Happy, Part Two

Jezebel recently posted an article about marital happiness that scared the shit out of me.  I would like to be married again.  I would like to be happily, permanently married this time.  But if I want him to be happy (under the supposition that, in a happy marriage, *both* parties have to be happy) he’d better be five years older than me.  If I want to be happy, he’d better be five years younger than me…

Two husbands, then?

As usual, there are a bunch of things wrong with studies like this.  First, is the more fundamental question of expectations.  Dissatisfaction (because the researchers look at satisfaction, not happiness) happens in the gap between what you expected and what you got.  Second is the assumptions about what makes for emotional well-being.  The biggest of which have nothing to do with who you married.

Let’s start with this: the purpose of marriage is not to make you happy.  Perhaps, to quote Mr. Collins, the purpose of marriage is to add very greatly to one’s happiness, but marriage is not there to make you happy.  If that is why you are getting married, reconsider.  If you are unhappy unmarried, you are going to be unhappy married.  You can’t eliminate one by getting rid of the other.

Many things go into a sense of personal well-being.  Work hours, a sense of purpose, balance of work and life, fitness, diet, feelings of accomplishment, gratitude, community, connection, sleep…  Our cultural narrative wherein our spouses are the one source for everything that makes us either happy or unhappy is bullshit, and a lot of marriages are ruined on those expectations.  Our social need for connection was once met by an entire community, and now we put that all on one person.  It is too great of a burden to bear.  The expectation that one person will make us happy is unrealistic.  And the dissatisfaction that festers in the gap between this unrealistic expectation and the immutable reality that this is impossible…  let’s just say that divorce grows there too.

Which isn’t to say that we can’t help create an environment where both parties can thrive.  We can look out for one another.  But no one can be grateful for you.  No one can select your attitude but you.  No one can create an activity level that promotes your sense of well-being for you.  No one can interrogate your thoughts but you.  All of those unhappy people, would they be any happier divorced?  Married to someone older/younger/more attractive?  What would happen if they all wrote down three things they were grateful for every day?  What if they wrote down three things they like/love/appreciate about their spouse every day?

We research and report on this shit breathlessly, as if some grand discovery has been made of marriage or as a cautionary tale not to take that leap (it isn’t marriage one way or the other, but the ride or die* partnership that marriage implies).  So if you asked me if I am *happier* post divorce, the answer is yes.  Not because of the marriage in particular, or even my former spouse, but because I had so much growing to do.  I expected him to make me happy and he couldn’t.  He expected me… well, I’m not sure what he expected.  He’s probably happier too.  If he’s partnered up again, do I think he’s got a better partnership?  Only to the degree that he’s a better person himself.

I read this stuff and get scared that the whole partnership thing is doomed.  I really need to believe that it is possible to be happily married to a man I’d pick up and carry across the finish line if I had to, because I’d rather be late or not finish at all than go without him.  I want to be married to the man who feels the same way about me.  (Note: I am not remarried, so we see how that project is going.)  I’m a die-hard pragmatic romantic.  And if I sit still and think about it, I remind myself that these studies are deeply flawed.  So maybe they found out that smokers and non smokers don’t get along so well over time.  Fair enough.  That doesn’t mean they asked the right questions.

*Ride it out or die trying.

Happy, Part Two

1918

We had a pandemic in 1918 – H1N1, then known as the Spanish Flu.  Between 3 and 5% of the population died, most of them healthy young adults.  The healthiest people died because they had the best immune systems.  It wasn’t the virus that got them, it was the full-on counterattack mounted by their immune systems that did them in.  Let’s look at that again:

The virus didn’t kill them, their body’s reaction to the virus killed them.

Kind of like how it isn’t the feeling that’s the problem, it’s your feeling about the feeling.

Just sayin’.

And before someone smarter than me starts explaining to me that this isn’t a universal lesson about viruses, and some viruses really are the problem and will kill you.  I get that.  The analogy still holds.  No one is saying to ignore the issues in your life.  Serious stuff is still serious, and requires the feeling and then some kind of decision about what you’re going to do to change your circumstances.  But we all have the feeling, then the feeling about the feeling.  The trouble is stopping there.

The feeling is the virus.  The feeling about the feeling is your immune system trying to excise that feeling.  Ideally, if you quit with the feeling about the feeling, accept the original feeling as it is, listen to the thing it is trying to tell you, and then use that information to come to some kind of a measured response that takes into account your values and purpose and addresses the thing the feeling showed up to tell you…  you’re in a better place than if you just get stuck between the feeling and the feeling about the feeling.

