Relationships: We Are Slaves to the Empire of Instinct
I have been romantically involved on and off for almost five years with a guy I’ll call Chris because that’s his real name. It has been the most challenging of my life; he has a schizoid-avoidant personality, which has almost nothing to do with schizophrenia, and I am blessedly cursed with hypersensitivity and far less than a saint’s all-accepting disposition. He says he also has some form of OCD — a crack in the street will stall him for an hour when he only has to walk two blocks to Whole Foods. As attracted as we are to each other, as intellectually and artistically compatible, we are a fatally incompatible combo. Just as well that he lives in New York, I in Los Angeles.
I can have no expectations of Chris. I can rely on him for nothing. He comes and he goes when he pleases, calls and texts in gluts, vanishes for months, doesn’t show up for planned events, organizes romantic encounters on the spur of the moment. A psychologist friend once asked why I didn’t just date a black hole. I prefer to imagine that I’m dating a cat. To wit, my nickname for him is Kitty — the feminization and cuteness tempers the hardship with cuddly humor.
I was staying with my nieces a few months ago in New York for two weeks while my sister and her husband were in India. Chris came over for dinner one night and dazzled the girls, as he does everyone; he is as charming as he is beautiful, and beauty at his level is forgiven much. But the nieces weren’t entirely fooled, plus they knew the stories of my struggles; children love grim tales more than they do happy ones, and as a professional raconteur who is also the family keeper of histories — the American side of our family has a highly dysfunctional past — I keep them stoked with dark tales about familiar people.
A couple of nights later, Chris was supposed to come by again for dinner. His idea; I’m wary of making plans with him. I cooked, but always with the assumption that he was just as likely not to show up. In fact, my sense of who he is and how he is likely to behave, keenly tuned over time and with experience, told me that he wasn’t likely to come. It bothered me a little, but not nearly as much as it would have in the beginning of our relationship, when I was trying to solve the riddle of this bizarre creature by basically reading tealeaves that were murky and soppy with my own insecurities and desires.
That he was increasingly unlikely to show up really bothered my eldest niece, Savannah, who has inherited my hypersensitivity gene. She popped her head out of her bedroom every fifteen minutes to ask, “Is he here yet?”
“No,” I replied every time.
Finally, she could take no more. She came out of her room with both her hands clasped to her chest, “Uncle James, I love Chris. But from the bottom of my heart I just don’t feel he’s the right man for you.”
A few nights later, when Chris did show up with only ten minutes’ notice, Savannah adorably read him the riot act in an extemporized speech that began with, “What is wrong with you, Chris? Why can’t you two get it together? Can’t you see you love each other?” It included two hugs for him to soften what her hypersensitive nature assumed was the harsh blow of her words. But a schizoid is unmoved by these things, merely repulsed by himself and by the invasion of himself.
We know that what Savannah meant by the bottom of her heart is what we call instinct. She has been raised to believe she has an almost shamanistic ability to predict the future, or more accurately the likely outcome of events. It’s actually her innate hypersensitivity combined with a precocious analysis of a situation and it’s possible variables and permutations, of how everything is likely to pan out. In this particular instance, there is also empathy with with the heartache and frustration her beloved eccentric uncle has experienced with Chris as far back as she can remember, and the anxiety that arises when she fears I will be hurt further. (I assuaged her anxiety that night by reminding her that her own father is habitually either late or often has to back out of commitments to her and her mother, not to mention that he lives most of the time in India to manage his business.)
I am a firm believer that instinct can be accurate, with the caveat that it is subject to the vicissitudes of fortune and human fallacy as much as anything else. In other words, I don’t set my clock by it, but I do allow it to influence plans and strategic decisions.
Instincts are greatly sharpened by experience; they aren’t much good without it. Savannah has no romantic experience of her own, much less with someone who has a rare personality disorder. She sees romance in filmed entertainment, which presents her with roles, performativities, idealized interpersonal dynamics.
Crucially, Savannah and her sister play SIMS, the life-simulation video game that allows them to create worlds in which they engage in relationships. It’s revealing to watch them play. How my nieces choose to set up the households on SIMS pretty much follows the patterns of their own in real life. My sister, in what I believe to be an act of defiance against the miserable household we grew up in, is a model parent, putting as much effort into her marriage as she does with the kids. That is reflected in the way they play the game.
