I’m a Questioner. The day I found that out, so many things clicked into place for me. Like many of my kind, I learned about something new (the Rubin Tendencies), and it took hold of me and I started thinking about it (and talking about it) constantly. I dragged my Upholder husband along with me. After a few years of this, we probably have our own parallel universe based around someone else’s original idea.
[If you follow Gretchen Rubin, my husband and I are the exact opposite of Gretchen and Jamie. I’m an upholdery Questioner like him and my husband is a questiony Upholder like her].
I’d like to share a little perspective on what romance is like from the perspective of a Questioner.
For starters, let me share that my first husband was undoubtedly a fellow Questioner. We drove each other crazy, divorced after three years, and we haven’t seen or spoken to each other in, what, fifteen years? I have plenty of Questioner friends, but I don’t think I could ever be romantically involved with one again. Writing someone off based on a random character trait is exactly the kind of thing one of us would do.
As a Questioner, I am constantly revising my personal philosophy, engaging with various books and viewpoints and trends, and then shaking them off once I’ve finished exploring them. Books are my first love, my own creative work is my second, and maybe I’ll fit you somewhere onto the list if you’ve caught my attention.
It’s not you I’m evaluating so much as your perspective, your thoughts and opinions, or your ability to hold your own in our discussions.
I’m not wrong here, annoying as it might be. It’s my life and it’s up to me who captivates me or sparks my interest. I can’t just make myself love or like someone.
This is, I think, part of what drives Obligers crazy about Questioners.
Obligers will give their undying loyalty and affection out quite freely. Then they are hurt when those incredibly special feelings are not automatically reciprocated. Why can’t you love me the way I love you?? It takes another Obliger to do that, though.
You can’t buy someone else’s love, affection, and loyalty just by choosing them. It’s not quid pro quo.
What’s funny about this whole thing is that Obligers often find Questioners irresistible. I’ve been the unrequited crush for several Obligers over the years. Then they want to know, why can’t I fall for them, after all the times they cooked for me/baked me vegan chocolate chip cookies/followed me around/did me favors/bought me presents?
Do you really want me to answer that?
I know an Obliger woman who is constantly annoyed that nobody at work will eat her lovingly prepared homemade baked goods. She keeps doing it even after being rejected for years on end. (NB: they’re not rejecting her, they just aren’t into eating snacks at work, and she refuses to accept that, which is neither loving nor generous).
We’re all amazing for our own reasons. Upholders are amazing for their reliability and principles. Obligers are amazing for their incredible devotion. Rebels are amazing for their iconoclasm and willingness to take a stand over anything at any time.
Questioners? We’re the ones you all come to for recommendations. What should we eat for dinner? Which movie should we see? What are we reading next? Where should we go for vacation? Bangs or no bangs?
I kind of feel like my family thinks I’m full of [it], with the sole exceptions of restaurant recommendations and recipes. I’ll take them somewhere, and they’re still eating there ten years later.
I get asked for recommendations for book clubs that I’m not even in.
Advice is the main way my friends relate to me, and it makes perfect sense from my perspective!
Just asked my husband what he thinks about all this. What makes Questioners attractive? The first thing he said was “ideation.”
“In romance?” Honestly this was the last thing I would have expected him to say.
“We tend to re-evaluate what we do constantly. Are the things we’re doing still working for us? If they’re not, change it!”
What he’s talking about is our annual review process and our weekly status meetings. What, do other couples not do this? Next you’re going to tell me that you don’t even have a formal grievance procedure.
Also, I take dictation on my tablet keyboard while my husband is talking to me. Quite often.
It’s probably not surprising that an engineer would find a Questioner woman attractive.
Upholders run well together. They approve of each other’s methods. I went on vacation once with my husband, mother-in-law, and stepdaughter, all of whom are early-rising Upholders. Their modular suitcases fit perfectly in a row in the back of the vehicle. They each woke up promptly at 5:59 AM every day. They cheerfully got to venues half an hour before they opened and sat obediently in the chilly parking lot. Guess who made all the travel plans, mapped out all the attractions, chose all the restaurants, accommodated everyone’s food preferences, and was extremely tired the whole trip?
Pop culture is tough on my kind. We’re the Steve Urkels and the Hermione Grangers and the Sheldon Coopers. Find an irritating character in a movie or TV show, and guess what? It’s probably someone with strong Questioner traits. I get it, I actually do; I’ve been made to via decades of social exclusion. It’s tougher on a female. We’re supposed to be Obligers and we’re sometimes allowed to be Upholders. We’re not supposed to make other people uncomfortable by analyzing the status quo.
If you can appreciate us, though, we make for pretty interesting friends and fun romantic partners. In my marriage, I’m the one who plans the vacations. I introduced my husband to Indian, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Ethiopian, Afghani, and Korean cuisine, and if I remember right I also taught him to eat with chopsticks. I got him into public speaking and kickboxing and taught him ballroom dancing. I’m the one who suggests and plans our backpacking trips, even though he’s much more experienced and has better wilderness survival skills. If he had married anyone else, he probably would have spent all those years watching TV with his perfectly adequate, perfectly ordinary wife, as they both lived in the same house, worked the same jobs, and ate the same meals, year after year. He never would have known what he was missing.
If you have the great good fortune to win the love of a Questioner, here’s what you do. Whenever we annoy you, put your rebuttal in the form of a question. Are you sure you’re right? What if everyone thought that way? Cite your sources, and will you forward them to me? Make sure we spend plenty of time with our Questioner friends, send us out on fact-finding missions, and keep us well stocked with blank journals (electronic or otherwise). It’s a heavy burden to be the sole sounding board of a busy Questioner, so make sure you spread that around. In return we’ll keep your life interesting, if only you can keep up with us.
