Relationships as work

Photo by Sven Mieke on Unsplash

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the spaces that people occupy in each other’s lives.

Relationships are hard work. This is true in that the most enduring ties are built on daily decisions to maintain them. The metaphor shouldn’t stretch to the point of relationships being toil, the work punishing and desperate, undertaken in fear of losing everything if you stop.

And that’s where I think I might have gotten lost, too nervous about the tenuous space that others have allowed me in their lives.

A couple of days ago, The Paris Review published a column from Sabrina Orah Mark that reflected on worth, job markets, crisis. Read broadly, it’s a sharp picture of capitalism as fiction, as a fantasy that asks us to take on roles where we are nothing but our functions — and therefore nothing without them.

The essay lingers in my head, mostly because of statements like this:

In fairy tales, form is your function and function is your form. If you don’t spin the straw into gold or inherit the kingdom or devour all the oxen or find the flour or get the professorship, you drop out of the fairy tale, and fall over its edge into an endless, blank forest where there is no other function for you, no alternative career. The future for the sons who don’t inherit the kingdom is banishment. What happens when your skills are no longer needed for the sake of the fairy tale? A great gust comes and carries you away.

Fuck the Bread. The Bread is Over. by Sabrina Orah Mark in The Paris Review

As trenchant a commentary as this might be when it comes to working life, I can’t help but stretch it to the anxieties of personal relationships, too. Isn’t our presence in people’s lives possible only through the role(s) we’ve taken in their stories?

What happens when those roles no longer fit us?

The simple answer is that change happens.

But that’s simple only if those roles are founded on something beyond functionality or happenstance. To put it plainly, change is less scary if the people involved go into it aiming to retain their places in each others’ lives, no matter how different the particulars might look on the other side.

How often are any of us completely assured of that?

There’s this chain of posts on Tumblr that I’ve seen several times over the years:

Tumblr getting too real these days.

I think about that tag a lot. It distills all the questions I was tiptoeing around earlier: change is less scary if you know that people still want you around despite everything, i.e., despite you having shed a lot of the functional roles you might have filled in their lives before.

The thing is, each of us decides that entirely on our own, and that means we have no power over whether other people will want to keep us around, too.1Thank God for that. Can you imagine the hell we’d all be in otherwise?

For any normal person, that would be enough reason to let it be. Anxious buggers with a perfectionist streak (i.e., me), though, could end up twisting that realization: It’s safest to assume that I will never be liked enough to be kept around, but people will allow me to linger a bit if I can be useful.

You can see the kind of internal pressure that creates.

This post will have a bit of an abrupt end, mostly because I’ve yet to untangle this chain of thoughts in any permanent way. The standard for being “useful” is so vague and amorphous that it’s impossible to live up to.2And yet, more often than not, without anybody even asking, I’m driven to chase it anyway.

In lieu of any neat conclusion, here’s a somewhat-related column from The New York Times circa 2016. Moira Weigel examines the evolution of dating practices to tease out how “[t]he economy shapes our feelings and values as well as our behaviors,” writing:

We constantly use economic metaphors to describe romantic and sexual relations. … We use this kind of language because the ways that people date — who contacts whom, where they meet and what happens next — have always been tied to the economy. Dating applies the logic of capitalism to courtship. On the dating market, everyone competes for him or herself.

Sexual Freelancing In The Gig Economy by Moira Weigel in The New York Times

It’s a little depressing to think that economics has seeped far enough into my psyche to shape my current neuroses, and so obviously at that. But it’s not just me, and it’s not just about dating, of course. The (false) comfort of a simple quid pro quo remains alluring to many people, no matter where along the wide range of interpersonal relationships we find ourselves. It gives people the illusion of a safety net: If I can’t trust sentiment and emotion3If I can’t stand the unknowability and uncertainty inherent in human connections, more like then I will revert to the reliable logic of transactions. Conventions of exchange, at least, are things our bleak environment forces most of us to live by, regardless of how we feel.