Dreaming of Solitude

A “Dear Prudence” letter from Slate.com.

Dear Prudence,

My husband and I met very young and had kids right away. It’s now 25 years later and the kids are off to college, our life together is comfortable. We’re still in love, and everything should be perfect. Except it’s not. I have recurring fantasies of just leaving everything behind, moving to the other coast, and starting over all by myself. I dream of finding a small apartment, furnishing it exactly as I want, leaving a mess when I don’t feel like cleaning up, eating whatever and whenever I want, and basically being a single girl in my 20s, minus the dating and insecurities. I wouldn’t mind if my husband and children visited, but there’s something in me that craves distance and my own space. I have no desire to find another man; I just want to be alone. I’ve been finding excuses to travel solo simply because staying by myself in a hotel is the closest thing to fulfilling my fantasy. I order room service, binge watch movies, and just revel in my solitude. I wish I had an excuse like a job offer or degree program far away to make such a move possible. I would probably want to come home after a while—a year, maybe two—but who knows? I might love living alone too much to give it up. Part of me also feels guilty for wanting this because my husband is adamant that he wouldn’t want to be without me. I’ve tried to talk him into getting separate bedrooms for years, and he refuses. I also imagine that someday I will probably be widowed and have exactly what I’m dreaming of, and at that point I’ll miss him terribly and feel foolish for wanting this now. Is this impulse bizarre and unhealthy? Is it a phase I should just grit my teeth and barrel through? Is it something that will eat away at me until I get off my ass and do it? Can I do it without hurting him too much?

—Dreaming of Solitude (DoS)

Here’s my prediction on most people’s gut reaction to reading this, “What a whiny, self-centered, loser. She’s symbolic of everything that’s wrong with the U.S. today!” I read it differently and not just because I’m a huge fan of solitude. I feel for DoS because her dilemma highlights a central challenge in any long-term committed relationship.

For peace to prevail over time, you have to do two things. First, you have to consciously ignore most of the low-level aggravating things your partner does on a daily basis. For example, The Good Wife has to try to accept the fact that I selfishly turn off the bedroom light at night whenever I’m ready to sleep whether she’s mid-paragraph in her book or not. She has to try to accept the fact that right at that moment I’m thinking more about my running partners waiting outside for me in seven hours than I am her. And she has to do that type of thing every day in myriad ways because I’m a selfish pig.

Second, you have to continuously shake off a steady stream of low-level irritants without allowing so much resentment to build that it eventually bubbles over in grand gestures to have separate bedrooms (where I can be in control of the lighting my own damn self) or to live three thousand miles apart. That balance, having decent enough communication to talk about and work through low-level resentments (The Good Wife, “In the future, could you please ask me if you can turn out the light so I can at least finish my sentence?”) is an exceedingly delicate balancing act that’s easier to get wrong than right.

In my reading of DoS’s letter, the key phrase is this, “. . . furnishing it exactly as I want, leaving a mess when I don’t feel like cleaning up, eating whatever and whenever I want.” Three annoyances that by themselves wouldn’t amount to much or even if taken together for a short period of time probably wouldn’t amount to much. But the longer they’re not talked about in the light of day, they metastasize and drive a wedge between otherwise intimate people.

Imagine if DoS had come clean with her husband about her feelings years earlier. Three separate dinner discussions. The first. “For a long, long time, I haven’t felt enough freedom to decorate differently.” The second, “For far too long, I haven’t felt nearly free enough to be more messy.” The third, “For as long as I can remember I haven’t felt sufficient freedom to eat whatever I want at whatever time I want.” If the husband is as good a guy as he seems to be, he’d be sympathetic and try to be much more understanding of her need for those particular freedoms.

There’s no guarantee those conversations would go so well that the resentment would dissipate to the point where moving across the country wouldn’t be necessary, but not having them is a larger risk. By not having them the husband is in for a major surprise, one he doesn’t deserve if she’s said too little for too long.

Postscript: I thought I had turned the comments back on awhile ago, but learned today I had not. They’re back on. So comment away on Cornell West, Michael Eric Dyson, Ms. Dreaming of Solitude, or whatever you want to get off your chest about those you’re most intimate.

