Monday, January 21, 2013

The Impropriety of Power

To anybody who may stumble upon this, while it isn't perfect, I believe it should be read.

This is a piece I started working on this past week.  I put a number of hours into it but, as I neared the finish, I realized I missed the mark.  There's simply too much going on in this.  While my intention was to create a realistic dialog between two friends in order to illustrate my ideas about relationships, the message gets convoluted.  This makes sense, because this is how this sort of conversation goes, however if I'm going to write something about my ideas I want it to be focused.  This piece brings in around 11 different themes, and it's possible you could read more into the subtext. At about 10 pages, you can see how I no doubt fail to develop many of them fully.

Having said that, some background information is in order.  I cut the first half page and never wrote the intro to this because it was so unfinished.  I began this as a sort of thought cultivating paragraph with no real punctuation and only vague ideas of the actual full concepts I would delve into.  As i was writing I picked up steam and decided, what the hell, time to start doing it right.  this piece picks up where I started paying attention a bit closer to what I was saying.


The scene takes place in a bar, two friends have met up for drinks and conversation.  One of them (and it will become obvious which) makes a comment to the effect of "Men just need to chill out and let the girl control things, otherwise there will be problems" in the manner of a joke.  His friend presses him on why he says it and the first man's misgivings with his own relationship come out.  They proceed in question and answer style, discovering the root of the problems in the first friend's relationship and uncovering dangerous and false life and philosophical premises that the first friend has accepted.

The scene opens after the second friend has said, "If you don't believe what I'm telling you is true, and your girlfriend doesn't really like you, then test her."  The first friend asks how and...

(Note: I took notes in Word on some of the things I wrote, they copied in here as the little [D] tags which reference all the way to the bottom of this post.)

“That sounds so selfish”

“Of her or of you?”

“Of her.”

“Well it is, in the sense of a child’s selfishness.  A child throws a tantrum when things don’t go their way or, to use my language, when the world doesn’t conform to what they think it should be.  An adult, by my standards, accepts the world as it is and changes themselves or their situation – something won’t become better by demanding it be better.  That requires purposeful action.  Except of course, in relationships where one person accepts that it’s their job to do exactly that.  And hey, if that makes you happy, then go on doing it.  I don’t think it’s possible, but I can’t speak for the whole of the world.  Besides, I don’t think we’d be having this conversation if you were fully happy.  You would have said from the beginning ‘Maybe that’s so, but I’m happy’ and I could say nothing against it.  I’m not arguing against happiness.  It’s your life, and unlike her, I’m not going to demand that you live it my way so I can live out my fantasy of how things ought to be in the real world.”

“Well what are you arguing against?”

“The idea that your happiness is subordinate to hers.  The idea that relationships require the sacrifice of one person to the other.”

“Sacrifice is important.  I can’t have my way all the time.”

“Isn’t that what she demands of you?”

“Of course not.  Sometimes we hang out with my friends and sometimes with hers, we take turns choosing the restaurants or movies, I’m not always happy with her choice but I don’t mind doing it because it makes her happy and I like to make her happy.”

“That’s excellent, I think that’s extremely healthy.  Wanting to make other people happy is what benevolence is all about.”

“So what’s your point then?  You’ve just agreed with me.”

“I don’t see it that way.  I think you’ve agreed with me.”

“That doesn’t make any sense, I just proved to you that not only do I sacrifice in my relationship, but she does too and it makes me happier.”

“Yes, but does it make her happy to make you happier?”

“Of course.”

“Then tell me one major thing that she sacrifices on, for you.”

“Well, she doesn’t like all my friends and feels a little uncomfortable being around them sometimes, but she still let’s me hang out with them.”

“Jesus, listen to yourself.  ‘Lets me…’ ugh!  Really?  Do you need permission?”

“Don’t move the goalpoasts, it’s just the word I used, it doesn’t mean anything.”

“It does, but you’re right.  So she ‘lets you’ hang out with your friends sometimes.  That’s major?”

“Well yeah, she comes sometimes too.  That’s a pretty big sacrifice.  Who wants to hang out with people they don’t like?”

“I agree, who does?  How does she act when she comes out with us?”

“Well she’s amicable.  She doesn’t insult you or anything and she talks to you guys when you talk to her.  Being totally honest she isn’t her normal self.  She’s more quiet and seems to be a little uncomfortable or bored.  When it’s just us we have a great time, she’s funny and we have great conversations.  I think she just can’t relate well to my group but she’s trying to accommodate them into our life.”

