That last post must have hit a nerve. I’ve never had so many people respond – messages, calls, emails, from a whole range of people who found some relevance to their own lives. Of course that’s the reason why I bother writing things like this at all, trying to reach out beyond my own confines, maybe prompt some internal debate or find some answers in all this confusion. I really didn’t want to just spew an emo rant onto the net. I wanted to look at the issue more broadly, via my own situation. I finished that piece at 3 a.m. and hovered over the Publish button for a long while, not sure whether I’d succeeded or not. But eventually I clicked, and apparently it worked. Thank-you for letting me know.
I’ve written a lot about relationships in the year I’ve been writing this page. I guess because the issue as a general thing perplexes and fascinates me. My own relationships are just a little subset of that – another set of data to be observed, if I can get clinical. For most of my adult life, even while I’ve been in them, there’s something about relationships I don’t quite trust. And it’s only become more pronounced as I’ve got older. It’s somewhat related to a conversation Andy Choc and I were having recently about the Unnamed Computer Company That Is Also a Type of Fruit. Yes, we concluded, they make remarkable products. Impeccable design, aesthetically beautiful and functional creations, innovative developments. But there’s just something about them that makes us uneasy. Because? Because…it’s hard to define, but there’s just something cultish about them. Their words are too soft and persuasive. Their adherents too convinced. Their appearance too perfect. Their products sufficiently incompatible and difficult to modify so that once you’re in, it’s really hard to get out. There’s no halfway. And the company itself is like a nice blonde shiny smiley family, waiting on the porch of a lovely well-lit house, the father’s arm around the son’s shoulders, saying “Why don’t you come on in? We can sit down to some dinner and have a nice talk. Come on in. Join us. Join us.” And it seems so pleasant, but some part of you, the part where Steven King short stories come from, is prickling up the hairs on the back of your neck and hissing harshly in your ear, “Fucking run. You run right now.”
This is how relationships make me feel. And it’s not a recent backlash, it’s a feeling that has bothered me intensely during most of the half-dozen proper relationships and the handful of sort-of semi-relationships that I’ve had in my life. So much of the time I actually felt like I was playing the role of a boyfriend, doing and saying things that a traditional incarnation of a boyfriend might do, not things that I was naturally inclined to do. The same way that when I worked at the Tower of Evil many years ago, Croupier Geoff would say “I’m sorry sir, unfortunately those bets were too late,” where Real Geoff would probably have said “Why don’t you back off, you animal! Calm down! It’s not a freaking pig trough. Take your money and go home, you deadshit. I’ve got you on the computer here – you’ve already lost four grand.”
And from what I’ve seen, I’m far from the only one. The following thoughts are also generalisations, because I know some couples who are particularly awesome together, and fully functional, and bely all the observations I’m about to make. But they’re also a substantial minority.
Basically relationships seem to stop people being themselves. You take one person, and one person, and you squish them together, and you end up with…maybe one and a half people. The component parts are somehow reduced. They turn inwards, and wrap around each other, and make this conglomerate being that dims down the strength of both their personalities. Emotional bromide. Everyone’s happy in the shiny cult families because they’re doped up on some sort of narcotic tea and stories of the world to come. Everyone’s happy with their iShite because it emits an ultra-high frequency that bleaches their teeth and makes them unusually enamoured of brushed aluminium. Everyone stays in their relationships because the relationship itself lobotomises the participants.
Consider it. There’s a long history of people getting narky and jealous when their good friends get partnered up. For good reason. While the relationship lasts, you’re going to see your friend for maybe 20 percent of the time that you used to. And during that 20 percent, your friend is perhaps only 50 percent themselves. There’s a well-known phenomenon among guys called Girlfriend Voice. We all know it, I’m sure. You’re sitting there with your friend, perhaps drinking a beer or something similarly man-friendlike, and his phone rings. You know, without the faintest shadow of a doubt, when it’s his girlfriend, purely by the way he says the greeting of his choice. Hello. Hey. What’s up. Because his voice changes entirely from his normal mode of communication. He lapses into Girlfriend Voice, reserved purely for girlfriends on the phone. There’s a kind of wishy-washy sweetness to it. Not of a guy being affectionate, which is fine, but a guy trying to sound like he’s being affectionate. A guy trying to win favour. It’s somehow incredibly cringeworthy. And when you know someone very well, you know – this character isn’t them.
