Holy cow, more than 5000 hits today, the highest since the beginning of the year. What gives?
One blog I read fairly frequently is Barb's Lucky White Girl. She's got a powerful and deeply personal post up today about her own current relationship, her parents, men, women, and roles -- especially the ways in which we find ourselves playing the part of the child. Here's an excerpt:
I don't want to be the mother in this relationship. Children are afraid of getting into trouble. They hide things from their parents. I don't want to be the feared dictator, the enforcer of rules.
I don't want to be the child. Children are dependent. I've lived my own life for so long, I'm good at taking care of myself. I don't want to, don't need to go backwards.
I want us to be two independent, mature adults.
What I don't know is this:
Is it possible to consciously mold this relationship into something different from what it is now? Or are these things hidden too deep within the psyche to change? If the old adage about not trying to change other people is true, is it fair/right/reasonable of me to expect or attempt such change within a relationship in which I am only a part?
I don't blog about relationships much, but this is a topic painfully near and dear to my heart. In my past marriages and relationships, I found myself-- like so many men -- taking on the part of the "naughty boy" and the "helpless child." Time and again, I turned wives and girlfriends into mother-figures, and the result was inevitably disastrous.
I'm not going to pretend to have all the answers as to why we do what we do, or even why I did what I did. I do know that I'm not the only man who found "courtship" easier than "relationship." Over and over again, I devoted time and energy to "getting the girl", and when I succeeded, soon felt vaguely let down and confused about my role. It was all too easy for me to become increasingly childlike. I figured out that most of partners were students of my emotions, and most of them were eager to make the relationship work. So they were the ones who took over the "feeling work" of the relationship. They were the ones who brought up when something wasn't working, they were the ones who took on the primary role of keeping what we had "oiled and running", as it were.
When I lived with wives and girlfriends past, I'd quickly cede control over our living arrangements. What went where, and what got done when were decisions I wanted my partner to make. I thought I was being accommodating, telling myself and her "You know, honey, you care more about this (the color of the sheets, what kind of plants to have outside, what we have for dinner) than I do; why don't you decide?" And my wife or girlfriend would make a decision, and whether I liked the decision or not, I didn't have much to say about it either way. When pressed for my opinion, my favorite response was "Whatever you want, darling." Of course, I liked having everything done for me -- my wife or girlfriend maintained the relationship, kept things running, and in the cases where we lived together, made the major decisions about the house. I said loving things, bought flowers occasionally, and did my best to be faithful. That, I figured, was my part.
Now, as the son of a feminist mom, I was always very big on doing my share of the housework. I was a loyal washer of dishes, a frequent doer of laundry (I actually LIKE doing laundry), and a good grocery shopper. But I thought of what I was doing as "doing chores", in much the same way I did chores as a child. I did not take responsibility for making decisions about the household, even as I seemed to be -- to the outside world -- an equal partner in the running of the home. I was very good at avoiding conflict. When conflict did arise, I had two tactics in my arsenal:
1. Get very indignant and threaten to leave the relationship.
2. Act like a small child, launch into a pathetic list of self-recriminations (what Robert Bly calls the "I've always been shit" speech), and get wife or girlfriend to feel sorry for me, start soothing me, and get off my case about whatever it was that I was doing that was driving her up the wall.
Can I see a show of hands of those who know what I'm talkin' bout?
And of course, when it came to boundaries, I famously let the women in my life set them -- and then promptly resented them for having done so. A partner would say something fairly reasonable like "Hugo, I don't feel comfortable when you go out with your ex-girlfriends without me." Realizing that these friendships with exes were usually tinged with something threatening to my current relationship, I'd quickly agree to my partner's request to stop seeing so-and -so. Soon enough, however, I would resent my current partner for putting boundaries in place, and I'd either start sneaking around behind her back or let the hostility build up inside of me. Instead of being an equal partner in setting boundaries, I made my wife or girlfriend the arbiter of what was appropriate behavior.
One of my friends once told me: "Hugo, relationships are like stoplights at an intersection. In order for the traffic to flow, both sets of lights have to work. Sometimes the light for the east and west bound traffic has to be red; sometimes the north-south. There's got to be partnership in setting limits; each set has to take responsibility for yellow, red, and green -- or there's chaos." In my past, like a child, my basic approach to everything was "green". In every area of my life, I waited for my partner to flash the yellow or the red light She was the one who would decide how far we went. We would always both end up resenting the hell out of each other for the other's role. I would always end up seeing my wives and girlfriends as controlling, mothering, and judgmental; they would always see me as irresponsible, dishonest, and childlike.
I know damned well that I'm not telling a unique story here. Anyone identify with me -- or my exes?
One of the things that I've been committed to in recent years has been the notion that transformation and change is a never-ending opportunity, and an unavoidable responsibility. The battle-cry of my teens and twenties in relationship was "Accept me as I am! This is my nature!" The marital mantra of my late thirties is "Push me, and I'll push you! Don't let me settle for less than I could be, and I won't let you be less than what I believe you are capable of being." This doesn't mean that my wife and I sit around pointing out each other's shortcomings. It does mean that we know we have an opportunity to grow and transform together. Yes, my wife and I each have our "baggage" (In my case, it's a whole damn Louis Vuitton luggage set), but part of growing up in relationship is letting go of the idea that one's childhood, one's parents, or one's previous relationships are an excuse for not doing hard spiritual and emotional work.
I'm not proud of the fact that I prolonged a sulky and mercurial adolescence for nearly two decades. I'm not proud of the fact that I chose to spend years and years stuck in the role of the irresponsible boy who wouldn't grow up, who both wanted women to take care of him and resented the hell out of them for doing so. But with the help of God and a whole bunch of folks here on earth, I've been busy in recent years letting go of these old patterns. I no longer believe anything is, to paraphrase Barb, hidden too deeply in the psyche to change. When I came back to Christ, I became enchanted with the idea that we are, as C.S. Lewis writes in the Last Battle, always called "further up, further in." I see too many of my male friends and family members stuck in patterns set years and years ago; they seem to lack the desire, the willingness, and the faith to change. But where my faith and my pro-feminism intersect best is in my belief that my conditioning and my biology and my past excuses are not determinative of how I will live my life as a man. There is no "nature" we have that we cannot overcome, no habits we cannot break, no baggage that we can't finally zip up and stow away for good.
I'm not ashamed to say that it is only now, in my fourth marriage, that I feel like I'm showing up as a fully adult man. As tempting as it sometimes is, I will not go back to playing the part of the "naughty boy"; I will not place the burden of relationship maintenance on my wife's shoulders alone. My mother is my mother, my wife is my wife, and never have the roles seemed as radically distinct as they do now. It has been a helluva lot of work to get here, and I've got miles and miles to go , but I'm on my way.