“Again with the word choice, whose life are you living?  But anyway, that’s very noble of her.  Have you asked her why she comes to hang out with you and your friends?"

“No.  Does it matter?”


“OK, fine, I don’t know the full reason but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume it’s because she’s making an effort.”

“It isn’t.  Not at all, and what I’m going to suggest sounds manipulative and low.  You care about this girl so you won’t want to believe it of her, but just take a moment and evaluate this through what you know.”

“I’m not going to listen to you insult her.”

“Nor should you, I’m not going to.  Everything here depends on perspective and what’s happening.  Like if you tell somebody they’re fat it’s an insult unless they’re comfortable with who they are or with who you are and where you’re coming from.  Whatever their feelings about it, it doesn’t change the fact.  Does that make sense?”

“So, you’re saying it’s OK to call people fat all the time?”

“Don’t be a dick.  I’m serious.”

“Haha OK, so you mean that there are facts and things that are real, and sometimes those things are uncomfortable or make us angry.  But that fact that it makes us angry, doesn’t make it an insult.  It just means it’s a truth that we don’t like.”

“That’s the gist of it.”

“Ok, hit me with the facts.  The FACTS.”

“You want to make her happy.  It makes you happy when she’s happy.”


“So how do you feel when she’s out with your friends and she, I’m using your words here, ‘seems to be a little uncomfortable or bored’?”

“Responsible.  Like somehow I’ve messed up and I want her to be having as good a time as I could be.  And I try really hard, too.  I’ll explain jokes to her and ask her opinion and talk with my friends when we’re away from her, asking them to try to help her feel comfortable.”

“You’ve asked me to do it.”


“So you try really hard to help her to have a good time out with your friends, but despite all your effort, how often does she have a good time?”

“Mostly she doesn’t.  When it’s a bigger group and we kind of have our own bubble together because everybody has broken up into their own talking pairs, she has fun.  It’s just around all my guy friends.  But she doesn’t complain!”

“She doesn’t have to.  How do you feel when you want to go out with your guy friends?”


“Alone or with her.”

“Would I still be within the facts if I said that a lot of times you end up on the phone, fighting, and you either go home to deal with it or stick around a bit resentfully?  Dare I say rebelliously?”

“You’ve been there often enough, you know it’s true.  She just misses me.”

“After a couple of hours?”

“You know what I mean.”

“I don’t think you know what you mean, but we can dissect that later if you really want to.  So here are some more facts.  Earlier you said it was a big thing that you guys compromised on, for her to come out with your friends and for you to come out with her, right?”


“So what do you do when you go out with her friends?”

“I try my best to have a good time.  Her friends are cool for the most part and I don’t mind being dragged along if she really wants me there.  Rachel is a dumb bitch…”

“Yeah she is.”

“…but I still make an effort to be nice.  And I’ll dance and buy drinks for everybody and try to keep things fun.”

“What if she wants to go out alone?”

“I’m cool with it.  Like I said it makes me happy to make her happy, so if she wants to do something by herself or just with her friends I’m all for it.  Sure there are times when I want to see her, and I say it to her, but if she wants to stick to her plans I don’t resent it.  Not much.”

“Not enough to call her and remind her to be thinking about you?”

“God no.”

“Not enough to get upset and, not demand, but create the impression that the only thing she can do to make it up to you is to leave?”


“Do you see what I’m driving at?”

“Yeah…Yeah I think so…”

“Well don’t let me put words in your mouth.  Say it.”

“No, I get it.”

“This is important.  You’re about to name this thing instead of just letting it be a feeling of dread or a vague fear.  You’re going to tell me what it is, not because I told you to, but because you know deep down that identifying it is important to you.  It can’t be something I just explain to you; you have to see it for yourself.”

“OK…If we put it side by side, when I go out alone she gets upset at me and I feel guilty for not making her happy.  Not always, I won’t say always.  When I go out with her and my friends she doesn’t have a good time and I feel guilty.  When she goes out alone I’m happy for her because she’s happy.  When she brings me out with friends I try very hard to have a good time and make a good impression, even if some of her friends - Rachel - are unbearable.”

“Do you disagree with anything you said, as a fact?”

“No, of course not.  It’s all true.”

“Then what does it mean?”

“It means that I’m the only one sacrificing.  It means she doesn’t have room in her life for me to have friends.”

