Thinking About Marriage as an Ashamed Monogamist

I’ve been thinking a lot about marriage lately. I’m hitting the age where my friends are in many cases starting to get hitched and The Boy and I have discussed marriage. I’ve come to the realization that despite some childhood antagonism towards marriage, I do want to get married. But that doesn’t mean I whole-heartedly support the idea of marriage itself.

Marriage as an institution is sexist, heteronormative, anti-polyamory, and pretty much stuck in another century in nearly every way. Many of the traditions are rooted in a time when women were property and marriage was an economic transaction. It is still part of a system that prioritizes romantic relationships over all others and that forcefully pushes the nuclear family model on everyone, regardless of their preferences and needs. It ignores the existence of polyamory, and has only barely started to tiptoe out of its oppressively heteronormative roots. It also is a hugely capitalistic endeavor, with people spending obscene amounts of money often because they have been told that weddings need to have certain elements. Often that money gets spent on things like diamonds, that come from exploitative industries.

Marriage is also a celebration of many things that are hugely important to human life and will probably never stop being so: love, family, connection, and community.

I like rituals. I have always liked feeling as if there is a clear next step in my life, and a set of rules and circumstances to fit who I am and what I need. I like ceremony and hooplah and being the center of attention. I like big parties and pretty dresses. I like talking about how much I love my partner. And while I understand that marriage is a completely arbitrary set of rules and rituals that only have as much meaning as we give them, I love metaphors and symbols and really like to create special meanings in my relationship.

I am also monogamous, heterosexual, cis, and in many ways built so that marriage as it stands today will fit me. I know that part of the reason I can set aside my qualms with marriage and “make it fit me” is because it was designed to fit me. So how does a girl embrace something that seems like it will improve her life while recognizing and trying to make space for the ways that thing upholds oppression? Of course I’m really not sure, but here are some of the things that I’m thinking about.

The biggest hangup I have about marriage is that I am monogamous.When I’m in a relationship I stop feeling much by way of attraction towards anyone else. I’m socially anxious and on the asexual end of the spectrum. one relationship is about all I can and want to handle. Why would that make marriage hard for me? Marriage is made for monogamous people! It’s whole point is to be monogamous. That is of course the problem in my mind. I don’t think there’s anything better about monogamy than other relationship styles. It’s just what works for me. All of that would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that by participating in marriage I am on some level telling my poly friends that I’m ok with an institution that forces them to choose a relationship pattern that doesn’t necessarily work for them. I’m getting legal and financial benefits that they won’t. This is where the rubber hits the road for me in criticisms of choice feminism. Marriage and monogamy might work for me and that’s great, but my choices affect other people.

Even for other monogamous people, marriage isn’t always the best choice. It doesn’t allow for extended families very well (at least as we conceive of it today, it pushes two spouses to live with their kids and no one else), and it collapses the distinctions between sex and romance. It implies that romantic and sexual partnership is the goal of everyone’s life. It doesn’t do great things for aromantic and asexual people. It’s really just leaving a lot of people out in the cold without a nice, clear way to legally recognize their families.

I don’t know that there are any clear paths forward. I don’t ever think that the answer to one group’s oppression is to tell everyone to stop doing what works for them. I think the answer is more often to make things more available to more people instead of taking them away until they’re fair. Marriage is also pretty personal: it has to do with how you create your family and life, and those are really important decisions that are different for everyone. So the ideas that I’m throwing out here are what I think will work for me. I’d love to hear how others grapple with responsibly approaching marriage as a social justice minded person.

The most important thing in my mind is continuing to speak out about the ways that marriage prioritizes certain people over others, and to support and listen to people who say it doesn’t work for them. Additionally, I also want to de emphasize the importance of marriage in my life. Because marriage as an institution says that the best and most important relationship in your life is a primary, monogamous romantic partner, I want to put less of an emphasis on marriage in my life. Sure it’s something that I want, but I also want to make a concerted effort to continue to foster my other relationships, to focus on other parts of my life, to recognize that “getting a man” isn’t the most important thing in my life. I want to throw myself just as big of a party if I get a Master’s degree or if I get a book published. I want to help try to take the mystique away from marriage by making it another celebration of another milestone that someone might find important.

