I’m not trying to steal your boyfriend, I swear. I got a man.
This is one of life’s great mysteries. Why are so many people so jealous and possessive? Not just of their romantic partners, but of their children as well. In a world so demonstrably full of affable, friendly people who just want to chat, we feel so much suspicion and unease. It really doesn’t have to be this way.
I have two brothers and a posse of male cousins. I’ve always had an easier time making male friends than female friends. My husband has a brother and, like me, no sisters. While he’s a classic guy’s guy, playing hockey and riding motorcycles, he has an easier time making female friends. That’s how we met. We’ve never been jealous of each other because we’re not jealous people, but also because we understand what platonic friendship looks like. Everyone thought we were dating long before either of us had romantic feelings for each other. Just because people think something is there, doesn’t mean it is there, although the fact of our later marriage might tend to call that into question in our case.
When I see my husband talking to a woman at a party, I think, “Oh, good!” If he likes her, I’ll probably like her, too. If I saw a woman sitting in his lap and playing with his hair or something, I would crack up laughing. We both make a practice of mentoring young people, both formally and informally. He refers to some of his as Padawans. Some are girls. This could be uncomfortable for some women. I helped raise his daughter and I recognize the paternal impulse. I once dated a soccer coach who was the same way; he had various students running up to him all around town all the time.
Part of this is an extrovert thing. I’m barely over the line into extroversion, so most people on my side of the fence are more extroverted than I am, but I get it. It’s fun to meet people and get to know them. Everyone is chock-full of fascinating stories and interesting perspectives. Meeting people is how we pick up new jokes, travel tips, movie recommendations, and… friendships! We like introducing people to each other, hooking people up with job offers, helping people sell their cars or find homes for their pets. I’ve given up on matchmaking because every time I’ve tried it, the interest has either been nonexistent or one-sided. Sparking a romance is much more challenging than it appears, even when the potential couple seems to have so much in common.
Maybe it’s better that we leave it be. There are these cultural expectations that everything is about sex and that everyone should be constantly paired off, like animals escaping from the Great Flood. I think this is a post-Freudian thing. We believe that innuendo is everywhere and that if it isn’t overtly about sex, then it’s suppressed, like a radio that can be either turned on or off (see what I did there?) but can only be tuned to one station. I think it’s clear from history and anthropology that people spend huge amounts of emotional and mental energy thinking about 1. Survival 2. Religion 3. Food 4. Gossip 5. Sports and 6. Making or buying stuff. Are you with me that given a choice between a brownie or sex with an average-looking stranger, almost everyone would take the brownie?
It’s also an age thing. In my 20s, I spent most of my time worrying about money or reading, but what was left went to relationship drama. After my divorce, I wanted nothing to do with relationship drama whatsoever! My next heartbreak put me off infatuation entirely. I got down on my knees and prayed to any force that might be listening to please, please make sure I never had a crush on anyone again. It worked, and I wish I’d done it when I was 15. The pain and heartache it would have spared me… and others… That feeling of obsession with someone you barely know, based on guesswork, chemistry, and pure fantasy, has absolutely zero to do with the feeling of contented married compatibility. Now that I’m 40, I size people up with an eye to who they’ll be at 60. At 25, it’s easy to think, “Ooh, intriguing.” Experience tends to lead more to the thought, “Uhoh, that’s one way to ruin Thanksgiving – forever.”
Like the occasional story of someone who breaks up a marriage to run off with the spouse’s sibling. Seriously? That is the worst idea ever. Now you have the same exact in-laws, but they hate you. If I met two brothers and felt profoundly attracted to both of them, and I was single, I’d never see either of them again. Since I’m married, it wouldn’t matter, because I’m perfectly capable of keeping myself to myself. There is no mystical tractor beam that drags people unwittingly into an affair. Grownups see that sort of thing for what it is and shut the door on it. Affairs are for bored people who are dissatisfied with life.
What’s with jealous people? Demonstrating jealousy is the single fastest way to kill a relationship. Why would I be with someone who couldn’t trust me? I know there’s nothing to worry about on my end. I had a jealous boyfriend when I was 19, and I knew that if he felt that way, he didn’t know me at all. He didn’t have an accurate read on my emotional world. What I thought was a meeting of the minds obviously couldn’t have been. Nothing I said could assuage his paranoia. It made me stop liking him, much less loving him. The whole thing was confusing. I’m not that good-looking and I never have been. That’s been the case the handful of times another woman has demonstrated jealousy of me. Um, I’m not all that hot but your man isn’t, either! Trust me, take an objective look at him for five minutes. I’m talking to him because he’s a nice person and he’s interesting, but if he takes his shirt off, I’m out of here.
I had a great conversation with a guy in Vegas once. It was obvious why he wanted to talk to me – I was standing in a casino, wearing a cardigan and reading a book on my phone. He opened the conversation by asking if that was my husband gambling behind me, then indicated that his wife was off doing whatever. Boom, bona fides established. We’re two average-looking, middle-aged married people who want nothing from anyone. We spent the next five minutes in absolutely hilarious repartee. I wished he was my next-door neighbor. Then he made a gracious exit and I never saw him again. I don’t think we even traded names. That’s what platonic interaction looks like. A nice man made a friendly gesture, chivalrously amusing me and keeping me company for a few minutes, and then went on his way. This happens on subways, buses, and airplanes all over the world. It comes naturally to babies and preschoolers. We believe in it when we see elderly people doing it. There are decades of age range, though, that are more or less empty of companionable chatter between strangers. Is it age, or is it generational zeitgeist?
Our culture trains us to search for clues to unsavory behavior, and we’ve lost the ability to believe in innocent curiosity. Part of this is from pervasive marketing, religious proselytizing, etc. If someone were to sit next to you and say, “You look like an awesome person. Want to be friends?” what would you do? I would love to be able to do this and know it would go over well. I often see people carrying books I’ve read, and sadly, just walking by and saying, “Great book,” can make people flinch and withdraw. What do you want from me?? “Friend” means something different now. It means we have a social networking connection that might very well cause us to be irreconcilably annoyed with each other by the end of election season.
Our grandparents and earlier generations had vastly more casual social contact. My grandparents had a long list of social activities, probably far more than I’m aware. He was a Mason, she was very active in the church, I believe both of them were in a bowling league, they had regular card parties, etc. My parents would invite neighbors over for card parties even in the 80s. I know the names of 7 of 8 of my nearest neighbors, but we don’t invite each other over. I’m nervous about this kind of thing, too; the last time I got friendly with a neighbor, she started expecting free babysitting within days. That kind of relationship only works when there is mutual reciprocation. When my neighborhood was built in the 1930s and 40s, neighborly reciprocation was likely the rule, not the exception. People knew each other for decades and watched each other’s kids grow up. You didn’t just know the names of your neighbors, you knew the names of their pets, horses, etc. People looked out for each other. We were more likely to think “that person is in trouble,” than to think “that person looks like trouble.”
Can we bring it back? Is it possible to turn to the person on the left or the right and think, “Hello, new friend”? Can we be better listeners? Would we melt if anyone ever smiled at us the way they smile at their phone? Can we even sustain eye contact anymore? Do we have the room in our frantic schedules for more casual get-togethers with lower expectations? There is a kind of relationship that involves simple regard, a kindly, benign interest with altruistic tendencies. It would be nice to see more of it.
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.