“Do you notice you said ‘her’ life?”


“Do you know that when you’re talking about yourself, you say ‘our’ life?”


“So what does it mean?”

“It means that I’m working hard to accommodate her life and her friends into our relationship.  I’m working to make things work.  But when it comes to my life and my friends, she just tries to make me feel guilty.  Jesus, I feel bad just mentioning something I heard or did with you guys, let alone actually asking if I can go out.  Oh god you’re right.  I have to ask her.”

“Keep going.”

“You were talking earlier about making me fit her image of what things should be like.”


“Talking that way, her image of what things should be like doesn’t include my friends and my time.  How could it?  Taking time with my friends, for myself, means I’m either detracting from the perfection of what she wants or I’m creating a possibility that I will take something away from what she wants.  Like if she had toys still and one of them threatened to just up and walk away and do its own thing.  It’s hers so she should be able to play with it whenever and on whatever terms she wants.  In her perfect image of how things should be, I’m on call.”

“What does that make your relationship?”

“Fuck me.  It does not.”

“Don’t hide from this.”

“It means that she treats me like a servant.  It means that to her this isn’t a relationship.  A relationship between equals has to be bidirectional, but I’m the only one giving anything.  I work and I work at it and any chance I get to squeeze something out for myself, if it doesn’t include her she stomps on it.”

“Don’t go off the deep end.  I’m sure she doesn’t mean to do anything malicious.”

“What’s it matter if she means to?  I spend most of my time wondering what I’ve done wrong, and if things are going well I can’t stop wondering when I’m going to be accused of fucking up again.”

“What would happen if you stopped serving her?  What would happen if you demanded that she give you what you want?”

“That’s exactly what she’s doing to me though!  I don’t want to just do the same thing to her.  I’m not a hypocrite.”

“There is an important difference though.”

“In what?”

“In your idea of how a relationship should be, and in her idea of how it should be.”

“Seems to me it’s the same.  She’s demanding that I sacrifice to her, it’s the same thing if I refuse to budge or accommodate her on anything.”

“No, it isn’t.”

“Then what’s the answer?  Honestly I’m too pissed off now to think it through.”

“How do you figure that?”

“You want to make her happy, and while that means doing things together and making her feel special, sometimes it also means giving her space.  Doing things you might not do on your own.  Accommodating her life alongside yours.  But she doesn’t want to make you happy.”

“Is that true though?  I mean, in this situation I guess it is but I don’t know if we can stretch that to everything.”

“Does she hate your friends so much that she wants you to drop us because we’re bad for you?  Do we drain you or make you terrible to be around?”

“No come on, you know you don’t.  Hanging out with you is like taking a mental shower sometimes.  I’d probably be way more pissed off day to day if I didn’t have my friends.”

“So does it make sense that you want her to have friends?  That you accommodate them, you work to accept and enjoy them because you want to make her happy?  And yet she tolerates yours, at best, and makes you feel guilty for wanting to be around them?”

“But what about when she does something nice to make me happy?  Like sometimes I’ll have a hard day at work and she’ll know it, and I come home and she’s got this great dinner made for me.  How is that not her wanting me to be happy?”

“I don’t think anybody would argue that that isn’t her trying to make you happy.  It sounds awesome, honestly.  But you’ve got the tools now to figure this one out.  Think about it.”


“So wait, I’m supposed to hate her for doing something that really is amazingly kind, and really does make me happy?”

“Not at all.  You just need to see that that piece of your relationship, while it’s good, is still related to the fact that she’s creating an image of what it ought to be.  Think of all the times she’s been upset at you for not doing something cutesy, romantic or thoughtful.  Now maybe some of those you probably should have done something, I can’t argue that, all I’m saying is that’s the other side of that nice looking coin.  She does it because that’s her image of who you are and who she is and who you are together, and when you don’t do it you’re not conforming to her image.  And that pisses her off.”

“You make her sound so calculating and manipulative.  Like she’s trying to break me down.”

“She isn’t at all.  You’re doing that.”


“You’re the one breaking you down.  All you have to do to fix every problem that you have in your relationship is to own your desires and have boundaries.”

“But you know that if I did that she’d get pissed off at me for not doing enough.”

“So what does that tell you?  If you’re a person who wants things one way, and she’s a person who wants them another way.”

“That we want different things.”

