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Dejected, Despondent, Desperate... Depressing!

You have those days right. Those days when no matter how much you've talked about it you don't feel your spouse is getting you or making the effort. It's been a theme in my life lately. Not just with me, but in discussions with friends.

I have a friend... no really, a friend, it's not some "hey it's really me but let's say it's a friend" like that time you wanted to find out what the symptoms of herpes were. This friend is at their whits end with their spouse. It's no longer a loving caring mutually agreeable relationship. It's a relationship of needs and escapes. Both of them have needs that aren't being met and both of them have escapes. They have no common language to communicate needs and come to a compromise. Maybe it's because they both feel they've already compromised or maybe it's because one has a sense of entitlement or maybe it's because one undervalues the contribution of the other. Those are all common themes in a relationship.

Often times both spouses feel that they're the ones putting the most effort into the relationship, at the same time they think the other is purposefully putting in less effort. Worse still is how hard it is to communicate these issues without running into the blame game or falling afoul of age old excuses. "You knew who I was when you married me", "I'm under a lot of pressure", "I'm tired", "What about what you're (not) doing", "I don't have time", "the kids...", "work...", etc.,.

The real problem isn't any of that. The real problem is in your definition of what it means to love and to be loved. Is your definition of love holding hands, gentle caresses, passionate kisses, flowers, and romance? Is your definition of love stability, continuity, effort, action? Is your definition bringing home the bacon, keeping the house clean, taking care of the kids, doing laundry?

What you define as love might not match your spouses definition. In fact I'm willing to bet that no two people's definitions match exactly. There might be some common themes, like above, but not an exact match. I heard a quote last night in the context of the human genome project. Paraphrasing: "If you don't care about the punctuation or the details you can read anyone's translation of the book and get the gist of the story. But if the details and punctuation are important, that .01%, can make all the difference." I think the same is true of love. You can make an assumption about how someone wants to be loved based off of other experiences and some common knowledge, but it's that .01% that's specific to that person that is the most important thing in the world.

Punctuation is important.

It means the difference between a friend and a zombie.

  • Let's eat, Tom!
  • Let's eat Tom!

It means the difference between a happy marriage and an unhappy one.

  • Extra marital sex
  • Extra-marital sex

So where I need some love letters and pictures from the one I love, they need consistency and a clean house. I need some space of my own and they need more constant companionship. You need encouragement and complements, he needs physical intimacy. She needs a stable provider and he needs whimsy.

Real love is the ability to bridge that gap between my world and yours, his ideas and hers, and find a compromise that doesn't compromise. What I mean is that most compromise is really just losing. One person agrees to forgo their own happiness in some small way to allow for he happiness of someone else. That's great in theory, but they lose out little by little on the things that are important to their happiness. Sometimes those compromises are just not viable long term, like a vegan and a carnivore trying to compromise on dinner. Once or twice they might find some common ground, but long term it's always going to be a struggle.

So the question comes up as to how you ask for what you want and be willing to give someone else what they want, without losing anything in the trade. There are of course some fundamental problems in the negotiations, mainly in exchange rate. I mean a dinner isn't equal to sex and a good gutter cleaning isn't equal to a foot massage. So how do you determine the exchange rate, especially if there are some things, like physical intimacy that are absolutely off the table as any form of currency. The other question is, why does the exchange rate matter?

It matters because people are obsessed with fairness. We have built in survival mechanisms designed to ensure that we get the right amount of food and shelter. When someone else is getting more and we are getting less, those mechanisms start throwing red flags everywhere. These mechanisms extend into our relationships and into love as well. There are all of those physical outward signs of love, the things we get, the words that are said, the gifts given. When our side of the love pile doesn't look anything like what the other person's pile looks like the survival instinct kicks in.

"Hey I gave you two massages, three I love you's, and a nice piece of chocolate and all I got was clean dishes!"

Over time maybe the exchange balances out as one person gives more or less at different times. But being on different schedules and using a different currency for too long leaves both parties bankrupt. Each might think that they've done their part and have absolute irrefutable proof and yet both are completely and entirely wrong. Eventually one or the other, or both, are dejected, despondent and desperate for change. Sometimes this leads to filling in gaps using a surrogate.

Surrogates come in all forms, alcohol, video games, sports, a car, a friend, a lover. There not all entirely bad. Sometimes the surrogate can act as a buffer filling in as needed, refreshing the person and allowing them to go back to the relationship able to give what they need to give. Unfortunately a surrogate can just as easily distract or displace the person from their relationship. When the fundamental issues in a relationship causing the need for a surrogate can't be resolved then how can one ensure that the surrogate doesn't become a burden to the original relationship.

You see it all the time, a loved one angry about the other spending too much time playing World of Warcraft, or hanging out with their buddies, or too much time shopping with a friend, or talking too much about that co-worker. Then resentment sets in on both sides. The "why can't he/she be happy for me" and the "if they'd only X I wouldn't have to Y."

So the question comes as to how to balance the equation. How do you get what you need, one way or the other, and still maintain a healthy and honest relationship that's not detrimental to either of the participants. For instance, if she says he wants love letters and he isn't willing to write them, what then. If he wants her to dress sexy and she doesn't like to, what then. Is it like someone who's lactose intolerant but loves cheese - they have to give up the cheese or keep the cheese and someone has to live with some pain in their life? Or is there a cheese substitute that's just as good?

Of course I don't have any of the answers. I'm in the middle of the conundrum trying to work it out. Trying to understand what I tell my friend, but also seeing the parallels in my own life. Oh I know I said this wasn't really about me, it was about my friend. But isn't that how compassion works. You put yourself in the position of someone-else and try to see it from their view. The more you can see yourself in their position the more compassionate you are. That compassion can lead to highlighting your own struggles as well as hopefully finding a solution.

I wish I knew an answer. I don't. All we can do is keep chipping away at the problem, talking it through, analyzing it and re-analyzing it until one day maybe thousands of years in the future John Gray's great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandson will write Men are From Sol and Women are from Alpha Centauri and the government will enforce everyone to read it, understand it, and act on it. Until then we have lousy advice columns, books that get refuted, blogs that don't get read, marriage counselors, divorce lawyers, and misters and mistresses.

Here's to love! Salut!