The Relationship Contrarian, Part Two

(Be sure to read Part One first)

We live in an age of unprecedented choice. More than in perhaps any other time and place, we 21st century Westerners can choose our path in life, and then if it doesn’t suit us we can change our minds with limited consequences. We also live in an age of reason. A common definition of irrationality is performing the same action over and over again, expecting a different result. And we live in a generation that has absorbed the admonition to “follow your bliss”, and all too often interpreted that to mean whatever makes you happy right now. In this age of choice and reason (two ideals I advocate vociferously), it is irresponsible to advise someone you care about to to keep working at something that is obviously making them miserable. And if you do, you had better have a good reason to back it up. Some persuasive reason why things will be different this time, that the unhappy partner can cling to.

I came from a religious background that does not honor choice and reason so highly. The fundamentalist ethic is: God says you must stay together, and so you must. Period. No, you don’t get a reason. No, you don’t even get a promise that things will turn out all right if you do what he says. He didn’t say to do it so that such-and-so will happen; he just said do it. And that’s all there is to it.

I’m starting to think there’s some real wisdom in the latter position. Bear with me.

A few months ago I and a team of doctors and nurses held my stepson down, confused, screaming and writhing in pain as a doctor drove a large needle into the back of his spine. I could have explained to him that this was in his long-term best interest, that what we were doing could very well be saving his life from a fast-moving brain infection. It would not have done him any good. He was way past the place where reason would give him something to cling to. The best I could do was to reassure him as best I could and tell him that it just had to be done, that he had to trust me and do his best to cooperate just because. No message more complicated than that could have gotten through.

Here’s the problem with the reason-based approach: from inside the the turmoil of a failing relationship, there may be no rational argument strong enough to give you the strength to carry on. Convincing or not, reasonable or not, it doesn’t matter. Rationality is a lousy life preserver in those black seas.

Sometimes, it’s far easier to cling to “just because” than to reasonable arguments. You can rationalize away any reason-based argument. You can’t rationalize away “just because”.

Ah, but that spinal tap really was in my stepson’s best interest. How could I possibly know that things are going to turn out all right in the long run in any given relationship?

Well, I don’t. But here’s the thing that almost all reason-based approaches fail to take into account, even the ones that take a relatively long view: sometimes the pain itself is the reason.

When you go to a friend for advice about your unhappy relationship, you can expect that they will try in some way to mitigate the pain you feel. Either by offering strategies to try and fix it, or by counseling you to leave the relationship – one way or another, they are trying to reduce the pain you are feeling. Because they love you, and they don’t like to see you hurt.

Back to me. When I emerged from those seven lean years, it wasn’t because Stacey suddenly changed completely (although she had been slowly changing all along, as people will over time). It wasn’t because I got a great new therapist. It wasn’t because I figured a new approach out, or made an ultimatum. In fact, it wasn’t anything I did at all.

During those years that I chose to exist within the uncertainty and volatility of a rocky relationship, slow processes were moving in my unconscious mind, beneath the level of observation. In that hot crucible where I chose to wrestle with my unresolved desires and unmet needs instead of walking away, an alchemical change was taking place. One day the gears of my internal clockwork clicked one last time, and I realized only then that a subtle but revolutionary change had taken place. Examining myself in the aftermath with what intuition I can muster, I am almost certain that that change would not have come about if it were not for the catalyzing effect of conflict. Certainly it would not have happened nearly as soon.

And that’s the factor that is left out in most people’s calculations about relationships: the value of the conflict itself. And no wonder – who wants to think that pain and heartache might be necessary?

But am I going to explain all this to the next friend who comes to me in turmoil about his or her relationship? No, probably not. Explanations are cheap and unconvincing in the midst if distress.

No, chances are I’m just going to say Stick it out. Because I said so. Trust me. Cry on my shoulder all you like, but stick it out.

What if I’m wrong? It could happen. But I can be pretty certain he or she will be getting plenty of the opposite advice from other people, so it’s not like my advice will go unbalanced.

And the rewards, if I’m right, will be worth it. Because the strength and vitality of a relationship that has been stubbornly through the fire and come out the other side is awe-inspiring.

Trust me on that one.

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  1. Isn’t that really the point of marriage, though? A reason to not walk away on the bad days? A promise that what you have with your spouse is something that can’t just be forgotten and moved past? Something recognized by your family, the government, and possibly God that reminds you where you chose to be during the times that you might want to be somewhere else? You could be just as in love and just as committed without marriage on the good days, but what’s to keep you from walking away when it gets hard?