She stopped by to pick up some moving boxes. About thirty seconds later, she launched into her story, and twenty minutes later, she was still talking. My husband came out to find out what was going on.
“She just joined the divorce club,” I said, and he laughed and joined in.
When a breakup is hot and fresh, it’s the only thing someone can talk about. My husband was still in that state when I met him. Still actively consulting lawyers about the custody schedule and who got holidays and weekends. I got it, but only because my own divorce had been pretty brutal. Seven years later, I didn’t really think about it that often.
After enough time has gone by, you’re genuinely thrilled not to be with that person anymore.
It takes quite a while to realize that, though! This is why it’s so helpful to do your divorce burn book.
You write it down as evidence, because these thoughts tend to pop up late at night or at random times, and if you’re still not over your ex, it’s easy to wave them away. If you write them down in a big list, or even a big thick notebook, then you start to see how many pages are filling up. The act of writing inspires yet more writing, more memories, more evidence that the two of you weren’t meant to be.
What goes in the divorce burn book?
Every mean thing he ever said
Every nasty facial expression he ever made, not just at you but at anyone
Every stupid argument you ever had, especially the ones where you were right
All his bad habits
Anything about his personal taste that you didn’t like: dumb music, ratty old shirts, gross meal concoctions, anything.
Go deep. Go wide. Go shallow. Get as petty as you need to. You really want to make this burn book smolder and smoke.
The time he claimed that David Lee Roth wrote the original “California Girls.” The time he put a tablespoon of sugar in his scrambled eggs. The disturbing road rage incident. The time he rolled his eyes at you.
What you’re doing is lancing the boil. You’re exorcising the demon. You’re getting rid of any lingering feelings of attachment you had for this person. You’re making sure you don’t take him back, or anything else dumb like that. Whatever reason you broke up, if you ever get back together, breaking up is then a new part of your history. If it happens twice, then it’s a pattern. It’s just one more thing to fight about.
The goal here is to learn the lessons that you can from this relationship, and then start fresh with someone else. You should be better at communicating after every relationship, and that should help you attract someone else who is also better at communicating than your ex. You won’t have the same issues. (Your ex gets a chance to start fresh, too, not that you care!).
Part of why you won’t have the same issues is that you are older and more mature now than you were when you met your ex. Probably so is your new love. The fights that people have at thirty are not the same fights that they have at twenty.
(By the time you get to forty, hopefully you’ve got your preferences figured out and you don’t really have to fight much at all).
The other thing is, of course, that you need to be clear about your dealbreakers and your non-starters. If something drives you crazy, it will drive you crazy in every relationship, no matter who is doing it. You need to make sure you don’t accidentally snare someone who has the dealbreaker, and then fall for him.
Some friends were trying to convince me to date a guy once, the brother of one friend. “Oh, I didn’t even know he likes me,” I said, truthfully. This guy and I had zero in common other than that we are both mammals. “I don’t date smokers,” I said. Mic drop. What? What do you mean you don’t date smokers? “Cigarette smoke gives me nosebleeds,” I replied. How are people not clear on the idea that you are entitled to your own personal tastes? That you would simply not be able to fall in love with someone whose behavior grossed you out?
There are plenty of people who believe you should always give everyone “a chance.” Maybe you’ll fall in love so deeply that it won’t matter.
THIS IS B.S.
First of all, there are over seven billion people in this world. We don’t have time to give everyone a chance!
Whatever people think “falling in love” means, if it ends in cohabitation then behavior matters. Anything that annoys you will annoy you much more often if it happens while you live together, go to restaurants, go on road trips, or do anything together. We’re not talking about a pretty iridescent heart-shaped soap bubble. We’re talking ROOMMATES. Roommates who share a bank account.
Oh, while we’re on the topic, you can go ahead and add an appendix to your burn book. Start with the breakup section, and then you can add a section for roommates, maybe another one for houseguests, and if you’re ambitious, one for annoying coworkers or customers. Let it be a comprehensive list of everything that ever annoyed you.
Sometimes, as time goes by and it stings a little less, you can look over past events and past quarrels and realize that maybe you had your own part to play. When that starts to feel true, then you’re ready for the second phase of breakup recovery. That’s the “My Part in This” section.
What was it that made this obnoxious person attractive to you? Why did you like him? Why did you put up with him for so long? Was there anything you wish you had known? Red flags that you didn’t notice at the time, but now you know you would?
Was there anything you might have done or said that you would maybe do differently next time?
It does help to feel like you know more and that you have better standards after a breakup. People say there are “two sides to every story” (which is not very imaginative; isn’t there at least one side for every person living, plus anyone from the past and everyone from the future?). The truth is, though, that not everyone is equally self-aware or accountable for their behavior. Not everyone is trying equally hard. Not everyone is at the same stage in life. It’s fair to expect that your partner is there for you, reaching out toward you and equally committed to being a good partner.
The divorce burn book is a way of calibrating your expectations. When you’re clear about what you don’t want, it helps you to be more appreciative when you meet someone who might not normally be your type. As long as they don’t have any of your dealbreakers, maybe it’s worth giving them another look.
Maybe you can both become better people together, better together than you were alone.
He used to tease me. “You should marry a rich guy like me; that would solve all your problems.”
“Marriage CAUSED all my problems,” I retorted. I meant it, too.
(I also knew he wasn’t rich. That was part of the joke).
Why would I ever want to get married again? I was free! Free to sleep in the middle of the bed! Free from listening to someone else snore all night! Free to sleep in knee socks or a stocking cap or pink footie pajamas.
