Friday, December 4, 2009

The problem with relationships

The problem with relationships is that you never really know who you are dealing with until you live with them. People can be all kinds of things in their public lives, and be someone completely different in their private life. The problem is that by the time you get to know someone for who they are privately, you are likely well down the path of forming a life around that person. You may have reorganized many aspects of your life to fit that person in, and various people have all sorts of expectations of you and this relationship. Things might have been rolling along just fine between you and surprise! You learn that your partner is going to spend a lot of time looking at internet porn, or expects to have control of the thermostat at all times, or that they hate to go grocery shopping and you're going to be doing it by yourself. These seem like small things, but they are not. These are the things that can make or break your life together. These are the things that can make daily life a living hell.

Earlier in Western culture, marriage was permanent. Most people got married, and stayed that way because leaving was not a socially acceptable or legally readily available option. That is how marriages kept people together. I am not suggesting that I think everyone has to get married, or that they should have to stay in relationships that are damaging in some way. I'm just saying that the idea of leaving was not there in the way it is now, looming over every aspect of your relationship as the ultimate solution to whatever problem you have in front of you.

I think this is why couples have a hard time solving problems in their relationships, at least in western society. You don't really have to solve relationship problems now. You don't really have to negotiate about anything. Not going to do what I want? No problem! I'm leaving. I've actually conducted an informal peer survey around this. I asked people how often one or both partners suggest or say outright that they are leaving during an argument. Every single person I talked to said that this happens in most if not all of their arguments. Leaving may not actually happen, but the words are still there, hovering over the relationship, like a permanent thought-bubble in a comic strip that otherwise proceeds.

I also think there is a link between this mentality and consumerist culture. Consumerism trains us to think that we can always have what we want, and if the thing we have now is not what we want, we can throw it out and get a new one.

Somehow, we have to get back to understanding that people (and all things, really) are not disposable. We have to get back to thinking that once we have committed to someone, we are there for life, come what may. We have to get back to problem solving. We have to accept that we may have to take a step forward into territory we hadn't planned on entering, and that we might have to accept something that we do not want. We have to get back to valuing the happiness and contentment of our partners. And the bigger trick seems to be that BOTH people have to do this. One person can try to make this leap, but if their partner is not there with them, both people are going end up angry and bitter.

I have no idea how to get there. These are just some things I've been thinking about, as I've been learning about being married, and as I've been watching some relationships end in the lives of people around me.

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