Not that it’s only prompted by girlfriends. Most of what I’ve seen is from the male perspective, but it cuts both ways. Say you have a social engagement that wraps up at an evening hour, leaving you with a couple. You say ‘Want to go drinking?’ They will then embark on a weird little one-two routine. He’ll say, “Um, I don’t know. [Glance at her.] What do you think?” Then she’ll look thoughtful and say, “Oh, I don’t really mind. Do you want to? You have to work tomorrow, I guess.” And then he’ll say, “Yeah, you have something on in the afternoon, don’t you?”, and she’ll say “Yep, I have to go to the Whatsit Centre for the Thingamy.” And then one or other will say, “Yeah, I’m pretty tired. We should probably head home.” And you will laugh inwardly because you knew exactly how it would play out, and you will go and drink bourbon with a hobo at the tram stop instead, and he will make better company, cos a hobo ain’t in it for no bastard but hisself.
But here’s the thing. Had either of that couple been alone, your question about going drinking would have answered with ‘Hell yeah.’ What has happened is a weird game of second-guessing and passive self-sacrifice in their heads. I know because I’ve played it. You say, ‘Let’s go drinking.’ And each of them, because relationships are an essentially self-deprecatory process where you prioritise someone else’s happiness, thinks, “I bet [the other one] doesn’t want to go.” Even if they themselves would like to. So he asks if she wants to, being sure she doesn’t, and giving her an out. And then she takes that as him signalling that he doesn’t want to, so she tries to give him an out by offering up some sort of reason why he might not go. And then he takes that as a signal that she definitely doesn’t want to, because she’s giving reasons against it, so he also offers her a reason why she shouldn’t, in order to demonstrate that he’s considerate and pays attention to the goings-on in her life, and is making sure she doesn’t look like she’s just being boring, cos, you know, she has valid reason. And she takes that as his definitely not wanting to go, and looking for a good excuse, and backs him up on it. And then they cap it off with the cherry-on-top bit, entirely for your benefit, to provide extra justification.
It even happens when both parties aren’t present. You go out with a friend who’s coupled, and you can be tearing it up and having a great time, but you’ll notice them starting to look anxiously at their watch as the night goes on, starting to fire off discreet text messages on the way back from the bathroom. This idea that the other half will expect them home before it gets too late, that they wouldn’t want to leave said person waiting. Not because they particularly need or want to spend time together that day, but because one might feel bad if the other one was off having fun. This is the thing that really creeps me out – the idea that if you’re a couple, it’s a bit gauche for either of you to actually have much in the way of a real life independently of that coupledom. I was always delighted when my girlfriends went off on their own. I had shit to do. But generally, instead of both of you going off and doing things that you really want to do individually, you settle on this dull compromise of doing something that neither of you especially wants, but doing it together. Don’t go off and have a blazing weekend with your respective sets of friends, stay home and watch a shitty movie, sitting on the couch while the rolling credits leave you both trying to ignore that creeping emptiness.
Then even when they do socialise, so many couples are just dead freaking boring. Each tempers their behaviour because of the presence of the other. Again, it’s easy to spot in people you knew well before they were hooked up. Their conversation gets toned down, their voices change, their mode of behaviour. I’ve had moments looking at good friends of mine standing with their girlfriends and thinking ‘Who are you? What the hell have you done with that guy who looks very similar?’ Not to say that people don’t put on personas with their friends – friendship groups certainly encourage bravura and over-the-top behaviour that doesn’t happen in every other setting. But when you’ve known someone a few years you can pick the difference. You can see them being buttoned-down, careful. And once you recognise that type of behaviour, you can see it even in people you’ve just met. Since a lot of couples barely know each other when they start dating, for the first few months they’re on their best behaviour. And even as the thing goes on, they’re still worrying about how they might appear to the other half, and therefore playing it safe. They can’t relax. It’s like being on anti-depressants – take out the highs and lows, and let everything settle into a dull linear stasis, a value-free Cartesian plane.
In my life to date, I’ve only had one (1) relationship in which I genuinely felt like I could be myself at all times. It was the longest, unsurprisingly, the girl I ended up moving to Malaysia with. In the early months I wasn’t trying to impress her, so I acted entirely like who I am. She decided she liked that guy. And, while still being lots of fun to be around, she was just so damn sensible. She would come out with me to things if she thought she was going to enjoy herself, which meant she generally enjoyed herself, and I could enjoy hanging out with her. She spent time with the friends of mine she liked, and didn’t bother with the ones she was indifferent to. She also had friends whose company I didn’t relish, and she had no problem at all if I wanted to avoid them. If I wanted to go off and do something that didn’t interest her, that was fine too. ‘Come by after if you want,’ she’d say. ‘Um…that’s going to be like 5 in the morning,’ I’d answer. ‘That’s fine. Just buzz,’ she’d say blithely. If I did, she’d pad down in a dressing gown to let me in, smiling. If I didn’t, there were no recriminations. In hindsight it was extraordinary, but since it was my first proper relationship, I didn’t really appreciate that at the time.
