After a recent discussion as to the nature of relationships in society, Claus Jacobson and I decided to each take on the same concept using our different writing approaches, and see what articles emerged. Kind of a mini-writer’s club. The concept to be explored was outlined thus:
Modern relationships consist of two things, emotional bonds and power games. The ability to keep each other playing up to the same level of skill is as important as emotional reciprocity for the equilibrium of a relationship. That makes it sort of a Renaissance art form, a project and a calculus as much as the art of painting, sculpturing, composing or, say, seduction. Some would think it cynical, a lot would find it realistic to think of it this way, and a few could probably even see some outlandish beauty in it.
What follows is my take on this sentiment, while Claus’s article can be found over here.
Much attention has been given to the concept of “family values” in recent years. It has been claimed that the degeneration of the family has led to the rise of violence, drug use, and abortion rates in our culture. Whether you agree with this sentiment or not, it is fair to say that we, as a culture, seem to have lost the knack of keeping a relationship together. A 2004 survey states that .74% of the population (74 out of every 10,000 people) of the United States gets divorced every year, and it is worth noting that this statistic only included relationships legally recognized by the state.
What are the causes for this? It could be argued that we simply have more of a willingness to ditch the relationship when it is no longer satisfying to us, rather than following the guideline of “’till death do us part” which used to be society’s only accepted standard. It is undoubtedly true that divorce has less of a stigma attached to it than ever before. It could also be argued that with the rise of emphasis on productivity and efficiency in our cultures, we simply no longer have the time to dedicate to maintaining our relationships, and there is some validity to that argument, as well. I contend, however, that the root cause is deeper than either of these things, though perhaps exacerbated by them. As a culture, after centuries of more or less arranged marriages, we have not learned how to truly trust and communicate with another. Though we may love, we are more concerned with the outside appearance of that sentiment than with the actual art of creating and maintaining that emotion. Though we may try to trust, we consciously or unconsciously hold part of ourselves back in preparation for “the end”. We hedge our bets.
Everyone has a different theory about what makes a relationship last. Some say it cannot be done at all. Some think laughing together, crying together, or having amazing sex are the keys to longevity. Movies have been made about it, and there is a whole sub-section of the publishing industry dedicated to it. It is, on a very personal level, one of the most important questions we will ever have to answer. As Tom Robbins asks in Still Life With Woodpecker:
Who knows how to make love stay?
That first rush of love is like a drug, the kind of high that will take us past our own limits and prompt us to do things, say things, we normally repress. We feel control (so carefully guarded in our times) slipping out from under our feet, but the draw is irresistible and finally, with whoops or whines, we plunge in.
And what then? Usually a lot of laughter, great sex, and maybe a little crying…but all in all we are pretty satisfied until one day something goes horribly wrong. It could be a disagreement about money, dinner, kids, religion, or who gets to hold the remote control. The topic doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you feel the inherent understanding slipping away, and you may begin to wonder if you imagined it in the first place. A fight ensues, and with it the true onslaught of the power struggles that are likely to dominate your relationship forever.
It seems inevitable. It sounds hopeless. Why even try?
There must be a way out of this disappointing cycle, but it is an art form that takes true dedication to master. It is common knowledge that relationships “take work”, but this is a misrepresentation of the process. Relationships take skill, intuition, and creativity. If we want to bring about a change in the steadily increasing divorce rate and its parallel amongst those in committed relationships which never result in marriage and (more importantly) happiness and transformation in our own lives, we must be prepared to do whatever is necessary to nurture and develop our relationships. We must risk appearing crazy to the rest of our society and be prepared to face the consequences of that decision. The first and most important step, therefore, is to deal squarely with ourselves.
Who are you and what do you want, really? There is no wrong answer to this question. How much of yourself are you willing to give to this art? The answer to that is the depth to which your relationships can go. Are you willing to stand alone beside the person (or people) of your choosing, accepting that the rest of the world may not understand–cannot understand– the thing that you are creating? Is it enough for you to look on the beauty of your creation and know that it is what you wanted to make?
Once the answers are found, we have a place from which we can build. Have you ever tried to create a painting or write a novel or even a short article with another? There will be conflict of creative vision. With a tangible product, we strive to discuss the different approaches and their possible results. We may try blending together parts of our technique to come up with something new. In relationships, we must move with an even greater grace and delicacy, relying on our intuition and creativity in ways we may never have encountered before, as we cannot physically see the results of our creation.
Most relationships in this day and age break down due to the detrimental effects of power struggles and manipulation. These power games, like relationships themselves, are an art form, and some people play them better than others. After a point, the emotional attachment is not enough to cancel out the imbalance in the relationship. We play these games simply because we want what we want, and we are afraid that asking directly will not get us there. After a point, we may even lose sight of what it is that we really want, in the effort to win the game. But in trouncing our opponent, we lose what it was that we desired most in the beginning, and the lack of trust created begins slowly smearing the canvas just as surely as if we had thrown a caustic chemical on our masterpiece.
The process of learning to create a relationship with another requires that we learn how to balance the tables. One of you will be better at getting what you want. If you are in a committed relationship now, be honest. You know which one of you it is. While we all have an obligation to try to keep ourselves in check when it comes to random, manipulative swipes…we also have an obligation to keep our partner in the game. When solutions are posed, they must be balanced on an emotional level. Never, ever agree to anything that leaves you feeling bitter. Better to fight it out over weeks or even months or years than to agree to a compromise that seeds the beginnings of distrust and resentment. Sometimes, balanced agreements do not look balanced on the surface…but they feel balanced to the people involved. That feeling is what matters. Action is not always 50-50, but the emotions involved must be.
Ultimately, we must not be afraid to give all of ourselves to our relationships if they are to survive. It is out of fashion, now, to hold love above all things. There are myriad labels applied to those who love “too” deeply, a lack of acceptance for the time and skill love requires. But we continue to be drawn to it, whether actively seeking or craftily backstabbed when we weren’t looking. At the end of the day, we are faced with the question, “Why love at all, if not with every ounce of our being?” Answer me that, and I will tell you how to make love stay.