A friend of mine was talking to me today about his relationship, in that way that a person talks about their relationship when they’re not so sure it ought to be their relationship any more, and I wanted to give him some advice. Not that, you know, he asked for it, but just because, well, I’m older, and I have extensive experience in terminal relationships.
But the truth is, I don’t know much about his relationship, and I don’t know his girlfriend at all, so there wasn’t a lot I could say.
So then I started thinking about the bigger picture, you know, the things that one could say about any relationship, the universal truths, such as they are, about what happens when two people collide. And I wished I had said this:
Good relationships are honest. This is trickier than it looks, because there are so, so many ways to dissemble. I’m not really talking about straight-up deceit and lying, because that is the most bargain-basement reason for calling it quits, and if you are still knowingly in a relationship that is founded on lies, well, then, that discussion is way beyond the scope of this blog.
A dear Christian friend of mine was dating a man, and she hoped to marry him, and he apparently hoped to marry her, but she knew that he did not share her religious beliefs—though she hoped he one day might. So she took him to church with her, and someone asked him if he had accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior, and he said…yes. She was so thrilled that he had said this that the fact that it was patently untrue was lost on her. Not only did he not share her religious beliefs, but when asked, he lied and said he did. And then she lied to herself about it. Flash forward a decade, and let me just say: This ended poorly.
So often, in relationships, if we are being lied to, it is by ourselves, not by our partner. To have a good relationship, we need to be honest—with ourselves and with our partners—about what we need and want, what we like and don’t, where we see ourselves going, what we value.
Good relationships are respectful. I don’t know why (although I have a list of candidates I would like to blame <cough>TV<cough>), but sometimes it seems like the majority of modern relationships are founded on disrespect. Women get together and whine about their men, men get together and guffaw about their women, and the whole thing makes up 67% of the punchlines of stand-up comics. It’s as if the “I’m with stupid” t-shirt has become the metaphorical uniform of married couples, and the new self-help books might as well say: Mars and Venus Verbally Bitch-Slap Each Other.
I would love to say I don’t understand this, but I once married a man after I had heard him say out loud to a group of his buddies, “Yeah, she wouldn’t talk so much with a dick in her mouth.” It doesn’t matter that he wasn’t talking about me. To paraphrase Dave Barry, someone who is nice to you but mean to the waitress is not a nice person.
(Disclaimer: this was not my most recent ex. And yes, I love the fact that I now have to clarify which ex-husband I’m referring to. Clearly I should not be allowed to write anything about relationships. Why are you even reading this blog?)
Watch how your partner treats people—you, of course, but also his or her parents, kids, other kids, strangers. Watch how s/he treats people who can’t do anything for him or her (honk if you hate the English language’s lack of a gender-neutral singular pronoun!) or people who aren’t present.
Good relationships are secure. Do you always wonder what your partner is up to? Does s/he check up on you? Do you find yourself trying to catch him or her by surprise when you visit or call, just to see what's going on in your absence?
Good relationships are supportive. When you share your hopes and aspirations with your partner, how does s/he respond? Good relationships are supportive and encouraging. We don’t have to be delusional, of course, and being able to be supportive really depends on having a spouse who isn’t going to use your support as an excuse to be selfish or irresponsible.
But in the end, there are many, many people in this world who will want to bring us down. Your partner should be your ally against those people. Your partner should be the person who helps you prop yourself up.
I don’t know how much any of this would have helped him think about his relationship. There is no litmus test, no one definitive barometer to the health of your relationship.
Anytime my grandmother heard of someone getting divorced, she always said “It takes two.” She did this convincingly, almost ominously, holding up two gnarled fingers for emphasis. And for years I believed her.
But it turns out she was only sort of right. It does take two to make a relationship work. But it only takes one to make it fail.