    1. You’re absolutely right, but I see so many people treating marriage as a glorified shack-up and rationalizing their way right back out of it. I think people have forgotten that it was SUPPOSED to be reminder that you really meant to stick this thing out even when you couldn’t quite remember why.

      1. Yes, that is really sad.

  2. Yanno, I believed that too. Right now, I am trying to learn the opposite, since I tend to stick it out until my partner starts UTTERLY DESTROYING ME and eventually rejects me.

    Think I should have stuck it out with Gregg?

    < /bitter>

    1. Now might not be the best time to discuss this, but when you say “I believed that too”, what is your timeframe? In conversations with you over the past few years I got the impression that you stopped believing that a long time ago. Was that incorrect?

      1. Sort of. It is a matter of my behavior not matching my stated beliefs on the matter. While I clearly SAY that sticking it out in destructive circumstances is a bad plan, I nevertheless continually DO just that. I stick things out long beyond the point where they are obviously killing me, sometimes metaphorically, sometimes literally.

        I’m working on reconciling the two.

    2. I dont know the answer to that.

      Avdi said a few things that struck a chord with me, and one that made me think of you and Gregg: I do think that your friends tell you what you want to hear. So did his.

      1. I do think that your friends tell you what you want to hear.

        This much I concur with. I can (obviously) only speak for what I have seen on your LJ and overheard at get-togethers, however.

        See my explanation of that statement in the post, too – I don’t think it’s a conscious attempt to deceive. We all have an urge to validate and remove our loved ones from pain.

      2. Some of my friends do and some of them don’t. That wasn’t really the issue in my case though. Being with Gregg made me want to kill myself. Not figuratively, but for real. I went to the doctors and said “If you don’t do something I will kill myself.” I guess that really should have been a warning sign, but Gregg had already convinced me I was crazy. A lot of my friends told me I was in a bad situation and I didn’t listen, because that isn’t what I wanted to hear. NOW they are telling me I made a good decision, but what does it matter now? I already know that.

        1. Avdi had me believing I really was crazy, too. And I often did want to kill myself because I just couldn’t handle the thought that I might really have lost my marbles, so to speak. It was the kids, and a lot of hard work on myself with the help of my therapist and psychiatrist that helped me pull through. And I did a lot of waiting, thinking to myself, “One day he’s going to realize what he’s got…” -although not in a conceited way. I was too down on myself to have been conceited.

          And it really does take two to make it work. Some relationships have to fail. Take my first marriage. If I had stayed in that relationships I know that I would have been miserable by now – limited, frustrated, unable to pursue those things that bring me joy.

          Ultimately I think we can only speak from hindsight in most cases. Avdi and I made it work, and we’re so much more blissfully happy now than I think either of us ever could have imagined.

    3. This, perhaps more than anything else I’ve written, is served with a big big helping of YMMV.

  3. I see you have many comments already..

    … and this is a highly provocative post–in a very good way… I have much to say to it…

    I could try to post it all here.. and I’d happily do so.. but it will prolly take many posts..

    Or I can post it in my journal and reference this post…

    Any thoughts of yours on which you would prefer and I’ll get to posting.. 🙂

    1. Re: I see you have many comments already..

      I’m a big fan of cross-blog conversations… they get more people involved, and you don’t feel like you have to watch your step because you’re on someone else’s turf. So I guess my preference is that you post on your journal, but NOT because I don’t want it here!

      Just remember that this is yet another exercise in me making broad statements which don’t really capture the nuances or exceptions, because I just don’t have the time or energy to fill in every proviso and counter-argument 🙂

      1. Cool…

        … and my comments are more geared towards a self-reflection than a “no, this is how it really is…” kind of thing…

        Basically.. I find the post provocative not because I judge it to be wrong.. but more because I think it expresses a path that works for you and may work for others–but may not work for me… for various reasons that have much to do with the summation of different experiences and values that I’ve encountered in my life…

        As I’ve remarked upon before–you and I have some very different ways of seeing things.. our paradigms and frames of reference are very different.. (for a multitude of reasons).. and I find that quite interesting…

        in any case in my spare moments today… (I’m plowing through 4000 quotes and references for the last two chapters of my dissertation–organizing and sorting them.. while also preparing for a trip to Myrtle Beach SC that starts Friday Morning with Jai and three Teenagers in a Toyota Highlander).. I shall get to it.. I hope. 🙂

        1. Re: Cool…

          Yeah, YMMV probably applies to this series as much or more than anything else I’ve written.

          I look forward to your thoughts!

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