“Exactly.  It isn’t that she’s a bad person or manipulative.  She has an expectation of what she wants in a relationship, and I’d say it’s probably mostly unconscious.  It isn’t a bad thing that she wants what she wants.  The problem comes up when we get what you both want muddled with the kind of platitude you were saying earlier, about how men should just shut up and let women handle things and then everything is fine.  But it isn’t just a funny thing that people say to each other about the pitfalls of men and women being together.  It’s how people really behave.  You accept that she’s allowed to dictate things, and so does she.  You both act on that.  And you ignore the fact that behaving that way makes you miserable because you think relationships require sacrifice.  So you sacrifice, and you believe that because you’re doing it for her she must also be doing it for you.  And while you’re busy falling over yourself to make her happy, ‘working it out’ and ‘compromising’ and ‘making sacrifices’ to make things come together, you don’t realize you’ve completely missed a fundamental truth about real relationships.”

“Yeah, and what’s that?”

“Relationships do not require the sacrifice of one person to another.”

“Hold on though.  Are you saying that in your relationships, you never do anything just because she wants you to do it?  You don’t make any sacrifices?”

“We have to get nitpicky about language here.  I don’t consider insignificant choices to be sacrifices.  I don’t trifle around with the idea of a ‘small sacrifice’.  A sacrifice is always of something important.  If she wants to watch a comedy and I want to watch a horror film and we go with the comedy, it isn’t a sacrifice.  The choice of a movie is much less important to me than seeing her happy. And I don’t hate comedies, besides.  I don’t mind making concessions and letting her win on choices that have nothing to do with my happiness as a person or my higher values.  But when you look at something bigger, something important, a real sacrifice -  I don’t compromise.”

“Give me an example.”

“I get a new job and it requires me to move.  I want this job, I’ve worked hard for it and I’ve earned it.  But she doesn’t want to move.  She likes her job too, maybe she even makes more than me and she makes the argument that I should turn down the new job because our life here is more stable and better off financially.  If that job is important to my happiness, and in this example it is, I’m going.”

“So you’d just leave her?  Just like that?”

“I’m not a robot.  I’m not saying it wouldn’t be hard.  It would be terribly painful to leave somebody I love.  But ultimately, I know myself well enough to know that I’d resent staying there and missing out on my dream.  I’d hate to leave her but I wouldn’t regret it.”

“What if it was her who had to go?  Wouldn’t you want her to stay?”

“Of course I’d want her to stay.  I’m a selfish guy and I’m living my life to make myself happy and if she makes me happy I want her around.  But I wouldn’t demand that she stay, and I would never use guilt as a weapon to force her hand.  Of course I’d talk it over with her, and if I could find a solution that kept us together I’d jump on it.  But if it was a choice between my happiness and our relationship, I’d choose my happiness and I could never love a woman who wouldn’t choose hers.  What is a relationship for if it doesn’t bring more joy to your life?”

“Why does your happiness have to be separate from the relationship?  That doesn’t make sense to me.  It seems like you’d be making yourself unhappy by leaving behind a good relationship.”

“In the short term, you’re right.  Pain would be unavoidable if she really meant so much to me.  But my relationship with myself has to come before any relationship with another person.  I’ve said it already; I’m living my own life.  A relationship with a woman is an enhancement to my life.   It can never be the purpose.”

“That can’t be completely right.  What if she was the most important thing in your life?  You love your job and you match each other and everything is grand, why then couldn’t she be the most important piece of your life?  The one that brings everything together?”

“She can be the most important person in your life but it’s still your life.  Look at the abysmal success with women ‘nice guys’ have.  They have no life or qualities outside of the fact that they’re nice and will devote themselves to a woman – and probably any woman.  Any man in the world can devote himself to a woman, even to your ideal woman.  And it’s important to mention we are talking about ideals here.  If you’re fine with ending up with somebody who is good enough, but not perfect, then what I’m talking about has nothing to do with you.  I will say that you can be happier, you can find somebody better.  But if you’re more interested in just being OK then I have nothing to offer you.  If you think the goal of finding what is right for your life and your purpose in everything is too hard to accomplish and not worth seeking then what we’re talking about at this point is irrelevant for you.  You’ve got other issues to contend with. 
“But to answer your question, look at your relationship now.  That’s exactly what you’re doing.  She is the most important thing in your life and you’re pushing aside those other things that matter to you in order to please her.  And it is pleasing to her when you do it.  You’re succeeding.  But it’s destroying you.  And if you continue down this path, if God forbid you got married to this woman, the rest of your life would be based on the premise that your relationship is built on now.  That your happiness is subordinate to hers.  But what if you grew a metaphorical pair sometime down the line, let’s say 10 years into your marriage.  You suddenly realize that you’ve been denying yourself to make her happy because she was your purpose.  You do what I’ve said you should and you discover and hold your boundaries and you own up to your desires.  If you’re stronger than her, and she doesn’t leave you, then your positions will have switched.  Now she’ll be the one denying herself in order to please you.  You’ll enjoy it for awhile, but soon you’ll start to wish she would do or say something on her own.  You’ll pray for a spark of rebellion, for her to say ‘no’ to you just once so that she’ll be a real person and not just a doll who does whatever you say and desire.  People have opinions, people have desires and needs, people care about themselves.  What person is there left to love if they deny their self?”

