Sunday, November 29, 2009

NYTimes: The Referendum

The Referendum by Tim Kreider, New York Times, September 17, 2009

The Referendum is a phenomenon typical of (but not limited to) midlife, whereby people, increasingly aware of the finiteness of their time in the world, the limitations placed on them by their choices so far, and the narrowing options remaining to them, start judging their peers’ differing choices with reactions ranging from envy to contempt. The Referendum can subtly poison formerly close and uncomplicated relationships, creating tensions between the married and the single, the childless and parents, careerists and the stay-at-home. It’s exacerbated by the far greater diversity of options available to us now than a few decades ago, when everyone had to follow the same drill. We’re all anxiously sizing up how everyone else’s decisions have worked out to reassure ourselves that our own are vindicated — that we are, in some sense, winning.

Tim Kreider's piece was on "arrested adolescence" for the Happy Days column. And he joked that he got the job because, he has never been married at 42. And the stereotype of someone past 30 who is not married is a slacker. Or a freak. It starts at 21 right out of college, and by 25 it is in full force. I used to joke that when I walked into a church, I was timing people before they asked if I was married or dating. (the record for a person was ~28 seconds. That person went straight to 'where is the rest of your family?'. There was no church that I was not asked in less then 10 minutes.) Some thoughts about advice I had been given in the not terrible distant past.

1. We are experiments of one. This is actually a saying of runners. It means that each one of us is different and have our own body characteristics, strengths and limitations. Therefore our goals and the training program to get there needs to be tailored to the individual. For dating/romantic relationships, I would argue that this is the case here as well. Conversely, any advice given that does not recognize that there are wide varieties of people, each of which should approach relationships with people in a way suited for them, it can be dismissed out of hand. Note that I would say broad categories are useful starting point, if the categories are defined as statements of fact rather then statements of worth (if someone cannot figure out the difference, that person probably should not be giving advice.)

3. Making a person's relationship status the first subject of concern. This gets rather old quick. It frankly is a sign that the person your talking through has gone through his/her list of potential conversation topics (none) and has grasped for the one topic they can actually talk about. Because they did not even try to find something interesting to talk about. And the thought that people have become so atrophied in their interests and their world has grown so small that they went to this is horrifying. (see above comments on expected time before relationship status is asked about)

4. ___ is the basis of relationships. There are a wide number of potential commonalities that are put forth as the key to a relationship, and many of them claim that the lack of that particular commonalities leads to broken relationships. Among the ones that are claimed are hobbies, interests in various fields, volunteer work in ___, same religious/church affiliation, racial/ethnic background. It does seem that all of them are true, and none. A professor of mine once advised that you should always more than one focus in life, because at any point in time, one of them will be going well, even if the others are not. And, as I know divorcees who had at one point had any one of these things going for them, none of these areas are sufficient. But I suspect that having a few of them can for the same reason as my professor said, when one area that you have in common takes a dive, other areas of life provide for the opportunities for two people to maintain and build their relationships (or at least keep the pain from the area in trouble from being completely overwhelming).

4. Reactions of singles to being asked about their status. I've always been able to view questions about "do you have a girlfriend" or "are you married" is a complement. Which was usually the case. Because it is usually asked when their is a belief that the answer could reasonably be considered to be yes. If it was beyond belief, the question would not be asked. Of course, there were those who used it as almost a class division. This is annoying at worst.

5. On the view of singles as slackers. This view seems to be predicated on the belief that the only part of the life that was of interest. For example, the stated purpose of the setting that this view is held in. It also is predicated on the view that having a spouse and building a family is the only goal worth discussing. And whatever criteria that a person had for a spouse (e.g. religious affiliation) was meaningless.

6. Singles are social inept/social freaks. I had pastors back in Chicago when I was in grad school tell me this. The key was I was >30 at the time. To be fair, there were a large number of people specifically included by the statement, many of whom would return the sentiment. See (3). The view requires that a person's social interactions do not have any other purpose then finding a mate. Many people can find other outlets for depth and discovery outside of finding a mate. So I was under the apparently mistaken belief in one of several alternative hypothesis (being a PhD candidate at the time) including such things as having certain criteria and being engaged in activities that are widely known as not entirely congruent with establishing romantic relationships. Fortunately, one of the criteria was easily changed to make this a non-issue. But I would still argue that reaching this conclusion without examining if alternative hypothesis exist is silliness.

7. Marriage status as a defining characteristic. This is amusing, but sometimes sad. Not that our wedding day was not a nice big and memorial event. But there have been other big memorial events before and since. And other milestones that can be life-changing as well. My feeling has been that interest in my romantic-style relationships was only amusing, unless you were interested in my other interests as well. There were a number of women who were proposed as potential interests to me that my biggest objection was the fact that the only thing I knew about them was there interest in being married some day. I have a conceit that I have a wide enough range of interests that if I could not find a topic of interest in common with a person, it is not a good sign that we will be developing a friendship at any level.

8. That is mine, and I'll rather break it then let you near it. I used to have a friend who was dating someone who we both knew from the same group. He considered it the height of disloyalty that I thought her life was precious enough so that on a camping trip I stopped her from falling down a hill side and later found her after she had become lost during the night. Now, while he has the wisdom and righteousness of God on his side, reality is I would be dead many times over if there were more people like him in my life. So I'm glad there are not. And the idea of actually living a life with someone who shares those beliefs is repulsive. It reminds me of a kid who breaks a toy instead of being forced to share with a sibling. (actually, later, it me of a story from when I was in Afghanistan, where there were riots after U.S. forces saved the life of a woman. The rioters were claiming that this defiled her and it would have been better to let her die.)

9. Timing. I recently had a friend who got married who was also over 30. And the wedding had multiple references to being married late (or waiting or seeking or any of a number of other euphemisms.) The first time it is mentioned is cute. The 10th is somewhat hammering the point a little too hard. Now, establishing relationships with a partner to go through life is a worthy goal. But there are other worthy goals as well. I would say that at any point in time, every person should have some such goal that they can claim active progress is being made (or at least work is being done). But to go the next step and say that one particular goal overwhelms all others is putting too much stock in that one goal.

10. Exclusivity. We get amused whenever one of us shows up without the other, and the one present asks "why is ___ not here?" But I never expect my partner to be interested in everything I am interested in (again, because I have this conceit that I have a very wide range of things I am interested in, I expect to find one in common with just about anyone, but someone to have all of those interests is beyond belief.) And I think it is healthy to have things that we are both interested in, and things that each of us in engaged in separately. It means there are times we do things together, times we do things apart, and we take turns in lead depending on the setting. The alternative that we only keep the parts of our lives that we have in common would mean that marriage and romantic relationships are personality destroyers rather then builders. I rather like the life I lived. While things change over time, and interests come and go in the general course of life, the the thought that a relationship would mean wholesale culling would make that very unattractive.
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