DEAR DR. NERDLOVE:I love your column, and the advice you’ve given has helped me identify some genuine issues I have in myself. I’ve learned the concept of cognitive bias from you and that has allowed me to read more about, and discover fixes to, a lot of self-esteem issues I’ve had my whole life.
But that’s not why I’m writing you today. My problem is kind of a weird one in that I’m not looking to fix anything, but more seeking perhaps validation and putting out there an issue that maybe some of your other readers might be having and to get your take on it.
My wife and I have been together for 11 years, married for 2, and our relationship has been criticized by a lot of people as being not “normal” or “typical” of so many people. In all that time together, we’ve never said “I love you” to one another and it is very unlikely that we will ever say it. It is a weird culmination of our past relationships that just sort of manifested into this refusal to say it. For her it is because she said it to her abusive ex-boyfriend and it quickly lost any meaning as it was often his way of apologizing to her. For me it is similar, I said it to every girl I ever dated who eventually left me, including a woman I almost married who would literally get pissed about everything I did. I’d say it, they’d say it, and yet they still left. We say it to our friends and family, we just don’t say it to each other. We would rather use that time to show how we care than to just say it. We’ve been told by friends and family that this is a sign that we “don’t care for each other”.
By that note, we also don’t fight or argue. Like at all. I can count on three fingers all the heated disagreements we’ve ever had, and all three of those were simple miscommunications and misunderstandings that were sorted out and devolved into laughter more than anything. If there is an issue, we sit down and talk about it, or we learn to adjust to it being our problem and something we need to sort out ourselves. We’ve been told because we don’t fight, it is a sign that we “lack passion”.
And we’ve also been told that we are more friends and roommates than a married couple. We live around each other well, we share a lot of common interests especially in games and television but enough differences in what we read, eat, and the genres we love to keep it fun, and the only problem in the bedroom is that I’m a high school teacher and adjunct professor and I’m just exhausted most days (especially this year of hybrid learning). It isn’t a lack of desire, but a genuine lack of energy, that often leads to no-heat-in-the-sheets as they say. But she is super understanding about this, and we take time to make sure we keep that area of our marriage very happy and healthy, if not as frequent as either of us would like. But because our relationship is considered to be so easy, we’ve been told that somehow ours it not as worthy as theirs. “Nothing of value comes easy in this life” as the saying goes, and yet I’ve always looked at relationships as something we shouldn’t have to work at. I get why some people want that work and that struggle, but I’ve never wanted it and neither has she. We very much like that our marriage is the last thing we have to worry about, and we are happy to be each other’s best friends.
And it isn’t to say we haven’t had hardships. We both met when we were living with our parents as I was finishing up my bachelors, she supported me on my crazy decision to become a teacher and get my masters degree, she stood by me when my first three years as a teacher was at an awful title 1 school that spiraled me into a depression where I very much wanted to die (to be clear it was not the kids, it was the admin and school board), and we survived long distance as I moved to another city to take a job opportunity and to buy a house before she moved in with me. That period of long distance was also criticized as something a “healthy” couple wouldn’t be able to do, and yet we did. We both survived family drama, sickness, and even her citizenship woes so we could get married. We took it all in stride and rose above. When we find obstacles, we take them together and work through them without complaint.
It almost feels like they are challenged by the way our relationship works as… opposite maybe… to what they have, and so they seek to tear it down as something lesser to justify their own struggles and unhappiness that they are dealing with. And please note, this is coming from family and friends, but not all of them. Her mom loves me, and my parents love her. We do have single friends that love when we are around because we don’t “feel” like a couple; we come together but are separate individuals. It’s our married friends and family that seems to tear into us and we really don’t get why. And it’s those jabs and barbs of criticisms that are shared in these offhand compliments. We really don’t get why they do that and we talk about it often.
I don’t know, but I’d love to get your take on it and maybe help out any of your audience that might be experiencing something similar.
Married Best Friends
DEAR MARRIED BEST FRIENDS: This isn’t a “you” problem, it’s a “them” problem.
Here’s what’s going on MBF: people are mistaking conflict for passion and not recognizing the difference between communication and conflict resolution styles. Now in fairness, this isn’t unusual or uncommon; a lot of times, our ideas “how relationships SHOULD work” are shaped by relationship role models. For the children of Boomers, this often means that our parents’ relationships were not the best models to follow; the cultural expectations of parents, the roles of gender and so on mean that a lot of issues in relationships were handled in counterproductive ways. The idea of couples counseling was unusual at best and often seen as the mark of a failed or failing relationship. Similarly, pop culture tends to play up conflict in relationships. Again, this isn’t unusual; conflict means drama, and drama is part of what makes those relationships compelling. While a couple who sits down and discusses their issues calmly and reaffirms their affection for one another may be healthier, it makes for pretty boring storytelling.
(This is why coffeeshop alternate-universe fanfic tends to be just that: fanfic. It’s comforting as a cozy sweater and old jeans, but it doesn’t work as well for serial media.)
The same goes for equating passion with conflict. Passion isn’t automatically loud or showy; it’s just easier to convey passion that way in media. Ironically enough, you want a great example of passion that’s quiet and understated, look at Oz in Buffy The Vampire Slayer; he’s a quiet, fairly reserved character who still has a deep reservoir of passion and intensity. Still waters run deep, after all.
