The Tyranny of Relationships

All relationships — romantic, friend, work — entail certain demands: you will respond in certain ways at certain times.

Relationships, then, always run the risk of becoming tyrannical. Most work relationships, for instance, are violent in their dictates: Be here every morning at 8:45 am!  My god, if a friend or girlfriend demanded that of me they'd sure as shit not be my friend or girlfriend anymore.  Of course, this is just the most obvious demand of the work relationship. It also dictates what you wear, how you spend your day, the kinds of things you can say.

Now, the work relationship is premised on a financial contract: I will submit to these terms in exchange for money.  If only all relationships had such clear terms of give and take! (I am not saying that this work relationship is good or fair — only that the terms of exchange are relatively clear.)

There is a certain discourse of friendship that says, "I'll always be there for you." This is beautiful; this is love, for sure. But what are the limits of "always" and "there," not to mention "for you"? Do I have to listen to the excruciating details of your latest fight with your wife? Perhaps, if it was a particularly big fight with repercussions and such things happen rarely.  But now I've qualified the terms of "always" because if you fight with your wife a lot and refuse to change that relationship, you're insane if you think I'm listening to the inane details.

And then there's the "for you" term: does listening to such inanities actually do you good? Or does our contract imply that not only will I be there but that I will drive to make you the best person you can be? If so, then I'm going to say, "Get out of that marriage or change it but you can't harass me with these details as a way of venting just to go back to the same old shit." This is to say, sometimes a friendship may demand saying and doing things that seem cruel but that are "for you."

And what is "being there"? I am always shocked when someone says to me, "I have to go out with this friend tonight even though I'm tired and want to stay in."  That is tyranny and hence, to me, leaves the realm of friendship.  A friend is the person you can always blow off precisely because you're always there — which, no doubt, sounds like a contradiction. But friendship so thoroughly respects the other person that neither party needs relentless confirmation; friendship is not premised on need but on respect and joy. 

This drove my ex-wife crazy — she'd tell me so and so called and yet I'd not return the call.  She could not understand this. But to me, it was so clear: If I must call the person back, he's not a friend but an obligation to be shed. If he cares that I didn't call him back, he's not a friend, either. A friend, to me, is the one person you can always blow off.  But as this alters the terms of "always" that we take for granted in our friendship contracts, as my ex's sentiments expressed, I tend to look like, well, an asshole — but only to people who are not my friends, so what do I care?

A friend, to me, fuels and inspires. On the rare occasion that I need someone, I know they will be there. But if I needed them all the time to hear me kvetch, whine, or cry then, fuck, I am not living up to my end of the contract: I am draining them, not fueling them. I become a tyrannical vampire, draining vitality, not feeding it. I am taking but not giving — and giving here does not mean trading sympathetic ears.  Giving, in a friendship, means providing fuel for ideas, for vitality, for life. 

Romantic relationships are, of course, the most trying — when they should be the least.  Presumably, if there is love there, then there is also the will to let the other be, a respect for their complexity. But in our culture, romance is premised on the terms of tyranny: always be together and always think of the other first. "You complete me" is its most insidious, egregious premise.  Me, I want my lovers to be complete before I hook up with them. 

The terms of a romantic relationship are prescribed and clearly delineated: you spend your time together, hence live together, breed together, die together. But are these the only terms of romantic relationships? Must you complete me? Might we not both already be complete — and stick together to make each other better, wiser, smarter, stronger? Might we be together out of desire rather than need?

I return to the terms I demand of friendship: that a friend must fuel and inspire me, not drain me. I ask — nay, I demand — the same thing from romance. Must we be one thing rather than two things together? Must we live together — or might living together, in fact, foster habit and weakness and blind each other to the splendors of life? Might not love be best served from a slight physical remove?

I have many points, I suppose, but this is my main one: The terms of a relationship, the terms of give and take, are something to be interrogated rather than assumed. For the established terms tend to drain most parties of life when relationships, when well forged, liberate rather than constrain.


Karma said...

as Rilke says: A good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude... Love consists in this: that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Love this — it's perfect. Solitude is taken as that which is preserved, not overcome.

Jon said...
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