How do you know what you're getting into with another person? How can you tell what you really need? Novelist and therapist Amy Bloom offers an intensive session in cultivating insight and understanding.
It's a good and bad thing to be considered an expert in love. I don't think there's any point in pretending that you get to be an expert by meeting your soul mate early on, going through a few meaningful ups and downs, marrying in a cloud of good taste or even in a meteor shower of funk and crunk, and then dying, 50 or 60 years later, having had a faithful and fulfilling love life. We don't call those people experts. We call them lucky.
People like me, who write about lust and love in fiction and nonfiction, who have clearly made several important and completely necessary detours in their private life, people who have more than one wedding ring in their jewelry box, these people we call experts.
Here's the heart and the head of it: Know yourself, know the other, and face the truth about yourselves.
What "Know Yourself" Means
Here's what I noticed after 25 years of being a psychotherapist and 55 years of being a person: There is just about no point in complaining about another person. Not because other people aren't annoying. (My God, there are people who've been put on this earth just to make me roll my eyes and mutter disapprovingly. In my family, as a matter of fact, "other people" is the standard explanation for almost all misfortune.) But because—especially in intimate relationships—the complaint about Him or Her will, unfortunately and inevitably, wind its way around to You.
He's often late, which is inconsiderate = I fear not being sufficiently appreciated. Thanks, Dad.
He thinks about his needs first, and mine second = If you express your needs, no one will love you. Thanks, Mom.
Your partner's faults are real (I'm on your side here) and various and even grievous, but those are their faults and, frankly, we're here to talk about you...and me.
I went to see my former therapist, for a tune-up, shortly after I remarried. I wanted, on the one hand, to tell him how blissfully happy I was, because I knew that he'd be happy for me, and because I was in that stage of love where I would have paid people to listen to me talk about my wonderful husband. (I had already exhausted my friends, my family, my cleaning lady, and the mailman, who was nice enough to say, regularly, "Sounds like a great guy.") On the other hand, I wanted to complain. My husband was wonderful—but not perfect. This was very upsetting.
Dr. Shrink: So let me make sure I understand—on two occasions, in the course of the last year, he had too much to drink and at least once a week he comes home from work later than he said he would, and although he usually calls about being late, he doesn't always, and sometimes you have to poke him to get him to acknowledge that you've been kept waiting.
Amy: Yes. (The implication of my "yes" is: Feel free to sympathize; also, anytime you'd like to discuss his imperfections and their likely source, go right ahead.)
Dr. Shrink: I want to make sure I understand—
Amy: Yes. (Meaning: Let's get started—he's selfish, possibly unreliable, and impulsive...)
Dr. Shrink: You came to see an expensive psychoanalyst to tell me that the man you married has faults of which you've been aware since you've known him? This is why you're here?
(So not what I was hoping for.)
We then spend some time on how terrifying I find it to love someone so much and how difficult I find the possibility and the likelihood of disappointment. We do get somewhere, and when Dr. Shrink stops, my best friend takes over. She says to me basically: No one's perfect. It's time you stopped being surprised by this. The question is, Do you take this bundle of faults over some other bundle of faults?
But it's not enough for me to choose this bundle of faults; if I want a love that lasts, I better know why this bundle suits me so well. At first, one loves the faults because they are part of the whole adorable love package. She is a sweet and tenderhearted creature, and her inability to ask for a raise, hail a cab, or defend herself from her unpleasant mother are all part of her sweetness. Of course, someday when you're standing in the rain with your armful of packages and ask her to flag that cab across the street and she says, winsomely, "Oh, darling, I just couldn't—it's so...aggressive"—it will be less adorable. He is determined and unswerving, which is great; he is also hardheaded and heedless. As much as you like the former, you better be comfortable with the latter as well. Understanding why is worthwhile, and usually involves a quick review of parents. Whether or not they had a wonderful marriage you hope to emulate or a disaster you hope to avoid, it's helpful to know which parent you identified with and which parent's part you want to play. (Don't even bother trying to escape both of them entirely; to do that, you'd have to be born into another species.) I think the biggest mistake I've seen in clients and friends and myself is acting on half an understanding: "I don't want to marry my selfish father; look how unhappy he made my sweet mother," sounds like a reasonable, even psychologically astute position, and an awful lot of people (including me) marry their nice mothers (or their nice fathers; bullies come in both genders) and think they've protected themselves. All I can say is: Not so fast, Shorty.
