Your Partner Is Not A Backstop, Or: How Not To Have A Relationship

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 13.266% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Most happy relationships are spackled together by healthy doses of compromise.  And in the happiest relationships, that compromise arrives prenegotiated.
Which is to say that after you’ve been dating for a while, you know what’s going to make your partner feel unloved, and then you set out to proactively fix that.  I know, for example, that Gini gets upset whenever the trash bag gets too full.
Now me?  I hate taking out the trash.  And being more tolerant of messes than my wife is, a teetering stack of garbage doesn’t bother me overmuch as long as it all stays in the bin – a kind of Garbage Jenga, where I can balance three magazines on top of a milk carton for days at a time.
Yet even though to me, bagging that all up is “a chore I have to do prematurely,” I think, “Oh, I know that trash will bother Gini if she sees it – I should suck it up and take the garbage out for her!”
So I do.  And Gini is happier.
Our lives are filled with little “head that off at the pass” moments like that, where Gini calls in if she’s going to stay out late so I can sleep without worrying about her, and I try to put the dishes away before the sink overflows too, and Gini consults with me before reorganizing the bathroom to suit her tastes, and so forth.
What I do not do is wait around for Gini to complain before I do it.
What I do not do is figure, “If Gini really wants it, she’ll ask.”
If I abandoned all responsibility for managing Gini’s needs and thought, “I’ll take it out when Gini yells at me,” I would make Gini feel really isolated in our home.  Because what I’d be saying, in a very real sense, would be, “I care so little about my wife’s feelings that I’m not going to even *think* about what makes her unhappy until she forces the issue.”
Then our dynamic changes from adult/adult to parent/child – I’d be not a partner, but a kid at bedtime, where Mom has to show up every five minutes to go, “Fifteen minutes to bedtime,” then “Five minutes to bedtime,” then “One minute to bedtime,” excruciatingly aware the entire time that if they weren’t consistently enforcing this impending bedtime the kid would play until three in the morning.
(And be an absolute monster the next day at school.  Which, as the parent, would be yet another mess that you had to clean up.)
And our relationship would suffer, because Gini would have all the responsibility for making herself happy.  I’d have told her that it wasn’t my job, anticipating her needs, it was her job to show up like some sort of human alarm clock to wake me from my lazy dozing.  And she’d feel stressed all the time, because hey, if she wasn’t constantly putting in the effort then nothing she wanted would get done.
I might be more content.  But Gini would be a wreck.  And if that happened, we’d have to ask the vital question: Do I actually love Gini, or just love the shit she lets me get away with?
I think the answer would have to be that I didn’t actually love Gini all that much, if I could let her suffer for my convenience.
Look.  Part of being a good partner involves internalizing my lover’s needs, and not forcing them to ask me for every thing they require to feel loved.  I have to be an active partner, investigating today’s case of “So what’s going to make them happy?” and to address that proactively.
And addressing their needs proactively doesn’t take the form of bowing to every desire they have.  Gini would prefer that every surface in the house be empty, a kind of Zen clearspace where nobody left a magazine or a drink on the table.  I’ve addressed that proactively by telling her that kind of thing makes me feel like I’m living in a hotel, not a home, and sometimes I leave a magazine out on the bathroom counter because I was reading an article and I’ll go back and read the rest of it the next time I brush my teeth, and to me that’s the advantage of a home in that I can trade a little cleanliness for convenience.
That’s an active approach!  But what would be spectacularly shitty is if I shrugged and said, “Yeah, we should have a cleaner house” and then left the magazine in the bathroom and waited for her to nag me before I handled it.
This is why polyamorous relationships often fail in that first wave of New Relationship Energy.  Your lover finds someone new and goes, “Awww, this feels so good being with New Person, Old Person’s stupid old needs would stop this fizzy flow of love, so… I’m just going to stay here and smooch until Old Person yells at me to come back.”
And no.  Even in the throes of NRE, you gotta keep Old Partner’s happiness in mind, because otherwise you’ll stress them the fuck out.  You’ll make them feel like that bedtime parent, saying, “Five minutes,” knowing you’d stay out all night if you let them, knowing their needs are irrelevant because ZOMG IT’S PLAYTIME AND WHEN IT’S PLAYTIME I DON’T THINK ABOUT OLD PARTNER.
Hey, maybe five minutes isn’t enough.  But rather than losing yourself in bliss and waiting for Old Partner to nag you, you should pull your head out of the clouds to call up and say, “Look, I’m having a really good time at New Partner’s house, I know you expected me home earlier, but I want to stay late.  We’ll do something cool tomorrow to make up for it.  Is that cool?”
Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t.  But either way, you’ve sent a clear message: Old Partner’s needs still matter on some level, and maybe you gotta negotiate a path between your needs and theirs, but at least they know you were thinking of them.
Sometimes, that’s all it takes.


  1. Chris
    May 23, 2014

    I thank you for this essay, it is sooooo well written…..nails it really! props, thank you!

  2. Pamela Pare
    May 23, 2014

    Good relationship advice… not always easy to follow… but a nice ideal… (yes, this is Roni’s Mom – married married 43 years :D)

  3. M'jit Raindancer-Stahl
    May 23, 2014

    OTOH, your partner is not a mind reader, and neither are you. Angry glares and stomping around the house do not tell your partner not to leave his shoes in front of the refrigerator as much as a good blowup. Make sure you confine your blowup to the issue at hand –those shoes– and not the forty-leven other things your partner has done this week, or that ass-hatted thing Partner did 6 months ago.

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