I was free! Free to see whatever movie I wanted, sit anywhere in the theater, even my favorite seat in the very front row. I was free to wear whatever color or whatever perfume I wanted, cut my hair however I fancied, choose whatever I wanted for dinner.
I was free! I didn’t have to ride herd on anyone, try to convince anyone else to go to the dentist, wear proper trousers to their boss’s wedding, or not quit their job to work for a startup in their friend’s basement.
Free bird, free from criticism or nagging or badgering. Free from expectations. Free from the double bind of either tolerating a bad roommate’s bad habits or cleaning up after them myself.
Free from the liabilities, the debts, the nasty secrets and surprises that come out when one person’s dark side meets another’s.
Why on Earth would I ever want to get married again?
Contrarians attract. He went on making the same joke from time to time.
“You should go out... blah blah blah... guy like me blah blah blah.”
“You should BE so lucky,” I scoffed.
“You should be so lucky, to have a girlfriend like me.”
I meant it, too. I knew how great it was to live alone. I also knew what a great girlfriend I was on general principle. Almost everyone I ever dated dropped hints about marrying me at some point. I was thirty and I knew full well how much I brought to the table.
Objectively I was a catch. No kids, no cats, great credit, I made my own money, planned my own retirement, followed a budget, and kept a clean house.
More to the point, I was at home with myself. I liked my life. I had my own goals and plans and I didn’t need anyone else to come along and mess them up.
It had nothing to do with what I had to offer as a girlfriend, or a wife for that matter. It had everything to do with whether I wanted or needed a partner.
Boyfriends are trouble in a lot of ways. Sometimes they want to come over when you want to sleep. Sometimes they want to talk when you want to read. Sometimes they want to call you when you want to go to a movie, or the bookstore, or knitting group, or your book club. They think they have a say in your male friendships or your travel plans or, sometimes, what you wear even when they’re not there.
Who needs it?
I had boyfriends. I had boyfriends who wanted to keep dating other people. I had boyfriends who wanted me to clean their apartment, do their mending, cook their meals, give them back rubs, pick them up at the airport, make their travel plans, and pick out their clothes. Dude, I’m not your mom. Or your secretary.
Not that I wouldn’t do those things! I did all of them at one time or another. Over time I became more protective of my energy and my time, understanding that almost anyone would take advantage of my kindness and my giving nature. Not everyone deserves it.
You should be so lucky. You should be so lucky, to have a girlfriend like me.
Eventually he talked me into it. He thought there could be more, and he convinced me that it would be worth finding out.
“I’ve seen your nice side,” he said. “No you haven’t!” I said, shocked that he would think that. All he got was my generic nice, not my personal nice.
He wooed me. He knew just what to do. He cleaned his entire house until the floor gleamed and everything smelled like lemon. He even washed the windows. He cooked me a meal from scratch, including mashed potatoes and biscuits and pie. He bought me a wrench. He made friends with my parrot.
He had something to prove. I didn’t.
He brought me around to his way of thinking. Maybe there could be more between us?
There was, there was. He let me sleep until noon and made me waffles. He did my taxes while I was on vacation. (He still does the taxes). In so many ways, he sought out ways to make my life easier.
That helped. More importantly, it showed he was paying attention. He got me. He got what I was about and he understood how I made decisions. He knew what would be important enough to me to matter.
I’ve made it worth his while, of course. I take loyalty to my mate extremely seriously. I’m his sounding board and chief cheerleader. I make his daily life easier in a thousand small ways, many of which he may not even realize, just as he does mine.
There probably isn’t anyone else I would have married. Anyone else anywhere in the world. I might not even have dated again; honestly, I probably set too high a bar. He cleared it, though. He rose to my expectations - and beyond - because he appreciated the challenge.
I could have done it differently.
I could have pined after some unattainable, aloof and emotionally unavailable character who would have broken my heart without noticing.
I could have gone for volatility, breaking up and getting back together with someone over and over until everyone lost count.
I could have whipped through dozens of dates, looking for something that wasn’t there.
None of that attracted me, though, because I knew who I was. I was a great girlfriend. Or, I would be for the right person, if it was worth my while. Mostly I was just fine by myself.
You should be so lucky.
Here he comes again. Tall, handsome, and dressed for his job as a personal trainer. He lives a few yards away and we see each other all the time. He’s the hot new neighbor, and it’s a problem.
It’s like the beginning of a trashy romance novel!
Let me tell you about this guy. Former pro athlete, sharp dresser, penetrating gaze making you feel like you’re the only person in the room, remembers everything you say, massive extrovert. Definite male lead material.
Oh, and it gets worse. His lady. Blonde, also a personal trainer, absolutely a ten in looks. I’d believe former cheerleader or dancer.
Every time they walk by, I smile and wave at her, he smiles and waves at me, and she sends me a death glare. When she’s by herself, she speedwalks past my apartment without returning my wave.
She hates me.
I mean, I can see why. I’m everything she’s not. Middle-aged. Nerdy. Frizzy haired. Often seen carrying fifteen pounds of laundry. Happily married.
I’m not the hot neighbor in this scenario. Or any scenario! Hotness has never been what I’m about, which is a good thing because I’m average-looking and not photogenic.
Beyond that, I have some pretty strong opinions on drama and how drama is made.
Let’s say I took an uppercut to the jaw one day in Krav Maga, and it knocked all sense and moral values clean out of my head. This is how I would look at it:
If I were going to have an affair, jeopardizing my ten-year marriage, I wouldn’t do it with someone who lives in my apartment complex. 1. The entire neighborhood would figure it out within seconds and 2. After we broke up, we’d keep bumping into each other and it would be awkward. I hate awkward.
