Sunday, September 24, 2006

Relationship alchemy

It is a cold and cloudless morning and I have been up for a while. I have Pastor this weekend and had to get up to let him out, fix his breakfast and take care of him. I will have him until Tuesday and at times it is a bit annoying to have to deal with someone else's needs since the only ones in this apartment who rely on me, other than me, are the plants, all three of which are still alive and thriving. The plants don't need much: a little sunshine, a little water, pruning the dead leaves, sometimes a lot of dead leaves in the case of the African violet. But it was nearly dead when the landlady gave it to me and now has only four leaves but they are strong and healthy and growing.

Plants aren't dogs and don't put their cold wet noses in your face when you're asleep and they need to go out. Plants need to be fed and watered, but not twice a day. I'm a little better with plants. So are a lot of people.

In our relationships with other people we mostly strive for fairness and equality -- mostly. What we don't realize is that even when we are being generous and giving someone attention there are subtle strings attached. The strings are expectations.

People say they don't have expectations, but they do and it's usually a quid pro quo situation. I give you this so that you will give me that. This and that, of course, are defined differently by each individual. Sometimes it's love and sometimes it's things, but always it's the expectation of time. I make time for you so you should make time for me. Didn't I cook you breakfast, buy you that great gift for [fill in the holiday or occasion], pick up your dry cleaning, clothes or medicine, pay the bills, etc.? It is as if we expect life to be a scientific equation: every action is characterized by an equal and opposite reaction. People aren't scientific and they're not experiments ... or at least they shouldn't be.

In some ways, our actions do have opposite reactions, but they are not always equal. What's more, we don't always realize what caused the reaction in the first place.

Figuring out reactions with plants and animals is easy. You forget to water a plant and it withers and dies. Forget to take out the dog and he will relieve himself on the carpets or in your favorite shoes. People are a little more complex. If you don't water them and give them access to facilities they can respond like plants and dogs, but more often than not they will respond in more complex ways, or they will get what they need for themselves away from home.

Let's say you are a generous person and money is no object. You will give up treats for yourself to save for a special gift for someone you love. In the abstract that is a sweet and selfless thing to do. In reality the gift is a trap; it has strings, lots of strings. The one who has sacrificed, beg, borrowed and stolen to give the object of their affections a gift wants to be repaid with time or attention. What if the other person doesn't have the time or freedom to give the desired attention? The giver is disappointed and either throws a fit or puts on a brave face and waits, hoping that the next gift will change the other person's mind, show them what they are missing. Like I said, it's a trap with lots of sticky strings.

In essence, what the giver has done is make the other person feel diminished, unneeded and resentful. How can they possibly return the gesture or even come close? The result is that the other person will distance themselves from the giver. After all, what can they contribute to the relationship that the giver cannot get for themselves?

The giver only sees that what they wanted -- more time with the other person -- they're not getting. They feel cheated and abused and taken for a ride without ever realizing they are the ones who have been doing the driving.

Even in an emotionally and verbally abusive relationship there are compensations. The abuser, for all his/her faults, is smart. They take away self esteem and autonomy but they make sure the abused feels needed. It may only be for keeping the house clean and making sure meals are on the table on time or paying the bills and providing an income, but they are needed. It's not a healthy relationship by any means, but it is a symbiotic relationship -- or parasitic relationship if you prefer. At least the symbiont/parasite realizes that if they kill the host there will be no place to live and no nourishment and they will die, or at least have to find a way to support and keep themselves. That's not what a symbiont/parasite wants. After all, why work to live when you can live and enjoy yourself at someone else's expense. The host realizes there is a problem and may even feel some pain or discomfort, but at least they are alive.

People need to feel needed, especially in relationships. You have to give the parasite and the damsel in distress credit. They know what they want and they know how to get it by making the host or the rescuer feel like they are contributing something.

Look around you. I'm sure you know someone whose relationship leaves a lot to be desired and someone is getting the short end of the stick. Whether it is a husband who pays for his wife's financial excesses month after month, a wife who takes care of her husband's needs and cleans up after his messes because he cannot be trusted to do it for himself, or a guy who keeps buying wonderful and thoughtful gifts for a girlfriend who cannot afford to reciprocate in kind, there is a payoff. The spend thrift wife probably keeps the home fires burning even though she cuts her husband to shreds with her vicious tongue and possessive ways, but without her husband working and paying the bills she wouldn't be able to live a comfortable life and would be thrown into the working world to fend for herself -- and their children. The thoughtless husband may not remember to pick up his medication or take his vitamins in the morning, but he takes out the trash, fixes what needs fixing and he works hard to contribute to keeping the home fires burning. The girlfriend provides love and time -- when she has time -- and a stability to the boyfriend's life that gives him a sense of belonging and home.

No relationship is perfect as long as there are two people involved. The best way to keep the gears running is to oil them with communication. Even if it means taking stock and realizing there is no reason to continue the relationship because the imbalance is too great, it's time to talk. Alchemy, like a relationship, works best when all the needed ingredients are identifiable and available. When one combination doesn't work, reassess what you have, what works and what doesn't and find out what it is you -- and the other person -- really need.

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