Thursday, December 30, 2010

Changing the Rules

Every relationship has its rules.  You are on-time or you are relaxed about showing up whenever.  You share a toothbrush or you each have your own vanity.  One cooks and the other cleans or gardens or repairs or sits on the couch.  It doesn't matter what they are, but the rules are there.  Like manners, they make the world go 'round.  

What happens when one participant decides to change the rules?  

On a practical level, take Elizabeth from Season 10 of The Biggest Loser.  Those of you who read the sidebars might remember that I love this show.  It's a triumph of mind over matter... lots and lots of matter.  Elizabeth went home and moved in with a boyfriend whose diet consisted of pizza and beer, with frozen chicken tenders for variety.  She tried to fill the refrigerator with fresh produce and healthy carbs.  When she showed up for the finale six weeks later, the boyfriend was conspicuously absent from the audience.  She'd changed the rules in a very overt manner and he bailed.

When the rules are more subtle, the changes are often even more dramatic.  G'ma and Daddooooo had an extraordinarily contentious relationship, but the nature of the hostility changed over time.  As G'ma grew more assertive, Daddooooo became more and more flummoxed.  His behavior began to change; I wish I could say for the better.  But there was change and, on some level, that was good.  It didn't make it any easier to be around, though.  As a young adult watching the scenario play itself out, I learned a lot.  Now, as an older adult, I can see similarities in my own relationships and I marvel at the fact that, no matter how hard we try, most of us end up becoming our parents.

Now that's a scary thought.  
Take a minute.  I'll wait.

Dating has always had its own peculiar set of rules.  There were courting candles burning on Victorian mantles, establishing the father's right to limit the length of the visit.  There were lavaliers and class rings and letter sweaters exchanged, and each had its own set of expectations and meaning.  The Cuters didn't date the way I did; groups were where their social lives hung out.  One-on-one experiences, like movies or dinner, were only for couples.  

Now there is internet dating, and an entirely new set of rules.  The Hotelie and Biker-Boy met and married thanks to one of those sites.  They are attractive and educated and delightful people who, though they shopped in the same grocery and ate at the same restaurants had never seen one another.... nor would either of them have approached the other without an introduction.  But the website protected them from revealing too much until they were each ready to do so, like a 21st century duenna.  There were opportunities to flirt and to chat and to retreat.   If someone broke the rules, it could be reported. 

That's the problem with on-going relationships - there's no one to whom you can complain if one of you changes the rules without permission.  You had established ground rules.  You liked those rules.  S/He changed the rules.  You are left emotionally unprotected.  

I'm not talking about a change of heart; people fall out of love and there's nothing that can be done about it.  Moaning, pleading, crying..... listen to Patsy Cline right here if you don't know what I'm talking about

I'm talking about the fundamental underpinnings of the relationship, be it boundaries or structure or veracity or deception.  There are things which are discussed and things which are ignored, and as time goes by those standards become more and more a part of the warp and woof of the duality.  That's what makes it unique and wonderful in its own way.

What happens when the parameters are shifted?  What do you do when things change?

When one party makes a declaration of love while involved in what had been a casual and friendly affair, what is the other to do?  Not everyone is marriage material.  Perhaps this was one of those times. 

When Sundays-in-the-park are transformed to Sundays-with-the-NFL, when dishwashers are suddenly not loaded and laundry is left in hampers over-flowing with curiosity about what the next step will be, relationships begin to crinkle around the edges.  These are small statements which have large consequences.  Sometimes they can be ironed out.  Sometimes the new, deckled look is better for both of you.  Sometimes you just have to say good-bye.

Why can't people just leave well-enough alone?


  1. Oh Patsy Cline... When I first heard her voice I thought, Now, that's a singer with IT... I was astonished when I found out she was a country-music star: where were the banjos and washboards? (I was pretty young then.)

    People are fuss-budgets, no two ways about it. (I remember a poem once encountered in a massive book of jokes, riddles, etc.: "As a rule/Man is a fool./When it's hot/He wants it cool./When it's cool/He wants it hot --/Always wanting/What is not.") In that impulse to fix things which often are not broken at all, or at least which are not broken in any way which matters, is a whole heap o' misery.

    On the other hand...

    I once wrote a memoir of the couple of years during which my Dad was dying of cancer. In it, I classified family members as falling into one of two general camps: fixers and sitters. I have no confidence that those of us who were sitters, and stubborn about it, were any "better" or "more helpful" than the manic fixers.

    On the specific relationship topics you're circling in this post, I will say only that (a) I wish they were all unfamiliar experiences to me, but (b) they are not.

  2. Circling and observing and wondering and....


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