1918

Somebody Else

A hazard of being the product of millennia of progenitors who were good at fitting into the social construct is the degree to which the idea of what I’m *supposed to be* refuses to budge.  This would be one of those things I keep to myself, except that I hear it from my friends as well.  They confront relationship challenges (not just the romantic ones) with this idea that they are *supposed* to have a reaction or approach that isn’t natural.  Who calls, how long before you respond to a text, what is okay to give for a birthday present.  You don’t want to give too much, but you also don’t want to be outdone by the other guy.  No one wants to show up at the birthday party with a homemade card when everyone else is boasting Hallmark.  Or whatever.

But here’s the deal with success or failure in your social endeavors (to include romantic relationships): win or lose, wouldn’t you rather it be for who you are, not for some role you’re playing?

Say you go down in flames.  If you crash and burn spectacularly because you were playing games or trying to be someone you aren’t, don’t you then end up living with the regret?  I’d wonder what might have happened if I’d just been myself, gone with my gut, followed what I was sure of, set my fears aside, stopped listening to the voice that told me there was something I was supposed to be, or the relationship was supposed to be, and just embraced what I was, what the relationship was, and what made me happy.  What if I’d just said what I feel, what I want, and let the cards fall where they might?

Come to think of it, I do live with that…  I can think of three relationships that crashed and burned because of the supposed to’s:  my first love in college – that never got off the ground because the difference between what it was and what it was supposed to be was insurmountable.  Part of the failure of my marriage can be blamed on me not being able to move past the gap between what it was and what I thought it was supposed to be.  I’ll not try to characterize the third relationship here.  Suffice it to say that we all struggle with the gap between reality and “supposed to.”

Moving on.  What if you succeed on the merits of being someone else…  Have you thought through the part where you’re going to have to sustain that charade.  Indefinitely?

I’m certainly not trying to claim that authenticity is easy.  It takes a lot of bravery to say “fuck it, this is who I am, this is how I feel, this is what makes me happy, this is what I want.”  It’s even harder to say all of that with complete ownership over yourself and no expectation that the world is going to bow to your will and deliver what it is that you want.  Consider the alternatives, though.  You can fake it and feel safe because you’re hiding behind the mask you think other people want to see, but succeed or fail, the long-term consequences are pretty difficult.

Between regret or sustaining the lie and the risk associated with just going with the best I can do with my authentic self, I think I’m aspiring to the risk.  If I’m going to go down, I can live with going down on the truth.  It’s easier to live with than losing something over an ephemeral “supposed to.”

The only possible caveat here is if your authentic self is a creep or an asshole.  In that case, become a nice person and then be your authentic self.

Somebody Else

Word Strategy

Language is a tool.  We use it to arrange the world in our favor, to remember, to be remembered, to connect, to understand, to learn, to teach.   I have a hard time conceptualizing what being human would be like without language.  We’d be no more than amoebas bumping into each other.  Language is our only means of escaping the boundaries imposed by the macro-impermeability of our skin.

We use words to get what we want.  Or to try to get what we want.  But we tend to do it badly, because the words we are comfortable with, the words that make us feel safe, are not the words we mean.

The cafeteria in our building has gotten dismal, so I walked across the street for lunch.  I wasn’t there to see the sparking incident, but I got the aftermath: two grown men yelling at each other even as the distance between them increased, with one guy yelling behind him “you arrogant sonofa…” and the other waving his hand and saying “yeah, yeah, yeah.”

News flash:  when you start insulting someone, they stop listening.  If your point is to vent your annoyance, go for it.  If your point is to communicate something meaningful, you might as well keep your mouth shut because all of the incoming channels shut down as soon as the attack begins.

Think of every person in the whole world like their own little mobile castle, fully armed and prepared for siege.  They walk around with the gates half-open, but a guy standing behind them ready to pull up the bridge over the moat at the first hint of a threat.  Words are the emissaries you send across the space.  As long as those words feel safe, the gate stays open.  As soon as the words become threatening, the bridge goes up, the gates go down, and while you can certainly lob some doozies over the wall, and they can create some lasting damage when they land, you aren’t getting behind that gate again until you can prove that you’re safe.

In my professional life, I talk about the author’s obligation to avoid creating resistance.  As a writer, you create resistance when you make it painfully obvious to your reader that the voice they are hearing in their head as they read is not their own.  You do this in any number of ways – by breaking the rules of suspended disbelief; by having atrocious grammar or spelling errors; by ignoring the logic of the world you’ve created; trite language; making your reader feel stupid…  I’ve just realized that the list of ways to create resistance in your reader is impossibly long to document.

As a user of words, you have two choices: bump along as you were using the words you are comfortable with and confused as to why you aren’t getting through, or get strategic with the realization that, to get what you want, you’re going to get a lot further when the other party is receptive and the only way you can influence his/her receptivity is by doing your damndest to avoid creating resistance.  You’ve got to be willing to put the work into thinking about it, thinking about what you are comfortable saying, what you mean, and between the two, which is going to be easier to receive on the part of your conversational partner.