If I were going to have an affair, also jeopardizing our hard-earned retirement funds, I wouldn’t do it with someone who was already in a relationship. I read the news. That’s a good way to wind up on the receiving end of the hate ray of an extremely angry woman.
I’m a busy person. I have a lot to do. Drama is what I don’t need.
Not having taken that sense-erasing uppercut to the jaw, at least not yet, this is my position on affairs. The idea of a man being willing to cheat on his partner grosses me out. I wouldn’t even want to see such a man take off his shirt, pro athlete or not.
Also, the idea of a man being willing to pursue a married woman? I find that profoundly, deeply disgusting. That’s a man with a much higher tolerance for drama than I have. Just, eww.
If you can’t respect my marriage vows, then you can’t respect ME.
A man who disregards marriage vows: doesn’t listen. Doesn’t care. Doesn’t feel that rules apply to him. Puts his needs first. Does not share my values. Has nothing better to do, which is boring.
Other people can do what they want, whatever they want. Not that they need my permission. People will do what they want regardless. I’m not here to judge what other people do with their lives. When it comes to my life, though, of course I judge. I judge who I want around me. Treat them well and leave the rest to their own business.
I married my husband because I like him. I love him also, which makes things easier. Mostly, though, he’s my favorite person. I married him because he’s the most interesting person I’ve ever met, and because we’ve basically been in one long conversation for thirteen years. I’m not married, I’m super-mega-married.
This is why it’s so weird when the occasional jealous, possessive woman locks onto me and despises me. It’s nothing on my end! I got a man.
What’s sad about all this is the wasted energy on her part. 1. Nobody can ever hope to replace my husband - good luck competing with him! 2. I’d never cheat on my partner. 3. I’d never cheat with someone who was in a relationship. 4. I’d never cheat where I live or where I work out of basic common sense. 5. This particular hot neighbor isn’t my type anyway.
6. We could have been friends.
She and I could be hanging out in the hot tub every night, talking about our workouts or whatever.
They have a kid together, did I mention? He’s nice. I wouldn’t have minded offering to babysit sometimes, if we were friends. He could come over and play with our dog.
About the hot neighbor, I don’t think he’s out looking for another woman anyway. I read him as a friendly person, someone who, for professional reasons, has had to build his social skills. When he was a pro athlete, he had to work with a team and talk to the press. Now, as a trainer, he has to recruit and work with clients for his living. (So does she). It’s in his nature to chat with everyone. It’s not like you can make an extrovert stop wanting to talk to people!
Word of advice, lovely: Don’t be the least friendly person he knows. That thing he does that visibly annoys you so much, that’s the thing other people are going to like about him the best. It’s what makes him who he is.
Not trusting someone doesn’t mean they aren’t trustworthy. It certainly doesn’t mean everyone else in the world is untrustworthy. All it means is that you aren’t trusting. And that’s insulting.
Not trusting someone, thinking they’ll cheat, is exactly the kind of thing that drives people to cheat. The first person who sees them as basically honest and trustworthy, who likes them for who they are, who is willing to hear them out and take their side? That person is the solace they never knew they needed, after being suspected of a crime they didn’t commit.
If we were friends, I could tell our hot neighbor about this. I could reassure her. We could laugh about the crazy ways of love.
Two days after I wrote this, I bumped into the Hot Neighbors. I was with my husband. Suddenly Hot Neighbor Lady warmed up and actually smiled at me! The four of us had a short, friendly chat. I realized that she’s shy, and also that she didn’t realize I’m married. I like her. Maybe we’ll be friends after all.
Bleeding from a cut on the bridge of my nose, forehead visibly bruised, sporting my first black eye, anyone could see I’d been hit in the face a couple of times.
I sat down on the mat with my classmates, who had already taken their turn through the ordeal in the other room. Since this was a special workshop, we had a few members of the community who don’t train at the school. One of these women turned to me.
“Ooh, your husband will be so mad!”
It took me a moment to figure out what she meant. Oh, he’s going to be mad because I just got a black eye? Why?
Seriously, it didn’t compute. I had to shift a few mental gears to figure out where she was coming from. Oh, okay, I think I get it. He’ll be mad because he wasn’t comfortable with me taking physical risks and now my face is damaged. Maybe you think he’ll be mad because the school should have protected me more? Or because I didn’t listen to him when he tried to tell me what to do? Not sure, but I think I understand now.
“Oh, no,” I told her, “on the contrary. He loves it. He’s going to be so excited!” I explained that my husband loves fighter chicks, that if I ever became a ring competitor he would probably quit his job so he could follow me to my matches and help me train. In point of fact, he was the one who signed me up for the class, because he found out there was an open spot before I did.
I try to imagine a husband who doesn’t like the fact that I study self-defense.
Then I realize that I should be imagining a man who is angry, a man whose anger dictates what I do or don’t do.
Okay, yeah. I did do that. I thought pretty hard before getting married for the second time, but I also thought pretty hard back in my single days. I explain that I used to have a talk with guys I would date. It went like this:
“If you ever lay a hand on me in violence, I will press charges and tell your mom and your boss. Just saying.”
This is blowing the mind of my young classmate, who in her twenties and from her cultural background may never have been told that you get to choose what you tolerate. You get to lay down the law in your life. You get to accept and reject at will. You determine what treatment you will and will not allow.
Here’s the thing about my husband. He has spent his life doing impact sports, including football, ice hockey, boxing, karate, and armored combat. He is trained to fight with guns, knives, daggers, and swords, not to mention mass weapons or siege engines. He’s twice my size and he knows how to sharpen a chainsaw.
