Friday, 14 October 2016

Lessons Learned in the LTR Trenches (Part 1)

Alas, it's usually the opposite.
Having recently entered the dating scene after the demise of my second long-term relationship, I've given some thought to what makes an LTR work and, conversely, what are the signs that an LTR is doomed.  They all seem blindingly obvious but one's perspective can get skewed from the inside.  I found, to my chagrin, that I was dismissing the what-makes-an-LTR-work criteria as things I could live without, and assuming the doomed signs were typical of most LTRs.  I'm cynical so it was strange to me to learn that everyone in an LTR wasn't as unhappy as I was, that there are people who actually like, respect, even love their partners, and still want to touch them.  It never occurred to me that was possible, let alone common.  'Familiarity breeds contempt' is my motto for relationships; I didn't think you could live with someone, really get to know them, and retain any affection or respect for them.  Apparently, some people do, although I still have difficulty wrapping my head around it.  So, I've put together this list as a reminder for future relationships.

Bodily functions should be kept private
I read a memoir recently in which the author recounted that she knew her nascent relationship with a college boyfriend was doomed when he couldn't deal with her accidently farting when they were hiking in the mountains together, and I also recently heard a guy lament that a girl refused a second date with him because he had belched on the first one.  Belching and farting are generally deal-breakers for both sexes, but some people (read: guys) seem not to know this.
One partner, who shall remain nameless for his own protection, thought that when I was in the shower was the perfect time to come into the bathroom to take a big, smelly dump.  Guys, if you want to keep the romance alive, this is a crappy idea, pun intended.  There were other warning signs the relationship was doomed, but that was a big, smelly red flag.  There are things that say, "We are so intimate and so in love and I feel so safe with you that I can be myself" and then there are things that say, "I am an inconsiderate jerk with no boundaries."  (For the record, I would make an exception if partner had food poisoning.  But this was never the case.)

& thus he guaranteed that "new
girlfriend" would never become
"long-term girlfriend"
I know a guy who liked to listen to women pee and he used to stand outside the bathroom door when his girlfriend peed.  Then they got married and he didn't have to sneak around anymore, he could actually be in the bathroom, brushing his teeth, whilst she peed.  And it got old fast.  He is no longer turned on by the sound of women peeing.  This is probably a good thing but my point is that even if you have a partner as weird as he is, bodily functions are not sexy.  The less your partner sees, hears, or smells them, the better your relationship will be.

You should be proud to show off your partner
I became embarrassed to bring City Boy anywhere, especially professional events, or introduce him to anyone I knew.  His narcissism and lack of social skills embarrassed me and my choice of him as a partner made people question my judgment and probably my character as well.  He was also such a loose cannon that he makes Trump seem a paragon of verbal discretion in comparison and I constantly had to worry about him obliviously saying something to my boss or our landlady that might cost me my job or apartment.

At first, I tried to tell myself that he could learn, that he would eventually grow up, that he had other qualities that compensated, and that my friends who really got to know him looked past it.  In retrospect, it was one of our main sources of friction, the cause of many fights and much resentment.  You will not feel good about yourself or your relationship if you are not proud to show your partner off anywhere and everywhere.  If you start to avoid bringing them with you, that's a big red flag.

And even though it is obvious I am not talking here about looks or style, that doesn't mean those aren't important.  You should be proud to show them off for those reasons, too.  Don't dismiss them as superficial.  A friend said to me recently, "When you are in love, looks don't matter because when you look into each other's eyes, you are seeing directly into each other's souls."  That resonated, but it doesn't contradict what I am saying.  If you are truly in love it's not that you won't be embarrassed if your partner is unattractive, you won't find them unattractive so it won't be an issue.  So if your partner says they'd bring you along if you were hotter or had better clothes, it's another red flag.

You shouldn't feel the need to change them
Men tend to consider the negatives about a potential partner and make a decision about whether or not they can live with them before they commit.  They don't assume their partner is going to change, let alone that they could change them.  Women are just the opposite; we see potential partners as works in progress, lumps of clay, malleable and mouldable.  We consider what we don't like and think to ourselves, "I can fix A, I can change B, he'll grow out of C….."  Whether it stems from nature or nurture, this is a stark difference between the sexes that is nearly universal.  Yes, there are exceptions, but stereotypes exist because they are true.

But women should have a steep learning curve and after your first relationship, when you are crying to your friends, "He didn't change!" (Men, in contrast, are more likely to complain at the end of a relationship, "She changed!") remember that you cannot change people.  Oh, you can change a few superficial things sometimes, and you can be supportive if someone wants to change.  But if you find yourself entering a subsequent relationship with a laundry list of improvements to make to your beau to make him acceptable LTR material, whether he needs better jeans or better values, that's a big red flag.