And yet, it shouldn’t be extraordinary. It should be standard. The person you’re with is supposed to love you, not the hand-sanitised, I’m-about-to-meet-your-mother version of you. Otherwise you might as well just date the mum instead. The person you’re with should be encouraging you to be yourself more than anyone else in your life. They should join you doing things that they also want to do, and let you go off alone to do the things they don’t. And because this seems so basic, I’m still staggered by just how rare it apparently is. Because instead of doing this, they seem to say ‘I like this person. I like about seventy percent. Now let’s just see about changing the thirty…” And that’s not how it’s supposed to work. You’re supposed to decide whether you like the seventy enough to make you happy to accept the thirty as it is. If not, keep on moving.
And it’s not like everyone is zombied out and oblivious to this stuff. They feel the constraint, a lot of them. They feel unappreciated. They feel somehow unworthy, because their other half keeps trying to nudge them into being different. They’re quite aware of it, and they hate it. That’s where all those little relationship tensions creep in, the squabbling over petty crap that is so awkward for bystanders, the persistent and seemingly without genesis sense of frustration and annoyance, the bitchiness and unprovoked snapping. I’m sure this is it – people’s frustration with not quite being able to be themselves, have their own space and time and thought processes.
Others, meanwhile, are in complete denial, and soothe themselves with trite sayings like ‘Love is all about compromise’. Well yes, it requires some give and take in both directions, but that’s not the same as settling on mediocrity at all times. But whether we’re aware of the issue or not, we’ve all still been conditioned to believe that relationships are the end goal of our lives, that we’ll only be happy while in one, that we’d better hurry up and lock it in because if not we’ll die alone. And it’s better to labour through several decades of compromise and frustration than do that, apparently. The joke being that bar the odd Polish presidential couple in a simultaneous curtain-call, half of any really long-term couple is going to survive the other anyway. But that gets ignored.
So those in unhappy couples hang on desperately, too afraid to leave for fear that no-one else will want them. Those out of couples go around feeling sick and lonely and inadequate and hideous and afraid. Those who claim to be happy alone are looked at pityingly by those around them, who all smile and say ‘Of course you are’, while thinking of a river in Egypt. And the recently bereft generally try to soothe the rawness of failure and salve their fears by diving straight into the next thing that presents itself, like trying to kill their throat cancer with cigarettes. They never give themselves the chance to realise that maybe, once the initial fear and hurt has subsided, they might actually stand a chance of a happiness that wasn’t entirely dependent on someone else’s mood.
The best correspondence I’ve had about relationships, following some prior posts on this page, was with a chap called Bronco, in a reflection which is both hilarious and incredibly on-point. I’ll close with him.
I was thinking before that life is kind of like holding a stack of playing cards. Each card is something in your life – a person, a job, a task, a car, a memory. During each day these cards get moved around, depending on what you’re doing, and you can see several, or just one. Staring at one card can just hurt, whether it’s employment boredom, relationship stank, or the fact you drive a 1990 Mitsubishi Magna that has the unmistakable stench of beer soaked carpetry. But other times you can see several cards at once – an upcoming holiday, a pleasant response from an attractive girl, or the hilarious absurdity of the work/ex-girlfriend/Magna situation. In low moments I know the other good cards are in the deck, probably cards that others would kill to have, but right then they just don’t matter, cos I’m lost in that memory of some heated moment with a girl who instructed me never to contact her again.
Having that relationship for 8 months last year allows me to nicely partition my time for analysis. First there was 8 months as a student engineer, which was mullet-wig partying and ski trip foolery. Then there was a year or so of being full time, when I devoted most of my energies into song writing and playing music. This was a time I’m blessed to have had, but empty moments were encountered on a weekly basis. Then I dated the lovely young lady. Everyone, including myself, expected that I would have been saturated in joy, joyness and the joyity of love, lust and companionship. And I was at times. But at others I was consumed by this dissatisfaction, this vague annoyance with everything she did. And again it was like the cards, but they were all about her, and i was stuck staring at one, a pointless fleeting action or lack thereof. And it hurt to make eye contact, cos I didn’t want to let her see this. Cos I knew it was stupid, petty and unfair of me to feel like this based on a thought so flimsy as “Why didn’t she smile at me before she got out of bed?” So when it finished unexpectedly in a drunken argument on the snowy streets, I had plenty of minor annoyances to initially be pleased to be away from. But regardless there was love that needed to dissipate, like a meaty carcass rotting in the lukewarm sun, and as the songs go, it took time.
8 months later and there are still remnants, splotches of decayed meat on my driveway (analogy! I did not kill her), though they hardly cause me to slip anymore as I walk over them. They’re more a point to ponder. And they dissipate as quickly as a fart at a picnic.