If I were ever afraid of him, I would have changed my identity and moved to Australia. The only chance I have against someone like him is if I have an axe, or a cannon.
Why would I marry someone who scares me?
Why would I share a bed with someone if I had to fear his moods, if I felt intimidated by his anger?
If I thought his anger would be directed at me?
Me? His wife, his friend, his ally?
I married this man because I wanted him on my zombie apocalypse squad. Not because I was worried he’d do things to me if he ever threw a tantrum about something.
I don’t do coercive control. I can’t stand being told what to do. I started making it clear twenty years ago that anyone who wanted to date me would have to be cool with my boundaries.
I would explain that I had a pathologically jealous boyfriend when I was nineteen, who always thought I was lying and cheating when I got together with one or another of my many male relatives. I needed to make it clear that I talk to my brothers for hours on the phone, that I have a vast and close extended family, but also that I sometimes have dinner or trade five-page emails with my exes. I travel alone and I do what I want pretty much 99% of the time. A jealous man should never try to be involved with someone like me.
I spend a lot of my time on the challenge path, doing things deliberately because they intimidate me so I can quit being scared. I have jumped over open flame, hiked in bear country, crawled under barbed wire, climbed a rope, waded through mud, and, yeah, gotten hit in the face a few times.
I’m not going to let a smack in the mouth slow me down. Got that?
I do this training because I’m a distance runner and I like to run at night. My response to challenge and limits is to dig in my heels and double down.
I also do this training as a mercy to my poor husband, because he worries. Even when I take the dog, he worries when I run at night. (Not enough to train with me, *wink*). I asked him how he felt about my decision to study Krav Maga. He said, “relieved.” No hesitation. That was when I found out how much it tormented him to leave me alone at night when he travels on business.
We do well to understand the weight of responsibility that a traditionally acculturated male feels to protect and defend his dependents. It’s hard on a man. That doesn’t mean he gets to circumscribe my territory or dictate where I do or don’t go. It doesn’t mean he’s allowed to control my time, my friendships, or my activities. When I step up as an equal partner, ready to take responsibility for my own physical safety, I shoulder some of the load and allow him to walk free.
I went home to my husband after the special workshop, the one where I got a black eye. It looked like someone hit me in the face with a clothes iron. Bruises on every limb. He greeted me with a bag of ice, a smoothie, and a thousand calories of hot food. He looked me over.
“I got a little marked up,” I said.
“I’m proud of you,” he said. “I’m so glad you took that class.”
How do you afford your rock and roll lifestyle? More to the point, how does everyone in your social media feed afford theirs?
How do you know they actually even CAN?
I can spin two different narratives about my lifestyle. If I enjoyed having my picture taken, which I don’t, I could fill Instagram with pictures of myself hanging out in the hot tub in a bikini, grinning under palm trees, working out in our brand-new gym with a view of the sun setting redly over the sea, and whale-watching while walking our “purebred” dog.
The other version involves pictures of our 1970’s-era studio apartment, the one with the popcorn ceiling and shag carpet and the loud young family upstairs. It involves pictures of us carrying eight loads of laundry a week to another building and up and down two flights of stairs. It involves our poor, elderly dog and a lot of extremely graphic photos of the days when he isn’t feeling well.
The truth is that there are always multiple versions you can tell about anyone’s life. It depends on how that person chooses to shape the story. Some people have no idea how fortunate they are, others like to pretend they are even more so, and some prefer to cast themselves as woebegone scapegoats no matter the facts.
It all gets so much easier when you quit comparing yourself to others and simply ask how you feel about how your own life is going. Do your values match your behavior and your choices?
My husband and I made a series of executive decisions about our lifestyle, starting before we even got married. Starting, in fact, before we even started dating in the first place! We first connected as friends and lunch buddies because we were both struggling financially. By the time we hugged for the first time, we already knew all about each other’s money lives. We were coaching each other through strategic decisions very early on.
He tied me to a chair and fed me takeout Chinese food while forcing me to apply for better jobs, more than once. I browbeat him into increasing his 401(k) contribution and going back to his family lawyer about his custody arrangements. We weren’t “in a relationship” yet.
That background of friendship and financial transparency made it easier when we started making joint decisions. We learned to communicate and trade off leadership and advocate for our ideas.
He pitched that we move in together and get married. I pitched that we consider relocating for his career if the right opportunity came up. He pitched moving within walking distance of his work. I pitched getting rid of the car entirely. He pitched moving to the beach. I pitched becoming financially independent. Et cetera.
Over the - OH MY GOSH - it’ll be TEN YEARS of marriage this year - twelve years we’ve been together, we’ve gradually and steadily built our financial net worth and expanded our careers while downsizing our material life. Overall it’s one upgrade after another, but to be fair, there are tradeoffs. There are always tradeoffs. We consider them, and sometimes we vote them down, and other times we shrug and move forward.
Upgrade: We live a quarter mile from the beach!
Tradeoff: and drunk tourists wander past our front door singing at 2:30 AM.
Upgrade: We have a pool and a hot tub!
Tradeoff: and upstairs neighbors.
Upgrade: We don’t have to spend the weekend mowing the lawn or taking care of the yard.
Tradeoff: but we do have to haul all our dirty clothes to a laundry room.
Upgrade: We live a few yards from a gorgeous, brand-new gym.
Tradeoff: and we have to share it with 400 other people, most of whom have... habits.
Upgrade: We save 40% of our income.
Tradeoff: and we don’t have a car.
Upgrade: We don’t have a mortgage!
Tradeoff: or any equity.
Upgrade: We are both members of an upscale kickboxing gym.
Tradeoff: (and we get punched in the face) and we don’t have pay cable.
