarchical rather than egalitarian and (2) affected by social and economic factors rather than purely sentimental ones. These modern Hungarian women want relationships that are maintained by the couple reproducing the love by, for example, "doing things together. Hungary's social, cultural or historical situation, and (secondarily) the women's own individual situation, prevent achieving this kind of relationship except by finding a Western man or by moving to the West.

Conclusions: The transition and pure relations

A remaining question is the connection between the expectations Hungarian women have for love relationships and the changes that have occurred in Hungary during recent years. There is a contradiction between expectation and reality. The women expect changes in the sphere of gender relationships, but at present do not feel they have the freedom to create the relationships they view as ideal. Behind this contradiction lies the women's general expectations about the new democracy. They see it as not only political freedom but as personal liberation.

When asked about their opinion on the end of communism, only one of the women I talked to regretted the change. They wanted -and still want - their living conditions to improve. Nevertheless, they were acutely upset about the obstacles, because they believed that the replacement of communism with "democracy" and "freedom" in the political arena was also going to make them more free in their personal lives. Here it should be emphasized that the women view the obstacles to their personal freedom largely in relation to Hungarian culture and society. Individual and situational (conjunctural) explanations are much less common.

Understanding why this is so, and the consequences of such explanations requires a reexamination of socialization and education during the communist period. These women were brought up to believe that "the system" one lives in is important for all aspects of life. In the public sphere, Hungarian socialist ideology was praised as the ideal system. In the homes of most of these women, their parents complained about society. "The system" was the cause of all their problems--also personal problems--and "democracy" was seen as the alternative. Even though the women maybe never believed in the socialist model of society they did believe in the importance of the "system." Brought up in such "system thinking", their expectations for a new system, called "democracy", were extraordinarily high. Hence their disappointment when "democracy" at the political level did not produce a corresponding freedom or happiness in their personal lives. We might say that these women are not "victims of the transition" as they are victims of system thinking.

Now that this personal freedom has not been achieved, one solution is to "Go West." The women's perceived lack of local role-models and the Hungarian melancholy - viewed as a result of the tragedies of the nation's history - preclude having fulfilling personal lives with Hungarian men. To cope with this situation, the West takes on utopian features: for these Hungarian women, "the West" is not so much a place or lifestyle but a discursive vehicle in the post-communist litany of suffering.


1. There are differences between Russian and Hungarian discourses on suffering. I.e. the Hungarians had relatively more freedom of speech during the communist period. Therefore there is reason to believe that talking about suffering was not previously, as in Russia (Ries 1994:47), only possible in the private sphere, but also in the public sphere. To discuss the differences is, although interesting, not the purpose of this article.

2. "Magical thinking" as means to achieve a better lives seems to be increasing in Hungary. American self-help guides are becoming very popular. On Andrassy út, one of Budapest's main shopping streets, there is a kiosk selling various stones which are said to have all sorts of powers in them.


Giddens, Anthony. 1991. Modernity and Self-Identity. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Giddens, Anthony. 1994.Intimitetens Forandring (The Transformation of Intimacy). Copenhagen: Hans Reitzels Forlag.

Lindquist, Galina. 1994. The Feminist Message as a Threatening Experience. Ethnos, vol. 59(1-2)

Ries, Nancy. 1994 The Power of Negative Thinking. Anthropology of Eastern Europe Review no. 2/94.

Verdery, Katherine. 1992. The Transition from Socialism: Anthropology and Eastern Europe. Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures, University of Rochester. Ms.