The Relationship Contrarian, Part One

[Note: this entry, particularly the last two paragraphs, might be useful background for the following.]

I have often thought that I was wisest in my youth, especially as I grow older.

When I was in my teens I was very eager to get married. And I had a pretty good idea of the life I wanted to build.

Let me first explain a belief I held at this time: I did not believe in the existence of “Mr./Mrs. Right”. I firmly believed that it was possible to make nearly any relationship work with sufficient commitment and work. In fact, I believed that the concept of the “right person” was itself damaging to one’s chances of a happy relationship, because it set up false expectations, and introduced the idea that if things were going wrong, maybe it was just not Meant To Be.

I had noticed that there was a particular kind of family among our circle of acquaintances, largely in the Christian and homeschooling communities, that seemed to me the most joyful and warm. These families were large families with many children. They tended to live on farms and drive old beat up cars because that’s what they could afford. The mother and father would be relatively laid-back individuals who put family first and personal pursuits secondary.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, to my mind, were the childless perpetually single people I knew. The stereotypical member of this category would be an artsy type living in a downtown loft. They were often very interesting people to talk to. They usually weren’t single by choice; they were just waiting to meet the “right person”, or waiting to get some things sorted out in their life before they took that step. Year after year. They came across as kind of uptight. Much later on I would read James Hillman’s description of the soul’s need to “grow down” into the earth. If souls are acorns, these were acorns who had fallen on concrete floors – unable or unwilling to grow down, only up.

I think I identified these to polar stereotypes so clearly and so early because they were the two lifestyles that most appealed to me. But I knew which one I wanted. I wanted the first one. I wanted that big family who may have had to make do with secondhand furniture, but who all sat down at one big scratched-up table at the end of the day.

When, at the age of twenty, I found a woman I thought I could create that life with, I jumped at that chance. She wanted lots of kids too, and she even had two kids already – a jump start! I married her in an eyeblink.

Then I froze up.

This is an oversimplification; quite a lot of things happened. But one thing that happened, which I think had a lot of influence on what came after, is that I froze up.

I had never really dealt with that part of myself that wanted Option B. And there were a lot of aspects of my self that pulled me towards that second path. Lonely and wanting stability, I had never engaged with or honored with those facets of myself that wanted the free and unfettered life of a confirmed batchelor. I had quashed them as irrelevant and unworthy. In retribution, they held me immobile and unsure.

I hovered at this point for years. Afraid to wholly commit; afraid to walk away. Unable, because of my lack of commitment, to put the effort in to make things really work.

A lot of my friends were there for me during this time. They listened to me go on and on about my uncertainties and disappointments. I am eternally grateful to them.

But I discovered something about the counsel of friends, which I have since observed to be consistently true in almost every case of a person in relationship travails and his or her friends rallying to their support:

Friends tell you what you want to hear.

It’s not like they conspire to do this. Nor is it that they lie to make you feel better. But they listen to you tell your tail of woe from your perspective in the midst of the pain. They hear how unhappy you are where you are, and how much you long to be somewhere else. And in that context, it seems completely reasonable to validate your feelings by confirming that yes, you deserve better, and yes, you would probably be happier if you left that relationship. After all, that’s what you just got finished saying. Your friends want you to be happy, and if they see you suffering and wanting something different in life, they will naturally encourage you to go after it.

I write this from the perspective of hindsight. At odds with what a lot of people were telling me to do, and what my own rationality told me was the healthy path, I stuck it out. That time of doubting came to an end, quite suddenly and with finality, almost a year ago. Since that time I have been joyfully content with my life and my relationship with Stacey. I have not, and will not, look back.

Something finally shifted inside me; about which I have written more elsewhere. But I haven’t written about this aspect of the shift: after seven years of wrestling with the call to independence that I had ignored and failed to honor, I was able to make peace with that side of myself. I was for the first time able to reconcile myself wholly and unreservedly to plan A. The big family and the beat-up table.

I feel as if I dodged a real bullet. I came so close to giving up. And I intuitively feel that if I had, if I had succumbed to the call of plan B, I would never have recovered. I would have become a confirmed bachelor, unable to ever again take the step that so unbalanced me the first time. I would have been a nut on a concrete floor, ever grasping up and out, ever trying to make things “perfect” before settling down – the perfect income, the perfect woman, the perfect emotional balance – ever unable or unwilling to put down roots.