Still, SIMS and her own parents offer Savannah at best a simulation of the experience of a romantic relationship. Anyone can see that Chris and I are as far from an ideal couple as two people can get; it’s a rom-com that is stuck in the second act, when the protagonists are doomed never to get it together. I have tried to explain to Savannah that both Chris and I are far from normal in general so we probably deserve a far-from-normal relationship, but that isn’t going to convince anyone — it doesn’t even convince me; I shouldn’t delude myself that I will ever live happily ever after with him, but delusion is easier and more comfortable than reason and practicality when you’re in love.
Alain de Botton shook things up recently by writing an essay for his blog, Philosophers’ Mail, entitled How We End Up Marrying the Wrong People. The gist of it is that, previously, Western society engaged in arranged marriages for purely dynastic reasons; they were property transactions between two people or families. Either you grew to love each other in a co-dependent, familiar way or you spent a life in misery. As the West became industrialized — the distinction between east and west is mine, not de Botton’s; there are still arranged marriages in most of the world — our notion of correct relationships grew to be based on romance, or instinct. De Botton doesn’t actually make the correlation between industrial evolution and the dominance of romantic unions over transactional, but that’s actually a critical reason for the shift. It’s clear through art and literature across the ages that romance has always been the ideal, it just wasn’t practical or safe. I would go so far as to say that romantic/instinctive love didn’t achieve total supremacy until contraception became widely available to women in the 60s, which is when they began to become emancipated in general.
The rise of instinctual unions did nothing to stop many, many bad marriages from happening, so much so that the divorce rate in the west is held over kids in the east as the proof that only arranged marriages work. My parents, for instance, should never have been together. Bad marriages aren’t just inconvenient and emotionally painful. They are potentially dangerous; more often that not, there is a degree of violence, sometimes resulting in death. Bad marriages are also extremely expensive, both in terms of the waste of money on the wedding and the cost of a divorce. We all know couples we never thought would split up who ended up almost bankrupting each with a divorce. Even my parents were deeply in love once, although I expect for my mother it was always something of a sham; I believe there was something of the transaction in her motivations.
De Botton argues that people should subject each other to detailed psychological profiling before getting hitched. With the knowledge we have now, he is amazed this isn’t de rigueur, but states that it will be by 2100, when the dominance of the romantic marriage will be a thing of the past.
I agree with him across the board, except I would refine his thinking to say that all three factors must be considered before a union takes place, with psychological compatibility given the most consideration, romantic instincts the second, and financial security last and least. (Why should financial security even be considered? Ask any kid who was raised in poverty.)
The reason you can’t ever get rid of the instinct-based union is that it is the catalyst for a relationship to begin with. You should be attracted to someone physically and emotionally before you consider applying a psychological test. Even though I can count on one hand the number of people I have picked up in a bar or club, one of them did turn out to be a long-term relationship. Imagine if, before even stealing the kiss that kicked off a two-and-a-half year rollercoaster, I backed away and said, “I need to you fill out this test, first. It’s only two hundred detailed questions that reveal your innermost workings. Yes, it’s a bit invasive, but you have had eight vodka-cranberries. Shouldn’t take more than an hour.”
Had that particular lover and I compared psychological profiles even midway through the relationship, before we moved in together, we would likely never have continued together — we were a terrible mismatch, ridiculously so. Or we wouldn’t have continued if we allowed that personality profiles should trump emotions; our relationship was fueled almost entirely by my often limerent neediness and lust — I doubt I would have listened to a shrink’s evaluation. (But my Spanish would still suck if that guy and I hadn’t been together, so I’ve got that goin’ for me.)
De Botton marvels that, with all of the advances in psychology, we haven’t yet made personality-comparison tests an integral part of the courtship process. He is ignoring the fact that many dating sites make you fill out detailed questionnaires that aren’t just matching your preferences and viewpoints, they often include the sort of queries that can be found on psychological profiles.
I haven’t done eHarmony or Match.com, but I do have a profile on OKCupid, which I created after I read an article in Wired about how a math genius hacked the site’s clever, complex algorithm and found true love. I’ve only been on one ‘date’ since I created the profile at the beginning of the year. It was far from a match in real life; we might have been psychologically compatible, and he looked great physically, but his pictures belied the fact he was a total queen, a turn-off for me but not for other men I know. (In general, the OKCupid questions need to be more finely tuned to the specifics of gay culture. In this case, had we been asked how we describe our mannerisms and the importance we rate that question, it would have saved me the price of a coffee and a muffin, although both were delicious.)