You should find the same shit funny
My first LTR (Country Boy) began in graduate school when we lived in the same dorm.  Shortly after we started dating, I began taping comics to his door.  My door was covered with them.  When he never said anything, I eventually mentioned it and he said vaguely, "Oh, was that you who put those there?"  Everything else was going so well, we were falling head-over-heels for each other in those euphoric early days, so I let it slide.  Likewise when I suggested watching a stand-up comedy video and he said he hated stand-up.  He also wasn't keen on my sarcasm.  In retrospect, these were all big red flags.
Your senses of humour must overlap substantially or you are fucked in the long-term.  It's easy to dismiss little incompatibilities at the beginning when you are screwing like rabbits, but you will need humour to get you through life.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying a shared sense of humour is enough to outweigh other problems.  City Boy could be really funny.  He has one brother who is over 6'5" and obese, as well as a diminutive adopted brother.  One of the first events we attended as a couple was the latter brother's wedding.  It's a Jewish wedding custom to lift the bride and groom on chairs whilst singing the Hava Nagila.  After helping to hoist the groom, he sat back down at the table, wiped sweat off his brow, and deadpanned, "When [other brother] gets married, we're gonna need a Bob Cat."  The entire table laughed until we were in tears.  We both cracked up over the O Fortuna misheard lyrics video.  He's named the paddock where we put the Arabian horses "Gitmo", which scandalises everyone else at the barn but I think it's hilarious.  We didn't always agree – he thought Borat was funny, I hated it – but our overlapping senses of humour cemented our relationship.  If you don't find the same shit funny, run, even if the sex is off the charts, because you are going to need humour later.

You should be best friends
One of my favourite descriptions of love is "love is friendship set on fire".  As with my friend's quote above, I've learned that this is achingly, deliciously accurate.  No-one can be all things to you, so you must have other friends – friends who meet other needs, share other interests, in whom you can confide about your relationship.  But your partner should be the first and last person you want to speak to every day.  They should be the first person you want to tell anything, good or bad.  You should both feel able to vent, to ask for advice, to receive comfort and sympathy, just as you would from any platonic friend.  The euphoric in-love feeling doesn't last, unfortunately, so, in order to sustain an LTR, you need the intimacy of a deep friendship.  I tried, and failed, to cultivate that in both my LTRs.  The reasons it wasn't reciprocated were different in each case – each partner had his own issues that precluded it – but it was a big red flag that each relationship was missing something critical.

The sex should be out of this world
Yes, I'm going there.  I realise that some couples claim that they no longer have sex but are happy.  My response is that one of them is lying and probably getting it elsewhere.  This is well-trodden territory:  The endorphin high of falling in love does not last, nor does the can't-keep-your-hands-off-each-other shag fest of the first six months.  Eventually, you're no longer on your best behaviour; you see each other's flaws; the quirks that were cute at first now make you homicidal; resentments build; someone farts in bed.  You begin to have rows.  At first, they are followed by make-up sex.  But once you entwine your lives, perhaps even have children, you become too exhausted for any kind of sex.  The eye wanders, and often the body, and sometimes the heart, follows.  Many LTRs end at this point, and some of them should.  People grow and change, and falling in love is no guarantee of long-term compatibility.  But sometimes what is needed, and I realise I sound like an advice column cliché (Hey, I used to write one), is better sex.  It is a chicken and egg situation: Does a better relationship lead to better sex or vice versa?  The answer is yes to both but you can't paper over a bad relationship with good sex because good sex requires both attraction and intimacy.  If the feelings aren't there outside of the bedroom, sex won't restore them.  If your relationship is faltering, don't try to fix it with sex.  But if the relationship is otherwise strong, work on the sex to keep it alive.  Sex is oxygen to a relationship; it will die without it, and faster than you might expect.  Many people are living in relationships that died years before.  Sometimes we stay from inertia, sometimes for practical reasons, sometimes because we haven't realised anything is wrong.  Much has been written on how to keep passion in a long-term relationship and the consensus is to make time for sex, don't let it fall by the wayside as life gets in the way.  Make it a priority.  If you have no desire, parse out whether you have no interest in sex or no interest in sex with your partner.  If you are still horny but can't work up any desire for your partner, the relationship is dead.  I stayed in a relationship where I had such contempt for my partner that I felt revulsion at touching him or being touched by him.  I told myself it was all my fault, and I kept up that self-blame for over a decade before finally realising it was him, not me, that was the problem.

