Saturday, July 05, 2014

Two demented people

Seen around Facebook: "How We End up Marrying the Wrong People." I have some quibbles with the title--the piece is as much about how relationships work as why they don't--and I find its use of the first-person plural both wearying and a little odd, especially given its lack of a byline.* Nevertheless, it speaks to a lot of things I believe about relationships.

Here's a taste:

All of us are crazy in very particular ways. We're distinctively neurotic, unbalanced and immature. . . . A good partnership is not so much one between two healthy people (there aren't many of these on the planet), it's one between two demented people who have had the skill or luck to find a non-threatening conscious accommodation between their relative insanities.

Or as one of the smartest observers of relationships I know once said, "The choice of a partner is the choice of which incompatibilities you're willing to live with for the rest of your life."**

We believe we seek happiness in love, but it's not quite as simple. What at times it seems we actually seek is familiarity.

Human beings aren't good at sorting signal from noise, or identifying which part of a person or relationship is triggering which reaction. I may respond positively to a relationship that feels comfortingly like an old one, without seeing what else is wrapped up in that feeling--or I may react negatively to someone who reminds me of someone else, even if the thing triggering that feeling is unrelated to whatever bad experience I previously had.

We imagine that marriage is a guarantor of the happiness we're enjoying with someone. It will make permanent what might otherwise be fleeting. It will help us to bottle our joy. . . . [But] getting married has no power to keep a relationship at this beautiful stage. . . .In fact, marriage will decisively move the relationship on to another, very different moment: to a suburban house, a long commute, two small children. The only ingredient in common is the partner. And that might have been the wrong ingredient to bottle.

I've got nothing to add to that one except to say that I don't see as much of this as I used to--which is to say, I know fewer catastrophically mismatched couples and fewer people who rush impulsively into long-term commitments. I don't love each and every partner of my each and every friend--occasionally I even prefer one of their exes--but most the people I know are now in relationships that work, where their partnership feels well-balanced. Often this is because the bad matches have broken up or gotten divorced, but in other cases they've gone through years of growth, with or without therapy.

Most people get smarter about relationships as they age, learn more about themselves, and learn more about other people. Or put another way: they get better at recognizing their own dementedness, and seeking out a complementary form of crazy in someone else.

*Once I clicked on the website I realized I'd dimly heard of the organization behind it, The School of Life (which I'm pretty sure is pronounced The School of Life).

**I think this is a paraphrase of something in John Gottman's outstanding, if cheesily titled, Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.


Doctor Cleveland said...

Having read this post, I think you're nuts.

But then, I'm probably nuts, too.

PhysioProffe said...

Yeah, I can see the truth in the concept that successful marriages are based on complementary dementednesses.

phd me said...

From the tidbits you've excerpted, I have to agree: we're all crazy, it's just a matter of how to match the crazy. And that is awfully hard.

Flavia said...

PhD Me:

Well, it is and it isn't. I'm not sure it's anything you can go out searching for. . . but once you find a complementary crazy, then it's pretty easy.

I have a longtime friend, H.K. For years one or the other of us would periodically tell the other how patient and tolerant she was--because the people who drove me nuts didn't bother her, and vice versa. It took longer than it should have for us to realize that we were actually each pretty laid back about certain neuroses and foibles in others. . . just not the same ones.

It's the same with dating. I had this idea of myself, for a long time, as an exceptionally difficult or demanding person to be in a relationship with. And, sure: I have a strong personality and I have some faults. But that perception was actually more about the personalities I was dating, and how their neuroses interacted with mine. Those boyfriends weren't wrong to find things about me difficult (and I hasten to add that they were great people and great partners), but it was really that there were a few crucial areas in which our neuroses conflicted sharply, and sent us into occasional spirals of hurt feelings, irritation, defensiveness, etc., that were hard to resolve or avoid.

But then I met someone who had a different set of neuroses, and who just. . . didn't seem to notice, or at least didn't take personally, the things that had caused the trouble with the others. It was pretty liberating to realize that I was only averagely difficult or averagely crazy.

DDB said...

I love it. "Averagely difficult or averagely crazy".

Susan said...

Can I say that I really hate the idea that we're "distinctively neurotic, unbalanced and immature". It seems to let us off the hook for growing up. I'd like to think that the reason that your friends are now in "well-balanced" relationships is that they have, on some level grown up -- in terms of self-knowledge, expectations, whatever. I mean, sure, we all have minor neuroses, and a successful marriage has to navigate these, but maybe we're not all unbalanced.

And maybe we're not all special, either!

Flavia said...


I assumed the author to be speaking (at least somewhat) hyperbolically; certainly, I was taking his or her words that way.