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Tony & Becky were sweethearts
mellyrn, aka L. Hunter Cassells
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Tony & Becky were sweethearts ….

Actually, they were married.

Tony and Becky — real people, incidentally — met, fell in love, and finding they had so much in common, got married. Yes, they had much in common: no blatant incompatibilities such as “nightowl marries morning dove” nor “security blanket marries parachute”. One of the things held in common was a belief that “respect” was a most important element in a marriage and a family. And of course it is.

Becky came from a family where mutual respect was one of the highest values. In her family, when members had disputes or disagreements, they sat down together respectfully; and carefully, thoughtfully and calmly discussed the issue: no name calling, no shouts or screams, but rational, respectful discourse. If one of the parties should begin to lose temper, raise his or her voice, become agitated, one maintained one’s own self-respect by rising and leaving the room till the other had a chance to restore composure; incidentally, this was a show of respect for the one who was losing it, as well: not humiliating them with an audience for their loss of self-mastery.

Tony’s family also held mutual respect in highest esteem. And in Tony’s family, respect meant honesty, and trust. Honesty: if what you felt was wild rage, then you showed that — shout, scream, jump up and down in the other’s face(s). It meant you trusted them with your deepest emotions; to stay cool was to shut your family out, to say, “You don’t matter enough to me for me to let you in where I really am.” And the very worst insult you could deliver … was to walk out of the room on someone who was being open & honest (however loudly) with you.

A prescription for disaster, in any marriage but Tony’s.

For years, Tony had been fascinated by people, why they do the things they do, and had made quite a study of them. One of the notions he had picked up was that, while some folks may have similar values, they may have wildly different rules for how they recognize when those values are being met. We see above, very different “rules” for recognizing respect, for example. Further, Tony had noticed that some of the bitterest disputes between people happened over what he came to call “rules violations.”

So when he & Becky began to have these serious fights, each feeling that the other was treating him/her like dirt, he had a model ready to hand to help explain; and, being good at asking questions, soon had a clear picture of how two people, so deeply in love, full of such respect for each other, could appear so unloving and hateful at times.

He also had the strange, wonderful and unique notion that values (and rules) are acquired rather haphazardly through life — from parents, playmates, teachers, schoolmates, bosses — rather than having been written in one’s soul by God at birth or something; and, being acquired, could also be abandoned in favor of something better. Clearly, he and Becky had to arrive at something new if they were to communicate love and not hatefulness, as they intended. They agreed that they were a new family now, and that their new family needed new rules. Tony agreed not to raise his voice, and Becky agreed not to walk out of the room.

Of course, old habits need some time for “de-conditioning” and new ones need time to become habits. Sure enough, in some later disagreement, Becky got up and started to leave the room. Says Tony, “And I shouted after her, ‘YOU PROMISED YOU WOULDN’T — ooops.’ ”

It took a little time and a lot of work — but especially, it took the realization of how differently we can perceive the very same things.

Then there are the fictional couples, Keith and Andrea, Vince and Karen, Alan and Vicki. Each couple deeply and truly in love.

Keith never fails to give Andrea a sweet kiss, a hug and a pat when he comes home, when he leaves, or just passing in the kitchen. He likes to hold her hand when they walk, or put his arm around her shoulders or waist, looks adoringly into her eyes: he is just so happy to be near this wonderful woman. Andrea thinks this is lovely, except it gets kind of smothery after a while; and he will never say those three little words: I love you. Oh, if she begs and pesters, it’s, “Well, of course I love you”, but she has to pull teeth to get it out of him. She, for her part, tells him constantly how wonderful he is, how much she loves him, how much he means to her. That’s nice, Keith thinks; so how come she’s always pushing me away?

Vicki is forever doing sweet little things for Alan. She buys him little trinkets and leaves them in his briefcase; she notices his shirts are a bit wrinkly and she irons them, or buys him a new one if an old one is getting threadbare — and in the style he prefers, too. His mom needs a ride to the hairdresser’s? No problem. Alan tells her she looks great, tells her she’s wonderful, says “I love you” a thousand times a day, even calls her at work just to hear her voice and to say, again, “I love you.” He appreciates how much she does for him — but he’s also a little nonplussed by it. What does she mean by it? Is she trying to buy his affection, or something? Is she trying to prove her own competence, or trying to make him feel dependent? She won’t ever say she loves him; why not? A person’s word is his bond; it’s how you know, unequivocally, what the other means, it is the very vehicle of understanding — why will she not commit to loving him? Maybe she’s trying to keep her options open, eh? But Vicki thinks talk is cheap, and wonders why she has to ask for him to do anything for her. He’s never unwilling, he does things happily — but you’d think a man in love would notice, wouldn’t be so self-involved or something, and show his love, without having to be asked!

Karen, like Keith, is the cuddly sort. Vince will do anything for her, out of the blue nice little things; but he’s always rushing, and never has time just to sit and be together. Vince feels like he’s living with a little octopus: she’s all over him, but she won’t do stuff — he has to hint, that it would be nice to be surprised with a couple of movie tickets or something, and he hates to feel like he’s trawling for favors.

See, they all have different rules for recognizing “love.” For Karen & Keith (who might be otherwise incompatible, btw), it’s contact, physical togetherness. Alan and Andrea live by words, and Vince & Vicki are “show-me” types. Very broad categories, of course; there are usually profoundly indiosyncratic “rules”, too: one person may be a complete sucker for a beautiful smile — and may feel loved by a smiling cad/cat, and rejected by a sober, solemn, but true, lover. One must be watchful, alert, aware. Life is not to be lived by rules, certainly not by one’s own personal, haphazardly acquired idiosyncratic “rules”. Know that your lover’s rules may be very very different from yours. Learn them, and — why not? — meet them. What could be nicer than knowing how to make that special someone feel like that special someone? And teach your lover yours: none of us are telepaths. A gift is not devalued by teaching someone that you think it is a gift.

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This page was last updated March 27, 1998.