Guest post by Barbara Lewis
I was forewarned that literature could corrupt a person. That didn’t stop me from reading everything in front of me. But what really grabbed my attention were the French novels like “The Red and the Black” or “Liasons Dangerouses” or “The Immoralist”–novels depicting a scorching portrayal of romantic love.
To make matters worse I developed an affinity for existential philosophy and my favourite professor was the one who taught a class called “Love is the Enemy.”
You would think with this arsenal of ideas tucked in my head I would’ve been smart enough not to get married, but I wasn’t. And I did.
And five years later I divorced–not because of jealousy issues, but for a plethora of domestic travails that are too boring to go into. I will say that I was miserably unfulfilled and stayed as long as I did only because we had a child in common.
Did this cure me of my desire to pair bond? Of course not! I blamed my ex for things not working out and assumed someone different– someone better– would work out.
I also believed this new relationship would work, because I had given up on the idea that there was one ideal person for me. I had exorcised the vague, shadowing image of Prince Charming that had been tucked in the back of my mind. (My Prince Charming was loosely based on my college philosophy professor.)
I realized I had subconsciously measured my partner up to this ideal, always to his detriment. I knew that my chances of finding the imaginary person in my head were non-existent, and so I decided instead to focus on finding someone with whom I could have fun and enjoy life.
I realized that there would be things that annoyed me about anyone, that we are all flawed, and that being friends with someone, enjoying them, and communicating with them as a friend were key to a successful relationship.
And so I married my friend Nick, with whom I loved hanging out, talking, and drinking wine into the wee hours of the morning. We travelled together, had a baby together, bought a house together… You get the picture.
Fast forward a few years and picture us arguing. I’m angry and yelling at him to leave me alone. I lock myself in the bedroom. He is banging on the door, begging me to come out. These types of fights have been getting worse over the past six months.
Here is where we might be tempted to do the how-did-we-get-to-this-point evaluation. We might call upon Freudian psychology, summon our childhood, blame our insecurities, our “baggage,” or our problems in communication, and I would agree that all are contributing factors to the breakdown of the relationship. But that’s not THE REASON a relationship breaks down. People spend countless hours retracing the steps that led to the argument and psychoanalysing one another. Stop spinning your wheels and accept this:
Myth: a relationship breaks down because there’s something wrong with either or both of us and if we can fix it, we will mend the relationship.
I’m going to take a sidebar for a moment to give collateral information. My husband and I are both educated (doctorates) professionals from “good” families. We don’t have financial issues, drug issues, or mental health issues. We both have a good support network of friends, family, and community.
I personally work with patients who are acutely mentally ill such that they need to be involuntarily hospitalized. My clients have relationship issues. They have difficulty getting along with family, difficulty keeping friends, and often times they are difficult even with the professionals employed to help them. Same with drug addicts. Most people do not have across-the-board relationship issues like these clients.
All people have baggage and insecurities to some degree. But we can all probably agree that unless someone suffers from a personality disorder, mental illness, or addiction, their baggage and insecurities do not prevent them from interacting in a friendly way with most people most of the time. After all, we are social creatures.
Now think of your most heinous moment in a romantic relationship. Would you ever have a moment like that with someone if you weren’t romantically involved with them? Probably not. So it isn’t the insecurities, baggage, communication issues, or incompatibilities that cause romantic relationships to break down–it is the nature of the relationship itself.
The romantic aspect brings out our deepest fears and longings. It is within these relationships that we expect our deepest desires to be filled and to grow through the intimacy. And this is where we are mistaken. Your partner should not be your therapist.
I found that I do not grow from these fights. Sure, I can come away with a lesson, but the lesson was usually that I would prefer never to have been in the situation to begin with. The most growth that occurred was the maturity that came from shedding my romantic ideals and not placing expectations on my partner to complete me.
Truth: Your fights don’t help you grow. I know that’s hard to accept because it means admitting that you’ve wasted your time expending energy in that way. But the truth is there’s nothing wrong with you that’s going to be fixed by having fights with your partner. You fight because your ideas of romantic love produce frustration, which will never go away until you stop expecting your partner to be anything other than what he or she currently is.
We don’t expect our friends, neighbours, or co-workers to change to meet our needs. It’s incredibly arrogant to expect it from someone because we’re intimate with them.
Once you realize this, you also realize that you don’t really have any reason to be angry with the other person if their path of self-fulfilment diverges from yours. It was a huge relief to simply accept that I could allow Nick to pursue what he wanted even if it meant our paths diverged.
Yes, that even means accepting it if he wants to be intimate with other people. Loving him means I want him to be happy, not that I want him to make me happy. Neither of us should have to compromise our integrity, life path, or joie de vivre (joy of life) to make one another happy.
People say romantic relationships take compromise. But compromise shouldn’t mean giving up what you want for your life in favour of whatever it takes to keep the relationship going. When I think of compromising with my friends, it’s usually over what kind of wine we order or what movie we will see.
My friends don’t ask me to compromise who I am or what I want in life to suit their vision of what they want a friend to be. But that’s what we do in romantic relationships.
All relationships change. Sylvia Plath claimed never to have thrown out a poem she was working on. If she started out with one idea in mind and it wasn’t working out on paper, she would allow it to become something else.
It’s like a carpenter that starts out making a chair only to realize that his creation is looking more like a footstool. He can make either a mediocre chair or a beautiful footstool. Or foolishly, he can throw the whole thing away.
We work so hard to force our relationships to be what we want them to be, all the while forgetting that the other person is not an accoutrement to our life, but a person with a life of their own that they should experience completely.
Other people are not here for our benefit.
Ending the sexual aspect of a relationship doesn’t have to mean the loss of the relationship. It just becomes something else. We can allow the relationship to evolve, or continue fighting until we hate one another for not being what we want and expect.
It’s unrealistic to expect that one person will meet 100% of your needs. That person was not placed on this earth to make you fulfilled.
Truth: You don’t have to lose someone you care about from your life if you allow the relationship to evolve.
People are not commodities to be used until they don’t fit our purpose then thrown away. People are people who should be allowed to find fulfilment in the short period of time they have on this earth, and we can enjoy one another for who we are.
I view my separation with Nick as not really a separation but more like a shift. I believe we are happier living separate. There is an incredible sense of freedom and relief in having time and space of my own.
We can still have dinner and drink wine, talking until 3 am. We can still travel or go dancing or have sex if we both want to. The only thing that’s changed is the idea that we own one another, and the expectation that we will fulfil 100% of one another’s needs.
The enduring refrain that remains after this is “but what about the child?” Alas, I wish we were more communal, and that people congregated together to raise children as a group. But the acquisition of property destroyed that goodness. (Incidentally Aristotle makes a very compelling argument that property should not be inheritable, but rather escheat to the state upon the death of an individual.)
To the question of what happens to the child, well, I will say that when both parties still love (want the other to be happy) and respect one another, co-parenting is joyous whether or not the parents are romantic.
This is just my opinion. It is my path, my truth, my joie de vivre. Each person must find their own.
Further Reading : A Suffocating Kinda Love
Barbara Lewis is a criminal defence attorney living in Southern California. She has dedicated her career to public interest work, providing legal support to indigents, mentally ill and developmentally disabled individuals.
Barbara worked at a union supporting workers’ rights in Washington D.C., an immigration firm supporting undocumented workers in Virginia, and is currently a Public Defender in Ventura, CA.
She has maintained an avid intellectual interest in women’s rights.
Barbara has degrees in English Literature, Religious Studies, and the law.