Upgrade: Our student loans are all paid off.
Tradeoff: (and we’re middle-aged) and we don’t order pizza delivery or drink alcohol.
What we’ve done is to prioritize our lifestyle in ways that other people don’t. We both decided that the worst parts of our life were 1. Financial pressure and 2. My husband’s daily freeway commute to work. So we got rid of them.
We traded 3/4 of our physical space and 80% of our stuff (even our really, really cool stuff like swords and an antique sewing machine, his hockey gear and my yarn collection, and almost all our books) to move to the beach and not have a commute.
We traded what most people consider a default, totally normal lifestyle of watching cable TV, ordering delivery food, going out, and shopping at Target for the so-not-sexy choice of putting our retirement first.
It means we cook at home instead of hitting the drive-thru. (In what, a go-kart?) It means we sit around talking instead of watching shows or playing around on a game system. It means I don’t get manicures or color my hair, and he doesn’t watch pay-per-view hockey or go out to lunch at work.
It also means we can go buck wild on vacation, four-star all the way!
There are lots and lots of different ways to be frugal, and none of them are wrong. What’s wrong is tossing and turning at night because your money worries are eating you alive. What’s wrong is killing a relationship because two people can’t communicate, can’t work as a team, and can’t stop fighting about where the money goes. I mean, not morally wrong, just... not great.
At the New Year, my husband and I sat down and did our annual review and set our intentions, like we have as long as we’ve been together. (My pitch). We made some baller choices and some smaller choices. I upgraded my computer and he’s shopping for a motorcycle for his birthday. We also agreed to do meal prep. The cost of the motorbike has derived from not owning a car for two years; it’s already paid for even though he hasn’t picked it out yet. My new iMac was, quite frankly, a lot less than the cost of a year’s worth of salon visits, manicures, makeup, fake eyelashes, handbags, and shoes I can’t walk in. In a 612-square-foot studio apartment, I don’t have anywhere to put half those things in the first place.
The meal prep will save us the cost of our next Vegas weekend, no problem.
We can make two cases for our lifestyle, the tightwad version and the high-end envy extraction version. Neither version is even remotely true without the other half. All we do is to pull back and take the strategic view on a regular basis. We do it at the New Year, we do it at our weekly status meetings over breakfast, and we do it every time a choice point comes up like a call from a professional corporate headhunter. We trade off one financial priority for another, upgrading all the way.
If you have dreams that feel impossible because you’re just too busy, then this is the book for you. The authors of Make Time, Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky, found time to write this book in the midst of working demanding professional jobs and parenting small children. They focus on research-based and personally tested ways to gain energy and focus. A fun feature of the book is that the two writing partners sometimes have totally different approaches to a similar problem. It’s illustrated, so their cartoon heads debate back and forth.
Highlights are the most valuable and important things we should be doing, and according to Make Time, if we plan each day around a highlight, then everything starts to come together. Highlights should be prioritized by urgency, satisfaction, and joy.
Noticing highlights is a really excellent way to elevate simple things and make them into a bigger part of daily life. For instance, when my husband joined my kickboxing gym, we coincidentally started riding our bikes home together along the beach at sunset. Nothing in either of our schedules said “ROMANTIC SUNSET BIKE RIDE.” It just happened. That part of our route only lasts about ten minutes. Technically it’s a commute. Still a highlight, though, a part of our day that seems somehow much more significant than much of the rest of the day. Someone who was driving home at sunset might not think “saw beautiful sunset every day this week,” though, because driving sucks.
A technique from Make Time that I really liked was to write out a plan for the day, add a column for the “actual” or how it really turned out, and another column for the revised plan. This is a huge help in accounting for the reality of daily interruptions. As an example, I record a podcast five days a week, and I learned through experience when the building landscaper comes by with the weed whacker.
Make Time is such an excellent book. It could easily be shared with a partner or coworker, or maybe even a whole office. It’s full of the kinds of notions that appeal to everyone, yet still feel so productive and business-oriented that there aren’t really any arguments against them. Read it and ask yourself, what are the highlights that you wish you had the time to do, if only you weren’t so tired?
No matter the cultural tradition, this is a time of year when token gifts are exchanged. How fun is that? It’s great if your love language is giving gifts. For the rest of us, it can fall a little flat at best, or disrupt our entire year’s finances at worst. For my people, it’s another major funnel of extra clutter that they find emotionally befuddling. I’ll still be finding gifts in their original gift bags years later, still in their original tissue paper and their original plastic packaging. All this trading of material objects can maybe detract from the real reason we all get together, which is to greet the long, dark winter nights with hope and hospitality. That is why I say, open your unopened gifts, both material and immaterial.
Open the gift bags from last year and the year before. They might come in handy if you get invited to a white elephant exchange. You can reuse the gift wrap, too. They may also put this year’s gifts into context, a handy meter for what is realistic to expect out of a little glitter and plastic.
There is a certain paradox in the holidays, because the more anticipation and excitement there is, the more there can be an emotional letdown when it’s all over. I’ve always thought the big parties should be in midwinter, not near the solstice, because it’s hard knowing there are so many months of horrible weather and darkness still to come. Once all the parties are over and everyone has gone home, there’s nothing but a pile of wrapping paper and trinkets to get us through. Not a few kids will build a reputation for throwing tantrums or openly weeping because they didn’t get their heart’s desire.
A pony. A piano. A Pretty in Pink Barbie. A parrot.
A dirt bike. A rifle. Roller blades. An electric guitar.
