Three Silly Questions, Answered.

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 7.236% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

In writing about my friend and the problems he was having with his messy girlfriend, I got a lot of angry comments saying, “Shouldn’t he have known she was messy when he dated her? After all, he’s moving in with her. And if he knew she was messy, why the hell is he expecting her to change?”
There’s three really silly questions there, and I feel I should address each one in turn.
First off, I didn’t specify whether he’d moved in to her apartment, or whether they’d moved in together to a third place… but acting as though the question of “Who was there first” matters is a dripping bag of vinegary douchebaggery.
If you have agreed to move in as a romantic relationship, as part of building a life together, then you have agreed to build a home together. This is not some landlord-and-tenant situation where some third party is paying you to stay there, with no further benefits provided; it is, theoretically, a place where someone has said, “I love you, I need you in my life, let us live with each other because I want to be with you.”
In short, it’s not your home any more, it’s our home.
If you have entered such a bargain and then treat your lover like they’re renting a room at your hotel, rejecting all changes because this place is mine, minemine! then chances are it’s not gonna work out. Because your lover is going to feel alienated, living in a space that s/he has no say over, and won’t particularly feel welcome.
Living together involves changes as you adapt to each others’ habits, making new and joint ones. Maybe you have to put the toilet paper roll on the new way. Maybe you have to pay bills differently. Maybe you rearrange the furniture or get new curtains. And in an ideal relationship, this oft-stressful period of readjustment is not some moronic all-or-nothing power struggle where either ORIGINAL TENANT WINS or NEW ARRIVAL EMERGES VICTORIOUS, but rather you meld your habits to find something maybe not as comfortable as it was living alone, but acceptable.
As to the second silly question – ‘Why didn’t he know?” – maybe he was aware of her messiness, but didn’t recognize it as a huge problem right away, because it didn’t bother him in small doses. Maybe the clutter didn’t bother him when it was just “visit the pit for a movie and some cuddles, then go home to rest in wonderful cleanliness.”
This isn’t an entirely silly question, as there are a lot of people who turn off their brains and go, “I’M IN LURVE, HE’S PERFECT” and proceed to overlook all sorts of things that should be dealbreakers. And yeah, if you know you absolutely want some kids and you’ve fallen in love with Mr. Confirmed Bachelor, you probably shoulda done some research.
But the suspicious way these questions were phrased seemed to imply that you had one time to notice all your partner’s flaws, and if you weren’t bothered then, sir, then that deadline has passed. Which is something I reject so violently, you can hear the glass shattering as I heave it out the window like a bomb.
Relationships are evolving things. What was cute yesterday in the throes of NRE becomes annoying after months of mundane relationships. What were acceptable levels of snark last year when you were much less confident in things may not be okay now that you feel better about yourself. That inability to get a job was fine for the first six months of the relationship, but now the bills are due and goddammit, you need to bring in an income.
The terms change. The terms always change. And making it seem like someone is wrong for raising or lowering the bar is itself wrong.
I dig the origins of this particular concern. It’s kind of terrifying when a girlfriend says, “Okay, everything I liked about you? It’s kind of irritating me now.” And it’d be wonderful to know that when you met someone, acting this way would forever be acceptable. It’d be nice to think that a lifelong marriage was because the perfect people met and that was it.
But no. Lifelong marriages happen because the perfect people met and kept growing in the same direction. Those people are still changing as they get new jobs and have kids and make new friends and experience grief; they just were smart enough to ensure that they never grew apart, and in part they did that because they kept checking in with each other. Yes, they met when they were twenty and are still together at eighty, but the twenty-year-old them and the eighty-year-old them are, in some ways, fundamentally different.
So yes, it’s scary to think that what you’re doing now might not be good enough for your partner five years from now. But the answer, to my mind, is not to treat that with hostile suspicion, as though they were Darth Vader renegotiating terms with Lando Calrissian. Because then you’ll be more concerned with assigning blame, and making your wife Darth Vader, than actually asking what’s changed about her or me, and what’s this mean for all of us.
The answer is to understand that yes, maybe they thought the messiness wouldn’t bother them, but after two months it really does, and that’s ugly and not-nice but it’s there.
So what do you do about that, now that this element’s introduced? I’m pretty certain that answer isn’t, “Tell him to shut up, this is the way it is.”
And as for the final question, which is ineffably stupid: people asking, “Why should I change?”
The answer is the same as it’s always been:
Because you don’t want to see your partner made miserable, you oaf.
You change because you want your partner to be happy. That’s why you always change for your partner, in an ideal world.
Now, that answer isn’t quite as simple, of course; there are all sorts of caveats, provisos, quid pro quos in there. I’m not saying you should bend your whole life to your partner every time they get upset. Sometimes you do the analysis and your partner is being unreasonably upset by something it would take you more effort to change than it’s worth. I mean, if your partner has a fifteen-minute crying jag every time you use the letter “E,” well, then the proper answer is probably, “I’m not going to change that.”
And there are some people who get their partners on the expectation that they’ll change large portions of their personalities, usually to disastrous results. If you’re dating all bad boys and dumping them once you’ve worn them down into nice, obedient boyfriends (or girlfriends), then you’re changing people for no good reason and probably should learn to link up your short-term attractions to your long-term needs better.
And your partner should be willing to change, too. If the changes are all on your end – and some great manipulators can arrange it so that they are – then you should reevaluate and ask whether this is a relationship, or a transaction.
But the question stemmed from people who seemed outraged by the idea that they should have to change for something that’s clearly their partner’s quirk. Which it is. And maybe, after some discussion and negotiation, the proper answer may actually be “Sorry, but you’re acting out of line here, I don’t think I should change my behavior.”
But I’m pretty sure that if your primary reaction to someone you love expressing pain at something you did is a stiff “Why should I be bothered?” rather than “Oh, crap, I’m sorry that hurts you,” then you’re probably not that good of a partner.
Good relationships stem from caring. And you can have some lastingrelationships that aren’t that good at all, because the people involved are too terrified or guilt-ridden or ashamed to leave. But the good relationships, short or long, revolve around that primary question of, “I love you. What can I do to help?”
Any other question is dross.

1 Comment

  1. mihawk13
    Nov 20, 2013

    This is a great article, and so is the one linked to at the beginning. Heh… and that next-to-last paragraph right there hit home. Last year I was with a girl who was completely selfish and wouldn’t do anything, even talk, unless it was on her own terms, and ‘primary reaction to someone you love expressing pain at something you did is a stiff “Why should I be bothered?” ‘ is exactly what she did. I haven’t trusted anyone enough to even want a relationship since then. So thank you for writing this. Maybe seeing how badly damaging she was to me and understanding how I’ve come through it will be a step in the right direction.

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