The Obamas: Still in love, still desire each other.
Dan Savage says that partners must be good, giving, and game (GGG), which means that they must make a good faith effort to be sexually available, to please you, to at least try things you want to do in bed.  If they are not GGG, he says, you have the right to seek it elsewhere and, when you find it, you should DTMFA (Dump The MotherFucker Already).  City Boy used to throw this in my face in his frustration.  I understand he was upset and unsatisfied, that he felt rejected.  When he found someone else, he immediately dumped me.  Shortly thereafter, he threw it in my face that he wrote a letter to Dan Savage thanking him for giving him the courage to DTMFA and that he was now enjoying great sex with his new, kinky GGG girlfriend.  I honestly didn't blame him.  The reasons I wasn't attracted to him were legitimate but rather than staying with him hoping he'd change and I'd eventually desire him, I should have let him go years earlier.  You cannot manufacture attraction any more than you can love.  Life can get in the way of your sex drive but it's critical to parse out whether you have lost interest in sex itself or just sex with your partner.  If it's the former, work on it with your partner; if it's the latter, it's about the biggest red flag you can have.

You should fall in love (but it's sometimes ok if you don't)
That may sound cheesy but bear with me a moment.  I never felt in-love with City Boy, even at the very beginning when we were having so much sex I literally wore him out.  I liked him at first, but never fell in love.  I told myself that was not important and I should actually be glad my heart was not engaged – safer that way.  I had felt in love with Country Boy but it turned out, years later, that I had been in love with who I wanted him to be not who he was.  Was it really love then?  That experience made me suspicious of love: I think what most call love is merely infatuation.

I thought I was better off not loving City Boy but when things went downhill, I didn't have that deeper well of affection to draw on.  That heady in-love feeling doesn't last but skipping it doesn't bode well.  Even the best relationship takes effort, and love is the fuel that keeps it steaming along through all of its challenges.  But relationships can work without love.  In my case, I am not even looking for love in my next LTR.  I don't want another relationship but I do want to have children, and I need financial security.  If I were rich, I'd use a sperm donor to have a kid, and bide my time on an LTR, waiting until I fall in love, if that ever happens again.  But, as it stands, I might have to wait too long if I wait for love so I have to be practical.  If I find someone attractive, reasonably compatible, whom I can respect, that will have to suffice.  Love won't do me a helluva lot of good if I'm menopausal before I find it, or homeless.  Women are very practical – remember the ending of Casablanca.

And anyway, love is no guarantee you'll be compatible or that the relationship will last.  It certainly isn't always convenient, as the best speech ever made about it explains.  In analyzing my relationships with City Boy and Country Boy, I've spent some time contemplating love.  What is it?  Is it real?  Is it important?  Yes, it's one of the things that makes life worth living so everyone should experience it at some point, even if it's not in your current LTR.  I suspect many people go through life without ever feeling it.  Other people in love may seem insufferable and ridiculous, until it hits you over the head like a cartoon anvil.  When you're in love, all the song lyrics suddenly make sense.  It's "All the things we — we grew up not believing in. Total obsession, night and day".  I don't think it's possible to be in love without it being reciprocated because the wonderful feeling that buoys you everywhere is not how you feel towards the other person, it's knowing how they feel about you.  You feel wrapped in it as you go about your day, like a warm shawl, and the thrill of it keeps you up at night.  Someone loves me, you think, someone is lying awake thinking about me like I am thinking about them.  No matter what you are doing, a little voice in your head is trilling someone desires me, someone finds me attractive and interesting.  You may not be able to work out why but that doesn't matter because the critical point that has you smiling to yourself like an idiot all the time is that they know you and they still like you.  Even if you have healthy self-regard, that is still a remarkable feeling.  Remember Beatrice and Benedick:  The electricity between them was crackling but what made them fall head-over-heels in love was being told the other was in love with them.

Well, I don't need to prattle on about love.  If you've felt it, you know what I am talking about.  If you've never been in love, you just think I sound like a babbling moron anyway.  And this is the most wooly of the points on this list because the rest are really deal breakers, red flags you should not ignore, but I have to kind of fudge here and say that love is a nice-to-have, and I hope you get to experience the joy of it at some point in your life, but LTRs are also practical arrangements, always have been.  Mae West said, "Sex with love is the greatest thing on earth, but sex without it ain't so bad either."  I can vouch for the former; it's the ideal.  But life is rarely ideal, sometimes you have to be pragmatic.  You need to know how and when to make that call, based on your individual needs.

Suffer love! A good epithet. I do suffer love indeed, for I love thee against my will.
In spite of your heart, I think. Alas, poor heart, if you spite it for my sake, I will spite it for 
yours, for I will never love that which my friend hates.

(Part 2 will get into the heavy stuff, like division of housework & leaving the toilet seat up.)

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