Ask anyone of any age, and they’ll recall with perfect clarity the Gift That Got Away. Then ask if they have one now. It’s funny that most of us can afford anything in the range of the budget for a children’s toy, yet we don’t buy these things for ourselves. That’s because it’s not the material object that we really miss. It’s the feeling of innocent hope and fervent wishing, the sparkly feeling of infinite possibility that is continually dashed in the face of cold reality.
The things we did get that didn’t live up to the hype: sea monkeys, x-ray glasses, a supposed all-day lollipop, the triple-scoop ice cream cone that fell on the sidewalk directly outside the ice cream shop.
(As I wrote this, the squirrel that lives outside our front door came too close and my dog ALMOST got him).
How many times have we been fooled by prank gifts? White elephants, oversize boxes and trick packaging designed to hide the modest item inside.
Many of us have mixed feelings about going to holiday parties. Shyness and social anxiety, family dysfunction and trauma, tenuous recovery tested by ever-present intoxicants, the endless aggravation of forced cheer in traffic. Explain why you’re still single. Pretend you’re straight. Act perky about your job hunt. Struggle to cram in every social obligation around the few traditions that actually mean something to you. Stop your cat from eating all those ribbons.
What do we miss? What falls by the wayside because it’s so hard to put into material form?
Storytelling. For every argument or failure of simple tact, there’s an untold story that somebody could have, might have, maybe should have drawn out of someone else. A lot of grumpy people have fascinating stories buried somewhere under all the crankiness. With a little skill and attention, someone could have turned complaining into entertaining.
Connection. When we sit down to write out cards, it can come as a shock to realize that it’s been an entire year since we last reached out to dear friends who live far away. Are we really making the connections and staying engaged with the people we like the best? How long has it been since we even heard each other’s voices? How did those kids get so big? Where did the last five years go?
Neighborliness. In the past, people did a better job of getting to know their neighbors. Gatherings were probably more formal, but the rote phrases and stilted, scripted conversations gave people a framework for how to interact. I started making more of an effort to get to know my neighbors when I realized the man next door was 96. Was anyone looking after him?
The last time. The sad truth is that we never know when it will be the last time we see someone. Could be... could be tonight. There are few regrets as bitter as knowing you could have called someone or gone to see someone, but you let the opportunity pass and later find out it’s too late. One regret that’s worse is knowing that the last time you spoke, you exchanged harsh words and never made up.
Among the unopened gifts, the silly bric-a-brac and the trivial treats, there are others that can’t be shaken out of the wrapper. Those are the simple and timeless human gifts of attention, patience, forgiveness, advanced hospitality, and emotional engagement. Let’s put down our phones and our shiny sacks for a few moments and give a moment to opening our hearts to one another.
If I were ever single again, I think I’d stay that way. The standard that my husband has set has just raised my bar too high. I shudder to think of how much work I’d have to put in to house-train someone new! But he was already a proper grown-up when we met. I don’t think that’s necessarily true of everyone on the dating market. Failing to “adult” properly would certainly explain why at least a certain selection of people are available in the first place... Dating a grown-up is the minimum threshold for a long-term relationship.
It’s different when you’re a student. When you’re young, you expect that almost anyone you meet is going to be flat broke. They probably have at least one roommate, or maybe they’ve never lived on their own. They may not have a vehicle or even know how to drive, although that’s not really a problem now that we have ride-sharing. City people might not even know whether their partner has a license. It’s fairly common for people in their twenties to still be learning how to cook, manage money, and do basic home maintenance. You can focus more on your mutual passions for music, cinema, road trips, sleeping in, and pizza for breakfast.
As time goes by, though, your standards start to change. You start to notice that there’s a dividing line between “person” and “young person.”
This really started to become clear to me as a returning student living in a dorm at age twenty-six. I dated a few younger guys here and there, and there were certain things they all had in common. They all still thought it sounded fun to pull all-nighters just to binge-watch cartoons. They spent their money (when they had any) on collectibles and special-edition t-shirts. They would want to play video games while talking to me on the phone. And, sure, there’s no age limit on any of that stuff. Couple these habits with a general lack of awareness of current events, though, or questions such as When is Tax Time or What City Will I Live in Next Year, and it got complicated. Dating a young person is sort of like going to Brigadoon, a time warp where you never have to think about such future concerns as what’s for dinner or do we have a future together.
Dating a grown-up is a completely different situation. You’ve both accepted the necessity of managing the boring parts of life. You’ve been through the wringer, having roommates move out without paying their rent, getting laid off, being in car accidents, waking up with sick little kids, getting hit with extreme vet bills, ending long-term relationships, and all those other youth-crushers. The fantasy of endless summer is gone. You know that when you see the Bat Signal in the clouds, it’s for you. Time to suit up and go deal with another mess.
The main difference between a grown-up and a young person is accountability. A kid’s instinct is to cry out “NOT ME!” A grown-up grudgingly accepts that just because it’s not my fault doesn’t mean it’s not my problem. We’re not going to try to get out of it, we’re just going to get through it.
Dating a grown-up means someone who shows up when he says he will. Someone who understands what level of emotional availability he has and what commitment means. Someone who plans ahead and has agency over her career, her finances, and her overall life strategy. Someone who generally knows what to do. Someone who is willing to trade off and do a little extra sometimes.
Age doesn’t have as much to do with being a grown-up as it probably should. Certainly I’ve met women my age who have managed to avoid learning anything about personal finance and have never set aside a single nickel toward retirement. I’ve also met men my age who never learned to cook a meal. I had a friend who made it to thirty-six without learning how (or how often) to clean his own bathroom. Not a good look.