I also want to remind myself and others that I can express my love in ways that don’t involve spending thousands of dollars. I can create smaller ceremonies that aren’t bound to be legally recognized in specific ways. I can throw Galentine’s day parties or write my honey love letters at random points in time. All of these do a little bit to erode the ways that we see marriage as necessary, immutable, and more important than anything else.

Of course none of this will fix the way marriage exists in our society now. I also intend to vote for any legislation that widens the scope of marriage, talk loudly and vocally to anyone who will listen about the fact that I wish there were a way to legally recognize a non-romantic individual as part of your family, and criticize all the ways that our conceptions of gender, sex, and family are fucked up. I will continue to educate others about the existence and healthiness of a wide variety of styles of sexuality and relationships. And I will advocate for their legal recognition and protection.

Because as much as I want to get married, I want everyone else to feel just as comfortable, supported, and safe in their life choices as I do.

Boundaries Mean Cruelty

One of my favorite blogs in the world is Captain Awkward. It’s an advice blog, a format I rarely read, but in this case it deals primarily with scripts and suggestions for setting boundaries. Sure, there’s lots of variations on that, but almost across the board it’s about making space for yourself, aimed at introverts, weird and awkward types, the socially anxious, and those who live in the world of oppression. It’s fantastic and you all should check it out.

Thanks to the help of Captain Awkward, a lot of DBT, and a pile of friends who openly talk about self care and openly asking for what we need, I’ve started to practice boundary setting as often as possible. It’s amazing how difficult it is to open my mouth to simply say something like “please don’t talk about calories around me,” but there you go. The internalized people pleasing is strong in me.

I’m getting better. I can tell friends that I’m not up for hanging out if I need to, I can tell my boyfriend when I don’t feel comfortable with something, I can even to some extent enforce my boundaries in the online world. But for some reason it all breaks down when it comes to my family. My family has always been pretty close, and we like to get together. We like to party. We like to eat a lot of food together. And we like to spend a great deal of time together, especially around the holidays.

Now through the process of reading about the fleeting thing called “normalcy” I have gleaned that my family goes a bit above and beyond in terms of holiday activities. I, on the other hand, am fairly socially anxious and spending many days in a row with the extended fam can be a drain.

So this year I’m opting out of some of the festivities. I’m making sure I see all the out of towners, get some immediate family time in, and trying to fit in friends too. But I’m skipping almost half of our events.

Part of me is convinced that the message I’m sending by setting this boundary, by saying that I am an adult with a job and friends and responsibilities and in order to take care of myself I need to take these steps, I am telling my family that I don’t love them. Part of my brain still reads “setting a boundary” as “cruelty”.

I know that by taking time to myself I am doing my best by everyone. I’ll be a happier, friendlier, more outgoing human being in the times that I do see my family. I’ll be able to be more present with them and actually (hopefully) have good conversations and interactions instead of living in a state of stress and anxiety that makes me antisocial and cranky. I know that one day of good time together is better than a week of time struggling to cope.

So why is it that I still read it as inappropriate? Why do I still read the boundary setting as taking something away from other people when in reality my time is not something that I owe anyone, it’s something I choose to give to others? Somewhere along the line society has convinced me that certain people deserve my time, no matter what that means. Not only that, but they deserve my time in a fashion that is acquiescing and non confrontational.

This is not to say that my family demands some sort of creepy submission, but that challenging your family, setting boundaries, or even just asking someone not to do something is viewed as hostile by many people. Not showing up is seen as a sign, and it’s not a good one.

I don’t know what it is about family that triggers the “you should not be an independent human being, you owe all your time to these people” script in my brain. I don’t know if this is something that happens to others, the selective way the mind chooses people you cannot be an adult with. But I know that it isn’t healthy to feel like I’m five again whenever my family asks me to do things, certain that I don’t actually have any choices but petulantly running to my room or doing what they ask.

