the right choice

When I was home in Virginia two years ago, my dad and I were driving around town when we drove past my friend Mitt’s* house. After his mom died and his dad remarried and moved to another town, Mitt ended up moving back into the house he grew up in. Later he bought the house from his dad, and then his long-term, out-of-town girlfriend moved in.

I asked my dad if he’d heard whether Mitt had gotten engaged yet. Marriage not only seemed like the next logical step, but like something Mitt would be good at. He’s someone people describe as “a good guy,” the kind of person everyone just likes. Because he’s friendly, uncomplicated, easy to be around. He’s kind of like my dad, actually, and maybe that’s why I can so easily imagine him married, settled and happy.

But my dad said no, Mitt was not engaged. And I made some comment about how the one time I met Nancy, I thought she was a real keeper.

“Well, what I want to know,” my dad said, “is when Reg** is going to ask you a very important question.”

This was a conversational detour I’d totally failed to see coming. My parents had never asked about me marrying Reg. And, because they’d never asked, I’d kind of assumed they were quietly waiting for things to fizzle out between us.

“Um. I hope it’s not too soon,” I said without thinking, “because I’m not sure how I’d answer any very important questions right now.”

Dad kept his eyes on the road. Then he said, “Well, honey, I’m sure you’ll make the right choice.”

And this, I think, is the problem. The idea that there is a right choice to be made about a relationship also implies that there are wrong choices, which suggests that one could make a very serious mistake with her life, which can make a person a bit panicked about love. But my dad is someone who has always inhabited a world of moral clarity. Almost anything can be labeled as right or wrong. The problem is that he’s not the only one who talks about love this way. We all do it.

men are not from Mars

Today I came across a book called Are All Guys Assholes?a title designed to sell books if ever there was one. The copy on Amazon wonders “what if everything you’ve been told about guys your entire life has been a lie?” and promises to tackle questions like “Why do guys stop calling after a few dates? How can you tell if a guy actually likes you? How soon is too soon to have sex?” with answers “based on actual research.” Apparently, customers who bought this book also purchased the thoughtfully-titled Why Men Love Bitches and Have Him at Hello: Confessions from 1,000 Guys About What Makes Them Fall in Love . . . Or Never Call Back. 

There is a lot to say about the ridiculous (and problematic) implications these titles make about both men and women. But I’m most interested in the story they tell: that there is an uncrossable chasm between genders, that men and women speak different languages and follow distinct but secret rules of conduct. From my experience, being in a relationship is difficult. It’s work. And the moment I start looking at my partner as a member of a code-talking race of assholes, the more difficult the whole thing becomes.

From what I can surmise, the book arrives at the shocking conclusion that no, all men are not assholes. Jezebel describes it this way:

In general, Madison found that men are people, think of women as people, and appreciate being treated like people — with consideration, honesty, and a little confidence. None of this will be shocking to most men, who have long known that they are actually human beings. But when a big chunk of the dating-advice industry is devoted to convincing women that men are in fact giant penises, any evidence that they might have thoughts and feelings is pretty groundbreaking.

I wonder how many women really believe the rhetoric that all men want is sex. It’s easy to conclude that this dating-advice industry is a self-perpetuating phenomenon wherein books or magazines depict men as strangers, give women advice on how to approach those strangers, and, when treating men as strangers rather than other humans perpetuates difficulty communicating, send women running back for suggestions on what to do next. But I don’t quite buy that either. Nuns and boarding school students aside, aren’t most women in daily contact with real live men? And aren’t most women–and most men for that matter–smart enough to see that if this  were the case, gays and lesbians would be out forming problem-free relationships all the time? (You guys can let me know how that one is going in the comments.)

I think we want love to be easy but it’s not. Calling the opposite gender assholes or aliens enables us to imagine that something complex can be coded and simplified. But gender aside, we humans are terrible at actually saying what we mean. Sometimes we don’t even know what we mean, which is probably the painful by-product of possessing the capacity for both emotion and reason. So how can two creatures so notoriously bad at direct communication, with separate but sometimes overlapping agendas and a whole host of unspoken or unacknowledged expectations, ever successfully make a life together? It seems to me that the problem is not that most of us want relationships with a person of another gender, but that we want relationships with people. It’d be much easier making a lifetime commitment to my dog.