I asked my husband if he had anything to add about dating a grown-up. “Drama,” he said. Good point! Drama tends to come from a mix of poor boundaries and emotional volatility. It’s to be distinguished from difficulty; everyone has horrible things happen in life sometimes, but it doesn’t have to be dramatic. Drama can come out of thin air, from outsized emotional reactions to fairly predictable, commonplace events. For instance, dating a grown-up doesn’t tend to involve hours-long conversations about whether we’re breaking up, especially not on a work night. Sometimes you just... break up. Not everybody was destined to be together.
When I think in the abstract about dating a younger guy, I imagine someone who has few practical skills, no real direction in life, no awareness of current events, few opinions, and is ambivalent about commitment in general. A younger guy, in my mind, would have no money and wouldn’t know how to cook. He’d probably have embarrassing taste in music and would still be going through the rogue facial hair stage. Meh. What would we talk about? How would I explain him to my friends and family?
A man my age who was dating a younger woman would be... kind of a cliche. Same issues though! A young person with no established career who might have no idea what part of the country she wants to live in, whether she wants kids, or what she’ll be doing in ten years. You’re either on one side of the river or the other. It’s hard to think long-term with someone who cognitively has no long term yet.
Give me a grown-up. Give me a man who knows what to do in a crisis. Give me someone I can count on to hold his end up, to understand and accept his responsibilities. Give me a complex person with nuanced opinions and a developed career. Save me from ever having to deal with a young person’s drama and confusion, other than as a patient yet distanced role model. Give me a grown-up, someone who knows how to be a true partner.
He kicked me in the stomach. Then he did it again. It was part of the exercise, after all. I put on the belly pad, which I have to strap over my hips to keep it in place because it’s so big. Or, rather, because I’m so small, which is what most people would conclude after seeing my husband partnered with me to practice push kicks. Nowhere, in no martial art, would you see us paired off in a ring together, several rungs apart in weight class.
We’re paired off in rings together, but they call that one a “marital” art.
It was one thing when my lawfully wedded spouse joined my martial arts school. It was quite another when he leveled up and joined my advanced class, doing in six weeks what took me six months.
At first it was cute. I knew all the instructors and their training styles, I got to introduce him around to my friends, give him a tour, and teach him about the different equipment. For the first time in our thirteen-year friendship, I was the experienced one in the trainer role. I admit I was digging it.
Then he started catching up to me, as I expected he would. I just didn’t expect it to happen so quickly. In recovery from herniated disks, we both assumed he would proceed slowly, with perhaps some setbacks and a lot of ice. Much to both our surprise, the strenuous warmups seemed to speed his progress. He still avoids Krav Maga, due to the bending and twisting, but I anticipate he’ll be in there within the year.
Picture a sine wave. Now overlay a cosine. That would be our physical states. I spent the first half of the year getting stronger and stronger, only to get sick just after I joined advanced classes. I’ve been struggling to get back in action, since the class is about three times harder than the beginner class. Every time I would feel well enough to start training again, I would push too hard too soon and find myself coughing in bed again. Meanwhile my hubby, who had been out of commission for nearly a year with severe back pain, was regaining mobility and strength by the day and feeling very pleased about it.
He started doing double-ups. Morning and evening classes on Fridays followed by Saturday morning class. He’d ride his bike home and bring hot tea for me to drink in my nest of blankets.
The balance of power shifted.
“You have the baton,” I said. We have a joke about this. For whatever reason, we rarely seem to be in sync on our fitness goals. Recall the months I spent training for my marathon while he went on a diet, and I resorted to hiding Nutter Butters in my office closet. I’m half his size and that summer I was eating twice his daily calories. I had the token ring, and I passed it off after I developed a repetitive stress injury in my ankle.
If we waited for a time when neither of us was hobbling around, we might as well just give up, climb into a pair of recliners, and float out to sea.
By some miracle, we found ourselves synchronized, in the same class at the same time and doing the same thing.
I wasn’t feeling all that great. I really only showed up because I’d promised to bring my man a clean workout shirt. I’d also hurriedly scarfed my thousand-calorie dinner right before jumping on my bike. In my boxing gloves and belly pad, I felt like a potato volcano about to happen. Just my luck that we’d be taking turns kicking our partners in the navel tonight.
“Turn down the heat, would you,” I asked plaintively. Calibrating is a challenge. It’s like when you feed each other the wedding cake and half your family wants you to smear it all over each other’s faces the way they did back in the Seventies. (The Steve Martin/Gallagher wedding). We were both going to wind up covered in... um... potato if this kept up.
The teacher wandered over to see what we were doing. We had a substitute instructor that night, a visitor from the other school, and he didn’t know either of us. “We’re married,” I explained, and he nodded. Ahh, that explains it.
Two alphas, face to face and sparring. Again, in no other sport would we be paired off, a lightweight and a super heavyweight. Here we were, and I had to remind myself that this whole thing was my idea.
That’s right! This WAS my idea! This is MY school! This is MY sport! I OUTRANK YOU!
It was my turn to kick.
I had no compunctions, knowing that 1. My husband likes this sort of thing; 2. He is physically massive and fights like a locomotive; 3. Laws of physics apply; 4. I wasn’t exactly at my peak strength; and 5. He signed the waiver. I started putting my hip into it.
“THIS is for making me bring you your shirt! And THIS is because I had to do laundry today! And THIS is for making your dinner! And THIS is because there’s still a dirty pan on the stove!”
At this point he was laughing so hard he could barely stand upright.
I chased him around the mat room, kicking out a litany of minor and stupid grievances. He snickered and snorted, utterly unable to keep a straight face.
When in doubt, resort to comedy.
At the end of the session, all the students lined up. My husband and I faced each other and bowed. We rode our bikes home together, along the beach under the moonlight, our little bit of romance, two kickboxers in love.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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