At any point, my Facebook message window has two or three posts from friends, seeking advice on — sigh — relationships.
They’re not all women, either. I do get the occasional dude who messages me out of frustration with his relationship, and we talk. I have a few basic beliefs about relationships. The first is that the Fairy Tale — that relationship where you’re madly in love and everything seems to fall into place easily and without struggle is very, very rare, at least from a long-term perspective. And when it happens, I think it happens mostly for people over 40. When it happens to the younger group, it’s usually an early phase of a longer relationship. This leads into my second belief about relationships, which is that human beings have uncannily, and unconsciously, designed long-term romantic relationships to bring two people together who drive each other nuts.
I’m really serious about that. Here’s the drill — two people meet, and they fit together perfectly. Connection, bonds, everything each partner has ever been looking for, all there. That’s the glue that locks you into the work that comes later — and also what makes the later work worthwhile. From the realization that you have to quit driving your partner nuts, and also that you have to quit letting your partner drive you nuts, comes growth. This is the ideal, of course. None of this growth can happen if you don’t stay where you are, in the relationship. And then sometimes you grow, and your partner doesn’t, and it’s still intolerable, and so you then decide to go. There are all kinds of permutations, but what I see a lot of is people leaving before the growing happens.
Let me interrupt myself here. I just stopped typing for a moment, and said “Jesus, this is a fool’s errand.” The man across the table from me asked “What is?”
“Writing a post about relationships.” He cackled, sucked in a breath, and nodded. “I’m one of those people who knows a lot about relationships and finds it agonizingly difficult to apply it to myself,” I said.
He nodded again. “Sounds like a lot of therapists I know.”
“I’m sitting across from one of them, aren’t I?” I asked. “Nope,” he said, shaking his head and looking intently back down at the Mahjongg app on the iPad perched on his legs.
“Oh please,” I spat. “Remember the cop who pulled you over for drinking cream soda last month? When he asked you if you’d had anything to drink and you blankly said no, and then he pointed to the bottle he didn’t know was cream soda in disbelief that you would so baldly lie to him?”
“That’s the expression on my face right now.”
The man across the table stops trying to control his expression and he relaxes into a laugh. “Okay, guilty as charged.”
He knows. He knows we drive each other crazy. He knows we work on it harder than most couples and he also knows that even with all that hard work, we still struggle with it constantly. We’re not sure, but sometimes we think we’re more of an extreme case than those other couples who can passably co-exist without constant emotional effort. And he knows, like I do, that we’ve tried to walk away from each other and haven’t yet been successful. And yet there’s a piece of both of us that wishes we could get it done, but a larger piece that resists every time we get too close. He knows we live apart now, and that this has been both bad and good. We know that neither of us is sure where this ends up, neither of us is sure which piece of us will win the struggle. Not to put too fine a point on it, but no one knows the end game of a relationship until one or the other of you is dead.
He knows that we are each very aware of what we trigger in each other, and that we’ve had varying success in learning to deal with it when it happens. We know we still have work to do, progress to make.
But I do know the other night after an author friend posted a poem in which he expressed a love for his wife’s knees, he took my hands and said those were what he loved about me. My hands, he said, are ordinary; they don’t have mile-long fingers like his son’s or an odd shape like his dad’s. But they do extraordinary things, he said as he turned them over and over. They write, they take photographs in the wilderness, they put fabric together for quilts. I was surprised, I said, that we were talking about fingers, because most of our relationship is so cerebral, so emotional, that it’s easy to forget about physicality. But I was glad we were.
I know that almost five years ago, when he was a much more jagged person, full of sharp edges and defended hurts, he showed up in my life on the day my divorce was final, and patiently resisted all my anxiety-ridden attempts to stay uninvolved. So while he breathed the life back into my hurt and traumatized shell, and re-awakened things in me I thought had died, I helped him file down those sharp edges. And later, he made me confront those abandonment fears. He made me learn to face them, dumped them right into my lap, over and over again until I stopped throwing them back at him. To some extent, to love properly, you have to do be willing to do two things: One, handle occasional feelings of inadequacy. Two, be abandoned. These are our twin troubles.
So that’s what we have. All of that in the past, and what is in this very moment. We still cause each other a lot of discomfort; what’s in this very moment is often unease, just as often as there is pleasure or joy. And there are still things I badly, painfully want from him, and I wonder whether I’ll ever get them. (He knows I’m writing this and he knows it’s about us, but he has no inclination to read it, and tells me I can post it anyway. I wish he did want to read it, I wish he would ask about it, be curious about it, but he isn’t, and I suspect that what he badly wants from me is not to make him read it.) I try not to let it reach a fever pitch. Then one of us goes nuts. We try to ride it out. Then he makes me nuts again, or I him. We try to ride it out again. That’s improvement. I used to react. Now I ride out the storm in my head. Or my friends hear about it, usually the ones who have asked me about their relationships and owe me one.
So that’s part of what I know about relationships. I think there are a lot of couples whose relationships can be very satisfactorily tweaked with some new skills for listening, for empathy, for self-awareness. And then there are the harder cases, like us, who require whole-scale remodeling. Or that might be a fantasy; everyone might need remodeling.
But no matter which you are, or where you end up, there’s no downside to the new counter top. Relationships are ultimately about growing yourself.
But please don’t remind me of that tomorrow when I’m riding out another storm.