Is it manipulative?  Yes.  But everything we do is manipulative.  Manipulative doesn’t have to be a bad thing.  Besides, when in the midst of a relationship negotiation, saying what you’re comfortable with is as much of a manipulation as deciding you’re going to say what you mean.  If threatening to leave feels authentic, but you’re saying it because you want him to beg you to stay or because you’re terrified he’s going to say he wants to leave first…  well, that’s a manipulation.  So what happens if you kill the adversarial posture and say what you mean.  I’m hurt and I’m scared and I want to be connected to you.  Are you vulnerable?  Yes.  But no more vulnerable than when you were throwing word-bombs and hoping he’d hug you in response.  At that stage, it is going to hurt anyway.  You might as well say what you mean.

It’s like my uncle explained to my ex husband: you can be right or you can be happy.  You can use the word strategies that you are comfortable with (and most of us are comfortable with a defensive verbal posture) or you can set your comfort zone aside and say what you mean.  When it comes to love (of whatever variety), I think the connections are way too critical to risk.  Tell your truth as gently and as honestly as you can.  If you lose, you lose, but at least you lost on your best effort.  I think that’s better than losing on a half-ass attempt.  If you lose on half-assed, don’t you always wonder what you might have gained if you’d simply told the truth?

No regrets.  Whatever it takes to get to no regrets, do that.

Word Strategy

The Argument Before the Argument

Words are vehicles for transmitting bits of yourself into someone else.  I bet you can think of something nice that someone said to you ten years ago.  I bet you know that person’s name, maybe what they were wearing at the time, and what their face looks like.  Similarly, I’m pretty sure you can look back ten years and see someone who said something hurtful to you.  Words are immortality, in a way, because so long as someone remembers our words, we live on.

Yes, so many of our words are throw-aways.  We talk about nothing and everything.  We talk to keep the air full of something.  We talk to remember that we exist.  And it isn’t always possible to know which words are going to be kept and which ones will vanish.  Not every conversation is a keeper.

But those conversations that are intended to be kept, the ones that make or break friendships, or love.  I want to talk about the words that we use in those.

Over the past week, I’ve talked to a couple of people contemplating serious conversations with people they love over the state of a relationship.  The pre-conversation conversation starts with “can I say this?” and then something comes out that I know has been considered and edited and rearranged for days, if not weeks, if not years.

And always, these things that we want to say are a hand extended by reaching around the shield.  Comments that give and take in the same breath.  Designed to hedge the bet about how the other guy is going to react, or to manipulate the other side of the conversation.  Part posturing, part supplication.  We’ve all done it, we’ve all been on the receiving end of it.  And it is maddening.

With one friend, we started out with “why do you hate me” and ended up with what she really wanted to say, which was “can we try this again?”  “Why do you hate me” is easier to say.  It is less vulnerable.  There isn’t the possibility of a “no” at the end of it.  It is demanding rather than giving, it seeks an outcome rather than saying what it is.  There’s not much by way of honesty in it, unless you count the honest desire for engagement behind it.  “Can we try this again” is straightforward.  It opens you up for a clear, clean “no.”  It is vulnerable.  It admits a wanting for something that you might not be able to have.  But it is also distinctly lacking in coercion, manipulation, passive-aggressiveness, or attempts to control the outcome.  It’s terrifying.  It’s impossibly vulnerable for someone who has been hurt – and we’ve all been hurt.

I saw some back and forth over text from another friend.  “I know you’ve moved on…” one party said.  Well, did they know that?  Or was that a defense mechanism and a backhanded way to ask “have you moved on?”  And the conversation disintegrated from there until no one knew what the other guy was saying because the words that were being used hadn’t been born clean.  The words were stuck trying to carry too much that was at odds with itself.

We all plan these conversations.  We argue before we argue, working out strategy about how we’re going to play the different aspects of our position, using our real pain in manipulative ways to orchestrate the empathy in our favor. It isn’t like you aren’t thinking about how to have that conversation already.

Unfortunately, the reality is that it is going to hurt either way you go about it.  All of your fancy words and making the meaning double up on itself until no one can tell which is sincere and which is sarcastic; even your manipulations, trying to nudge things in your favor, even that is going to hurt.  Negotiating relationships hurts.  Full stop.  It’s scary.  And there is no way to protect yourself from the terror, at least not if you want an authentic connection.

From a writer.  As a writer.  As someone who thinks about using words well all the damn time.  Really.  All the damn time.  Play that conversation out.  With every iteration, push your words closer to simplicity and closer to the naked truth until you can get to the plainest words there are.  Words that don’t try to shape the other person’s answer.  Just the words.  Remember: this is someone you love.  This is someone you believe you need in your life.  This is someone who makes everything better when they’re in the room.  They fart sunshine and shit glitter.  You can’t stop thinking about them.  It’s been years and you’re still missing them.  They’re still all you can see.  The first thing on your mind in the morning; the falling asleep breath on your pillow holds their name.  Start with the truth, and let the truth set you free.

