The Maximum Marriage

Man did I hit a wall a third of the way through David Brooks’s Second Mountain. Despite it weighing two pounds, I could not pick it up. Instead I watched The Handmaid’s Tale, Stranger Things, Billions, and went full New Yorker.

But since I keep thinking I may use a chapter of it in my writing seminar this fall, I have begun reading it again, Part III in particular, titled Marriage. The first of the five marriage chapters is “The Maximum Marriage”. At the risk of creating cliche-i-cide, this is the idea that you should never settle in marriage, instead you should go ALL IN with a soul mate who completes you.

I have several problems with Brook’s marriage advice. The first is that he failed at his. Of course this doesn’t disqualify him, assuming a greater degree of reflection and vulnerability than he shows. He alludes to being the problem and explains that his ex-wife and him have an agreement not to talk about the dissolution of their marriage, perfectly understandable, but then it’s probably best not to present oneself as an authority.

Brooks is newly married to his former research assistant, a much younger woman for what it’s worth. When reading him wax poetic about maximum marriage, I can’t help but wonder what went wrong, why, and what about the references to the “art of recommitment”?

I also have questions if not concerns about the concept of “maximum marriage”. Recently, an acquaintance gave up her will to live a few weeks after her lifelong husband unexpectedly died. That’s an extreme example, but surviving partners of long-term maximum relationships or marriages often struggle with how to live without their “soulmates”. Brooks makes passing references to “autonomy” when that concept, in my opinion, deserves more attention.

Brooks also breaks down the “stages of intimacy” in the manner of someone who gives too much credence to every social science article he reads. He slights the mystery of intimacy and the organic nature of how two people create intimacy and sometimes decide to team up for life. In addition to describing intimacy in too linear a fashion, he doesn’t offer young people any practical advice on how best to answer the innumerable questions he suggests people considering marriage ask themselves.

Sometimes I suggest, based upon my experience backpacking in Southern Mexico in 1986 with who would become the Good Wife on 7/11/87*, that the newly in love backpack together in a developing country. I promise you’ll learn more about one another in a month than you probably would in a year. How do they make decisions? How do they spend money? How do they deal with sketchy hostels? How respectful are they of others? Are they quick to laugh or humor impaired? And most importantly, are they kind and are you a better person as a result of their friendship?

It’s funny isn’t it, the Humble Blogger giving the New York Times writer a hard time about his book. But why quit now. Brooks quotes other people way too much. Half the time the quotes do not have the intended effect, I’m often left thinking “huh” even after a second reading, and the incessant quoting compromises his voice. Of course I’ve already argued he’s not the most credible person on the topic, but his consistent leaning on others doesn’t solve that dilemma, for me, it only adds to it.

Also, despite Brook’s fealty to all things social scientific, a glaring oddity is that he never mentions the role money often plays in failed marriages. I can only speculate that’s because his ex-wife and him never lacked for it and most of his friends and acquaintances are similarly well-to-do. How does he spend fifty pages giving marriage advice without even touching upon financial compatibility?

So why, given my criticisms, is Second Mountain a best seller? In fairness, there’s good mixed in, but I suspect a large part of it is professional reputation. Given his previous writing, and his very high profile, he gets the benefit of the doubt from most readers. Oh, Brooks is often insightful, so this must be too.

Not necessarily.

*don’t feel bad if your “Happy Anniversary” card arrives late

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.

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?

Why Close Friendship is Elusive

A friend of mine was irked because his partner didn’t want to send out Christmas cards this year. Nothing to do with the expense, the time, anything, turns out she just didn’t feel like it. “We didn’t deserve to receive any,” he reflected.

A year off is no big deal, but this understandable tension illustrates a foundational idea that explains why close friendships are elusive—they depend upon reciprocity.

Zuckerberg has zucked up our understanding of terms like “acquaintance,” “friend,” and “close friend”. If you’re like most people, you have many acquaintances, maybe a handful or two or three of friends, and very few close friends. This Daily Mail article says most people have two close friends, down from three 25 years ago. I’ve seen similar U.S.-based research numbers. What distinguishes friends from acquaintances and close friends from mere friends?

Friends spend more time together than acquaintances. Acquaintances are people we enjoy when we occasionally end up at the same place at the same time. A large proportion of Facebook “friends” are acquaintances. With an acquaintance, you can go weeks or months without any face-to-face contact. You don’t really know what makes them tick and they’re clueless as to your inner life. In contrast, friends do things together more frequently—whether writing back and forth, talking, helping one another, working out together, eating, traveling, etc. Time together gives friends a feel for each other’s daily activities, hopes, fears, and thoughts more generally.

What distinguishes especially close friendships is both people initiate a similar amount. Communication; invitations to do things; and the degree of honesty, transparency, and trust are balanced. There’s a natural, shared reciprocity. That sounds more simplistic than it is. In actuality, no friendship is ever perfectly balanced. Close friends can weather a slight imbalance (10-15%?) at any given time, but more than that and closeness is inevitably sacrificed.

How to apply these ideas? Most people would trade several acquaintances for a friend and a handful of friends for one especially close one. Quality trumps quantity. All of us have friends we wish we were closer to, but they don’t initiate as much as we’d like. This is why life for middle schoolers is so filled with drama, the social imbalances wreak havoc. When it comes to unrequited friendship, most middle schoolers are not self-confident or secure enough to say, “Your loss.” We never completely escape the complexities prompted by social imbalances.

