As a poly, sex-positive feminist who hangs around with a lot of asexuals, I read a lot of critiques of the standard norms of romantic relationships: that your most important relationship is a monogamous, romantic-sexual relationship with someone you live with; that women do a disproportionate share of the domestic labor; that sexual coercion is often normalized in romantic-sexual relationships. But one thing I don’t see critiqued is the normalization of disrespect.
I was recently reading Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting (which I liked, by the way). He points out that if you have a scatterbrained friend who forgets her umbrella, you’re likely to say “here’s your umbrella.” If you have a scatterbrained child, however, you’re likely to say “Ugh! Why can’t you ever remember anything? You’d lose your head if it wasn’t screwed on. You just have to learn to pay more attention…” and on and on for ten minutes. Why, he asks, would we talk to a child in a way we wouldn’t talk to anyone else?
As I read that, I thought, “But there’s one relationship where a lot of people would find the latter way of talking perfectly acceptable: their spouses.”
Berating, scolding, nagging, yelling, insulting, lecturing… frankly, a lot of people behave with more respect to casual acquaintances than they do to the people they claim to love most in the world. That’s fucked up.
Some of it is just that people who have children and spouses usually spend more time around their children and spouses than anyone else. The personality quirks that are a little annoying in a person you see once a week become fingernails on a chalkboard in a person you’re with for hours each day. Since this is the thousandth time you’ve had to remind your wife about her goddamn umbrella, you’re way more annoyed, which makes it harder to respond in a kind and respectful way.
Some of it, I think, is that we don’t feel like we can control our casual acquaintances. I know that there’s absolutely nothing I can do to keep my scatterbrained acquaintance from being scatterbrained; all I can do is remind her of her umbrella. But I feel, somewhere in my heart of hearts, that if I just find the right punishment to convince my partner not to become scatterbrained, then she’ll stop. This is not, of course, true– as you can tell by the fact that you have to keep nagging her about the freaking umbrella. If it worked, you wouldn’t have to nag so much.
As the psychologist joke goes, the lightbulb has got to want to change. If your wife doesn’t want to keep track of her umbrella, she’s probably not going to– no matter how unpleasant you are to her. All nagging does is change the situation from “huh, it’s really inconvenient that I keep forgetting my umbrella” to “why won’t my wife shut the fuck up about me forgetting the goddamn umbrella already? It was one time! Christ! I’m going to show her by reminding her how often she forgets her car keys.” And even if it did work, is it really worth the price you’re paying in harm to the relationship and unpleasantness with your spouse?
And, frankly, a lot of people’s personalities are fixed already. Forgetful people have often been forgetful their entire lives and are going to continue to be forgetful for the rest of time. The only options here are to accept it and learn to live with it, or to divorce them and hope you can find someone less forgetful next time. Neither option is wrong (your wife’s inability to remember her umbrella might seem petty, but sometimes petty things can do a number on your quality of life), but those are your choices. Choosing neither to accept your partner’s foibles nor remove yourself from them just makes you and them upset.
Some of it also is that we don’t actually learn to control our tempers: we just learn to put a veneer of politeness over it. Most people aren’t as polite to their loved ones as they are to their friends, which is actually good: you want to let your hair down and not have to worry about causing offense every time you’re distracted and forget to say “thanks”. But if being polite is our only way of behaving respectfully to someone really goddamn annoying, then we can wind up being very unkind to our closest loved ones.
Another important factor is that a lot of people care more about being right than about being happy. When they start arguing with their partner, they don’t deescalate, they don’t say “hey, we’re getting really heated, let’s talk about this later”, they don’t assess if this is worth fighting about, and they certainly don’t concede to keep the peace.
One important skill, I think, is the skill of biting your tongue. I myself have had the experience of saying that a plan was a bad idea, but my fiance insists on it, and then it turns out to be a bad idea. Of course, my natural urge is to say “ha ha! I told you so! I was right all along! You should have listened to me! Let me gloat about how great I am!” What is the point of this? All I’m doing is making my fiance feel sad. My gloating will not change the past, and my fiance is a sensible person who will take his mistake as a reason to listen to my advice more in the future; the only consequence is that I’m behaving in a way that hurts someone I love and, frankly, isn’t the person I want to be. But in the moment the impulses to say those things can feel uncontrollable. The trick is to learn to bite your tongue.
Another important skill is learning to have a sense of humor about things. My fiance Topher is extremely good at this: whenever I do some borderline nonsense, he just laughs, and then I start laughing, and there are no hard feelings. It would be totally reasonable for him to think “oh, god, this shit again, I can’t believe I have decided to date a person with a severe mental illness, my life is so difficult”, but instead he responds with “holy shit, what kind of ridiculous mess has Ozy gotten themself into now, this is hilarious.” The laughter shouldn’t be mean-spirited, and you shouldn’t laugh at people about things that they feel insecure about.
A third important skill is learning to disagree respectfully. The sex-positive movement mostly has that stuff covered, partially because sexual communication is a huge issue, so I would direct interested people to The Ethical Slut and More Than Two and not write about it myself.