So I’m sticking with my boundaries. Discomfort be damned.

Marriage Is What Brings Us Together Today

It’s that time of life where everyone is getting married. My brother has had a wedding to attend nearly every weekend since summer began, and even my not-so-interested-in-marriage friends are starting to get engaged. And so comes the phenomenon of name changes, and with it the anxiety that I get when I see my friends choosing to give up an identity marker as part of their relationship. While conversation about name changing has died off somewhat in the feminist movement, it’s still easy to find articles arguing both sides of the issue: women should be allowed to have the choice, it’s not unfeminist to do what you want to, women need to demand that men change their names, what on earth do gay and lesbian marriages bring to this debate, and why is it that 90% of the country still thinks that women should change their names upon marriage?

There’s a lot of deeper issues that names tap into. In literature, philosophy, sociology, and politics, names have importance. They help us define something, give it identity, allow it a place in the world. Names ground things in history, they give us a shorthand way of understanding what something is (this is particularly true of minority identities: having a name for your identity goes a long way towards making you feel part of a community or towards having legitimacy). So while many people might say that a last name just isn’t that important, that’s simply not true. Practically speaking, changing your name requires rebuilding your name if you have a career or contacts, changing a whole lot of official forms and documents (passports, driver’s license, etc), and changing even the way you think of yourself. It takes work, and that work far too often becomes the woman’s work.

Mary Elizabeth Williams argues that she doesn’t think most of her friends who changed their names are “pawns of the patriarchy” or that they’ve given up something by changing their names. It’s true that there are absolutely circumstances where a name change can be an act of liberation (e.g. changing the last name given to you by an abusive father), but for most people who choose to do it simply to please their partner/family/society, it might be time to get a little more critical. I doubt anyone is suggesting that women shouldn’t be allowed to change their names, simply that there’s a place in the conversation to ask why it’s always women and to challenge women to question. Choice feminism is great, but even freely chosen actions can contribute to an overall milieu of sexism.

What strikes me most about these conversations is the fact that every reason to change your name feels like an excuse. Every reason or situation could be solved in some other fashion that doesn’t require a woman to join her identity to her husband’s but not the other way around. If a woman doesn’t like her last name or has uncomfortable memories with it, she doesn’t have to wait around for a marriage to change it: you can change your name at any point in time. In fact one of my close friends just recently did this, and she’s all the happier for it because it was a choice of her own identity rather than a switch away from a painful identity into another person’s identity. If you want a unified family, hyphenate or make a new last name. The only honest to god reason for wanting a woman to change her last name but not a man is sexism, whether it’s in the form of a man feeling a woman needs to commit or a family wanting to carry on their name or some other variation thereof.

Spoiler alert: nothing about a title or name should change how you feel about someone or your commitment to them. While names do have power, they don’t make or break a relationship. My mother didn’t change her maiden name. My parents have been together for ??? years, through some incredibly rough times. No one could ever accuse my mother of not being committed to her marriage and her family (and if you do I will personally rip you a new one). The only confusion that ever happened was that one of my Spanish teachers thought my parents were divorced. We all got a hearty laugh over that one. Sometimes my friends don’t know what to call her. It’s real tough for her to tell them “Kathleen”.

Stop expecting women to bear the burden of accomodation. I’ve heard a fair number of men say that it was important to them, to the integrity of the relationship, or to carrying on their family name for their wife to change her name.  Can I just suggest that if your husband has cited any of these reasons you question your choice of spouse since that’s a whole pile of double standard he’s throwing all over you? Anything that says “women should do this, but men don’t need to,” is pretty textbook sexism. It doesn’t mean that you’re wrong for wanting to do it or a bad person. It means you’re participating in a sexist system and that we all need to learn how to question it. If you honestly feel that your marriage will be better because your wife changes something about herself, question that. If you feel pressured to change your name in order to be a good wife, question that.

