In which I indulge in a little armchair psychology
Distinct non-philosopher that I am, I’ve lately had occasion to dwell on the idea of love and why that idea often differs so drastically from the reality. (Nothing in particular has happened; in fact it’s what hasn’t happened that constitutes, as a friend of mine so succinctly put it, “the bummer.”) To that effect, this week’s thoughts will center not on the stuff of art or culture themselves, as is typical here, but on one of the classic forces which inspire us to pursue and enjoy all that stuff.
Human beings are social animals. We came to collective consciousness by connecting with one another and then secured our survival by banding together. For most of our existence, everyone has been a necessity to everyone else. So it kind of boggles my mind that we have such trouble admitting that necessity. Surely there is no need to resign ourselves to loneliness. Since we’re so vulnerable anyway by physical standards, why can’t we open ourselves up to emotional vulnerability and communicate our wants and needs to our loved ones?
I mean vulnerability in all its forms. Asking for help. Being honest about our feelings. Even—and this one is, I think, severely underrepresented—making it clear that there is an absence of feeling, or that something is happening that we aren’t comfortable with or don’t want. Or, in less extreme circumstances, expressing a desire just to be left alone for a while.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m struggling to remember the last time I was able to communicate any of these things to the people I really needed to communicate them to. As that guy says in that movie, “What we have here is failure to communicate.” Regrettably, failure of this sort often costs us our friendships, romances, families, business partnerships, and so on. Unhealthy or nonexistent communication around a Big Issue can mean the instant end of said relationship; but you’d be surprised how quickly breakdowns around seemingly trivial things can accumulate until some small mishap becomes the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Actually, you probably wouldn’t be surprised, because you’ve almost certainly experienced some iteration of that firsthand.
It seems to me that at the heart of all this botched communication is good old-fashioned discomfort. We don’t want to say things that may hurt others, and we don’t want to face the facts that may hurt us. But what has been hammered through my head time and time again (and I suspect I’m not alone) is that not communicating hurts everyone more in the long run. I once had a friendship breakup in which we discovered that we had each been withholding things from the other and thus growing to resent each other more and more, to the point that the cons outweighed the pros of staying friends. It really devastated me, and one of the hardest parts to accept and move on from was that it could have been prevented if we had addressed it sooner. By the same token, I had another friend who called me up one evening and said, “You know, you’ve been kind of a bitch this week.” She didn’t technically have to say it—I knew full well—but I was not yet mature enough to know how to talk to her about it, and she in her trademark forthrightness took it upon herself to pick up the slack. Her willingness to put it out in the open enabled me to make amends and be more mindful of her needs going forward. So, you see, she really did have to say it. However unpleasant you fear the conflict is going to be, the unpleasantness will accrue interest the longer you delay. And the chances are, in the moment, that it will not be nearly as bad as you fear: as a matter of fact, you might feel altogether relieved to have the chance to work through a problem with someone who is important to you. Communication demonstrates importance.
On that point, if someone with whom you try to communicate doesn’t invest reciprocally, it invites you to wonder whether you are indeed of any consequence to them. This is its own brand of pain. I had one such experience recently, which is sort of what got me pondering love and communication in a larger sense. Why do we bother with people who, if we truly unflinchingly read the signs, for one reason or another are not bothering with us? Why do we hang ourselves up on a vision of connection—platonic, romantic, the list goes on—which has no apparent hope of coming to fruition? It’s so easy to waste time this way. And certain genres of film and literature only exacerbate these symptoms, painting the long-suffering unrequited lover as noble and ideal and worthy (in fact expected) to be rewarded. If we as a species hope to acquire any permanent proficiency at communication in relationships, we must divest ourselves of this damaging mentality. Still, in the immediate aftermath—in the eye of the bummer—we need to sit with our feelings and, if possible, lean on those good solid people whose care and company we can rely on. That’s what I am doing, and it goes a long way toward restoring my faith in balanced, healthy love.
Then, of course, there are the situations which turn toxic. Here, communication levels up from important to crucial. I’ve come to discover that there are few things I hate more than the silent treatment. At long-ago low points I would try it, and I would never last. I prefer a shouting match. I prefer slamming doors. I even prefer, if the opposing parties aren’t in the same physical place, a wall of text. Any of these methods expunges the emotion in the heat of the moment, clears people’s heads, and provides the possibility of a reasonable conversation after the fact. Clamping up just about guarantees the misery of everyone involved plus the people adjacent to them. I’ve witnessed it: the erosion takes years to repair at best. Perhaps that’s why I find myself unable to do it, and why I’ve sometimes found myself speaking hastily. I might regret saying something, but I always regret leaving something unsaid.
(This is not to say that some relationships do not deserve termination. Abuse or manipulation are not to be tolerated if at all possible, and people experience emotional trauma every day either by cutting off people who are unable or unwilling to fulfill the supportive, loving roles they are meant to fulfill, or by staying in inhospitable or dangerous relationships for lack of somewhere else to turn. These are emergencies which demand continued combative effort from institutions and systems, though we as individuals can and should educate ourselves on them.)
I mean, when you think of it, what are most love songs about? The things people do, don’t do, say, and don’t say to/with/about each other. Communication is the very foundation of love and relationships. It’s a bitter human truth that the thing which is most essential to a full life is also extraordinarily precarious and fallible.
I guess what I’m saying is…talk to people. Listen to them, too. Love is damn impossible, as is the rest of life. Try to be understanding, and try to be there for someone who needs someone. In the final analysis, all of us need all of us.