It wasn’t just the challenge of dealing with the cultural and experiential differences between Carmen and me, nor even the strangeness of getting to know another person. It was the mundane of how to load a fridge.
Discovering what another person is like is not just about the big and the exciting, but also the small and the trivial. Not everything about the other will be appealing, and this mature people understand and expect. Still, it takes a bit of getting used to, and accepting. The measure of a good and potentially long lasting relationship is whether the good outweighs the bad – and by a substantial margin – and whether the irritants and annoyances can be tolerated, even smiled upon. But this has to be learned first.
Measuring a loving relationship is not an accounting exercise. It is not about a healthy balance sheet wherein assets exceed liabilities, nor an income statement with revenues greater than expenses. Relationships are full of intangibles and very hard to measure. And one small thing can seemingly outweigh a lot of positives, disproportionately.
In the first blush of a new relationship, when the attraction is strong, only the things that appeal are noticed, and we assume everything else about the other is wonderful. Psychologists call this ‘halo effect’. The angel is on a pedestal, she is beautiful, she is kind, she is generous, she is hot. Everything about her is wonderful. Even the curious way she screws up her face is cute. But many a normal woman finds the perch on the pedestal a hard place to stand, the halo begins to strangle her. She wants free of expectations and standards she knows are not sustainable, nor even true. She wants to be treated like a princess, but not all the time. Sometimes she just wants to be a woman.
And it never occurs to you that she may have similar perceptual bias of you. Her hero, her saviour, her warrior, her prince – attributes you may instinctively know you can’t live up to. She also wants you to be at ease, comfortable, natural. Real.
When you’re married to the same person for many years, these things have been figured out long ago, and the relationship is sustained through tolerance, or more constructively, through ‘generosity of spirit’, as John Gottmanwould call it. Even as the relationship changes with life events, the successful couple learns to adapt and change with the changes.
The two each assumes certain roles and have sorted out the conflicts and power relationships. For the most part, one of them has to be the banker, one minds the children, one does the laundry, one takes out the garbage every week. The conflict comes when one of the parties doesn’t accept the role he/she has been ‘assigned’, or both are competing for the same role. These roles are not determined by gender so much as personality. One of them plans, one of them reacts. One initiates, the other responds; sometimes the roles are reversed. One is organized and neat, one is spontaneous and drops clothes on the floor. One may find the other’s personal style irritating at times. If one of the parties is outgoing and social, stimulated by engaging with others, while the other is reticent and reluctant, compromises need to be found. If one is very much in the moment and the other is somewhere along a spectrum of past and future, tolerance is necessary. If one is a rational logical decision-maker and the other concerned about how others might think or feel, understanding is critical. If one likes a neat and consistently organized fridge, or utility drawer, the other might not care; but conflict arises when no one knows where the scissors have got to.
I have long thought a relationship is likely easier to make work if the two are compatible on most of these personality indicators – it takes less energy, there is more intuitive understanding, and conflict is limited. Opposites may attract but similarities sustain.
But will it be boring?
Compatible personality may be important to a successful relationship, but there is surely more.
A solid relationship depends on the couple being highly compatible on three things, in my view: mutuality in affection, shared values, and similar intellect. (Highly compatible doesn’t mean equally high, just mutually similar; for example, a couple with similarly low needs for expressed affection is more likely to thrive than a couple wherein one has a high need but the other low.)
It took fifty years for Marlene and me to sort out our little idiosyncrasies: she didn’t particularly care how I organized the fridge, or the kitchen cupboards, she just adapted. I used to resent her rush to answer the telephone, but after a while (20 years?) I just let it go.
And then she died. Was I going to be able to build a new life with another woman? When I met Carmen I had been on my own for only a year, grieving; Carmen had been single for almost 20 years. Which of us had the more adjusting to do? This was going to take more than a few weeks, or even months.
The Doug/Carmen experiment had a lot of the things to sort out if this relationship was going to work out. Starting with the fridge.
“By observing these types of interactions, Gottman can predict with up to 94 percent certainty whether couples—straight or gay, rich or poor, childless or not—will be broken up, together and unhappy, or together and happy several years later. Much of it comes down to the spirit couples bring to the relationship. Do they bring kindness and generosity; or contempt, criticism, and hostility?”The Atlantic, Masters of Love, emily esfahani smithJune 12, 2014