There is absolutely no objective reason that a woman should be expected to behave differently when adjusting to married life than a man should, so let’s stop pretending it’s all for family unity and get to the heart of the issue: sexism. I don’t think every woman who takes her husband’s name is deeply hurt or oppressed by that decision. But I do think letting lots of little things slide reminds us over and over that we’re in a culture that values men and men’s identities over women’s, and that I have a problem with.

 

Asking for Help and Taking Responsibility

When someone you care about is dealing with depression or a mental illness, it can be incredibly hard to figure out how much to help and how to take care of yourself while also being there for them. And when you are suffering from a mental illness, sometimes it feels like all you can do is just yell for help. Two things that all parties are often told is that everyone is responsible for their own emotions and that it’s important to ask for help. I have found that on both sides (as a support person and as someone suffering), these two things often feel contradictory.

Let’s say you’re feeling really down. You go to your best friend and you tell them you’re struggling.  You tell them you don’t know what to do. You say “help”. From your perspective, you’re taking responsibility. You’ve owned up to your feelings and now you are asking for help. From their perspective, it seems like you’re foisting off the responsibility for your emotions and they’re expected to simply fix what’s happening, make it better, make you happy. Who’s right? Where’s the balance?

There is a difference between asking someone to help you take care of your mental health and making your mental health someone else’s responsibility. No one else is capable of fixing your depression or anxiety or sadness or whatever else might be getting you down. Sure, they might be able to alleviate it for a while (especially if you’re dating them and you get the nice fluttery feelings around them), but that doesn’t actually turn out to be a long term fix. It’s too much pressure to be the only source of someone’s happiness, to be expected to turn on a switch that makes the bad go away. It’s taken some time for me to start to identify the signs of “fix me” rather than “help me”, but for those who are still navigating a relationship in which mental illness plays a role, here are some things to watch out for.

1. Diversify

We all need people. It’s part of our emotional needs. We need to socialize, we need to talk, we need people to take care of us when we’re sick and people to share things with. All that makes perfect sense. But as adults, we also need to realize that no one person can meet all of our emotional needs. There’s simply not enough time in the day. That’s why we have networks with a variety of people. Our networks don’t have to be huge: mine is basically my parents, my boyfriend, and one or two close friends (plus my therapist). But each of these people provides a new perspective and can support me in different ways. It means that when my mom is having a horrible week at work, I can give her some space and go ask my boyfriend to hang out with me for a bit. No one should be required to always be on call, and if you find that you’re constantly waiting for one person it might be a good time to think about building up some other relationships.

2. Make a good faith effort

If your first recourse when you’re depressed is to call that certain someone, this might be a sign that you don’t have other coping mechanisms or that you aren’t trying to rely on yourself. It’s certainly ok to call someone, but there should be other tools in your toolkit that you’re willing to reach for first (and this can be dependent on the seriousness of a given situation. If you’re experiencing severe suicidal ideation then PICK UP THE PHONE. If you’re feeling kind of blah and bored and empty, then see what options you’ve got). This can also be on a larger scale: if medical help is feasible, you should probably be willing to try that out (e.g. meds or therapy). You might try changing your situation (volunteering, getting out of a bad housing situation, etc.). Of course making an effort is one of the hardest things to do when depressed, but before you tell your friend/SO about how miserable your day was, you should at least have tried to get out of bed, shower, and leave the house.

3. Articulate what you need (as best you can)

One of the things that leaves a support person feeling like they should be able to snap their fingers or wave a magic wand and just “fix it” is when their loved one doesn’t give some hint of how to help. Of course there are times when we don’t know what we need and we have to do our best to explain how we’re feeling and ask for a general kind of help, but as best as you can, let the other person know what you need. Tell them if you need to vent or if you need to brainstorm solutions. Call someone up and say “I need a distraction do you want to go out” instead of simply saying “I’m bored help”. This means more work on your part. You have to brainstorm what might help you. That’s part of being responsible. If you can’t figure it out, you can ask for help figuring out what you need (e.g. “I feel horrible and I can’t figure out what to do. Do you have any suggestions?”). Simply expressing how you feel without giving the other person an idea of how they fit in feels like you’re just throwing your depression at them.

