Nobody likes to scrape the gooey insides out of a pumpkin. Or almost nobody. I don’t mind so much. It’s just pumpkin guts. But I understand that there’s something disconcerting about the contrast between the solid, shiny exterior of a pumpkin and the stringy, wet, cold, gooey stuff within. Something that leads small children to shriek when they put their hand inside.
No one tells you about the gooey insides of a lot of things.
I have to admit that I didn’t really enter into my first serious, normal-type intimate relationship until I was in my thirties. I can’t really account for this except through a modified version of my mother’s explanation, which was that I’m picky. And difficult. And argue too much. But also, I believe, I was terrified. I have memories of diary entries dating back to junior high at least in which I envisioned falling in love as akin to being pulled into a bottomless, spinning vortex, beyond all control. Where did I get this idea? T.V.? The movies? Books? My older sister? I have no idea, but love seemed like something bad to me, something scary and completely outside of your control. I’ll admit that I am also picky and difficult and argue a lot, but that doesn’t keep a lot of people from being in relationships. Mostly I was scared.
I imagine there are good things and bad things about coming to your first intimate relationship at such a late date in your life. I was in some rather strange and twisted intimate relationships before, but nothing that ever got labeled in the proper way, and labels mean a lot. Still, I can see looking back that even in these fairly ambiguous proto-relationships, there was much confusion. I didn’t understand who I was, and I therefore couldn’t understand what I felt most of the time, let alone why I was feeling it. These, I’ve come to understand, are some of the most basic building blocks of being in a relationship, and without them, you have very little chance of understanding who your partner is, what they feel, and why they might be feeling it. I did some damage in these early relationships and had some damage done to me. I like to think of myself and my partners as large puppies; we were enthusiastic, but destructive and largely mindless. I had no clue what the fuck was going on most of the time.
I remember during this pre-relationship phase finding a note my friend’s girlfriend had written to him. It was what I would have described in this pre-relationship phase of my life as mushy, and yet oddly formal sounding. Polite. It might have been detailing all the reasons their relationship worked, or all the things she appreciated about my friend in their relationship. It sounded strange to me. Nothing like a love letter as I imagined it. I asked my friend about it, and he made a vague attempt to explain. It was important that they articulate these things to each other. It made up for other things that were missing. And then he gave up explaining. “If you’re not in a relationship, you just don’t understand,” he said.
Well, in my naive certainty back then I knew he was undeniably wrong. But he was not. There are love letters, and then there’s politely appreciating what your partner does for you in a relationship. What might have seemed polite and formal and strange from the outside is in fact fairly important to sustaining a real, lasting, marginally healthy relationship.
The good thing about entering into your first serious relationship in your thirties is that you can realize those kind of things. The bad thing (and maybe this has nothing to do with the particular age at which you enter a relationship…maybe all the relationships happening around me in my teens and 20s were, in fact, just as chaotic as my proto-relationships…maybe until we reach a certain maturity all our relationships are proto-relationships…maybe some people never have anything but proto-relationships?) about entering your first serious, normal relationship in your thirties is that you lose much of a basis of comparison. I find myself perhaps overly concerned with the question, “Is this in fact, a normal relationship? Is this how’s it supposed to be?”
I’m a sociologist, and so uniquely qualified to understand the misguidedness of these kinds of questions. What is normal? Is it the mean, median or mode? Is it what most people do, or what the average person does, keeping in mind that the average person in an average relationship does not actually exist? Do I mean normal in a normative sense (which is almost always what we mean)? Am I asking not really what’s normal, but what I should be doing? And should according to who? I don’t think I want to follow my parents’ set of shoulds, but perhaps those of my friends? But is the template for a relationship really transferable in that way? I have recently embarked on the task of meditating, and through meditating trying to get to know my mind. I have discovered that my mind wants to be normal, whatever it is this means. My mind wants a higher authority to tell it that what I’m doing, the way I am in my relationship, is, in fact, okay.
No one tells you about the gooey insides of relationships, and so if you haven’t been in them yourself, you just have to make it all up. And in a world with increasingly ambivalent gender roles, and as a person whose spent her fair share of time questioning and challenging those gender roles, the amount of stuff you have to make up increases dramatically compared to my parents’ generation. And I begin to suspect, in a bizarre twist, that part of the shoulds I’m worried about has to do with this questioning of gender roles. Is it okay that my partner takes the trash out? Is it okay that I like to feel taken care of? Am I in a good, feminist relationship, and what the hell would that look like anyway?
These are old questions in a lot of ways. Feminists have been trying to figure out how to be in relationships for over 100 years now. And probably for those without the particular set of shoulds provided by feminism, there’s a whole different set of shoulds. The shoulds of fundamentalist Islam or fundamentalist Christianity. Are those shoulds somehow easier?
They’re old questions and any moron knows what the right answer is. The only should that matters is the one that works for you in your particular relationship. All the other shoulds should be irrelevant, right? But, really? Is that really the answer? And does that sound incredibly frustrating to anyone else?
I like to know what’s inside, to squish my fingers around in the muck and savor the odd squelching sound it makes. I want to know why we don’t seem to talk much about the gooey insides of relationships. What is it we’re afraid of revealing? That it’s hard sometimes? That it’s ugly sometimes? That real relationships force us to encounter the monsters inside ourselves? That our own relationships might not be normal? What’s in there and what are we afraid of?