I am horrendous when it comes to remembering dates. I know the birthdays of my parents and my sister and of some random childhood friends (Meryl Glass, May 28). I twist into a squint when weighing the sound of Phil’s birthday. I repeat two different dates in my head, trying to determine which one sounds right. I know it’s in… April? Yes. Then I can narrow in on it. Lea is April 28. Phil is April 8. Then I’m sure, but I have to really think about it. I don’t know my grandparents birthdays, mostly because the whole of my life, our mother purchased the greeting cards for us, reminding us. "Come on Stephanie, sign the card." I don’t know for how many years my grandparents were married before my grandmother died. I don’t know the date she died. I don’t remember these things, the logistics of the lives lived around me.
My grandparents were married forever, a lifetime of playing your favorite song on repeat. In a recent interview about Straight Up and Dirty, I was asked why I believed marriages lasted as long as they did in earlier generations compared to today. Yes, yes, there’s the whole church argument. It wasn’t the Christian thing to do. Even if it wasn’t a church, it was some inherent belief that it was wrong to divorce, that you were a failure because you couldn’t manage to make it work. As a divorcee, you were filthy almost. It just wasn’t done. And then there’s the whole, people cheated just as much back then, but it was accepted. A blind eye. People were just as miserable in their marriages, but they didn’t, couldn’t really, do anything about it. While that all might be true, I don’t think it addresses the heart of the question.
The interviewer, a reporter in Austria, prefaced the question by saying, "Women changed in the last generations (since your grandparents came from Greece). Is this part of the problem with relationships?" Basically asking if the liberalizing effects of education and the rights afforded to women in recent years have contributed to the downfall of romantic love. Is this the reason we’re getting divorced more now than ever? Is this the reason we’re unhappy? I have to say, I don’t even know how to answer the question. I’m all at once disgusted and appalled at the implications. It sounds like blame. And as a woman, I immediately tense up, wanting to defend women to a woman reporter.
I’m a feminist. I believe in equal rights for both men and women. And I know we’re continuing to make strides to get there, but how am I helping? I am not sure I know what it means anymore to be feminist, and does how I answer this question shape any of it? I stop to really think about it, setting aside for the moment my immediate defensive pose. Women are no longer handmaidens. It’s no longer the case that behind every great man is an even greater woman. Now the greater woman doesn’t need a man. To feel whole, to be accepted in society, to be respected, to be satisfied or happy. And does this play a part, as the reporter put it, "of the problem with relationships?"
Yeah, I guess it does. Because now women know they have every right to feel satisfied in their relationships. We have the right, not only to express our needs but to also have them met. And we know there’s always an out clause. But men know it too. It’s not about fault or blame. It’s about power. Power is the ability to have others conform to your wishes. It’s having authority, influence. Having more power in society, not as much as men yet, but certainly more than former generations, affords a woman with the ability to fight for what she wants, and what she doesn’t want.
Enter the power struggle. I live here with polished silverware and linen napkins. I eat it daily, collect it’s crumbs with my finger and lick off every last one. Sometimes I fall asleep ignoring it, but I know it’s there. I hear it breathing. I live in a state of constant struggle for power. It’s customarily determined as an early phase in relationships, when people are setting ground rules, establishing how things will operate, or cooperate, between the unit. It’s when we test and establish boundaries. Usually during this period sensitivities about control are revealed. I read recently on a self-helpy web site, "Distrust from your unresolved past manifests and there is often a fear of loss of control and heavy judgments of the other person start to show up. Many relationships never move beyond this stage and many end here. This stage is really about building trust." It’s not only romantic relationships, either. Look at the way I first responded to the Austrian reporter. My initial reaction was to be defensive. And maybe rightly so, but I’m learning that stopping and assessing what’s really going on is critical.
When speaking of power, I’m not talking about who’s right and who’s wrong in any given argument. I’m addressing fear, the individual fears we each have, and how those fears can manifest into a constant state of struggle. Phil, for example, is violently afraid of being controlled and disrespected. He never wants to feel like he’s being told what to do or that he needs to ask permission for anything in his life. Clearly he has unresolved issues from his past that play an enormous part in this, even if he does think it’s justified. And like him, I fear losing myself. I don’t want to give up being me, not to please anyone, because of my past. And I associate "giving up me" with making changes. "I don’t want to be different. I like who I am. This is who I am, got a problem with it? Too bad. Deal." Yes, there are nice neat little changes,compact steps we take at bettering ourselves, and sometimes we don’t see it as better. We see it as "they’re getting their way again!" We feel subservient, handmaidens to their desires of who we should be and how we ought to behave. And sometimes it feels like I need to break away and breathe, to be free to be me, just like the song says. Not under the thumb of scrutiny, hoping I’ll act more like an "us" than a "me." Hoping I won’t be selfish. And I struggle with it. I fear sometimes I’m not selfish enough. That I should stand up even more. And in the face of his communicated feelings, I need to work on being responsive not defensive. I wonder if my grandmother felt these things. If she had the same thoughts and never voiced or acted upon them, or if she simply never thought of it. And that’s the point.
I think the real reason my grandparents generation remained happily married for so many years is because our generation is self-absorbed. We’re not living through The Great Depression. We’re pampered. We have luxuries. Computers. Email. Therapists. And we have… blogs. We write about our anxiety, we spend our energy reflecting on our lives, introspecting. Reading checklists about essential skills needed in healthy relationships. We spend our time analyzing ourselves, determining if we’re really happy. If we’re growing. We basically have too much time on our hands. So we’re far more self-aware than our grandparents were, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re happier. We have the luxury, and curse, of time to contemplate our lives. And idleness is the devil’s handmaiden.