I miss you.  I love you.  I want you to be happy, and I want to be a part of your happy. What can I do to make that happen?

The Argument Before the Argument

Perfect

It’s becoming a bit of an obsession, this idea that not everything has to be perfect for everything to be perfect.  I’m living by it these days.  Everything isn’t perfect.  There is a list of three things that I really want that I don’t have, and at least one of these things …  well, let’s just say its absence is both uncomfortable and persistent.

But everything doesn’ t have to be perfect for everything to be perfect.  Sunsets.  Cool weather – at least for July.  Friends.  Music.  There’s perfection everywhere, in small doses.

Everything doesn’t have to be perfect for everything to be perfect.  I can live with that.

Perfect

Selfish Spike

Yes, I’m going back to Buffy.

The thing is, I don’t trust your self sacrifice.  Because you don’t mean it.  Not really.  It arises out of the war you’re having with your selfishness, the part of you that says “I don’t care what it costs, I want that,” and while your self-sacrifice might slip, your selfishness is a constant.  Your self sacrifice will keep you from getting all the way in.  Your selfishness will keep you on the margins, a perpetual stalker, Angel skirting the edges of wherever Buffy happens to be, all mopey and puppy-eyed.  Fuck you and your tragic little war.

In that war, there is madness.  If that madness was confined to you, well, you brought it on yourself.  But it spreads and now I get to be a raving lunatic too.  I don’t actually enjoy the lunacy, thanks.

See, I’m not yours to save.  Don’t take that personally, the only one with a responsibility to save me is me.  There’s no need to worry that you’re so damaged, so dangerous, that you’re going to destroy me.  Trust me, if it comes to that, I am more than capable of surviving.  I’ve gotten through your crazy up until now; I’ve survived worse than you.  Doubt your own ability to survive if you must (because surely that’s the more honest concern) but don’t doubt me.

And don’t doubt my selfishness either.  Because that’s where I’m coming from.  I’m here because things are better next to you.  Simple.   I don’t know if I’m good for you.   I’ll try, absolutely.  Because I’m selfish and if being next to you is good for me, then I kind of need to do what I can to make sure you’re next to me.  Usually, that involves being good to you.  But I’m not here to save you.  I’m too busy saving myself.  I trust you to decide if I’m good for you.  If this is good for you.  I mean, I’d invite you to sit down and compare the weeks when you’re spending time with me to the weeks where you aren’t spending time with me to sort out which go better for you…  because I’m pretty sure I know what the outcome of that analysis is going to look like.

It’s a clean exchange.  There’s no coercion.  Nothing wobbly or conflicted or dishonest.  There are no lies here.   I want you.  This is what I can do.  This is what I’m going to suck at.  Here’s what I’ll aim for to make the parts of me that are impossible to live with a little easier on you.  If you’re going to find the failure in the Spike argument, this might be it (though I am going to contradict myself in a second).  He went for coercion, and of the physical variety.  Not justifiable.

But perhaps mitigated by the crazy that happens when you love someone embroiled in that war between their selfishness and the meta-conversation about what they think they should feel.*   There’s no justification.  I’m not saying that there is.  But lets tell the truth.  We’ve all been there, and there is no kind of madness like mixed signals.  What Spike should have done is taken her at her no and walked away.  How long do you think it would have taken for Buffy’s selfish to get the upper hand?  We know this story.   You really want to piss someone off, give them what they ask for.

It isn’t like I haven’t seen this at work.  Selfishness of this variety has a price too.  The truth is everything costs something.   And when you’re talking about a love conviction that runs bone-deep, the highs are beyond belief and the lows are wicked.   It costs.  But ambivalence costs too.   The lows won’t unravel you, but maybe something in you is always looking for that purity of desire.

Not everyone is the same.   Not everyone would come to the same conclusion.  But for me?  Give me Spike and the honesty of his selfishness.  Maybe it is going to be a clusterfuck, but at least we’ll be doing it together.  At least we’ll be where we are, not divided between our good intentions and the inner animal always pulling in the opposite direction.  Trust this, if nothing else.  If I’m with you it’s because that’s exactly where I want to be.  It is pure selfishness.  I’m happier next to you in a thrift store than I would be alone in Scotland.  That’s pretty serious, because Scotland is where I am most at home.   Nothing else would convince me to let you in.

Meanwhile, I’m not interested in your meta-analysis about what happens ten years from now.  If we take care of today, ten years from now will take care of itself.  Is your life better with me in it?  Do you roll over in the middle of the night and, before your reason can kick in, wonder why I’m not there?   If so, you’d better do something about that.  Give me your selfishness and show up.

I’ll do the same.

 

*I’ll talk about that particular clusterfuck later.

Selfish Spike