On The Vital, Romance-Preserving Skill Of Saying "No"

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 8.442% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

So when I discussed how I was unwilling to help Gini clean the house to her spartan standards, I got a fair amount of silence.  The few comments I did get went mostly along the lines of, “…yeah, I think that’s you.”
I think many people’s reactions could be summed up by this comment:

“This whole ‘I don’t support Gini in this because I don’t need to because it’s her hobby that I have no interest in’ strikes me as contradicting a post of yours I really liked from a few years back, where you talked about how both you and Gini sort of adjusted your housekeeping standards around each other and found a sweet spot, where you’d pick up clutter and become more aware of your environment because you knew it’d please her, and vice versa. THAT, to me, is an expression of how awesome your relationship is.”

Here’s the thing, though: This is that exact same essay, told from a slightly different point of view.
In relationships, we’re told all about how giving is love, doing stuff for your partner is love, sacrifice is love.  And that’s what our culture interprets as “romantic” – every rom-com ends with one partner giving up some aspect of his/her life to be a better match with his or her mate.  So when I say, “I’m willing to do this for Gini,” that’s pre-programmed to give you the warm fuzzies.
But while boundary-setting may not be romantic, it’s every bit as valid to a functioning relationship…. And you write that off at your peril.  We’ve all seen the horrid relationships where a guy finds the love of his life, gives up all his hobbies and outside interests and friends for her, and then she leaves because he’s not the man she used to love.
Sacrifice and giving is but one aspect of a healthy relationship.  The other is knowing when to say “Fuck that noise.”
Is it romantic for Gini to have said, “You know what, Ferrett?  I can’t reassure you of my love as often as you’d like.  Either learn to keep it to yourself, or get the fuck out.”  Of course it’s not.  Viewed through our cultural lens, it’s rather cold and clinical.  It’s the speech of the first, bad girlfriend in the movie who throws the noble hero out on his ass before he finds the true love of his life.
But the alternative was her putting up with a behavior that irritated her to the point where she’d either have to leave, or would have to compromise her own self-esteem to the point where she’d be constantly miserable.
The reason we’re together is because Gini was willing to tell me to GTFO.  And God bless her.
This so-called “sweet spot” of house cleaning is actually a constant, low-grade irritation to the both of us.  In an ideal world, Gini would prefer that she lived in a cleaner house; I would prefer to spend less time cleaning.  We tolerate it because we love each other, and that love helps make it go down… but it is a compromise.
And the compromise can only be negotiated because we have upper limits.  Gini is not willing to tolerate me reaching a certain level of sloppiness, because it would stress her out; I am unwilling to do exotic cleaning beyond a certain level, because it would stress me out.
The middle is formed from these extremes.
Is it romantic for me to say, “You know what, Gini?  This level of cleanliness is more than I’m willing to pitch in on; it’d be hours of effort that I’d hate, and the end result would have me living in a house that would be as uncluttered and personality-free as a hotel room, a sterile place that would make me feel uncomfortable in my own house.  So you can do it if you want, but I won’t pitch in.”  Of course it’s not.
But it’s vital, because otherwise I’d be so in love that I’d do anything for my sweetheart, and I’d clean and work and quietly resent the change.  Eventually, my whole personality would warp to become nothing more than an extension of Gini’s desires, because without that ability to say, “This will make me unhappy, and I know it” then I’d be shifted into co-dependency one gentle “Aw, why not?” at a time.
Saying “No” to your loved one is a wondrous power, one that should never be taken for granted.
Yeah, it might be nice if I just schmoopily did everything Gini wanted and never questioned…. But that’s not the real world.  As it is, I’ll clean a lot more than I want to.  Do not think that having boundaries means that I am an unsubtle oaf; I put in a lot of effort to make Gini happy, having adopted hundreds of unnatural habits to make her environment more livable for her.  I work hard at pleasing her.
But the fact that I love her does not remove my ability to have limits.  And exercising those limits is not wrong.
Boundary-patrolling is wondrously hot, and vital. If all you get out of our relationship is, “We do wonderful things for each other,” then you’re failing at the lessons we’re trying to teach. Part of the reason our relationship is so wonderful is that both of us know when to say, “Okay, no, that’s more than I’m willing to give, and so I’m not doing that. Let’s discuss alternatives.”
Romance springs from this loving climate.  This boundary between “This is what I am willing to give, and this is what I am not.”  That’s where the real power grows.

2 Comments

  1. Shandra
    Mar 9, 2012

    Preach it!

  2. Miranda
    Mar 9, 2012

    I read the original essay from the perspective the neat freak — my perspective. And my initial thought was, “How frustrating for Gini to spend all that time cleaning and have you come behind her and undo it all.” But then I thought about my own situation — I am much neater than my wife. And sometimes it is frustrating. But at some point I decided to look at the overall picture: She makes an, unnatural for her, effort to keep things straight enough for me to remain sane. That is worth my extra effort to pick up after her some.
    Likewise she is more committed to recycling than i am. We’ve struck our balance but she is forever picking my things out of the trash can and cleaning them for recycling.
    Our efforts are the same even if the results don’t match up and that’s a way bigger battle than fighting squirmishes over every cup or plastic bottle.

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