Gifts And Obligations

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 9.648% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I used to be very generous to my girlfriends.  If they had a breakdown at three in the morning, I’d be there at a phone call; if they were feeling insecure at a party, I’d drop everything to give them reassurance that they were loved and wonderful and beautiful.  I prided myself on how I’d always be there when they needed me.
It was also a dirty lie.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, I gave an uncommon amount of support for their various psychological quirks… But it wasn’t generous at all. Because – and not that I would have understood this at the time – I wasn’t giving them any support at all.
I was billing them.
Quietly, and without letting them know, with every act of kindness I was tallying it up: When I have my breakdown, this is what you owe me.  And sure enough, being a histrionic lad,  I would eventually have some sort of embarrassing meltdown in a public place – and if they weren’t willing to drop everything to tend to my needs at that instant, I would be furious.  Did they know what I did for them?  Did they understand how much that cost me?  And this is how you repay me?
It was a shitty way of perpetrating a relationship.
I’d pretend to be giving, but there’s a trick about giving: you actually have to expect nothing, or at least very little, in return.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with a tit-for-tat relationship, as long as you know there’s a bill coming. Yet I’d claim there wasn’t a bill due, that this was just the way I was, no, don’t you like who I am?  Which surprised and baffled and angered them in the end when they found out that no, I wasn’t actually that way, I was that way when I thought my payoff was coming.
I was not giving them gifts; I was giving them obligations.
Obligations can be very subtle things; the difference between a gift and an obligation can be as a tiny as a thank-you note.  If you give me a gift and think it would be polite to get a thank-you note in return – not just a “thank you,” but the formalized, hand-written note on fine stationary mailed to your door – then that’s one thing to think it’s something people should do.  But if you give me a gift, unasked, and then become furious when I have not spent the time to write you a note for a thing I never asked for, well… you’re giving me obligations.
This happens a lot in relationships, usually to awful detriment.  A partner will unilaterally stop doing something they love doing – going to their Friday night game, flirting, eating fatty foods – in the expectation that their partner will give up flirting, going out on Friday nights, or eating fatty foods.  Naturally, they won’t mention that they’ve done it to try to force a similar reaction – no, this is because it was hurting your feelings, or because I just didn’t feel like doing it any more, or you know, I could stand to lose a few pounds.
Weeks go by. The initiating partner feels spurned, angry, robbed – because after all, they did this beautiful thing for their partner and their partner does not appreciate it.  They’re giving up the good things in their lives, and what has their partner done in return?  Nothing.  They’ve done nothing.  Eventually, after months of stifling silence, there comes a moment when all of this spurious generosity becomes too much to bear –
– and it often turns out that their partner wasn’t even particularly bothered by the thing they gave up. Sure, it’s a little nicer if you’re available any Friday night I call, but I’d be happier if you were out with people you liked.
The truth is, my girlfriends probably didn’t need me to drop everything at a moment’s notice to be there for them.  It was nice, sure, but was it worth the ultimate cost of what they’d pay?  No.  I know this because they left, repeatedly, one after another after being presented with the tab.
This is not, mind you, an exhortation to give everything without counting cost.  If you’ve let someone know that you expect a thank-you note and after five generous gifts they’ve never written one, well, it starts to feel like a sign of disrespect.  And it’s not saying that you shouldn’t praise your partner for the things they do – Gini and I practice effusive, constant feedback for the most trivial of household chores.
Yet when you think you’re being generous to your partner by doing this thing for them, ask yourself: am I giving them a gift, or an obligation?  If you’re giving them something so precious that you wouldn’t be willing to give it up without recompense, maybe you should think again.

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