Saturday, September 2, 2017

Is He In Love or Is He Bewitched?

This week a letter writer who calls himself Very Lucky writes to therapist Lori Gottlieb in New York Magazine. You see, his new ten-month relationship is so good that he does not quite trust it. It is too good to be true... or so he thinks.

For the record, I am assuming that Very Lucky is of the male persuasion. For all we know, in our gender-bent-out-of-shape era, he might be a she or might even be a whatever. We hav precious little information as is. So, it is infelicitous that we have to guess about gender.

Be that as it may, Very Lucky writes this:

My girlfriend and I have been dating for about ten months, and everything is going great. We are madly in love with each other, we cannot seem to find enough time to spend together, and we constantly shower each other with affection. By way of brief background, we are in our upper-30s and have each been in other long-term relationships that all involved some level of strife and all ended short of marriage. In contrast to our previous relationships, the two of us have not fought about anything and have had no significant disagreements. It’s not because we’re both inclined to avoid conflict. I am a litigator and I’m very comfortable arguing, and she is a successful, assertive professional, and neither one of us feels that we have made any sacrifice in order to avoid an argument.

In any event, we are now discussing marriage, and we continue to marvel at our lack of arguments. In fact, it even has us somewhat concerned. We fully expect that life will throw many challenges our way as we progress from dating to living together, marriage, kids, retirement, old age, etc. So how do we know whether we are going to be able to overcome the inevitable hardships of sharing a life together without having worked through smaller arguments as a dating couple?

Is there anything we can or should do to test our conflict-resolution skills? Or are we being ridiculous?

Gottlieb takes a position that may or may not apply to the situation at hand, but that is a useful piece of psycho wisdom. She emphasizes that if we are used to one kind of relationship, finding ourselves in another will often feel disconcerting and discombobulating… because of its unfamiliarity. If we are only used to having abusive relationships a loving relationship might not feel right. Of course, it might not be right even if it does not feel right.

Gottlieb writes:

As much as people say they want change, they also resist it for various reasons, one of which is that it’s hard to let go of what’s familiar. If you’re used to feeling alone, or abandoned; if you already know what it’s like for people to disappoint or reject you — it may not feel good, but at least there are no surprises. At least you know the customs in your homeland.

Once you step into foreign territory, though — you spend time with reliable people; you start sleeping well and taking care of your body; you get your finances in order and pay your bills on time; you meet people whom find you appealing and interesting — you might feel lost, confused, anxious, disoriented. All of a sudden, nothing’s familiar. You have no landmarks, nothing to go by, and all of the predictability of the world you’re used to is gone. The place you came from may not be great — it might, in fact, be pretty awful — but at least you know exactly what you’ll get there (disappointment, abandonment, chaos, isolation, criticism, failure).

And yet, let’s examine it from another angle. Let’s imagine that Very Lucky is disturbed about something that he ought to be disturbed about… only he does not know what it is. One should always assume that when a patient is disturbed about something, the problem might not be psychological. When people are suffering from anxiety often they are anxious about something, not nothing, and not something that happened twelve years ago.

From the little that we know, we know that Very Lucky’s paramour is in her late thirties. And that she wants to have children. These assumptions are perfectly reasonable under the circumstances. If such is the case, she might be feeling a twinge of desperation. But, she might also have decided to be on best behavior, to be loving and caring and agreeable… no matter what. My apologies if I sound cynical... but still.

When Very Lucky says that neither of them has made any sacrifice to avoid arguments and disagreements, this assumes that they are both telling the truth. I have my doubts. Very Lucky has his doubts. A woman who is a very successful professional and who is very assertive is unlikely to have forgotten her bad habits because she has found true love.

We are thrilled that the two have found each other, that they are soul mates, and that their love affair is going swimmingly. And yet, he feels that his behavior is out of character and, for all he can tell, so is hers. How does he know that she is not casting a spell over him, that he is being ensorcelled? He does not. Nor do we.

But isn’t it more likely that she is on best behavior because she is trying to beat her biological clock? Do you really believe that two people in their late thirties have found true love and that all of a sudden all of their bad relationship habits have melted away? Do you think that they have been transformed into creatures that their previous lovers would not recognize.