4. Be independent

This can mean a lot of things, but at its heart it says please don’t have one person be your only social life, job, or interaction all day long. Have a job, have interests, volunteer, have friends, have a side project. Have things that belong to you and that you’re willing to do by yourself or with a different friend. There’s something intensely unpleasant about having another person waiting around for you all day to entertain them. If your partner/support person sees you at the end of the day, your answer to “what did you do today” should not always be “nothing”. Sure there are days when you can’t manage anything. Sure, there are days when the depression gets too bad and all you can do is crawl out of bed. But if the only times you get out of bed, get dressed, talk to people, accomplish something, or have fun is when that one special person is there, you’ve made them responsible for you.

5. Never imply or say that the other person is required to be there for you.

I’ve had people tell me that they need me, that they’ll have to kill themselves if I leave, that if I’m not around they’ll hurt themselves, etc. etc. Don’t do that. Don’t call someone from your vacation and tell them how miserable you are because they’re not there. Make a serious effort to have at least a few examples you can point to where you were on your own and you were ok so that they can trust that you can spend a night without them.

That crap is not romantic. It’s cruel.

6. Be willing to feel like crap.

This might sound odd, but for people with mental illness, one symptom seems to be a serious inability to tolerate distress. Because many of us start to panic and look to bad coping mechanisms when we feel bad, our support people worry whenever we are in a bad mood. Something that is oddly reassuring is to tell your support person “yes, I feel like shit right now, but I will be ok. I’ll get through it.” As a corollary to this, if you have to ride out a shitty mood, your partner/support people get to choose how much they want to be around you. It’s nice to give them a little heads up: “I feel like crap right now. If you’d like to come over you can, but I’m going to be miserable company and that probably won’t change at least for today.”  This lets your support person take care of themselves. They can let you know they’re willing to be on call if things go really bad, but they’ll see you tomorrow, or they can choose to see you anyway and brace for a bad mood.

 

All of these things exist on a spectrum. Most of the examples I gave were towards the extreme end. Obviously it’s fairly abusive to threaten suicide if someone isn’t always around you, but that type of behavior can exist in a subtler way (the passive aggressive sigh and “I guess I”ll be ok with you”). But if you notice these types of behaviors in  yourself or your partner it might be a good time to reevaluate what’s happening to treat the mental illness in the relationship and have a frank discussion about who is responsible for what.

A Change In Perspective

It’s been a bit of a rough week here in Olivialand. I’ve had some ups and downs in my family life, and a friend that I care a great deal about has had an incredibly bad week. The good thing about having these two events happen at the same time is that I was treated to opposing sides of the mental health talk: that of the person suffering, and that of the person who wants to help. Because of this kind of parallel, I’ve had a chance to gain some insight about the people who have tried to help me, and I think that the conversation between the perspectives can be beneficial for both sides.

One of the things that’s always been hard for me while dealing with treatment and my mental illness is having sympathy for my friends and family, particularly when they become scared and will do just about anything to change my behavior. There have absolutely been times when people close to me have acted inappropriately out of fear, most often in attempts to keep me safe. They’ve done things that hurt me, scare me, and feel overly controlling.

For quite some time I’ve felt resentment about this. I’ve felt like I have to be the one who manages everyone else and that I can’t be open with people because then I’ll have to deal with their fallout and freakout. I’m sure anyone who’s dealt with mental illness has had these feelings before, because no support person comes ready made with a  perfect knowledge of how to support you, and that means sometimes they step in it. Lately in particular I’ve been feeling as if my family wants to control me and keep me close to them so they can keep tabs on my behavior and I’ve been a bit frustrated with it.

