OK I think I'm finally getting it:
These strident black and white keys to success may sound as absolute as the Ten Commandments, but no, they're ten suggestions, primarily for me.
I’ve given relationship if not my undivided attention, then at least a lot. I had one seventeen-year marriage and have since had five three-year partnerships. It’s been fun and diverse but I wouldn’t say efficient. All of the partnerships ended in broken hearts. It has been very energy and time consuming both to get these diverse partnerships going and then to accept them stopping.
I look with some envy at my married friends, not because it looks like bliss but because it’s efficient. Life is short; time is precious. I won’t want to have to admit that with all of the splendid and important places to focus my attention I gave so much to starting and stopping partnerships.
My alternatives are to give up on partnership, admitting it’s not in the cards or I’m not good at it, or to figure out what I’m not good at and try once more to end up in something stable and efficient for this last leg of life.
At 56, now is the time. Looks (mine and potential partners) are in decline. Once I’m in a partnership, looks don’t matter so much but they have always been essential to getting partnerships started, so before looks vanish, this may be my last best chance to find a lasting partner.
My relationships have tended to end when we can’t seem to stay out of cycles of bickering, each of us hurting each other, each of us retaliating against the hurt. At first there’s no bickering, but then the flare-ups start. They tend to accumulate, each flare-up making the next more likely to occur. The flare-ups don’t get resolved entirely so they sit near the surface for ever-quicker revival.
Death of my partnerships has always been preceded by an increasingly inescapable tendency to poke at and feel poked by each other. I could measure my partnerships’ life expectancies by HQ—Hair-trigger Quotient, the probability of bickering and rate of increase in probably of bickering.
Perhaps I’m treating the symptom as the source, like saying “All deaths are preceded by stopped heartbeats.” Still, it’s worth noticing. Increasingly inescapable escalating, reciprocal poking, whether it’s the symptom or the source of my partnerships’ demises, is best nipped in the bud. All ten of the suggestions above come down to one: Don’t let the poking start.
My long-married friends explain it to me. They say, “Fighting like that is a dead end.”
“Then why didn’t your marriage die?” I ask.
“Because I realized about ten years in that the bickering was only harming us. So I quit it. And when I stopped my partner stopped.”
That’s not the whole answer. Part of the answer is simply this. It didn’t die because it was a marriage. Unmarried’s don’t tend to endure ten years of bickering.
Marriage raises the stakes so high on separation that the question “Can I make this work?” all but disappears, leaving only the question “How can I make this work?” If you can’t get your partner to change and you can’t ask yourself that partnership-ending question “Can I make this work?” all you can do is adjust, accommodate, tuck in your elbows to make room for your partner. That’s what all my married friends seem to have done. They are well domesticated to each other, their marriages running as smooth as any human venture can; not that smooth but smoother than frequent cycling through new relationships.
Without marriage, partners can keep saying above and below each other’s radar, “take it or leave it” to each other. “I have my standards and if you don’t meet them, I’d be better off breaking up.” Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not, but either way it’s a poke. Pokes beget pokes and you're off to the races.
I’ve spent most of my partnership life warily monitoring for fairness and my safety. I write these columns, many of them itemizing the ways people manipulate each other, or searching for where to draw the line between fair and unfair practices. Until now, I haven’t realized how futile and toxic that can be in a partnership.
Many partnerships seem to end with each partner finally free to play armchair umpire on each other’s un-fairnesses. No longer having to bite their tongues in close proximity, they unleash a full tongue-lashing, if not at their exes, at anyone who will listen to them itemize their ex’s egregious infractions. Who started the fighting? My ex. Who kept it going? My ex. Tongue-lashings take many forms and most of us have ways to sound high minded and compassionate about it. “I didn’t realize what a troubled soul he was.” “She turned out to have serious un-resolved daddy issues.” The more psychologically oriented we are the better we are at sounding high minded about it. We diagnose. It’s as though the reciprocal poking spins out so loud that we say to each other “Excuse me but this partnership is compromising my ability to critique you. I’ll exit so I’m more free to itemize your faults.” But if every poke begets an escalated and opposite poke, our parsing of who started and perpetuated it misses the point.
The reason we don’t need to know which came first, the chicken or the egg; is that they both follow each other so reliably that it doesn’t matter which came first. Escalation itself, the natural tendency for amplifying feedback loops to form is the third party present in all partnerships.
Think about the squealing microphone in a public address system. Sound enters the microphone, gets amplified by the speaker and reenters the microphone at higher volume. Is the squeal the microphone’s fault or the speakers? Is the squeal the fault of whatever pin-drop sound got it started?
In many (but not all) cases it doesn’t matter what incident started the escalation, nor who was more escalatory. Blame it on the loop, the best-silenced third partner, present in all relationships. Apologize for the pins you drop, mute the sounds running through loop, do whatever it takes to prevent the squealing, because once it starts it’s hard to stop and only gets louder.
I’ve long known that every act of moral policing can be policed and that every anti-manipulation crusade readily becomes another holier-still-than-thou anti-manipulation crusade. I’ve not recognized how that renders all partnership bickering pernicious and futile, deepening like a coastal shelf until you can’t find the love buried under it.
We say what we need to hear. These then are the words I think I need to hear these days.