Young Adults Aren’t Having as Much Sex as Everyone Thinks

Sentence to ponder:

“More and more technophilic and commitment-phobic millennials are shying away from physical encounters and supplanting them with the emotional gratification of virtual quasi relationships, flirting via their phones and computers with no intention of ever meeting their romantic quarry: less casual sex than casual text.”   —Teddy Wayne in the New York Times

I recommend reading the article in its entirety. It’s required reading if you don’t know what “IRL” stands for. Wayne’s descriptions and analyses challenge my thinking. Normally, I find the negative reactions of older people to changes in youth culture predictable and mindless. Older people thoughtlessly flatter themselves to think things were always better “back in the day”. By reminding myself that the changes aren’t better or worse than in the past, just different, I consciously practice a form of cultural relativism.

But when many millennials give up, as Wayne reports, on “the more challenging terrain of three-dimensional partners”, it’s hard for me to think screen-based relationships are just different than IRL ones. By punting on in-person vulnerability and physical touch, millennials are foregoing intimacy. And by living less intimately with others, they’re compromising the quality of their lives.

Committed friendships—especially romantic ones—are risky because they’re a by-product of vulnerability. You can’t know how caring and accepting a friend will be until you reveal some of your unflattering attributes, insecurities, fears, and related neuroses. Many millennials appear to be like grade-obsessed, risk-adverse students who consciously avoid challenging courses and instructors.

Wayne focuses too narrowly on sex at the expense of physical touch more generally. Sometimes in fact, the more subtle the touch, the more profound. My clarion call in the Writing Seminar last week was “Depth of description and analysis trumps breadth.” To illustrate this, I had them read a Joe Morgenstern essay titled “How One Scene Can Say Everything: Deconstructing The Five Best Minutes of Little Miss Sunshine“. After reading Morgenstern we watched the scene in which a major family crisis is avoided when a ten year old girl puts her arm around her devastated older brother sitting on the ground below her. Then she gently rests her head on his shoulder. She doesn’t say a word. Within seconds his anger subsides and the family reconciles.

It would be easy to offer up apocalyptic conclusions about the millennials choosing watered down, on-line acquaintances, over wonderfully and painfully flawed “real life” ones. And to the cumulative effect of less physical touch. But I’m going to resist that because their intense aversion to risk didn’t arise in a vacuum.

I suspect something was amiss in the way my peers and I raised our millennial children. Maybe we gave into our fears about their safety and were too overprotective. Maybe we didn’t model as well as we could have what we know. That life is sweeter as a result of intimate friendships even when they provide tremendous joy one day and heartbreak the next.

The Future of Marriage

Here is how one on-line magazine reported on Gwyneth Paltrow’s and Chris Martin’s recent breakup:

Ever since Gwyneth Paltrow became famous in her early 20s, she has made women feel bad about themselves. As Gwyneth’s former high school classmate told a New York magazine reporter in the mid-’90s, “Even people who don’t know Gwyneth measure themselves against her success. … Gwyneth makes us feel extremely lame.” And so it was Tuesday, when Paltrow and her husband, Chris Martin, announced their split in the most Gwyneth way possible by telling the world about their separation in her lifestyle newsletter Goop, with a personal note and an accompanying expert essay about something called “conscious uncoupling.” Because Gwyneth does not break up like the rest of us.

The gist of the essay—by Habib Sadeghi and Sherry Sami, doctors who integrate Eastern and Western medicine—is that the institution of marriage hasn’t evolved along with our longer life spans. Divorce doesn’t mean your relationship wasn’t successful, they say. It just means that this particular relationship has come to its conclusion; you may have two or three of these successful relationships in a lifetime. Instead of a typical, rancorous, regular-person separation, you just need to have a “conscious uncoupling.”

I feel for Paltrow and anyone who feels compelled to manage their image so methodically. What an exhausting and lonely path to trod. So sad I’m going to grant her a mulligan on the New Age phrasing many others are using for laughs.

Gwyneth’s brand will not shape the future of marriage, Millennials behavior will. Esther Perel is a marriage counselor who has unique insights on why people have affairs. Read an interview with her here. She also has provocative things to say about Millennials and the future of marriage. For example:

Slate: What would you say to people who want to preserve a marriage?

