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Rethinking the Couple Fail: stats, freedom and effective door stops

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Here at Dysatisfunctional.com, we’re nothing if not innovators/outright copycats. The time-honoured tradition of correspondence between great minds is mildly disturbed here. Bastardising this fine practice on blogs has been done before, but how many interlocutors used to kind-of sort-of date-slash-see each other, THEN get mildly angry at each other for a bit but stay friends AND THEN blog about dating itself? Not many, if any.  Annie is a freelance writer, lawyer, legendary putt-putt golfer and generally nimble thinker in all matters social, and my perfect counterpoint on this topic.

Luke: Annie welcome to Dysatisfunctional.com first of all. Currently and comically single, I haven’t wanted to abuse readers with one-sided rants tumbling through all six stages of singledom: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance, and back to denial. Two-sided rants are so much more interesting, and you being a) a lady and b) also in a relationship, all but guarantee a more balanced perspective.

I guess the name of the game at Dysatisfunctional.com has been investigating common problems to modern living, via the untapped potential of human frailty and failure. So without tipping over into pointless self-indulgence, I thought our personal history makes you the perfect person with whom to discuss dating matters. Let me ask you first of all: what is a failed couple?

Annie: The epitome, I think, is the couple you see coming into a restaurant, sitting down, ordering a meal, eating the meal, paying the bill and then exiting without speaking a word to each another. They’re out there. (Couples with hearing impairments excepted).

More generally, I’d say a failed couple is a couple where one or more people in the relationship is unhappy most of the time. As for what amounts to being ‘unhappy’, I tend to measure mine in terms of fractions: if the amount of happy times spent together as a couple is divided by the amount of time spent complaining to my friends about that same relationship on the phone is less than 1 = not happy.

Should that quotient be a little higher I wonder?

Luke: Beware mutual stalking, where you each agree to just run each other into the ground. There are too many of these kinds of couples. I’m sure I’ve been there briefly though, right in those days/weeks leading up to a crash&burn. Make sure it’s not months/years though…

I like how your formula works off of time spent. My approach is more qualitative and less interesting: I’m OK to have the cons outweigh the pros for a time, but if that proves entrenched, I hit the eject button. Does a couple have to last to be successful?

Annie: Sadly, I have no nerd-burger formula there but I did find an interview with Vanessa Paradis very enlightening on this point. When interviewed about the rumours she and Johnny Depp had split and whether they were really ‘soul mates’ after all, she said she found the whole concept of having one soul mate a little scary and that with love you’ve got to take things one day at a time.

Maybe love’s not so much a ‘be all and end all,’ but a state of being where, if it comes to an end, then you’ve got the possibility of future connections with others to look forward to. Saying that, I would scrag-fight Vanessa tooth and nail if she said something like that to me soon after a break up.

Luke: ‘Time and place, Vanessa…’ Sheesh. At the other extreme from soul mates then, if two people hook up, once, or for a while, but eventually things cool off, is that failure?

Annie: Not if the quotient in my happiness formula was greater than one, most of the time those two people were together.

Mathematics aside, that question also makes me think of the film Russian Dolls. At the end, the lead guy says each relationship is one doll inside another, in that they change you in ways that lead you into the next relationship, each more fulfilling than the last. Eventually, you get to the teeniest, tiniest Russian doll, which could, I guess, be your soul mate if you disagree with Ms Paradis about these things and believe they do exist.

Luke: So we’re really beating back ‘failure’ from all kinds of different relationships now hey. Dare I say, that’s where you and I sit, isn’t it, in that murky-somehow-pseudo-educational-twenties place? It wasn’t always super-comfortable. Sometimes I think I learned heaps about relationships in that time, Russian Doll style (whoah, that sounds a lot more sexist when I say it…), but the dysatisfunctional part of me wonders if that’s truly the case. Do we perhaps assume progress as part of a kind of post-Enlightenment Western hangover, and in fact follow instead a cycle of the same old stuff? I guess it might look that way to some of my settled friends.

If I had to defend myself (and I DO at times…), I’d say the same old issues that come up are at least a true expression of my personality. So, you know, I might not be happy but at least it’s the real me who can’t get no satisfaction. Our mutual friend Gary, if you remember, grew and cut off a massive millennial afro, citing that he couldn’t compete with his own hair. He said that without the ’fro, girls stopped calling him, but at least it was the real him they weren’t calling!

Annie: I do recall Gary shaving off his fro and I also recall his identical twin Claude deciding to grow a fro at about the same time which confused the hell out of me. Perhaps it was Claude who ended up getting ‘those’ calls?

Luke: Haha, maybe. Twin genius. We will have to get them to clarify on a future post. Dysatisfunctional.com is all about embracing failure, as a kind of inoculation against it. People talk about their ‘failed relationships’ all the time. Is 50 years of marriage, but divorcing in old age, still a failure?

Annie: I think anyone who can hold down a relationship for more than fifty years deserves some sort of personalised message from the Queen. Could be Queen Latifah – I’m not fussed.

