THE RELATIONSHIP LESSONS WE LEARN TOO LATE
You can’t go back in time and fix all the romantic missteps of the past. But you can avoid them from now on.
By Leigh Newman
Lesson #1: Seek (Only) Clarity
Mr. Incredible Second Date mentions casually that he can’t make it to dinner on Friday—even though he already confirmed with you a few days before. Previously, you may have taken three deep breaths to calm down, only to snap like a candy cane from last Christmas, replying in a frosty voice: “So, I suppose this is your way of telling me this isn’t going anywhere.” Or, you might have remained silent and cool on the outside, only to assume he wasn’t into you and privately resolved never to go out with him again.
This time, consider seeking clarification. By this I mean just asking the guy what he means…but without using that phrase, since it can come off as aggressive, as in: “What do you mean, you can’t come to dinner Friday?” A more specific, detailed wording, like, “Um…I just need a little clarification. With my last boyfriend, breaking plans was his way of saying ‘Let’s break up.’ So I’m not sure, exactly, if you’re telling me that this isn’t working out, or if you have some conflict with Friday night. Do you mind taking a sec to explain that one thing?”
As with anything, saying this calmly adds to its effectiveness, because what you’re really doing is opening the door to honesty, a door that slams shut when people are afraid. If he is moving on, keeping your tone relaxed will encourage him to tell you, because he won’t be scared of your getting upset (which will also allow you to move on, immediately). But if he just has to go out of town to work at the helpless-kitten orphanage, you will end the mystery and prevent yourself from reacting to what may not even be happening. Seeking clarity—which, please note, is not seeking the answer you have in your head or the answer you want to hear—is also known as facing reality.
Lesson #2: Watch His Silent Movie
It’s so rarely what they say, dear. In fact, your particular guy—the one you’ve just spent the past seven years with—may have said over and over, “I’m totally ready for commitment.” But his actions might have been telling you something completely different. This is why you must watch him as if he were the lead in a 1920s black-and-white silent movie, one whose gestures and facial expressions are his only means of expression.
Silent-movie watching works especially well in subtle cases when even he might not be sure of the discrepancy between his proclamations and your life together. Say the two of you are attending a wedding, one during which other guests are openly asking when your wedding will be. Watching him sweat more than the groom, gulp down three glasses of champagne and exit the reception to sit on the beach and stare moodily at the ocean may not fill you with joy and security. But it will inform you that this movie has hit an unexpected plot twist and, though technology of this sort didn’t exist in the age of Charlie Chaplin, what you need to do is hit the pause button.
Lesson #3: Watch Your Silent Movie
You’re 29. You adore comics. So does he! You work in finance. So does he! You like traveling to India, hazelnut coffee, downhill skiing and big hairy dogs. So does he! When he comes over with a tray of brownies that he baked and says, “I love you,” you say, “I love you, too!” Because you love him, right? In fact, you might go around telling people that he is the best, you two are so good together, you’ve been friends for so long, it’s perfect…etc.
Now if you could just stop talking, you might observe your exterior self doing some troubling things. Like waiting to eat the brownies he baked you until they are too stale to chew, forcing you to throw them out. Like failing to stock weird, dark beer in your fridge, even though you know he loves weird, dark beer. It’s not that you don’t think of these small gestures of love, it’s that you don’t execute them. Why is that? Observing your own silent movie is just as crucial as watching his, maybe more so. Oddly enough, being misled is usually less painful than misleading yourself.
Lesson #4: Don’t Excuse Bad Sex
There are times in life when sex is bad—and so many different ways in which it can be bad. There’s clumsy, embarrassed, first-time sex. There’s too-tired-to-have-sex sex. There’s after-fight sex that you think will fix things but doesn’t because you’re both still too mad. There’s sex in the in-laws’ house, which makes you feel guilty and paranoid over breakfast the next day. There are bungled shower attempts and misinterpreted fantasies and times when kids walk in, their little faces frozen in mute horror.
No one in their right mind will insist that these are indications of a wonderful relationship. But they are also “every once in a while.” They are not “every day.” They are not “every week.” And they are not the “once-a-month” sex that you acquiesce to because, after a while, it’s just so uninspiring or uncomfortable that you give up on the activity. No matter how handsome, funny, honest, smart, kind and sexy a partner is, bad sex isn’t something that you can live with it. Fix it or face up to the possibility that you may need a new partner.
Lesson #5: Own Up To Your .000001673928 Percent
When you’re talking to yourself or your friends, your relationship dynamics seem really clear. Because…every single piece of evidence points to him being the one to blame for the house being a wreck and your being overtired. At night, you do the cooking and cleaning and the homework and bath for the kids. He eats! That’s what he does! He eats! And then he reads a book to the kids and turns off the light. In other words (which are really the same thoughts), you are the giver. He is the taker. He is the problem.
Except that that’s never exactly true. Be it the uneven division of labor or the non-effective way you two communicate or the reason why you never have real date-night plans and always end up at the crappy franchised “eatery” on the corner, your partner is never 100 percent to blame. He can be 98 percent to blame (for his affair with his employee) or 77 percent to blame (for the fight you two had about the budget) or 2 percent (for the horrifying mold that grows in the bathroom grout due to splashed tub water), but 20 or 30 percent…or maybe just .000001673928 percent belongs to you. If it didn’t, if the proportions were really 100 percent wrong to 100 percent right, then nobody would remain together. Common sense—and math—wouldn’t allow it. That sliver of responsibility you bear for the problem you two face is a figure that, when examined with brutal, crucial honesty, can be used to calculate a solution.