Perel: Most people today, for the sheer length we live together, have two or three marriages in their adult life, and some of us do it with the same person. For me, this is my fourth marriage with my husband and we have completely reorganized the structure of the relationship, the flavor, the complementarity.

Slate: Explicitly, or it just happened organically?

Perel: Both. It became clear that we could either go into crisis mode and end it or go into crisis mode and renew. And that is one of the most hopeful sentences a betrayed partner can hear when they come into my office the day after they find out and they are in a state of utter shock and collapse: I say, your first marriage may be over, and in fact I believe that affairs are often a powerful alarm system for a structure that needs change. And then people say: But did it have to happen like that? And I say: I have rarely seen anything as powerful lead to a regenerative experience. This is a controversial idea, but betrayal is sometimes a regenerative act. It’s a way of saying no to a rotten system in need of change.

Perel earlier in the same interview:

We go elsewhere because we are looking for another self. It isn’t so much that we want to leave the person we are with as we want to leave the person we have become.

I like Perel’s thinking because it challenges my own. I’m not modern enough to give up on monogamy, but I’m intrigued by her notion of multiple marriages to the same person.

Here are a few reminders I’m taking from my brief intro to Perel’s work. First, it’s extremely unhealthy to expect one person to meet all of your needs. Some degree of autonomy is important. Second, the health of one’s marriage depends mostly on their individual emotional, psychological, and spiritual health. And third, to maintain positive emotional, psychological, and spiritual health, balance daily routines, both as an individual and as a couple, with a sense of “novelty and adventure”.

I liked a story my sixty year old sister told me last week at Uncle Erwin’s celebration of life in Missoula, Montana. Recently, she spent an afternoon sledding with a bunch of her friends. Novel and adventurous. And her marriage might be (marginally) healthier and happier as a result.

 

 

 

 

How to Find Your Soulmate

Apparently, the first all important step is to figure out the single most consequential thing you want in a partner. For example, maybe they HAVE to be devotees of Ayn Rand, or farm for a living, or be gluten-free. As detailed in a recent Wall Street Journal article, there are dating websites for each of those interests. Soon there’s bound to be meta-websites where someone could zero in on their dream gluten-free, Ayn Rand loving farmer within 100 miles of Cedar Rapids.

The Journal article was nice because it featured people who weren’t terribly optimistic about finding love, but were finding it thanks to these “niche” websites. They were getting along with their newly found partners, marrying, and starting families. Tough read for a tech skeptic like me.

A noteworthy paragraph:

Relationships often work best when people share similar core values and lifestyle goals. The online dating site eHarmony, for example, matches users by personality traits. Yet if two people are too similar, doesn’t the day-to-day relationship suffer from a lack of fun tension and fresh ideas?

I bet that’s a likely unintended negative consequence of delegating dating to computer algorithms.

Besides the fact that she was fine, a large part of my falling in love with Betrothed was the realization that she brought out the best parts of me. Put differently, I was a better person as a result of our friendship. Specifically, her kindness, her compassion, her social conscience, her generosity, her human decency, superseded my selfish, apathetic self. No computer could quantify that instinct.

I think she’d say I’ve enriched her life too. As a team, our sum is definitely more than our individual parts. But it hasn’t been a walk in the park, in part because we’re so different. Now, twenty-six years in, we’re starting to realize maybe our differences are strengths. Instead of failing miserably at changing one another, we’re learning to appreciate what each person contributes to the relationship, the family, the world.

To find your soulmate chuck the lengthy, hopelessly unrealistic check-list and replace it with one two-part question. Will this person bring out the best of me, and together, will we make a more positive impact on the world than we would apart?

True Confession

If you were standing here beside me right now you’d probs (adolescent form of “probably”) counsel me to immediately abort the mission. You might even slam the laptop on my fingers. You’d argue, and I’d be hard pressed to prove otherwise, that this is not the right time or place to confess that I’ve been unfaithful to my wife. But being of slow and stubborn stock, I feel I must come clean.

