Write for Advice
I have a problem, and I don’t know whether it’s with myself or my partner. You have an exceptional understanding of the human mind and soul, so I’m hoping you’ll be able to help me out.
We’ve been doing distance this past year with the intention of telling our parents that we want to marry soon. The stakes are high because we’re from polar opposite backgrounds, and we both have to go out of our way to placate our families if we want their blessings. I’ve told my siblings, and was all set to tell my parents tomorrow (time constraints: there’s a small window for him to meet my dad. They’ll both be in the same state for a short time very soon) until something funny happened.
He’s been busy this past week (he is a med school student), so we haven’t been able to talk much. This doesn’t happen often: we Skype/call/chat almost everyday. He also left Friday evening for a road trip with one of his college friends. He was supposed to call me when he got in to their hotel (we’re 12 hours apart). He’s usually good with his promises, but this time he didn’t call. When I texted to tell him I was starting my day and would be busy for the next few hours, he replied that he was sorry and would reach his hotel in an hour. He called in an hour but I was away from my phone attending to the work I had to do. I am boring you with the details because somewhere during this time, I suspected he was lying to me. I have absolutely no proof that he was, and rationally it makes perfect sense to me that he had arrived late. But he has a history of concealing things from me, and I realized some time during these last 12 hours or so that when it comes down to it, I do not entirely trust him. Rationally, I think I do for the most part, but instinctually when he doesn’t answer his phone or something goes awry, I tend to think the worst. For instance, this morning (the day after) I saw that he was online at 11 am his time, but he texted at 12.30 saying that they had just gotten up. There could be a number of explanations for this (like he came online for a second and fell back asleep, he defines ‘just’ very broadly, etc), but my instinct is to explain inconsistencies with dishonesty.
This history in brief: a while after we started dating, he asked for a break. He was graduating from college and didn’t know if our relationship was right given our radically different backgrounds. This upset me. I told him he could have all the space he wanted, but I wasn’t comfortable with us seeing other people while we were away, and if he wanted that we would have to break up. He agreed to the terms, but didn’t tell me when we got back together that he’d kissed a girl while I was away. He told me this a few months after we reunited, when I just found out that he’d also hung out with his ex-girlfriend once when we were dating. Nothing happened, he said, they just went to grab coffee because she insisted. But he hid it from me because ‘(he) knew (I) wouldn’t like it.’ This seemed silly: I wouldn’t have cared that he had coffee with her if he had just told me. The fact that he hid it from me made me suspicious of him, and hurt me deeply. He insisted that the incident with the girl was the only other thing he was hiding from me.
I was very upset (truthfully, thinking about this still upsets me and I wonder all the time if he was entirely truthful), but we recovered from it okay. Somewhere along the way, we swapped Facebook passwords. I didn’t surveil him but one day while I was on his profile, I saw he received a message from an old flame. It was completely friendly, but I noticed he was curious about her. They replied back and forth once or twice. This unnerved me, and when I obliquely brought up the subject of old flames and openness, he said there was nothing he had to tell me. I asked him if he was absolutely sure there was nothing I’d want to know, and he insisted that there wasn’t. This was after he last admitted to covering things up. This was also while he was messaging her. It felt shady to question him like this, but I also felt shattered and furious. I told him what I knew, and he apologized and said he didn’t know why he had lied. Later, he denied any wrong doing, said that he hadn’t been hiding anything, that he insisted there was nothing to tell me because it hadn’t occurred to him that I might want to know about the messages. I find this hard to believe. I am completely open with him about everything. He isn’t the jealous sort, and doesn’t feel at all bothered by my wishing my ex boyfriend a happy birthday. And while I am clearly insecure about our relationship, I don’t think I’ve ever been irrational or unfair about his past girlfriends or female friends either.
Now I know none of these things constitutes cheating (we were on a break the first time, coffee with an old girlfriend isn’t a big deal in itself, and an innocent Facebook exchange is hardly tantamount to an affair), but he has a slight habit of hiding things. Things that are not inconsequential to me, either. This much I know I can fault him for: the fact that I wouldn’t like his meeting a girl is no excuse not to tell me. In fact, it’s more of a reason to tell me. What I don’t know is whether my suspicions of his faithfulness are fair. Am I being unreasonable for doubting him the way I did earlier today?
It’s clear at any rate that there is a problem here. While we’re very communicative and generally happy, as soon as communication lapses a little, I get restless and nervous. I don’t know how to address it with him because 1) I’m not sure if this a problem with myself and 2) if not, I don’t know how to get an honest answer from him. If he’s hidden things from me before, what are the odds that he’ll open up to me about any indiscretions right before we talk to our parents? I know he loves and misses me, and wants this to work very much, and he will not want to jeopardize that if he is hiding anything. Is the distance making me paranoid, do I have reason to be this way, or am I a distrusting person? I’m not sure if I can tell my parents about him if I have a serious problem on my hands.