The problem is that because a lot of these less-than-positive dynamics are so common, it’s easy to mistake them as examples of how relationships should work. We look at conflict in relationships — whether in relationships we’ve seen in our lives, or via pop culture — and assume that because we see it so often, this is how it should be. And so, when we see relationships that don’t follow that dynamic, it’s easy to feel like something is off or wrong.
Case in point: the fact that you and your wife don’t say “I love you”. To give an example, this was a character moment in the movie Ghost; Patrick Swayze’s character was notorious for saying “ditto”, rather than “I love you too” to Demi Moore’s character. In the movie, this is portrayed as a character flaw of sorts; an indication that maybe he’s afraid of expressing himself or sharing his true feelings. But in practice… this is about communication, not feelings. He may not be saying the words, but it’s clear through his actions that he loves his partner. The conflict — as seen through the filter of 21st-century-dating-coaches-who-spend-too-goddamn-much-time-thinking-about-these-things — is they’re not speaking the same language. He’s saying “I love you,” but not in a way that she can hear.
This is one of the reasons why there’s a lot of focus on love languages — both expressing and receiving. For some people, showing that they care is about doing things for other people; they show their love by being of service to them. For others, showing affection is about spending time together, regardless of the activity, or about giving gifts. Part of what makes a relationship work is understanding and being able to speak your partner’s “language”, as it were. You and your wife clearly speak the same language. Saying the words “I love you” isn’t part of how you share affection, it’s in the ways you behave with one another. It may not look like you’re being affectionate with one another to an outside observer… but they’re not you. They don’t have the context or information you have — including how your wife’s ex used “I love you” and made it meaningless to her.
The same goes for conflict styles and conflict resolution styles. Some folks’ conflict styles are like summer thunderstorms — loud, flashy, come on out of nowhere and pass just as quickly. They can be scary or frightening to someone who doesn’t have that conflict style… but for folks who are used to it, it’s what works for them. There’s drama, there’s yelling, there’s flailing hands… and then there’s resolution and it passes. It’s not inherently better or worse than your conflict style and resolution style; it’s just different. Two people who do a lot of yelling and venting and then let everything go aren’t automatically Doing It Wrong, any more than calm, serious discussions are Doing It Right. It’s about what works for the couple, that doesn’t leave one party or the other feeling shut down or ignored and actually resolves the issue causing the conflict. It’s just as easy for those calm discussions to not actually resolve the core problem or be used to intimidate or silence the other person.
You and your wife have your way of handling conflicts. It works for you. It isn’t as flashy or performative as some others’… but that’s fine. That’s what works for you and it’s kept your relationship happy and healthy.
And really, that’s ultimately the thing for you to keep in mind. “Works for us” is the standard you want to follow, regardless of how it looks to others. Other people don’t have the context of your relationship or full access to all the information about the two of you. They have, at best, a highly edited version. At worst, they have glimpses into your relationship and they’re filling in all the extraneous details based on their concept of How Relationships Work and What This All Means. But the great thing about relationships is that they’re not democracies. Other people don’t get a vote in how you and your wife run your relationship, what rules you follow or what methods work for you. If you two want to have a Gor-style 24/7 power exchange relationship that you both consent to and that you worked out in advance… well, it ain’t my taste, but if everyone’s happy and satisfied, it’s also not my business. If a couple wants a one-sided open relationship, where only one partner has sex outside the relationship and everyone’s cool with it… well, that’s all that matters. People can have opinions about how it should work… but they can keep those opinions to themselves unless specifically asked.
It’s certainly possible that other people feel challenged by your relationship. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that people pathologize things in others that make them uncomfortable. But I think it’s as likely that your relationship and the way you conduct it is just different from what they think is the norm. That can feel unusual, or even wrong, just because it’s unfamiliar. But then, it’s also not their relationship; it’s yours, and if you and your wife are happy, then that’s what matters.
The only thing you need to say to the folks who tell you that you’re Relationshipping Wrong is very simple: “This works for us and we’re happy.” You don’t need to justify your feelings for each other or your reasons, because there’s nothing to justify. Justifying it just implies that you need their approval or to prove something; it carries the framing that they’re right and your relationship is unusual and possibly wrong. So, don’t justify. You can inform if they have questions or want more details… but all that needs to be said is “This works for us and makes us happy.” If they insist on telling you that there must be something wrong, then take it a step further: “This works for us, we’re happy and you can step off. I’m not interested in your unsolicited advice or opinions and I don’t appreciate your telling me that we don’t feel the way we feel. So feel free to keep it to yourself. And if you can’t, then feel free to go the f--k away.”
I completely understand why this weighs on you; when folks tell you over and over again that you’re doing something that “doesn’t” or “shouldn’t” work, it’s hard not to worry that they might be right. But at the same time, the important thing is to hold onto the fact that this is what you’ve been doing and it’s been working out for you. You and your wife are happy, and your relationship — like all relationships — is a complex system of choices based around your shared experiences and your histories, both separately and together. You’ve found a system that works for you based on the full context of everything you and your wife have gone through, for good and for ill. Are you happy? Yes. Does it work well for you? Yes. Does anything else matter? Nope.
It may look different to folks who don’t have your insider’s perspective… but that’s fine. Like I said: relationships aren’t democracies. Other people can have opinions, but they don’t get a vote. There isn’t a public comment period about how your relationships work. And you are well within your rights to tell them that you do not want to and will not have these discussions with them. You’re happy, your relationship works and that’s what matters. Everyone who doesn’t like the way you make it work can go screw.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com