For all the older couples I’ve observed, I’ve wondered why some relationships lasted and others didn’t. It’s strange but often the couples that seemed more ‘in love’ and romantic didn’t go the distance as much as couples who seemed more low key.

One set of parents who are still together were an arranged marriage: the wife flew over to Australia, having not much control over the situation and no idea what to expect. They actually have quite a loving, supportive, fun relationship and contrary to what you’d think this woman is really confident, forthright and independent. Not that I’m an advocate for arranged marriages and Luke, you must be breaking into hives over this…

Luke: I’m not as opposed to this idea as you might think. I call those quietly successful couples ‘third gear couples’, and they make me question the pursuit of romance, of finding the answer for everything I need in one person. Romantic monogamy does seem a tall order. I don’t want to tear down couples who appear to have it all, but I see all sorts of compromises being made to stay there. So why not compromise on the serendipity of how you meet your spouse? Arrange away, I say, because many of our perceived freedoms are illusory, including the very desire to be free. Most of us are looking for comfortable cages. I know I am.

Annie: The only cage I’d be happy with is like a go-go dancing cage where I get to wear high white PVC boots and shift dresses, dance the Watusi and can climb in and out whenever I like. I guess I could apply much the same principle to relationships.

Luke: That’s a powerful metaphor for your ideal relationship, Annie. Please let us know how you go. Do you see any problems with how we typically distinguish between picking up, hooking up, ‘seeing’ someone, dating, going out, ‘getting serious’, getting married?

Annie: I look back with longing to when you could explain your relationship with an a series of vague terms like ‘just seeing’ and ‘getting serious.’ Now, it’s all on Facebook and you have nine options that are very specific and your status update is published for all to see. And the option of ‘it’s complicated’? Sometimes it’s not ‘complicated’ at all. You just don’t want the world to know exactly what’s going on or you’d like to reserve the right to choose how you define your relationship or what you want the world to know about it.

Luke: But explaining why you don’t want everyone else to know what’s going on might be quite complicated. I tried to remove my ‘it’s complicated’ status in 2007, which fielded the status update: ‘Luke’s relationship status is no longer complicated,’ and I received several congratulatory messages which was the opposite of what I was going for.

Annie: Also, I take issue with the word ‘dating’. When you’ve been in a relationship for a while you don’t really go on dates anymore unless you could order take-away, sit in bed next to each other as you either admire or admonish your partner’s farts. And if you try and institute date night, you spend most of that time noticing how much more effort and cost is involved in going somewhere for dinner or paying for overpriced cinema tickets when you’d rather be cuddling in bed at home. Wait a minute…is that the preliminary stage before you become one of ‘those couples’ in Question 1?

Luke: Uh-oh. Nothing preliminary about it, my friend. I’m a big fan of dates in couples, but not date night exactly, and certainly not ‘instituting date night.’ *forest unicorn dies* I just mean special stuff, surprises.

What’s the difference between two couples living this suburban dream you so vividly scribe, in which one couple is happy and the other perpetually dissatisfied? Well, I always say love is like the ending of The Matrix: if Neo and Trinity both think Neo is The One, he is. If not, then he’s not. Your partner might sick their Rottweilers onto you for burning the fish fingers, but if you think it’s working, it is. Until you think it isn’t. They might sell their Rottweilers, give up the crackpipe and start a charity, and this might ruin your snug codependency. My point is that love is gloriously self-sustaining, completely self-fulfilling, and utter, raving madness.

Annie: Neo wasn’t The One?

Luke: Yes Neo is The One! But he could easily not have been – that’s our predicament. So finally, it’s not an elephant in the room but more like an armadillo bunking with the neighbours: according to everything discussed above, are we a failed couple?

Annie: Like Neo being The One, it’s all how you look at things. I tried to make a flowerpot in a pottery class that kind of collapsed in on itself but made for a serviceable door stop. Sure, it can’t hold pretty flowers but holding doors open is nothing to sniff at. Our failed dalliance opened the door to a beautiful friendship, Luke. Flowery enough of a metaphor for you? Or is it a simile?

Luke: Wow that is grand. I’m pretty happy to be the door guy. Well I guess we’re always part of each other’s equations. Not always comfortable, but I wouldn’t have it any different. Thanks Annie!

**Applause lights flash**

Seeking Compromise, Part Two: Flying Penguins and Critical Optimism

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“critical optimism has the potential to engender a kind of gracious self-worth, or arrogant humility, depending, of course, on how you see it.”

Last week I wanted to talk about compromise, but realised we needed to clear some ground about worldviews first, broadly grouped as optimistic and hopeful, on the one hand, or pessimistic and cynical, on the other. Self-help and psychology-based industries usually take it for granted that the former is desired and beneficial, while the latter stops us in our tracks. So last week we reviewed the benefits of optimism, like improved health and feelings of well-being, but also the costs: discomfort and avoidance of life’s harder truths. I may even have suggested that unbridled optimism was the door to psychopathy. At the very least, it can be a source of alienation in personal relationships, if not cause some of the dumbest shit humans can get up to. Denial is not a river in Egypt, and this geographical misunderstanding costs us every time. I still want to talk about compromise, but we’re not going to get there today either.