I’ve run out of time, so: To be continued…

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  1. Wow, how thought provoking.

    I like how you were able to be so aware of yourself. I have had long and good relationships with men who simply have not thought long enough to realize this issue. I fear I could be there AGAIN right now!

    And 2 relationships ended because I very carefully and non threateningly got him to think about it. In fact, if I stick around long enough, they usually do. And they both chose B and said goodbye. Not no to ME. No to the PLAN!

    Why won’t they think about it, Avdi? Why wont they just realize what you realized? Why wont they realize sooner and not waste years of my time?

    And why does it seem like as the IQ goes up – so does the fear of marriage?

    This sucks. I’m turning 28 and I want the scratched up table too. And I think it says that on my forehead. Everyone knows. Why years before realizing he doesn’t want ME who wants plan A, you want plan B?

    So you are lucky that you even came to face that issue dead on. You have that one intelligence, that’s about intrapersonal communication (with yourself.)

    1. I apologize for getting a little personal here, but like I said.

      Everyone knows anyway.

      I miss your LJ posts.

      1. Thanks for your comments! I’m glad it had some meaning for you. Part Two is up, BTW.

        Why don’t they think? I can think of a lot of reasons. One, off the top of my head: boys in modern America are raised to be perpetual children. Once upon a time they were expected to take on some amount of responsibility at the age of 12 or younger. Now they aren’t even expected to quit mooching off their parents and figure out what they are doing with their lives until their mid 20s.

        Damn kids.

        Ya know, I’m usually more than happy to have long conversations about relationships and other Deep Thoughts. I think all my email and IM contact info is on my profile page; feel free to ping me sometime if you want.

        1. I seriously need to stop dating Peter Pan.

          I’ll look more carefully to see if he has a green hat with a red feather in his closet.

  2. geekiness and then seriousness..

    1. Geekiness–You aged and your wisdom went up +2 and thus the decision became clearer to you.

    2. semi-serious–There is a great saying I saw once–and it was actually, I kid you not, on a German Postcard in front of store that I was walking past back in the late nineties.

    It said: “Ein Mann, der keine Freunde hat, der ihm sagt, dass er einen Fehler gemacht hat, ist verloren.

    Translation: A man, who has no friends who will tell him that he has made a mistake, is lost.

    Yes.. it comes in a slightly trite form.. but I’ve always found that saying to be quite good. A good friend will actually disagree with you. It is hard, of course… no one wants to disagree with a friend.. but just as an intimate relationship must be founded upon trust and communication–so must friendship.

    I can say that in the past I did have my doubts about you two.. I prolly never spoke of them–because I did not feel that I had any justification–seeing that we’ve never actually spoken face to face for more than like 10 seconds..

    However.. I’ve tried, in my distance, to be supportive to both of the two of you as I’ve seen it.. and I can say that from the distance that I have.. that I’ve watched significant growth occur. and that makes me happy. Too many people do just give up–or rather–the just refuse to grow and take responsibility for their lives.

    You and Stacy have.

    And that is awesome.

    Of course.. this doesn’t mean that I inherently believe that all people need to stay together forever no matter what.. but it does make me happy when I see people physically work through the trials of life and to grow beyond themselves and contribute to this world a serious and strong bond.

    So.. in my way.. I’m saying congratulations.. and also congrats on the critter that you will soon be up sleepless nights with. Children–despite everything that they can do sometimes–are a joy. They make us better people.

    okay.. I’m off.. 🙂 Thanks for your post.

    1. Re: geekiness and then seriousness..

      I could probably have made it more clear that I don’t actually think that everyone should stay together forever. Just that the bias seems to me to be sufficiently in the other direction that a contrary voice couldn’t possibly hurt, and might cause someone to think twice who ought to.

  3. “But I discovered something about the counsel of friends, which I have since observed to be consistently true in almost every case of a person in relationship travails and his or her friends rallying to their support:

    Friends tell you what you want to hear.”

    I’ve lost friends specifically because of this in the past. I am not the sort of person to coach my words, and when I feel like I have something useful to say, I say it. On the other side of that, though, I’m careful to make sure that the people I consider to be my friends understand this and further appreciate that I expect their honest input into my life. When I ask for advice, I make it very clear that what I want is honesty and not just a pat on the head. When I am in the position to give advice, I also temper it with the suggestion that one should only take advice from someone happier than himself.

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