Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Earth: that funny green place between Mars and Venus

John Gray, Ph.d., author of the now-iconic Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, writes an advice column based on on this theme. Naturally, he dispenses mostly relationship advice, and while he tends to be a bit more schmoopy than the badass women I typically follow (you'll see what I mean in a minute), he's usually readable and, it seems, reliable.

Today, though, I think he's totally missed the point. His advice isn't necessarily terrible--I just don't think he's gotten to the heart of what the writer is worried about. And I have to admit, my first instinct was that it's because he's a man--in other words, that his response to this question demonstrates that, despite his planetary philosophizing, there are things about women that he just doesn't get. Here's the question:

Dear John: This is the first time I've ever lived with a man. I'd always promised myself that I would never move in with a guy, but instead be self-sufficient. In other words, I would have my own house pay, my own bills and take care of myself. But I love my boyfriend very much, so I broke this promise. Unfortunately, now I am very uptight about everything. Quite honestly, I'm scared that we aren't going to make it as a couple. We've been fighting too much lately, and we've only lived together for about a week! What should I do before things get worse? — Regretful, in Mendocino, Calif.

Dear Regretful: You made the decision to move in before you had convinced yourself that this was truly what you wanted to do. Your fear of being abandoned possibly rises from another experience in your childhood or your family.

Consider this: Your current relationship is unique to any you've had in the past, or will have in the future. You owe it to your mate and yourself to get beyond your fears. Explain your fear to your mate. Because he loves you, he will do his best to allay your fears. Strong relationships are built on love, trust and compromise. For you to demonstrate these traits, you need to take his assurances to heart. Don't make big issues out of little concerns. We all have weaknesses, foibles and issues. Remember what attracted you to him in the first place, and appreciate those traits. Live the relationship one day at a time.

At the end of each day, tell him three things that you appreciate about him, and ask that he do the same. By doing so, you'll soon realize you had nothing to fear after all.

John goes straight to the end of the question--"I'm scared that we aren't going to make it as a couple," blowing right by the first three sentences, which is where I think the heart of the issue is.

Yes, this woman is worried things won't work out in her new situation. But it's not because she has abandonment issues from a mysterious incident in her childhood. It's because she's made a big sacrifice in moving in with this guy--yes, they're taking the same risk financially and logistically, but emotionally she's not just afraid of heartbreak--she's altering her expectations of and standards for success, independence, adulthood--the list goes on.

Her promise to never live with a man doesn't necessarily have to do with fear of abandonment, but simply with an intention to be self-sufficient and independent--not to depend on or be accountable to anyone.

It's possible that choosing to live with her boyfriend means she's no longer living up to the standard she thought she expected of herself--she's happy and excited, but also probably feels a sense of sadness or dented pride: women who have been fiercely independent often have a difficult time believing it's OK to want to depend on someone (and have them depend on you). She's not just reevaluating their relationship--she's reevaluating what it means to be a (successful) woman and a (successful) partner.

John's advice isn't necessarily a bad thing, though the three-things-affirmation moment could start to feel pretty forced and repetitive after a couple of days. But I think a more helpful approach would be for this woman and her boyfriend to work through their budget and responsibilities, finding ways for each to maintain a level of independence (separate discretionary checking accounts? Separate social commitments? "Alone time?") while building a life together. This woman's nerves are not going to be soothed by canned compliments, but by developing a new, reasonable standard to live by.

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