As we concluded last week, then, cynicism and pessimism can be virtuous, because they help us confront hard truths, set realistic goals and are also the pathways to empathy and close social bonds. Not that all those downsides from last week don’t suddenly vanish; unbridled cynicism will put your life in a tailspin just as much as unbridled optimism. Historically, the Cynics of Ancient Greek philosophy believed in an ascetic life of virtue, in accordance with nature’s laws. Nowadays this still correlates in a surprising way: if you believe most positive thinking ideologues, cynics might find themselves living quite the ascetic lifestyle indeed! I can vouch for some truth in that, though does struggling to get by make me cynical, or am I really to believe that already being cynical is why I struggle? My considered answer to the head of the Royal Melbourne Pain Clinic followed thus: “Fuck you.” In any case, we shouldn’t shy away from the negative impacts of cynicism.

Before our pathological Dr Feelgoods out there point to “Ah-HA!” me here, this is a long way from the perrenial bad press cynicism gets, and is enough to take optimism off its perch as the ideal state of mind in all situations. A cynical person would be more likely to acknowledge the flaws of their approach, even if it meant impinging on their success or well-being, and this is precisely my point. A canny reader put me onto this TED talk, worth sharing:

I take issue with much of this talk, as you might expect. Who says believing in your own abilities has anything to do with optimism? Many cynical folks are used to backing their own skills; they have to, because they’re not expecting the world to hand them anything. If Dr Sharot is correct here, though, it’s possible I’m optimistic about my abilities but pessimistic about their capacity to translate into success or happiness.

But mainly, I don’t believe there are optimists and pessimists, in an empirical, testable way. The Dysatisfunctional position is that we are all surely mixes of the two, optimistic about some things and cynical about other things. Even when clear tendencies exist for any given person, we might generalise and label someone accordingly, in a kind of shorthand. But there are problems with scientifically measuring optimism over one particular tested topic, then generalising across that person’s whole life, folding in health indicators, perceived happiness etc. I’ve used that shorthand in this post, but I’m not claiming scientific knowledge along the way, and neither should these guys.

And anyway, respondants’ perception of their happiness might be WRONG. Sounds crazy, but many people think they are happy, when anyone with a clue can see they are perpetual runners, living with that perpetual crazed wild horse eye we’ve all seen before:

dysatisfunctional wild horse eyes

Several ex-girlfriends over the years have pulled the exact same face on the way out the door.

Or they might be perfectly happy while projecting all their chaos and crap onto others, in which case they might be happy while outsourcing their unhappiness. In the business world it’s called negative externalization, and it’s just as despicable in private matters. So for Dr Sharot and her fellow scientists, relying on the conscious mind to provide data for their experiments is impressively flawed, especially for a discipline that created the concept of the sub-conscious, which ushers in the certainties of unknown motivations and limits to self-knowledge. Science won’t save us from our dysatisfunction; rather it makes us more dysfunctional in the false certainty it provides. Penguins, no matter how optimistic, simply will not “soar like an eagle”, as Dr Sharot suggests.

Is getting insurance sensibly pessimistic because you’re counting on needing it, or optimistic because you’re sure that whatever happens, you will be covered by the policy? Stupid penguins…

Dr Sharot’s gist, nonetheless, is that downsides have their upsides. Apart from her concluding point, that a dash of pessimism builds in preparation in the form of conditions, caveats and thus greater durability, I would add it also matches up better to how life actually is (since the universe is indifferent to us), fosters self-reliance (because the universe is indifferent to us), and facilitates greater empathy in personal relationships (because we are tooled up to acknowledge inevitable interpersonal difficulties). Since last fortnight, my “all good” friend replied that he has come more my way over the years, because it made him professionally and personally more effective, and I admitted to moving a good deal his way too, away from assuming things will go bad. Such thinking starts as an unrealistic assumption, but undeniably tends to self-fulfill.

This is where Dysatisfunctional.com advocates a middle ground I’d like to call “critical optimism”. It builds in the healthy benefits of optimism, while shedding the narrow self-blinding that tends to accompany positive thinking. It relies on an ever-critical degree of questioning, without running too far into despair. There are good reasons why both tendencies are linked to these bad behaviours, and critical optimism takes considerable self-discipline, and also energy, to maintain. Limited resources is why we all pull shit when we should know better. Implementing critical optimism will necessarily be imperfect, but that is an assumed part of its strategy.

When Buddhists meditate, they seek to quieten the mind, to block out all conscious ramblings, be they selfish or selfless, trivial or some raison d’être. Every effort is made to return to the most fundamental cornerstones of living: breath, sensation, and the passing of time. Importantly, they count on their attentions straying; the task is to return to the practice. Critical optimism works the same way: thinking positively need not deny inevitable failings, and your failings need not deny the next positive experience.

Bear this in mind, and critical optimism will stop you getting ahead of yourself when things start going well, while also developing a different kind of confidence that comes from training your critical eye, especially in sticky situations, (even those of your own making). In this way, critical optimism has the potential to engender a kind of gracious self-worth, or arrogant humility, depending, of course, on how you see it.