You know, some of us more or less take it for granted that whenever we are out of sorts, whenever we have a problem with somebody else, the problem, ultimately, is with us. We know that the only way we can live in peace in the world is by accepting the world as it is, and accepting everyone in the world as they are. We recognize that our main problem is not other people, and the state of the world, but our lack of acceptance. Our problem is us. Our problem is our belief that we can and should work to make other people conform to our expectations.
This is huge! Surveilling other people, gauging their behavior, comparing it to our set of expectations and taking action when it threatens to deviate is the dominant mode of interpersonal relationships for many, many couples and families in the United States. And yet it is a recipe for relationship disaster.
This is an opportunity to talk about an alternative.
It’s a radical idea, actually, that when somebody is doing something we don’t like, the problem is with us. It goes against everything we’ve been taught. What we’ve been taught in school and family is that there are standards to uphold, that there are right ways and wrong ways to behave, that there’s a consensus. In this way of thinking, you’re either with the consensus or not with it. If you’re with the consensus, then you have the right — nay, dare I say, the duty! — to place blame on the other person who is not with the consensus; and if you’re not with the consensus, then you have to shape up.
In place of this insistence upon other people conforming to our expectations, I submit that what we need is a deep and abiding reverence for each and every human being.
What we need is reverence for the person. We need that not just as an abstract idea to kick around on blogs and on TV but in our daily lives, with our brothers and sisters, our husbands and wives, our employers and employees, strangers we meet on the streets. We need a little bit of holy wonder. A bit of awe. A bit of awe that you are even in this relationship. A bit of awe that this guy likes you and is interested in spending his life with you.
Now, he could be the wrong guy for you. That’s something you need to decide. You need to weigh your possible future heartache against your tangible present pleasure.
But to get out of this debilitating cycle of worry, try a little experiment.
Try having no expectations of him at all. Just watch what he does. Do this for one week. Take notes.
Observe him in the wild. What do you see? How do you feel about what you see?
Ah, but here’s the rub! You can’t see him because he’s not there! You’re not in the same location! You’re many time zones removed! You’re “doing distance.” You’re in a “long-distance relationship.”
A “long-distance relationship” is not really a relationship. It’s a technological holding cell. It’s a container for a plan. All over the world people are conducting these things they call “long-distance relationships” but they’re not really relationships between humans. They are relationships between machines. The machines are having a relationship with each other, and you’re pushing buttons and footing the bill.
You get nervous when the intervals and rhythms of communication change. Of course you do! Because that’s the only indication you have that this person even exists! That’s not enough! You need him with you. Your body needs him. All your body gets now is the cool glossy feel of a smartphone screen. That’s not enough. You need him to physically be with you.
But aside from all that, for the sake of exploration, let’s say that you are together, and you are still uneasy, and let’s ask: What if you knew that no matter what your boyfriend does, you would be fine? Could you live that way? Could you live knowing that if this relationship works out, great, you and he can be happy together, but if it doesn’t, fine, you are free to make your own life?
What if, in personal relationships, we didn’t care if people live up to our standards at all? What if it didn’t matter? What would happen? What if you didn’t care what he did? What if you just hung out with him because you liked him?
This is a philosophical question based on the premise that in personal relationships, interpersonal harmony is more important than either party’s individual performance against a set of abstract metrics.
In this scenario, love means granting freedom to another person — freedom to be who they are. It means acceptance, not interpersonal policing.
These are the things I think about: How can we increase harmony and decrease conflict? Why do we know so little about each other? Why are our expectations so out of line with what people are really capable of? How can we increase human understanding and decrease conflict? If high ideals and expectations in personal conduct increase conflict, then is the conflict worth it? Is it the kind of conflict that is likely to persist and never be resolved?
There is something to be said, I suppose, in sports and business, for having expectations that are nearly impossible to meet, to force people to strive. But in personal relationships, it is not performance against a set of numerical standards that is important; it is the harmony within the relationship itself. So it would be better for expectations to be in line with performance capabilities. It would be rational for you to reduce your expectations so he can meet them.
But now we’re getting a bit far afield.
Here’s the bottom line.
I see that I just typed, “Here’s the bottom line.” But is there a bottom line? Or is that just another habit of mental laziness, the assumption that, after we have thought about this and that and expressed ourselves and played around with possibilities, that there is some tidy bundle of words that will sum it up?
If that were the case, why not just deliver the tidy bundle of words and ignore the rest?
Because the complicated stuff is what’s interesting!
I’m not going to sum it up.
I sit in my room, thinking these thoughts. They don’t amount to a hill of beans, really, but they have been my thoughts, and now they are yours.
Write for Advice