On Love and Work

“But don’t you think there’s a partner out there for you who might be more perfect?”

My brother was sitting across from my parents and me at an upper floor breakfast buffet in a Long Beach, California, hotel.

We’d been talking about a podcast, and–like most of my recent conversations–I’d managed to turn this one into a vehicle for gushing about my relationship. 

In this moment, I was gushing about how often we argue.

Rather: how good we are at communicating.

I had brought up the advice of Alain De Botton, recently interviewed on On Being about the New York Times article of his that, apparently, attracted more interest than anything else that happened in 2016. (Sit on that for a second.)

Specifically, his caution–one I find deeply compelling–that all relationships are very difficult. That people are difficult, in all our myriad, intricate ways, and that, therefore, any attempt at intimacy between them will require serious, delicate labor.

“Well,” my father had chimed, “of course that’s true in the long term. In the beginning, though, you should think the other person is perfect.”

At this, I bristled.

I’ve already said it publicly once, so, here goes again: I’m in love. I have found a partner who I deeply respect and admire. With whom I love to talk and listen and read and walk and be. Who inspires me with his compassion and commitment to working for racial and economic justice. Who makes me uncontrollably giggle and reads fucking poems. I have found someone, in other words, who I think is a really great fit for me–or at least, for the person I am now.

I have not found someone who I think is perfect.

And nor, as I told my brother and father and mother, do I think I ever will.

*

“Is he you?”

About six weeks after meeting Rob, I stood in the YMCA locker room on a Saturday morning across from a friend. As you might have guessed, things had already grown serious, and intense. Things, too, were/are not without conflict. While both he and I are skilled at talking through most things that arise, there is one particular issue–an ongoing friendship with his ex–where we struggle.

“We’ve actually talked about seeing a therapist,” I shared.

Thus, her remark: what other human would consider the idea of counseling less than two months into a relationship?

The one I’m dating, it turns out.

There are, in fact, many ways in which he and I overlap. (His mother, upon reading my blog: “She sounds like you, but in a female voice.”) Also: we both have small bladders, a tendency toward messiness and intellectual seeking, and a hyper attunement to the emotional energy of other humans; we can connect just as powerfully through physical intimacy as we can sitting on a couch, sharing passages from bell hooks or Grace Lee Boggs and reflecting on one another’s insights.

Before you throw up, let me assure you that there are, too, significant gaps: in our respective levels of interest in golf and backgammon, for example, or my desire to report on most waking moments of my day, even (on those rare occasions) when we’re apart, versus his inclination to keep some things to himself–along with other, related (and highly gendered) communication dynamics.

We talk about that–the gendered piece. And, when stuff comes up, when one of us feels slighted or aggrieved or even a little bit distant, we acknowledge and talk about it: the assorted levels of conditioning, from our families and cultural backgrounds, that, in many ways, still determine how and what we speak and behave. (Along with, ya know, lousy mornings, etc.)

As my brother was quick to point out, it can get a little exhausting.

But, for me at least, it’s also deeply rewarding. Recognizing and probing our moments of disconnection makes the moments of connection more powerful, and feel more full.

It can also make me walk around South Minneapolis, notice folks wearing wedding rings, and ask myself, Good god, how do people do this for years?

At this point (as the above might make you glean), I can imagine–or at least feel hopeful–that he and I could continue to make things work in the long term.

I also know enough to know that I don’t know anything–and that the way I (and he) feel right now may have little bearing on the way either of us feels in ten weeks or months or years.

But that, too, feels helpful: my most recent relationship felt burdened by my sense that it was somehow fated; sure, rationally, I knew there’s no such thing, but (for various reasons relating to the conditioning described above, plus the circumstances of that particular meeting and a set of shared physical features) emotionally, I let myself buy into the lie that we had to be together. And that belief, however small, fostered an anxiety that hurt much more than it helped–that coated me with a near-constant edginess, a low-lying panic: what if I fuck this up? 

I’m not immune to that now. I still have moments of terror about losing Rob. If and when it happens, I know it will suck. But I also feel somewhat lighter than I did then: right now, I think we’re great for each other, and push one another to be better people; I also know that could change. I think it does feel somewhat miraculous that we crossed paths when we did; I also don’t think there’s any providential guarantee that we should or will last.

A friend who’s been with her partner for many years recently shared an exchange they have when things between them grow hard: “Do you still want to make it work?” They ask one another. Both of them recognize that if the answer is yes, they can. And they do.

I’m not sure there’s any sounder theory of relationships than that: you both just have to want it badly enough to put up with the hardship–hardship that, no matter how long you’ve been together, will always arise.