However this week has put me on the other side of the spectrum. I have felt the utter helplessness, the desire to just grab the person who is suffering and hold them, the need to make things better. I’ve been part of discussions that desperately try to find some way to ask the other person to listen, to change, to grow. I’ve seen how someone I love and care for is not acting like themself, is lashing out and being cruel, is seeing everything anyone says as negative. It’s so frustrating to see how someone is falling apart and not be able to show them all the ways they’re being self-destructive and all the ways you know they could fix it. There’s this certainty that if they just did what you told them, you would make it better.

Of course that’s not actually true, and probably my solution would be to see a therapist which is a whole bucketfull of hit or miss and really hard work by itself. What is true is that when one is spiraling out of control in depression or anxiety or any other mental illness, it might be a good idea to trust your support crew for a while because they’re likely thinking a little more clearly than you are. What’s also true is that your support crew is not at their best because they’re terrified and they really want you to trust them for a while, so they may resort to bad tactics.

High emotion situations mean that no one is acting at their best. In the situation, it’s easy to always see how the other person is behaving badly rather than take into account the ways that you yourself are not acting the most rational. Experiencing both at the same time made me realize how I was getting frustrated with others for doing the exact same things that I do when I’m put into their same situation. And when you’re already stressed out and frustrated it becomes infinitely harder to cut others slack. Of course this is the most important time to do it.

What I’ve learned most about this situation is that while it’s ok to be frustrated or hurt by someone else’s actions, getting angry and retaliating is the worst possible response. Cutting some slack, recognizing that people are being motivated by fear, trying to see that it’s not actually about you, and then calmly setting boundaries is probably the best response (although like any ideal it’s nearly impossible). In reality, I will probably do my best to balance the anger that I feel when someone violates my boundaries with my understanding that they do so from fear.

When someone is spiraling and they lash out at those trying to help, I will remember what it feels like to have my coping  mechanisms yanked out from under me, to be confronted with the sort of person that I’m being, to have people tell me that I’m not being a very good version of myself. I will remember how much that hurts.

When someone I love starts to hold on a bit too tight, I’ll remember the panicked feeling that there’s got to be some guarantee that will make your loved one safe, that they need to get better, that they can’t see how bad it is. I’ll remember all the words and scripts that flooded my mind when I saw someone hurting themself. I’ll remember how nothing I say seems like the right thing, but that I know I can’t just sit back and do nothing.

There are no good solutions to a mental health scare. But I’m making a commitment to try to do better by the people around me by having more patience.

Why I Hate the Phrase “Start a Family”

It’s not uncommon for a young couple to mention that they’re looking to “start a family” or for someone who is looking for a spouse to say that part of what they want is to be able to “have a family”. We all know what people mean when they say this: they mean that they want to have kids. As someone who has no interest whatsoever in having children, this phrase implies many things that seem unhelpful and backwards to me.

First, it limits what a family can be, and it almost always means heterosexual, monogamous, cis partners with children. It cuts out any other family structure, even those that may include children. Generally the implication is that if you are not biologically related to the children, you don’t have a family. Adoption is placed on a lower tier, poly families make NO SENSE AT ALL, and GLBT families are utterly excluded (despite the fact that they can and do have kids).

But what really rubs me the wrong way about this is the idea that children are what make a family. Families are the people who are closest to us, who support us, who care for us, who we include in our most intimate decisions. They are not defined exclusively by blood: you can marry into a family, adopt into a family, or even (if you so choose) include certain friends or partners as part of your family. Each different way that we bring people into our lives in an intimate way is important and valid. Every formation of family improves our lives by giving us a support system and people who care for us (I am not referring to abusive structures here, but rather just different ways of setting up healthy relationships). And without these adult, caring, supportive, interdependent relationships, we cannot be healthy people.

So why is it that children are what defines “starting a family”? Didn’t all of us start our families the moment we had an intimate relationship, a close friend, a good relationship with our parents or our siblings, or provided support and care for our extended family? What does it say about how we value adult to adult relationships if a family only counts when we have kids?