“It’s all very logical and it makes sense from a certain perspective, but look at her now.  She loves me more the more I am devoted to her.  That’s a contradiction to what you’re saying.”

“No, it isn’t.  You said it yourself already.  You want different things.  She wants the man who is devoted to her, whose purpose is her.  You want to live your life and for her to live her life, and for the two of you to do so side by side.  Am I wrong about that?  Am I putting words in your mouth?  You want to have friends, you want to accommodate her friends and you want her to do the things that make her happy even if it doesn’t always include you.  She doesn't.   She wants a servant.  She doesn’t want to love a real person, she wants to love her fantasy and  fortunately for her, those men who are willing to give it to her exist.  Whether or not there is one who can do it happily I don’t know, but I doubt it."

“It’s a contradiction then, because she is able to live that way and be happy.  She is holding to her standards and desires, and she is also demanding that I hold to her standards as well.  Her standards require me to devote myself to her, and I’m doing it, and she’s happy.  You were saying that real relationships can’t have one person who…oh.”


“It isn’t a real relationship then, is it?”


“We’ve said all this.  It’s a relationship between a master and a servant.”

“Which is a legitimate relationship, provided the servant is being paid and can leave at any time if conditions are unbearable.  A person who provides a service for a price has the luxury of not becoming too emotionally invested in the person or business paying them.  It might be a little awkward to leave, but few are the people who would hesitate to leave a business that was treating them horribly.  And if they have no other option, well, what does that tell you about the state of that person?  We think business and love are so different because there are things about a person that you can love while overall being very unhappy in a relationship with them.  And when it’s a person you’re loving, not a job, it’s easy to fool yourself into believing that you can work through it.  Good luck giving your employer a list of demands on how you must be treated for you to work together, or compromising with them on their standards for how you’ll work.  You’ll be fired or ignored.  As you should be.  Instead, know what your list of demands requires and find the employer that is willing to meet those from the beginning.  It’s the same with love and relationships.  Find the person who meets your standards, don’t demand that a person change themselves in order to meet them.”

 [D1]Something is wrong or missing here.  It just doesn’t fully ring true.  What do you know of the compromises people make in relationships?  I don’t know if anybody would disagree with the example you give later of her treatment of his having friends, but what are some more common compromises?  Also, about sharing burdens, this feels like a contradiction.  Is she not sharing a burden of yours if something terrible happens in your life and she helps you out?

Consider talking about cooperation and admitting when you’re wrong.
 [D2]I’m starting to talk about guilt but I don’t think I ever get into talking about why it’s negative to accept unearned guilt or the orgin of his guilt (accepting the premise that his happiness is subordinate to hers, so when she feels bad he feels guilty for failing.)
 [D3]Could this be rewritten in terms of happiness, “Being happy that somebody else is happy requires only that they make themselves happy”  Or  “It doesn’t take anything from you to be happy for somebody else”
 [D4]There are too many issues going on.  While all of this might come up in a typical advice session and conversation, it’s a lot for a piece that explores my philosophy and ideas.   It’s too convoluted. The ideas at present are:
- your happiness is not subordinate to hers,
-relationships do not require sacrifice,
-unearned guilt
- accepting that a man has duties toward a woman in a relationship particularly pertaining to the power relationship,
-psychological unhealthiness of holding an image of somebody and forcing them to conform,
- having expectations and standards for a relationship rather than trying to build them from a person who may not share them.
-mixing of bad premises creates problems fundamentally
-what she wants isn’t bad, it’s just not in alignment with what you want.
-ideals vs. enough
-nice guys
-denying yourself makes you an unreal person

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