In any list of desirable traits reliability and its close cousin, loyalty, rank high. People who consistently do what they promise to do are surprisingly uncommon. This reflects the New Year’s Resolution phenomenon: We all know what we should do to become the people we would like to be. Unfortunately, we become so used to breaking promises to ourselves that it becomes a habit that accounts for the lies, unconscious or deliberate, that we tell others. “I’ll call you tomorrow,” is frequently more a way of extricating oneself from the present moment than a statement of actual intent.
Chronic lateness or forgetfulness usually signifies an unappealing tendency toward passive-aggressive behavior rather than a sign that a person is busy, preoccupied, or needs a louder alarm clock. Any unkept promise ought to be interpreted as a statement of priorities. Usually, we are expected to consider such oversights as “accidental” and therefore no one’s fault. If they constitute a pattern of behavior, however, we ignore them at our own risk.
How we feel when in the presence of another person is an excellent indicator of the value of the relationship. Every human interaction makes us feel a little better or worse about ourselves. Sometimes the difference is large. If we save someone’s life we have a right to feel heroic. If we allow someone to merge on the freeway, we improve for a moment our sense of ourselves. Conversely, if we cut them off, we are likely to lose some self-respect. So if we feel more worthwhile as a result of being around someone, that is an important reason for wanting to prolong that experience – and vice versa.
Disloyalty takes many forms. At the low end of the scale we have those who simply do not do their share to uphold their end of the relationship. I am always skeptical of the arrangements people come up with to insure that the mundane maintenance tasks that absorb so much of our energy are equitably distributed. Sometimes people construct lists and contracts specifying who does what. But it is true that it is hard to live comfortably with someone who is unwilling to pull their weight in the housekeeping chores that few of us enjoy. At the other end of the scale is the deceit involved in having an affair. This particular form of disloyalty is intolerable to most of us since it is a violation of the trust that is a fundamental component of the joint commitment two people have made to one another.
Perhaps we need to look at any relationship as a collection of implied promises. Foremost among these is an assurance not to do anything that would intentionally hurt the other person. The opposite of this promise-keeping is a kind of meanness that may manifest itself in “bickering” that keeps each partner in a defensive state of alertness. We all have seen situations in which continual disagreements, usually over small things, produce a pattern in which petty argument is the most common form of communication. If sarcasm also plays a significant role in the manner in which a couple talks to each other, this is a very ominous sign for a continued connection. We all can absorb and accommodate disagreement from someone we love, but any expression of contempt, even (or especially) disguised as humor, is deadly.
There is a kind of mythology about relationships that sounds plausible and is constantly invoked to justify all manner of conflictual behavior. It takes the form of a series of assertions that are accepted without question and that collectively constitute the conventional wisdom. “All couples fight,” “It’s better to get your anger out and not sit on your feelings,” “Men only want one thing,” “Women always have a hidden agenda,” “Compromise is the secret to happiness,” “Boredom is inevitable,” “Look at nature, monogamy is unnatural.” And so on. These truisms have the cumulative effect of keeping expectations low; as a result we settle for less than our deepest desires.
Finally, danger lives at the extremes. Freud famously inquired, “What do women want?” a question that has resonated with men across the years. The answer in matters of the heart, I believe, is that both men and women seek excitement, which is, after all, the precursor to behavior that fosters species survival. The problem for both sexes is that, like any mood-elevating drug, mindless excitement by itself frequently comes with some surprising side effects.
The classic example of this phenomenon is the beautiful woman, accustomed to the attention of men, who wields her desirability as an instrument of power. Encouraged from an early age to use physical attractiveness to get what she wants (often starting with her father) she comes to value the superficial qualities that society associates with the feminine ideal. She is, in short, exciting. Her male counterpart, the seductive man, is equally skilled at generating enthusiasm in others, in this case, by projecting a potent mixture of success and vulnerability. Neither of these character types wears well over time since they have customarily not cultivated such traits as loyalty or reliability.
Of boredom this can be said: It is the primary underlying feeling in the litigants in most divorces. Often it is anger that appears most prominent. But the anger is frequently a secondary response to the sadness and disappointment of unmet expectations. Look at the smiling bride and groom in their wedding pictures. Can you imagine that they will end up some years hence bored to distraction with each other? And yet the statistics do not lie; such is the fate of most couples. Familiarity, it seems, may not always breed contempt, but it infrequently nourishes attachment. If you are bored with your partner going in and married him or her for other reasons – security, family pressures, a fear of growing old alone – odds of prolonged happiness or a successful marriage are slim. Proverb: “The gods gave men fire and he invented fire engines. They gave him love and he invented marriage.”