My tiny apartment is unusually colorful nowadays because Don and Becky have brought over a Christmas tree.
The tree is the perfect size for my tastes — about a meter tall — and Becky has decorated it with shiny bulbs and a strand of blue and yellow, and red and green lights. In the night, the tree produces a soft glow, as if I were burning a couple of candles. Only the light’s more colorful than a couple of candles.
So I was surfing the net last night in the almost romantic glow of my Christmas tree — thinking, of course, how pleasant and nice it would be to steal someone’s presents to put under my tree — when I stumbled across a friend of mine and her boyfriend in an internet chat room.
Please allow me to call the couple, Mr. and Ms. Autumnstream.
The Autumstreams are in their very early twenties and attend college together. We happened to be alone in the chat room, so it wasn’t too difficult to carry on a conversation.
We began by discussing movies and then how they had met (which turned out to have been in one of their college classes). From a few clues they dropped here and there, I formed an early impression that both Mr. and Mrs. Autumstream are very bright. At that point, I relinquished all hope of stealing their presents. Then, after a while, the conversation turned to a topic that seemed on both of their minds last night: How to best keep their relationship fresh and alive.
That’s an intriguing topic, isn’t it? The number of books and articles written on the subject in just the past 20 years could perhaps fill a decent size university library. If that is any proper indication, it would seem many more couples than the Autumnstreams are interested in the subject.
Mrs. Autumnstream was especially enthusiastic to discuss it with me. It seemed she was placing her intitial hopes of keeping their relationship fresh and alive on diligently working to improve communication between the two. Very recently, they had decided to set aside regular times for conversation, and now they were asking each other questions they had never asked before. It seemed to me things were going well for them.
I think the topic of how to keep a friendship fresh and alive is complex. There are many things to consider. For instance, the Autumnstreams have been together about two years, and the scientists who study these things tell us that is about as long as the initial rush of young love can last. If that’s true, then it’s pretty much futile to try bringing back that initial rush, and our attempts to keep a relationship fresh and alive must focus on accomplishing something else. But what?
Of course, there are entire worlds to love that one seldom, if ever, explores in that initial rush of young love — no matter how intense that initial rush is, and no matter how long it lasts. My friend Becky puts it very simply: You loose the giddy excitement of young love, but you gain the profound connectedness of mature love.
I think many of us try to cling to young love for as long as we can, but I wonder whether that clinging doesn’t interfere with our acceptance and exploration of mature love? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I would be interested in finding out.
At any rate, it seems to me misguided for us to intend to keep a friendship fresh and alive through attempting to bring back all the feelings and emotions of young love. Instead, the challenge might very well be to prevent ourselves from falling into a rut.
There are several dangers of falling into a rut in your relationship. But rather than list them all, it might be better to just illustrate an extreme example of what I’m talking about here with a little story.
Some long time ago, I waited tables, and after doing it for a while, I came to suspect there could be something strange about some of the couples that came into the restaurant. These were always some of the older couples. Men and women in their 60s and 70s — many of whom had proudly told me they’d been married for decades. What struck me as strange about some of these older couples is how lifeless they appeared.
So much about them was routine and habitual. They would show up to the restaurant at the same time each day, ask for the same table they had the day before, almost always order the same meals as yesterday, and in general do everything the same as they had always done. But what really struck me were their eyes. Their eyes seemed lifeless.
As couples they didn’t converse much. I would notice them waiting for their food, starring past each other, not speaking a word. Of course, there could be any number of explanations for such behavior, but I fancied it was some kind of abuse that got to them.
If you have been in an abusive relationship for any length of time, you probably have seen how it can retard growth and change, and shut down spontaneity. The abused partner usually doesn’t dare risk doing anything that might bring on an attack, so he or she sticks to safe routines. The abusing partner, on the other hand, usually doesn’t dare risk loosing control, so he or she also sticks to safe routines. No one wants to take a chance on doing anything new or different.
Now I don’t want to suggest that, anytime a couple gets into a deep rut like those former customers of mine, it is because one of them is abusing the other. I really don’t know whether or not that’s usually the case. But I would like to point out in passing that at least one reason a couple can get into such an astonishingly deep rut is abuse. So, if I were concerned with keeping a relationship fresh and alive, I would surely begin by making certain I was neither being abused by, nor abusing, my partner.
The other thing I would like to point out here is even more obvious: Too much routine, whether it is caused by abuse or not, kills anything fresh and alive in a relationship. I suppose the key phrase here is “too much”. It seems a complete lack of routine drains the life from most people in one way, while too much routine drains the life from most people in another way. “All things in moderation”, then.
So, the dangers of relationship ruts — some of which I’ve hinted at here — went careening through my head last night when the Autumnstreams brought up their desire to keep their friendship fresh and alive. Lucky for them, I did not indulge myself in tediously lecturing them on those dangers.
Yet, unlucky for them, Mrs. Autumnstream asked me for advice. I do not know what overcame her. Perhaps she forgot for a moment that asking me for relationship advice is asking a twice-divorced, semi-celibate, old bachelor for relationship advice. In my lifetime, I have committed 1001 grave relationship mistakes. Indeed, given my track record, it is my single greatest source of pride that I actually have managed to survive my own advice. They do not make them tougher than me.
So, perhaps it was the nearly romantic mood created in my apartment by the Christmas lights last night that intoxicated me, but whatever the cause, I threw out all good sense and decided to offer her relationship advice. They do not make them denser than me.
I got the ball rolling by asking the Autumnstreams to read my old blog post, Jackie in the Year of the Comet, which obliquely deals with the problem. The most pertinent parts of that post are these lines, where I urge Jackie to avoid putting on masks around the men she wants to be intimate with :
“Jackie, the boys who really love you want you as you are. They will not want you to put on a mask or an act for them. They will want the miracle that is you. So, the best, most generous thing you can do for those who really love you is to be genuine. Is to stay true to yourself. In that way, you will give them what they want.”
“Just as you could not love the stars tonight if clouds obscured them, so too a boy could not love you for yourself if you ever succeeded in masking who you are — even if you made your mask of gold.”
After they had read the post, I asked the Autumnstreams something approaching a diagnostic question — could they recall the last time they had put a mask on with each other? Of course, they both could. These things are not all that uncommon even between couples who are reasonably honest. After all, masks are even useful at times.
I offered my opinion that masks are roles, and that when we put on a mask we are, in practice, playing a role. Of course, a role easily becomes a routine — or even a rut. That is, problems come when our masks become habitual and inflexable. Then, the roles we play in order to create the mask so very easily impede change and growth, and even bring us to stagnation. I told the Autumstreams how it seemed to me a partial solution to the problem of keeping their friendship fresh and alive was to become aware of and cautious about the masks or roles they adopted with each other.
At that point, Mr. Autumnstream remarked how difficult it can be at times not to put up masks. Which I thought very true. But is there anything that makes it easier for us to take down our masks? Or is there anything that might help us abstain from erecting those masks in the first place?
I think if we look closely at what might cause us to erect masks, we will see it is often fear. Sometimes this fear is well placed, but many times it is not. And sometimes it is needlessly exaggerated. One of the things that seems to needlessly exaggerate our fears is judgmentalism. If that is true, then perhaps we can lessen our unnecessary judgments of both ourselves and others. We might then find the fears which cause us to erect our masks abate.
That was about as far as we got last night before deciding to log off and go to bed. The topic of how to keep a friendship fresh and alive is a huge one and there is no way we could have explored it all in one night. Yet, I’m curious now what insights you yourself have on this subject?