Straying from the marital straight and narrow started innocently enough, wishing the love of my life was a few pounds lighter, then fantasizing about weekend get-aways. I wish I could say this was a one-off and that I immediately realized the damage done, but in fact, since taking the plunge, I can’t stop thinking about her. She’s promised to spend hours with me. Take me places near and far. Climb steep mountain passes. Crush anyone that gets in our way. To always be there for me.

If you’re a female reader, you’re probably so disgusted with me that you can’t see straight. If you’re of the male persuasion, you’re wondering what she looks like. Without further ado. . .

Be still my beating heart.

Be still my beating heart.

The start of a beautiful relationship.

The start of a beautiful relationship.

Paragraph to Ponder

From Roman Krznaric in The Wonderbox:

The idea of passionate, romantic love that has emerged in the West over the past millennium is one of our most destructive cultural inheritances. This is because the main aspiration—the discovery of a soulmate—is virtually impossible to achieve in reality. We can spend years searching for that elusive person who will satisfy all our emotional needs and sexual desires, who will provide us with friendship and self-confidence, comfort and laughter, stimulate our minds and share our dreams. We imagine somebody out there in the amorous ether who is our missing other half, and who will make us feel complete if only we can fuse our being with theirs in the sublime union of romantic love. Our hopes are fed by an industry of Hollywood screen romances and an overload of pulp fiction peddling this mythology. The message is replicated by the worldwide army of consultants who advertise their ability to help you ‘find your perfect match’. In a survey of single Americans in their twenties, 94 percent agreed that ‘when you marry you want your spouse to be your soulmate, first and foremost.’ The unfortunate truth is that the myth of romantic love has gradually captured the varieties of love that existed in the past, absorbing them into a monolithic vision.

I’m Lost

Now that I’m the greatest triathlete the world my family has ever known, I’m lost. Sibling rivalry is a beautiful thing. For the last six months sticking it to my brother provided me with a purpose for living.

But now I need a new purpose for living. Here are some possibilities.

• Be the first male to break down the Olympic synchronized swimming or rhythmic gymnastics gender barrier.

• Cut a rap record. Are you aware there’s a serious shortage of white, 50-something, Ph.D. rappers? I could be the Chosen One. Today’s Facebook friend request from someone named Joanna Byrnes in Tennessee inspired some sick lyrics. Turns out Joanna is married to Ron Byrnes. But I guess Tennessee Ron Byrnes isn’t quite enough. Yeah Joanna, odds are you did pick the wrong one, but I’m already spoken for, so it’s probably best to get on with your life. One more reason Twitter rules and Facebook drools, lots of people on Facebook share your name despite whacky spellings. Am I the only one that weirds out? Back to my off-the-hook lyrics. Ask a friend with human beat box skills to lay down a beat while you read this seedling of rap genius:

May I have your attention please? May I have your attention please? Will the real Ron Byrnes please stand up? I repeat, will the real Ron Byrnes please stand up? We’re gonna have a problem here.. ‘Cause I’m Ron Byrnes, yes I’m the real Byrnes. All you other Ron Byrnes’s are just imitating. So won’t the real Ron Byrnes please stand up, please stand up, please stand up?

• Go hard after Frenchman Robert Marchand’s new 100k cycling record of 4:17:27. Marchand is 100 years old so that could provide me with a reason for living for the next half century. Marchand averaged 14.3 miles an hour but pre-race said, “If I was doping, maybe I could hit 21-22mph.” Part of his secret, honey in his canteen.

• Compete in the Leadville 100 mountain bike race. Told the GalPal, given my horrific mountain biking skills, I could literally die during the race. A friend who competed in the race a few years ago almost watched another participant die after a terrible accident. The GalPal’s reply, “Maybe a second Ironman isn’t such a bad idea.” There’s an important life lesson there fellas, but if I need to spell it out, there’s no hope for you.

That’s all I can think of for now. Vote for one of those or recommend something new that my pea-brain hasn’t considered. But don’t delay. It’s tough living day-to-day without an overarching purpose.

Hold the presses!!! The most difficult and important project en todo el mundo just dawned on me—learn to listen more patiently to the woman who, in 1987, won the real Ron Byrnes lottery. I’d like to think her life has been a fairytale ever since, but recently she told me she doesn’t feel truly listened to.

Can I learn to listen more patiently? I’ll try.