This devaluing of adult to adult relationships has some serious consequences. It means that adults are pressured not to take time to connect with their friends, their siblings, their spouse or partners, or their mentors. When adults don’t take the time to establish healthy family networks of all types, that means they don’t have support and care when they need it. They don’t have someone they can ask to babysit or help out if they’re called in to work last minute. They don’t have other role models and mentors for their kids. They don’t have people who can support them if they lose a job or need health care. They don’t have people who can talk to them and support their emotional and mental needs. It means we have adults who don’t learn how to do the appropriate self-care of having a support network and taking time to be with other adults.

It also devalues the lives, accomplishments, and relationships of those who can’t or choose not to have children. The implication when someone says “start a family” to mean having a child is that those who don’t have children will never have families. It once again sends the message (especially to women) that their lives will be empty and alone if they don’t have kids. It says that they can’t possibly be getting the same kind of fulfillment and joy out of the relationships that they do have because they don’t “have a family”. Who on earth would want to refrain from having children? They won’t have a family!

All of this plays into the pressure to build your family in a certain way. It plays into the idea that unless you’re married or blood related, your relationship isn’t as important (which disproportionately affects people who are already oppressed). And this means legal rights, like right of attorney and inheritance. It means that I would not be able to visit the person I’ve lived with for the last 2 years if she were in the hospital simply because she’s “just a friend”.

It also means that children who have abusive or cruel parents are pressured to continue to interact with them, honor them, and respect them simply because of biology. It artificially divides relationships into “important, family” and “not important, other” through biology and the parent/child relationship.

This may seem like an unimportant phrase that comes from another time when families were all built a certain way. But the phrase implies that families look one way and there is one time when you begin to build your family. That’s simply not true and the consequences are that people are left more divided and more alone than they need to be.

I’m not playing by those rules anymore. I started a family ages ago. I started when I decided I wanted to put in the work to have a good relationship with my parents. I started when I decided to reach out to my brother. I started when I chose to reach out to new people and tell them that I care for them and wanted them in my life. I have a family. I don’t need to start one.

I Am Not A Puzzle to Be Solved

Note: I do not mean this post to be a criticism of my parents or any of the other people in my life. I know that everyone is doing the best they can in the relationships that they have.

One of the things that I have come to value most in relationships is honesty and vulnerability, particularly the ability to be straightforward and ask questions. I have learned to appreciate this because in many cases, arguments or disagreements can be solved simply by finding out what the other person is actually thinking or feeling. More often than not, brainstorming solutions together will solve the problem.

Unfortunately, this is not the way that we’re taught to interact with people. From the time we’re little, we’re treated as little puzzles that need to be solved, as if there’s some code that can crack the behavior of a small child and get them to do what you want. I think that my parents did a fantastic job raising me, but even they bought into this mentality in some ways. When I’ve spoken to my parents about their techniques, my mother has told me things like “If you keep a kid on a schedule, they’ll be much less cranky” or “If you ignore a kid who’s throwing a tantrum they’ll stop”. Now these are effective techniques, and for new parents they can be a godsend, but unfortunately they don’t do much to validate the actual feelings of the child involved or teach the child what to do when they’re feeling overwhelmed or upset.

In contrast, I’ve been reading Libby Anne’s blog lately and there has been a surprising amount of content about treating your child as a real human being with legitimate needs and wants and the amazing returns that she’s gotten as a parent by adopting this technique. This involves validating a child’s emotions, trying to communicate and compromise where possible, and explaining why the answer is “no” when the answer has to be “no”. Instead of coming up with a series of tricks that will have a certain effect, Libby Anne prefers to work with her children to identify their emotions and brainstorm solutions so that in the long term they will learn how to manage those emotions themselves.

Unfortunately, most parents work by trying to devise methods to get their children to a certain behavior, rather than working with their children to create healthy behaviors and tools to live well. The most obvious and harmful example of this is corporal punishment: if you beat the child then they’ll do what you want and learn to do what you want them to do. But we all do this to some extent or another. Think of the magazines that boast “this quiz will tell you if he likes you” or “10 ways to tell if your relationship will last”. Every teenage girl has engaged in this behavior: trying to discern what the text means, trying to “unlock” the secrets. And media is even worse when it comes to portraying women (they’re a mystery!  A complete mystery! Buy her things to unlock the secrets!).

