Monday, December 01, 2014

You Can't White Knuckle Relationship Success

In most of my writing, I make a point to leave partners and significant others out of them. This is partially an act of benevolence, but mostly a need to keep at least a few secrets to myself. Even an ambitious and driven person such as myself should remember to always leave an escape route. Showing rather than telling is the first maxim of creative writing, at least as I was taught.

Last week, I wrote about a young woman who sought a boyfriend. Her one judging criteria was that he self-identify as feminist. It won me some sharp criticism, in particular one memorable comment that accused me of seeking to put a twenty-one-year old in her place. I recall that at 21 I wanted to be taken seriously, so I merely extended the same courtesy to her.

Her primary litmus test for relationship suitability was a man who was a feminist, and by that she mostly meant that she wanted a man who respected women. While I respect her desires, and agree with them, I'm afraid the reality goes beyond any single movement and a set of legalistic beliefs. She was lamentably ensnared by a forgery, a man who claimed to be and sounded like what she wanted but who disregarded sexual consent behind closed doors. Her conclusion was that no man could truly be a feminist.

Egalitarian partnerships and marriages are prized and desired by many, myself included. I've heard from several women, at least the ones who partner with men, that they want a boyfriend to understand a little bit about women's rights without fearing emasculation or ridicule. It's a worthy request, but if a man isn't at least halfway down the path before her arrival, I fear she is wasting her time.

If a woman feels that she needs to constantly emphasize and reinforce proper behavior and basic human courtesy, the cause is likely lost from the very beginning. There will be no equality. Successful relationships are built not just on an equal distribution of power, but an equal distribution of love and genuine, lasting concern for the other. Selfishness has no place. In my own life, if I've felt a strong connection with a partner, I rarely needed to be reminded of the proper way of conducting myself. Though I would never be optimistic enough to think that love conquers all, but it does separate the suitable from the pretenders.

Each of us can exist on our own best behavior for a little while. Many relationships begin promisingly enough, but problems can develop and worsen with time. When we first meet someone, we often begin by trying to impress them. A friend of mine described successful relationships as tough mountain hikes that give way to beautiful vistas worthy of contemplation. Once primary goals are accomplished comes cohabitation, the ultimate test for lasting stability. Either we are easy to live with, or not.

How we are brought up is important to how we behave around others, at least to an extent. My parents' forty-year-long marriage has been egalitarian in some respects, and highly one-sided in others. Regardless of her strong identification with women's liberation in a younger self, when it came down to actual parenting, my mother only partially accomplished her goal of total self-sufficiency.

When it came time to mete out discipline, Mom and Dad were a unified unit. My two sisters and I were raised strictly and, I think, successfully. Mom had primary domain over the girls and my father took that role with me. But the manner in which the both of them shared overlapping parental responsibilities I can say now with adult insight was executed almost flawlessly.

However, when it came time for crisis management techniques, so to speak, my father was thrust into a very traditional role because he had no other choice. Mom threw her hands up in the air, begging my father to resolve the problem, often stuck in bed, too emotionally wrecked to participate. I could have resented her for dereliction of duty, but I saw my mother's frailties for what they were, a sign of illness. Those were her worries alone. I doubt any of us blamed my mother for her sometimes frayed nerves and bouts with depression, least not me.

As a child, I had no real concept, nor any understanding what my parents should have done in any given situation. I either accepted the decisions made or rejected them. My mother did the best she could and I have never judged her harshly. I maintain that my mother is a tremendously strong woman regardless of whichever definition one uses, regardless of the circumstances. She cannot be faulted for seeking to be the perfect mother, even though this self-assigned burden taxed her severely. Should she from time to time violate her own standard, even without intending it, no one took it harder than she did.

Strong women come in many forms. The women in my life have not been deferential and compliant to anyone's standard, nor a need to conform to whatever a woman is supposed to be. One of my sisters has recently dealt with a collection of traumatizing experiences that have left behind many scars that remain fresh to the current day. She was married for a time to a physically and emotionally abusive man. He hid his behavior well in the beginning, but soon she had to accept that the man she fell in love with was not the same person when the two of them were alone.

Jung theorized that a man seeking a heterosexual relationship was, in essence, capturing aspects of his mother in those to whom he was primarily attracted. If this is true, it would explain much about my own choices, and, if the genders and sexual orientations are properly assigned, everyone else's, too. Past girlfriends have been emotionally intense and artistic, but with a secret vulnerable side that always took me a while to discover for myself.

We return to the question by which I opened this post. What determines an egalitarian relationship? The more I think about it, I believe it's based on intent rather than follow through. Rest assured, I've made mistakes in bushels. Relationship partners have made mistakes. But forgiveness was a constant. There was enough affection and devotion between us that made up for anything that went wrong. For me, the moment the laughing, the playfulness, and the mutual silliness that falls under the category of affection went away, the end was nigh.      

Women often feel they need to closely regulate their life decisions down to the micrometer. In particular, this often shows up during pregnancy and, following that, being a mother. My mother ate protein-rich food during her pregnancy, wanting me to be as healthy as possible. Then when I turned out to have chronic health conditions, she blamed herself for what she had consumed, even though there is no scientific basis that tuna fish causes fetal damage.

The perfect woman, or those who aspire to be the perfect woman have to check many boxes, and my sympathies are with those who believe they must be everything to everyone.

It took my mother to reach her early sixties and retirement to finally live for herself. She looks relaxed and liberated now, a woman liberated at last, having reached or discarded the goals she set for herself decades earlier. Even though it makes no logical sense, I see women streaming past me every day on the bus and the rail with pursed lips and a countenance of extreme purpose. They are on their own crusade.

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