Indeed, you can’t date someone just based on psychological compatibility. Last night, OKCupid, perhaps sensing that I haven’t been to the site in a long time, sent me an email saying that someone whom the algorithm reckoned was abnormally suited to me was checking out my profile, and had presumably given me four or five stars. The email read,
We’re letting you know because he’s an exceptionally good match. You should check him out too… we’re smart about sending these: we’ll only ever send one… Go get ’em!”
Actually, the man they recommended, whom they were so smart about, is nearly a foot shorter than me, of ‘average’ build (read ‘overweight’) — I don’t date average anything, except dick size — and clearly from his pictures not in the least ‘masc,’ gay online slang for masculine.
However, I did use the OKCupid profiling algorithm recently in a way de Botton would approve. A couple of weeks ago, before I read the de Botton piece, I started seeing a guy I met many months ago under unusual circumstances, meaning circumstances outside of a gay bar, my gym or a dating site. We are attracted to each other physically and intellectually, but I wanted to cut deeper and more quickly into his suitability; remember, my next romantic engagement must be a viable candidate to replace Chris, and that is a very tall order in my heart and mind, perhaps an improbability. So why waste time if the new interest is a religious/spiritual nutjob who is also a top and can’t solve a basic math puzzle?
The new guy, whom I’ll call Anthony because that isn’t his real name, didn’t have a profile on OKCupid or any dating site, something that already earned him a number of points. Chris doesn’t have one either, never will; it would be inconceivable, ridiculous, comically desperate. But Anthony had fun filling out the questionnaire when asked. He answered close to two hundred questions quickly, honestly, without thinking what the ideal answers might be. It turned out we are highly compatible, right down to centrist political beliefs, and, yes, it’s more than okay if I’m the top. Our overall compatibility is rare enough for someone like me that I would be well advised to pursue him seriously.
Anthony later sent me another detailed psychological profile to fill out, one that would seem to be a refinement of the socionics/Briggs-Meyer test so beloved by human resource managers ten years ago. A reserved man, not one to turn cartwheels or be prone to effusive outbursts — that’s more my ‘passionate’ character (I think ‘manic’ is a better word) —, Anthony clearly approved of my results. I didn’t ask to see his, or the comparison between the two; my instincts combined with the big thumbs up from the OKCupid matching system, as well as with our interactions so far, with his excellent and compatible Spotify playlists, with his taste in literature and filmed entertainment assure me that I have met someone who stands a chance of dragging me out of the romantic black hole I have been trapped in for almost five years.
I’m also pretty sure Savannah would approve. That’s important.
I agree with de Botton: bad marriages are dangerous and can easily be avoided. I postulated to some friends online that if you need to take a test to be issued a license to drive a car, then the same should apply for a marriage. After all, not all motorists get into accidents — although most have a bump, a scrape or a minor-infraction ticket now and then — but they still need to know the basics and pass the test. Any couple, intoxicated with love or desperate with need, can get hitched, and the results can be fatal. Or, as in the case of my parents, cause lifelong damage to offspring.
My proposal was met with mostly approval and one obstinate objection from a guy who has been in therapy most of his life, diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder, the son of a schizophrenic and a manic-depressive who are still married, albeit in constant therapy themselves. The fact this guy also had couples counseling before he got married — and so far the relationship is working out well — didn’t sway his logic. For him, as for most people who are raised with the Hallmark Card view of the world in which romantic compatibility is the only acceptable ideal for a relationship, the empire of instinct has complete hegemony, especially over reason.
De Botton often mentions that everyone is insane. It goes without saying that he means to varying degrees — I may be weird, but I’m no schizo; he is being willfully dramatic with the word ‘insane’. But he is right that there is no such thing as a perfect match between people on any level of interaction; there will always be differences. I long ago adopted sex-advice columnist, anti-bullying crusader and all-around gay hero Dan Savage’s maxim that you should accept that there will never be 100% compatibility, but you shouldn’t be able to count the things that bother you about your romantic partner on more than one hand.
With regard to Chris, there is only one thing that bothers me, his schizoid-avoidant personality, but it’s a fist that has pummeled me black and blue, to the point where I’m the battered spouse who doesn’t feel it any more and thinks it’s completely normal and perhaps his fault. Fingers crossed about Anthony, then; at the very least, it’s an interesting experiment in the application of de Botton’s theories.
If not, I’m perfectly resigned to being single; I love my roommate, he provides me with companionship and some degree of emotional support. But my instincts tell me it’s not going to be this way forever.
Let’s see. I’ll be my own guinea pig with this, and report the results as well. To be continued…