Consider: Marrying your sweet parent may mean that you end up playing the bully's role (someone's got to handle the rough stuff). Alternatively, marrying your dear and gentle dad may mean that you get someone with not just Dad's gentleness but his passivity, avoidance of conflict, and fear of public disapproval as well. The man who comforts you quietly after a battle with your mother is a good father—do you have any idea what he was like as a husband? And another thing you ought to wonder about—why didn't your nice parent get what they wanted from the marriage? I was always saddened by the lack of intimacy in my parents' marriage, which was a burden for my mother and none at all for my father, until I suddenly thought: Why did she marry him? My mother was good enough, and honest enough, to tell me: I married him because he was tough and ambitious, so I wouldn't have to be. I married him because he was more interesting than the dentists and accountants who asked me. And although I love getting flowers and hearing sweet nothings, and there have been damn few of those, I'm not like you, honey, I don't want intimacy—I just want companionship and romantic gestures. As my mother said to me on another occasion: I like the roses, but not if I have to put up with the thorns. Everyone should be so honest with themselves, and her honesty made me aware that I would accept an awful lot of thorns to be with someone who craves intimacy the way I do. (And I got that someone, which is why I now have a very close and often tumultuous marriage, with a degree of attachment that people find either very sweet or very peculiar.)
So know yourself and know your family. For me that means knowing that, as much as I appreciated my mother's sweetness and practical ways, I need a slightly reckless lion more than I need a sensible lamb in my life. (In the dictionary, right next to a number of hard-charging mammals—including the weasel, famous for attacking animals larger than itself for no reason—you will see my husband's picture.) So, finally, I married a lion, and although I never pictured myself being the person hanging on to the "oh shit" bar on the passenger side, saying, "For God's sake, honey, slow down!" I do prefer that to being the person who says, regularly, "It's okay, honey, if you're scared, we can turn around."
What "Knowing the Other Person" Means
When you look at another person's behavior (and please, do look at what he does, not just how he explains what he does. A man with a good and different explanation for each of the five times he's stood you up is a really good...explainer. Did you want to marry a world-class explainer?), the question will arise: Is it character or circumstance? Did he do what he did because of who he is, at his core, or was he pushed to that behavior by circumstance? Guess what? Pretty much, after 18, it's character, every time. It's true that under extraordinary circumstances—baby trapped under car, grandmother stuck in burning building—you might see some hitherto unsuspected heroism emerge in someone you thought had not a drop, and even so, what you learn from that is: He had a drop of heroism in him, after all. But it is also true that even a man pushed to robbing a bakery for bread for his starving child will show who he is by how he conducts himself during the robbery.
It's not true, despite what the advice columnists often write, that a man who leaves his wife for you will eventually leave you. It is true that a man who leaves his wife for you is capable of leaving you, and you would be smart to look at how he conducted himself during his divorce because no matter how crazy, bitter, unreasonable his ex was or is, his behavior reveals his character. You cannot behave cruelly without having some cruelty in your nature (and most of us do). An angry man who honors his obligations gracefully, a man who shows up on time to see his kids, even when their mother behaves badly—that man is a good bet.
I've also discovered that the Virtuous have their downside. A man who cannot face his own flaws or acknowledge the ugliness (not horrors—just normal human flaws: envy, jealousy, pettiness) in his nature, a man who will patiently explain, for days on end, that you should not be hurt by his behavior because he's a good guy who didn't mean to hurt you—may actually prove to be worse company, in the long run, than a guy who behaves badly from time to time and admits it. (Or at least, that's how it is for me. Deeply, Determinedly Virtuous people scare me.) As it turns out, I prefer the full boil to the long simmer and I wish I'd known it sooner.
Be real and be unashamed, even of your faults. I do truly know what he's made of and vice versa. We are both people who want cutmen and foxhole buddies; we see life as wonderful and difficult and requiring energy and stamina and, occasionally, guile. We don't mind any of that. We are both bossy and demanding and largely unrepentant. We don't mind any of that. We yell. We apologize profusely. We are idiosyncratic in our tastes, and we are both quite confident that our taste is better than most people's (including each other's). We take sex and family and food seriously and organized religion not at all. We are hard to embarrass and we cry like babies. We are each what the other hoped for.
Note: This article could not have been written without the generous cooperation of the author's husband.