June 7, 2010

Love Means Not Letting The Other Person Be Himself

The anvil is the better choice: D6 to XO4

You get married in your twenties, but 20 years and three great kids later, not to mention the idyllic farm in Big Sky country, you seem to have made it.  The rest is coasting.

From the NYT:

Sure, you have your marital issues, but on the whole you feel so self-satisfied about how things have worked out that you would never, in your wildest nightmares, think you would hear these words from your husband one fine summer day: "I don't love you anymore. I'm not sure I ever did. I'm moving out. The kids will understand."
Wouldn't be the first middle aged man who suddenly realized he belonged not with his family but in a pre-furnished uptown apartment living on take-out.  They say that the older kids get over it, but that sounds like something a psychiatrist would say, i.e. completely made up.

 Her parry:

His words came at me like a speeding fist, like a sucker punch, yet somehow in that moment I was able to duck. And once I recovered and composed myself, I managed to say, "I don't buy it." Because I didn't.
She figured that this was a mid-life crisis; not another woman, or a failing on her part, but the discovery that his "personal trajectory is no longer arcing reliably upward as it once did."  So, she treated it like "a child's temper tantrum": she ignored it.  For four months.

Not ignored him: she included him in all family activities, talked to him, set a place for him.   But she refused to engage in discussions about separation.

So he turned mean. "I don't like what you've become."

Gut-wrenching pause. How could he say such a thing? That's when I really wanted to fight. To rage. To cry. But I didn't.

Instead, a shroud of calm enveloped me, and I repeated those words: "I don't buy it."

He was... surprised.  He tried different ways to get through to her, but she kept "not buying it."

"Go trekking in Nepal. Build a yurt in the back meadow. Turn the garage studio into a man-cave. Get that drum set you've always wanted. Anything but hurting the children and me with a reckless move like the one you're talking about... What can we do to give you the distance you need, without hurting the family?"


My first reaction was: this woman is insane.  e.g.:

(To her husband) It's not age-appropriate to expect children to be concerned with their parents' happiness. Not unless you want to create co-dependents who'll spend their lives in bad relationships and therapy. There are times in every relationship when the parties involved need a break. What can we do to give you the distance you need, without hurting the family?

I don't know what that means, but I'm pretty sure I don't like it. 

And this clear example of needing to go on/off pills:

You see, I'd recently committed to a non-negotiable understanding with myself. I'd committed to "The End of Suffering." I'd finally managed to exile the voices in my head that told me my personal happiness was only as good as my outward success, rooted in things that were often outside my control.
What put me off was her unwillingness to see him on his terms. Identity may be arbitrary and malleable, but the one with the body has a bigger claim to it, right?    She wanted him a certain way, he didn't want to be that way, and she didn't care.  She wanted to be the one who chose his identity. 

Also, she was a writer which made me suspect the whole thing.  Why does this stuff always happen to writers and not longshoremen?

But as I mulled it over for two months, I had to defer, this woman had it right.  She didn't overthink it.   The obvious thing to do would be to take it personally ("he's not in love with me because I'm old and fat"); the easy thing to do would be to use it to air out old angers with him ("you always took your mother's side!"); and the tempting thing to do would be to do therapy on him ("don't you think you feel this way because you're old and fat?")

But instead she let it evolve naturally.  She got out of the way and let him do exactly what it was he wanted to do, which was, specifically, choose his own identity.  What she hoped, of course, was that he'd choose the one he already had for the past twenty years.  But it was a gamble, because he could have chosen to become a middle aged man who prowls airport bars looking for stewardesses.  (I'll preempt your joke: when I did it I was a very young.)

The analogy is to adolescence, where the more you badger them about their ____, the more they're going to believe they really want ____; because they aren't identifying with ____, they are identifying with not-you.  That's what teens do, that's what anyone who feels their identity is being decided by others.

He, representative of too many men, wanted not to be something new, he just didn't want to be anything decided by someone else, even if he actually likes that thing.  I came to understand this when I reread his quote, with the additional last sentence:

...you would never, in your wildest nightmares, think you would hear these words from your husband one fine summer day: "I don't love you anymore. I'm not sure I ever did. I'm moving out. The kids will understand. They'll want me to be happy.

Why would this nut think that they would want him to be happy?  On some level they might, but why would they choose his happiness over theirs, or their mom's?  "They'll want me to be happy" are the words of someone who has no idea what he wants, and so picks the meaningless word "happy."


I had to concede that she does know him better than he knows himself, after twenty years; not because she has seen into his soul but because she hasn't: she's seen what he's done, repeatedly, for twenty years.  That's who he is, regardless of who he says he is. 

Not great example, but: he says "I love japanese culture, I love japanese food" but she knows to find him at the burger joint and not the sushi place.  Who he is is "a guy who just says he likes sushi, but does like burgers."

Also, hopefully, she has a sense of what are his values-- again, not what he says they are, but what he does. So she might find it legitimately out of character that he wants to move out since, for example, he could tolerate her infidelity just to stay near his kids.

So if we grant her a particularly unique perspective on her husband, then she may be in a position to know what's a phase and what's not.

And hence what she did- potentially humiliating and even futile-- was the right gambit.


Here's the depressing part: if she had let him go, via arguing or clinging or whatever-- then he probably would not ever regret his decision to leave.  Living at the Residence Inn, he would sincerely think he had made the right choice, that he had to move on.

But he wouldn't be any happier.  Different life, sure, but not better. This is what Laura intuited.  He may as well have moved from Cleveland to Indianapolis and swapped Lacoste for Polo.  "Wow, this is so much better."  Meanwhile, he's left behind a perfectly good life.

Everyone will tell me their situation is different and it may be, so I'll say it like this: if outside, impartial people who know you both perceive it to be a mid-life crisis and not a fundamental problem in the relationship, then bank on it.  The problem isn't the relationship, the problem is you.



One thing I almost forgot: Laura's husband is a dying breed.

The trend now-- generation <40-- is for the woman to have the mid-life crisis.  Before you jump on men, it's a combination of factors.

On the male side, the drive for novelty and nueva vida loca is turned inwards, so that rather than chase new experiences they close off from the outside world and dream them.  They don't end relationships, they stay caulked to the inside of one, unmoving, ungrowing, apathetic; while their minds and DVRs are an imaginarium.  The few things they do choose to jump recklesslsy into are obvious go-nowheres: one night stands (for the married man); making a movie; daytrading.  They're easy to attempt, and easy to blame on externalities when they inevitably fail. 

They don't break up with the girl, they ignore her until she breaks up with them.

On the female side: well, reverse 50 years of history and it's what men went through.  Promised the world as described by Coca Cola and whatever TV show was popular at the time.  All opportunities are open to anyone who wants to work, a new car, a big house, a career.  But no one told the men that those things were for their families, not for them, that none of this would make them happy, and, indeed, would make them realize how little their lives are really worth-- unless they understood that their lives had value only if it was of value to someone else.  So for a while they chased sex, affairs, or took up an out of the house hobby (e.g.golf).  Something to give them the temporary illusion that they were free, and that the world had possibilties, not pot roast and pot bellies.

That's where women are, encouraged like the men had been by media images that say, "of course you can! (if you have the right bag)."  You can't.  It didn't make men happy, and it sure won't make you happy. If you think it looks stupid when a 40 year old man buys a convertible or has to go find himself or chases a 20 year old intern, think how stupid it looks when the woman does it.

Women since 1980 have been sold a big fat lie, the same one the men were sold since 1945.  It didn't turn out well for them.  It did make men drink more, so you can look forward to that.