Life is full of great mysteries. How do magnets work? Why is there gravity? Why don’t Grape-Nuts contain either grapes or nuts? Why is this person dating that person?
Some of these questions will eventually be answered satisfactorily. Perhaps in the afterlife we will be allowed one “Stump the DJ” question, such as “What is the Voynich Manuscript about?” Other questions, like why people settle for bad relationships – well, those we can answer for ourselves. It’s funny, though. Just like other people use our name more than we do, because they’re speaking to us or about us, other people often also have more insight into certain parts of our lives than we do. A really bad relationship or core incompatibility can be spotted in minutes. This is an irresistible topic of gossip because it’s so instructional. When we pick apart why other people are unhappy together, it helps us to get a handle on what we will or won’t accept in our own relationships.
Why two people are dating or married should be an obvious matter of fact. They like each other, they respect each other, they make each other laugh, they find each other attractive, they’ve made a private universe together that they both enjoy inhabiting. These basic expectations often come as a shocking surprise to people who are just beginning to wake up to the fact that they have trapped themselves in daily misery with someone unsuitable. Hey, guess what? You aren’t required to be with anyone at all, much less anyone who annoys you. You don’t have to have a “reason” to break up with someone. They don’t have to “do anything” to cause the breakup. You just realize that you aren’t emotionally invested or compatible enough to stay together, and you part ways.
Breakups are sad, of course, but they’re not nearly as sad as staying with someone when the thrill is gone away. “Don’t do me any favors.” Staying with someone you don’t want to be with anymore is prohibiting that person from finding true happiness with someone else. It’s also wasting your own life. As a Questioner speaking confidentially to any Obligers out there: “Psst! Your life counts too!”
Here are some weak, unimpressive reasons to stay in a relationship:
It was my first love
Moving out would be expensive
“Think of the children” / cats
He/she has a lot going on right now
I don’t believe I’ll meet anyone else
I want to lose weight/get my degree/reach enlightenment first
If I found out someone had to talk himself into reasons not to break up with me, that would be it. He wouldn’t have to pull the plug because I would do it. Then I would ask myself how it was possible that I didn’t notice anything was wrong. At what point had we quit sharing our emotional reality with each other? What else was I not noticing in my life? Basic incompatibility isn’t anyone’s fault. Living in an emotional desert or a state of denial is someone’s fault, probably the fault of both parties.
I knew I was going to have to marry my husband when it occurred to me that I would always be curious what he was up to. I couldn’t imagine a time in my life when I wouldn’t be interested in his thoughts, his opinions, his projects. He’s a cool guy. It was a good risk on my part because everything I found interesting about him when we started dating is even more interesting now. If I met him today, I would be even more likely to make friends with him and want to eat lunch with him than I was 10 years ago. On top of that, we have a decade’s worth of shorthand and inside jokes that I could never begin to explain to anyone else. I don’t know if I could even communicate with a random new person now!
This certainly isn’t true of every marriage. I had dinner one night with an old friend who was going through a painful divorce after many years together. It was obvious to me why they were no longer a couple – she had grown as a person and he was pretty much the same guy he was 20 years earlier. I pointed out that if she met him today, she wouldn’t even have a cup of coffee with him, because he totally wasn’t in her league. They had nothing in common (anymore). She looked stunned, and agreed, because what was so clear to me was a news flash to her. Growing apart tends to happen gradually, in the same way we realize it’s time to get a haircut or buy new socks.
Loyalty and commitment are important. It’s important to bestow them on the right people. Sometimes the starting assumptions of the relationship have altered along the way, and we find ourselves living under a different regime than what we signed up for. That’s called a game-changer. It’s fair to reevaluate if the other person is behaving differently, being selfish or unfair, lying, being more of a taker than a giver, naysaying you, isolating you from your friends and family, abdicating responsibilities, pressuring you and badgering you to do things you don’t want to do, or refusing to meet you eye to eye. When you know you want out, best to do it quickly. It gives both of you more time to regroup. It might be an important wake-up call. I know my divorce was for me. Oddly, a friend told me afterward that my divorce made him realize he needed a divorce as well. These things ripple outward.
What we’re looking for is a model of love relationships that actually works. Historically, anthropologically, people got together and stayed together for practical reasons. There is safety in numbers. People in primitive conditions couldn’t raise children alone, and many babies never made it to age 7. Both parties had to do demanding physical labor from sunup to sundown. This whole idea of the love match is a recent one. It used to be that what you wanted was someone to be at your 6 if you were attacked by wolves, someone who would also bring home a certain amount of calories as many days as possible. Now? Now we want someone who’s romantic, physically attractive, a good roommate, a good listener, who is also a self-actualized human, good cook, skilled money manager, etc. This is a very tall order when we’re contemplating a lifespan that may pass 80 years. In some ways, our expectations may be impossibly high. In other ways, well, you just have to put your foot down and say, “This is my life and I want what I want.”
There is nothing better than loving someone who is awesome. My marriage is a delight to me, and I wouldn’t wish anything less for anyone else. We didn’t “have” to be together. We were both self-sufficient economically and emotionally. Our skill set overlaps a great deal. We got married because it meant we could spend more time together. Often, we’re doing separate things in separate rooms, which is fine, because we’ve mutually agreed to do that and because it keeps us both from getting boring. We need our own independent interests, our own friends, our own headphones. We are constantly running to each other or texting when we’ve discovered something fascinating that must be shared. We’re together because we want to be. Would I give him one of my kidneys? Of course. Our relationship is about a lot more than mutual obligation and duty, though.
Why am I with this person? Well, duh. I love him. I’m physically attracted to him. I like hanging out with him. I’m proud to claim that he’s mine. He’s funny and he says fascinating, unpredictable things. He has a huge list of skills and interests. I feel safe with him. He’s generous. I like the way he is as a friend, confidant, and advisor to other people in his life. His pet is bonded with my pet. We have a good working relationship in the practical terms of money, bureaucracy, home environment, and travel style. I respect and admire him for a thousand reasons. I like his cooking. He doesn’t snore. Being around him has been a profoundly good influence on my life. He’s helped me to be more confident, and he’s taught me how to sleep and how to think like an athlete. It’s not just that I’m impressed with him as a person and a friend, though. I like being his wife. He’s good to me. He does nice things for me without being asked, which makes me want to do nice things for him, too. I trust him to be honest with me, to safeguard my secrets, and to be on my side. We’ve crossed streams together, physically and figuratively. He’s not just on my zombie apocalypse team – he is my zombie apocalypse team.
I could go on and on about my husband all day. It would be fairly easy for me to write that list of the thousand reasons I admire him, and in fact I might, since our anniversary is coming up and all. The reason I’m sharing, though, is that I’ve realized what we have is not necessarily something other people realize they could have. A lot of people seem to find themselves in relationships because they started talking, dating seemed like the obvious thing to do, and then moving in together seemed like the most obvious thing after that. Why that person, though? Why this person at this time? Are you simpatico? Would you be friends if you weren’t a couple? If you met today, would you hit it off? Are you caring for each other and doting on one another, or merely tolerating each other? Maybe the bloom is off the rose somewhat, but could you take another step closer and reach another level of intimacy? Are you giving all the love you have to give? If you are, best to check and make sure you’re giving your love to the right person for the right reasons.
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.