How can Very Lucky know whether the love of his life is putting on a show, is taking him for a ride, is reeling him in… just in time to beat her biological clock? He doesn’t. We assume that they have made the beast-with-two-backs but we do not know. We do not know whether they are using contraception either.

In matters of romance women have home field advantage. They are in charge of the game. A smart woman will often allow a man to believe that he is in charge, but in romantic life, such is not the case. In such circumstances the man is usually the last to have any idea of what is going on. It might well be the case that the couple is perfectly suited to each other, but in the matter of romantic love—and that seems to be all that this couple has—the woman is in charge.

But, he is suspicious and he thinks that something is not quite right. Since Gottlieb misses this point completely, we are confident that it is the most relevant point. If girlfriend was as loving and caring and wonderful as she appears or as she has been pretending to be, she would likely have gotten married sooner.

He seems to sense that once she has gotten what she wants, the claws will come out and she will become less compliant and less conciliatory.

All we really know is that these two are in what must be considered an extended honeymoon stage. Actually, ten months is very long for a honeymoon, but who am I to argue with true love. Yet, if they cannot get enough of each other and are constantly showering each other with affection, have they taken their relationship public?

One would like to know whether these not-so-young lovers have often gone out in public together. One would like to know whether they have met each other’s friends and families. One would like to know how they relate to said friends and family members. One would like to know what their friends and family have to say about their conscious coupling. One assumes that they are not living together, but two high powered professionals trying to domesticate a love affair are going to have points of contention, even conflict. Will he suddenly turn from litigator into househusband? Will she suddenly transform from assertive professional into Betty Crocker?

This mad passionate love affair does not seem to have any substance beyond their intense feelings for each other. Such intense feelings, the kinds that we associate with honeymoon stages, will necessarily fade once the requirements of everyday life intrude.

The moral of the story: if he thinks that something is wrong, that she has not shown her true colors, he is probably right. We would be on more solid ground if we knew about their domestic arrangements and if we had learned what their friends and family had to say about it all.


Jack Fisher said...

"Is there anything we can or should do to test our conflict-resolution skills?"

Try baseball-style arbitration before a AAA or CIETAC arbitrator.

He could be a submissive to her Dominatrix so he wears a dog collar and never questions her decisions.

But I get the sense he's bragging about something that anyone who has been married longer than a year is rolling his or her eyes at.

Someone tell Clueless, Esq., that marriage =/= honeymoon and that love does not mean affection but actions and the real test comes after the giggling hand-holding phase ends and the days come when one partner has to clean up the other's shit ("in sickness and in health").

Ares Olympus said...

Sure, it seems a fair possibility - that she's playing extra nice because she's afraid her clock is running out. It doesn't even have to be a strongly conscious effort, so she may not even be aware when her temperament or preferences have been silenced to get along.

And anyway this behavior supports Stuart's advice against authenticity - relationships don't thrive when we are perfectly "ourselves". So there's some middle ground between being ourselves, and being somewhat different to accommodate others we care about.

But for getting a wider breadth of experience of another person, I agree meeting and hanging out with family and friends can help break the early "perfect couple" personas. There's just more potential for drama or conflict to arise, and family members often have a habit of knowing how to press our buttons. So we'll see a somewhat different person when we see them interact with long time friends or family.

James said...

The Land of love, hormones, and sex is a very dangerous place. Even the forewarned are not forearmed when they enter there. It is a place where victory can be defeat and defeat can be surprisingly a win even though desolation seems everywhere. I for one have never found a reliable compass to negotiate that place.

sestamibi said...

I think you're right about the passion slipping away, but this couple is quite a bit older so they may feel that time will run out on them before the passion does.

RKV said...

Suggest that they evaluate the Four Agreements (+1).
Children - to have or not, and how many?
Faith - go to the same church or not at all, are they in the same place?
Politics - too far apart here will turn out badly.
Money - savers or spenders? In debt or not? What are their plans and prospects?
Plus one - health - issues or not, and family matters so check them out. Know what you are getting into if they have an issue.
And meet their parents and see how they get along too.
Once the 4 + 1 are in place then you can argue over the color of the living room walls all day and not call the divorce lawyer.