Friends do this to each other as well. There are “rules” to friendship (e.g. it’s against the rules to date your best friend’s sibling). Dating relationships are potentially the worst culprits. While many people say that they value communication, it is still all too common for people to try to figure out how to get their partner to act differently while not actually talking to their partner about what’s bothering them. “Nice guys” are a prime example, but I’ve been known to do this as well, thinking things like “If I just don’t speak up ever about what’s bothering me then they’ll think I’m nice and want to be with me forever” or “I’ve already texted x times and they haven’t texted back. Is it against the rules to text again? What are they trying to tell me? Do they hate me?” It’s a process of both mind-reading and personalization, in which every action must mean something about you and in order to crack the code you need to behave just so.

Unfortunately, human beings are not puzzles. There is no secret combination of words and presents that you can present to someone in order to unlock their love or kindness or good behavior. When we approach children in this fashion, we teach them to approach all relationships like this. And when we do this, we set them up for all kinds of problems. If relationships are about getting the other person to behave in the way that you want them to (whether that’s them being happy or that’s them doing whatever you want), and the way to do that is to find the “correct input”, then you end up with problems like people thinking they’re owed sex, or people believing that they’re allowed to do whatever it takes to get the result they want.

It can also lead to the flip side: people assuming that if others aren’t ok then it’s their fault, people thinking they have to manage the emotions of others, or people who have never been taught appropriate ways to deal with their own emotions because they themselves have always been “managed”.

For me personally, I have found that thinking there are things you should be able to do that will make feelings or bad situations stop has led to really bad behavior. It didn’t teach me that sometimes things had to feel bad and that I would get through it. Even worse, it let me stay in relationships that were abusive and painful because I felt that if I simply found the right combination of actions, the other person would stop behaving the way they did.

More than anything, I wish that I hadn’t been convinced that there was a right way to behave towards others when I was first forming my identity. I can no longer tell whether I became sexual because I wanted to, or simply because I thought it was what you did with someone you loved and it would make them happy. I followed the scripts that others told me would work, the scripts that not only were supposed to make the other person happy but were supposed to make my emotions work in a certain way. I never felt that I could openly speak about what I wanted or didn’t want, and when I did say no to things there were reasons that had to be stated (because otherwise it will be rejection and that makes the other person sad: you didn’t input correctly). I wish that I hadn’t been spending my time trying to suss out how to get others to act, but rather taking the time to think about what I actually wanted and what I care about.

When I was asked recently about how I would be in a relationship without feeling that I needed to manage the other person, I replied that I can’t even imagine what I’m like just being myself in a relationship. This is a good part of why I’m finding the question of identity and orientation very confusing. I feel like every relationship I’ve been in, I’ve acted the way I felt would make the other person happy, repressed the parts of myself that wouldn’t have the right reaction, and said things I didn’t wholly mean becuase it was what you were supposed to say in order to make another person smile. I went through grandiose gestures of romance because that was what it meant to “be in a relationship” that was how you were supposed to show your love and if you did that then your relationship would be good.

All of these ways of approaching relationships are about looking at outward signifiers (what action did I take and what action did I get in response) instead of actually trying to get information from each person about what’s happening internally. I want to be honest in my actions instead of spending my life trying to manage exactly the right stimulus to garner the right response in people I care about. If I have children, I don’t want to try to come up with tricks to get them to behave well. With myself, I don’t want to bypass what my emotions are telling me by coming up with some action that shuts off the bad feelings. I am not a code to be cracked. I don’t need anyone else trying to figure out how to fix my feelings, nor do I need to fix myself. I need honest communication that asks how I can recognize my emotions, understand why they’re happening, and deal with the source of the problem.