An appreciative sort of partnership

I know from watching movies that the classic pickup line is, “Do you come here often?” When couples meet in the dining room of the senior center where Bette and I live, the equivalent question is, “So….how did you guys meet?” As a result, I have heard myself answer that question a lot of times over the last five years and have heard Bette answer it, too. [1]

The story has taken on familiar contours, like a much-loved stump speech. I think that makes me love it more, rather than less, but it doesn’t keep me from adapting it to my audience. It doesn’t keep me from listening carefully to what I am saying, either, and like any storyteller, I find myself modifying the story so that it continues to fit my current interests and concerns. [2]

The last few times I have told my part of it, I have emphasized the part where I made a really uncomfortable decision. I decided that I was in the process of falling head over heels in love with Bette and that there were a couple of questions I needed to ask while I was still able to hear what her answer was and to react to it with integrity.

What I needed to tell her was that I already had a commitment to a kind of marriage. It was a kind that required two active partners to make it work so it was only fair to her to tell her about it. And it was only fair to me to tell her early enough in the relationship that I would be willing to walk from a very promising beginning if she didn’t want to be part of a relationship of that sort. I was in a hurry because I know what infatuation is like. I know, for instance, that the English word is derived from the Latin fatuus, “foolish.” And I know that no matter how hard I try to exercise “sober judgment” while I am infatuated—“enfoolished”—I don’t really exercise such judgment.

That being the case, I needed to tell Bette, while I still could, that I wasn’t just looking for a wife; I was looking for a partner. Bette was very good about it. She took it seriously. It took her a little while to make sure that I did not mean that I wanted to restore the marriage I had had with Marilyn, with her being expected to play the part of Marilyn. [3] Once she was confident that I was not asking her to do that, she was free to examine the model on its merits and she found a good deal of merit in it.

That solved the problem for me. The problem, remember, was not how to court Bette. It was how to confess a previous commitment to a kind of relationship. Now that she liked the relationship, as much as you can like it by looking at it from the front end, I could move away from the problem of having both an actual commitment to the model and a rapidly developing commitment to Bette. They now appeared to be compatible and I had asked the question early enough that I was able to really hear the answer.

That’s the end of this segment of the “how we met” stump speech. But, as I said, saying it a lot means hearing it a lot and as I have been hearing it, I have begun to feel the need to explore what good things there are on the other side of infatuated. The word wasn’t built to be a phase in the development of some mature good. No one talks about the “trans-infatuation stage” of a relationship. [4] But that is what I would like to do here.

I think “appreciative” covers most of what I want to say about that stage. It does cut short the very important part of the marriage that requires taking initiatives that show both that you love your partner and that you know who she is. So let’s just take the active part for granted and move on the the responsive part, which I am calling “appreciation.”

The choice I find that I face on a day to day basis is whether to appreciate the good things in the marriage—I experience them as “things Bette does”—or to take them for granted and just not notice them at all. Infatuation takes care of that problem. Every trait and every act appears in the golden glow of enjoyment, lust, surprise, and anticipation that pervade the time you spend together. When you spend a lot of time every day together, infatuation just doesn’t do the right things. But taking the understandings and the courtesies of a willing partner for granted doesn’t do the right things either.

Being willing to notice the generosities and the understanding that are offered on a day to day basis actually does do the right things. It is banal, I know, to think of that willingness as “a labor of love,” but I think it is a good description. There is no denying that it is a labor. Taking things for granted is always easier. It facilitates all the other things you are doing; all the other group memberships and responsibilities and all the other projects. But putting those things first and not allowing the time and energy that appreciation requires, shorts the marriage if it is the kind of marriage I am talking about.

The marriage will not run on appreciation if you do not appreciate. You will not appreciate if you do not notice. You will not notice if you go on autopilot and take everything for granted. Staying off of autopilot is a lot of work. It is “a labor.”

But you could justify that level of work by saying that love makes it worthwhile. [5] Love is a hardy plant, but it does need to be watered from time to time by appreciation. Feeling that you love a person is a reason to pay attention to the gifts that love brings. Continuing to love and appreciate that person whether you are currently feeling it or not shows that you understand the relationship between the actions you take and the emotions you feel. So appreciation of the kind I am talking about leads to the feelings that love brings, which feelings can have the effect of keeping you off of autopilot and attentive to the relationship you actually have.

That’s doing a lot with so trite a phrase as “labor of love,” but having heard myself telling the story at dinner after dinner, I am pretty sure that is the way I feel about it. And it makes me very happy that I put this question to Bette while I was still willing to walk away from the relationship if she had said that it made no sense to her at all.

That’s not what she said.

[1] We have two distinct modes, depending on who is asking. One is sequential. One of us tells the story, then the other. The point of view of the speaker is assumed in each case The other is intermittent, very much like a sportscaster and a color commentator describing the game they are seeing.
[2] The facts, obviously, are all the same. Narratives change by relative emphasis, color, and tone; not by inventing new facts.
[3] At this time in my life, my son, Dan, gave me some very good and very uncomfortable advice. He told me to date a lot of women even if I didn’t
want to. If I neglected to do that, he said, I would just be looking for “another Marilyn,” no matter what I told myself I was doing and that would not be fair to any of the dates, particularly anyone I got really serious about.
[4] The closest we come is “trans-fat” which is like infatuation in the sense that it is a problem you are supposed to be able to deal with.
[5] I am talking about the ordinary romantic love that husband and wife often have for each other. There are many other kinds of loves that rea
lly don’t balance out. They cost more than they bring in. They are worth doing anyway.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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1 Response to An appreciative sort of partnership

  1. David D Felt says:

    Nice to see you’ve sorted out the editor issues your referenced at our last dinner.
    Love this entry.

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