Think about your social constellation. Who are your acquaintances, friends, and close friends? Odds are you have acquaintances or friends who you wish would initiate more. I shortchange my long-distance friends because I’m allergic to telephones. I shortchange local friends because I’m similarly allergic to cell phones which means, like a modern day Rudolph, I can’t join in all the texting fun. More important than telephone calls and texts is a willingness to be vulnerable enough to allow friendships to deepen.

Consider using the changing of the calendar to tell a friend or two through your words and/or actions that you’d like to spend more time with them. If they don’t initiate any more than normal for whatever reason, don’t push it or dwell on it, life’s too short, close friendship can’t be forced. If need be, accept the limits of that particular friendship and invest your time and energy in another friend who may be waiting for an invitation to spend more time together and to be more vulnerable.

Here’s hoping your 2012 is filled with meaningful friendships.

Of related interest, here’s a 2008 post on how the limits of time force friendship making trade-offs.

Developing In-depth, Intimate Friendships

Who knew there’s something really nice about driving to swim meets way out on the Kitsap Peninsula. Or more specifically, driving home from them.

Four years ago, following the South Kitsap meet, Nineteen and I started out listening to National Public Radio, and then as the sun set on Commencement Bay and the Narrows Bridge, talked about the world, her world, our worlds. Not a top-down father-daughter talk, a balanced adult one.

Last week, as Sixteen’s (S’s) passenger, I was in the right place at the right time for another thoughtful and memorable conversation. I mostly listened as she described a moving letter she had received earlier in the day from a close friend who struggled with anxiety last year. The friend wanted S to know how important her help had been and how much her understanding presence meant to her. Her other friends, she explained, ran a little hot and cold, which made her especially appreciative of S’s consistent care.

“What I like about A.F. is she’s vulnerable,” S reflected while hugging the right line of the two lane highway. “She’s not afraid to admit everything’s not all right. That gives me the opportunity to help.” She explained how good it felt to help her friends, to share insights from the serious difficulties she experienced as a middle schooler. It gives purpose to that especially challenging chapter of her life.

S’s story reminded me of two important steps in developing in-depth, intimate friendships—admitting one’s vulnerabilities and humbly asking for help.

Taken together, sometimes saying, “I’m afraid. I’m anxious. I’m lost. I’m stuck. Can you help me?”

Knowing that doesn’t mean I do it well. I don’t. At all. I probably inherited my stubborn, sometimes self-defeating self-sufficiency from my parents who grew up in barren eastern Montana on the heels of the Depression.

Paradoxically, I enjoy helping my friends whenever they ask for help, but I don’t like inconveniencing them. At all. A tip of the iceberg example. I spent twenty minutes in the garage last week unsuccessfully trying to tighten a bolt, while holding a washer, and screw in a very awkward position because I didn’t want to inconvenience the wife. Finally threw in the towel, asked for her help in applying pressure to the top of the screw, and had everything assembled in less than a minute.

More significantly, I’m almost always resistant to counseling, yet the few times I’ve committed to it, it’s proven helpful.

Obviously, everyone has to be somewhat self-sufficient, but there’s a point of diminishing returns, a point I cross fairly regularly. I’m not sure how to explain my stubborn, sometimes self-defeating self-sufficiency. It’s irrational. If I could throw a “start depending upon others more on occasion” switch, I would have already.

I’d ask you for help, but I don’t want to inconvenience you.

Maybe I’ll just groove some more to Bill Withers in the hope it’ll eventually sink it.

Thanks S for the inspiration.

My Lovely Wife

It’s time. I’m going public with my affection for my wife.

Twenty-five years ago today she walked down the aisle of a Lutheran eglesia in SoCal and committed to sticking with me through thick and thin.

She had no interest in marriage when we met in Venice, CA; went out for fish and chips at Marina del Rey; and and then flirted on a deserted Santa Monica lifeguard stand in the dark. After falling for her hard, she informed me she was going to Mexico for the summer to learn to speak Spanish. So enamored with me, she ran for the border.

Against all odds, while studying Spanish in Cuernavaca, she started to miss me. Following some steamy hand-written letters (remember those?), I flew to Mexico at the end of her language school studies and we backpacked throughout southern Mexico. Like Felix Hernandez in the latter innings, I wore her down. By the time we returned home we were halfway down the aisle.

She should have known she was dealing with a dimwit when, right before saying my vows with the videocamera rolling, I turned the small microphone clipped to my tux off instead of on. Even though there is no audio evidence of my vows, I’ve done my best to honor them.

She’s loved me as unconditionally as possible and for that I am incredibly grateful. Like anyone who has been married for the long haul, we’ve struggled at times, even more than outside observers would guess. There were moments when the Vegas oddsmakers weren’t sure we’d make it to 25. When our wires get crossed, I sometimes lose my temper and patience, and just want to stop talking and take the next space shuttle flight into outer-space. She can also lose it, but always needs to resolve conflicts immediately no matter how long it takes. I mean no matter how long.

She’s the spiritual leader of our household, a Godly woman with a profound social conscience. She also is a damn sexy dancer and the best, most caring, and loving mother on Mother Earth.

My only regret is that we can’t get back all the sporadic days we’ve lost to mindless miscommunication, self-centeredness, arguing, and hurt feelings. I don’t assume we have another 25 years to enjoy each other’s company. I’m not going anywhere, but our health isn’t guaranteed and some of the cars on Mount Rainier got awfully close on Saturday’s training ride.

My plan going forward is to take full advantage of each year not knowing which might be our last. My hope is for steadily improving communication, mutual selflessness, reduced conflict, and even more profound affection and intimacy.

I’d jet down the same church aisle today given the chance all over again.