"Do-so" is more important than "say-so."
-- Pete Seeger
After introducing myself to a few people at a recent event, one guy said, "I know you -- you write that diary advice column for the Reader! Hey, those questions aren't real, right? You, like, write 'em yourself and then answer 'em, huh?" I wanted to be agreeable and nod but found myself shaking my head left to right. "I don't know what you're talking about, man. I don't give advice; sometimes I just suggest what I think is appropriate behavior for specific situations." Unable to handle the disappointed look on the guy's face, I added, "But I totally know what you're talking about and I agree -- some of those questions seem bogus."
I once wrote to an advice columnist. I asked him whether or not it was appropriate for me to help "out" a coworker. I explained in my letter how obvious it was that this buddy of mine was gay but that he had yet to accept himself as such. I withheld my buddy's recent comment over lunch -- "If you're drunk and you kiss a guy down there, it doesn't count." -- but I made it clear that I had "good reason" to believe what I did and admirable intentions to help my acquaintance live a more rewarding, true-to-himself kind of life.
Several months later, I stopped checking for an answer. I realized it was silly to wait around for someone to tell me what to do. I knew the scene, I knew the players (and for which team they played), and I was quite capable of directing myself. I contemplated my options and decided to do absolutely nothing. It's not your dog , I advised myself. You are not responsible for his choices, only yours. If pretending he's a straight man helps him sleep at night, who are you to intervene? You already have a life to live -- why don't you focus your attention on that instead of fretting over whether or not your buddy is fulfilling his, uh, destiny.
I wondered what kind of credentials one might need in order to advise others. A degree in psychology? Nah, knowing why people do things isn't the same as knowing what people should do. My father says, "Every marriage and family counselor is fucked up," which is what drives them to study psychology in the first place. Dad thinks the only way a person can earn a reputation for sagacity is by displaying empirical evidence. That is, the only people qualified to give advice in a certain area are those people who have had personal success in that same area.
According to the criteria above, I feel I am competent to hand out tips on how to make a relationship rewarding. Why? Because I am one half of a mutually beneficial, healthy, communicative, and exciting relationship going on five years. Instead of going through the whole question-and-answer charade, I'll give pointers using recent, real-life examples of how my man and I resolve conflicts and keep our partnership scintillating.
Don't let snaps escalate into arguments. Yesterday I was having great difficulty trying to peel a hard-boiled egg. When David suggested I run water over it, I spit out something along the lines of, "What the hell do you know, anyway?" Then I returned my gaze to the task at hand, hurling follow-up expletives at the egg. David could have snapped back. He could have told me to shut up or suggest I relocate my problem egg to some unnamed orifice. But he didn't. Instead, in a soft voice, he asked, "What's bothering you? It's not like you to get so worked up over an egg." People are not usually angry for the reasons they think they are. I was stressed about something else and taking it out on the egg and then David, who got in the line of fire. It takes one person to snap. It takes two to squabble. By never taking vented frustrations personally, we are able to catch and squash 99 percent of potential arguments before they begin.
Focus on what you can do for him (or her). If you do things with the idea of making your partner's life easier and more delightful, chances are your partner will want to do the same for you. This kind of thing is contagious. Last week, David surprised me with a bouquet of sun-yellow tulips. Because he has shown me how good it feels, I want him to experience the pleasure of being thought of -- this can be shown in small deeds, like cleaning up the house or leaving little love notes in unexpected places; or bigger deeds, like finding for him the perfect gift or surprising him with an evening out (or in).
Keep finances out of it! Many relationships end because of disagreements over money. To avoid the big financial fight that plagues most couples, David and I keep separate checking accounts. As long as we are each fulfilling our responsibility to make our agreed-upon contributions to joint expenses, then how we choose to spend the rest of our money is our own damn business. If David opts to drive a beat-up car and spend wads of cash on artwork, it's not my deal. If I want to splurge by charging an Armani sweater to one of my cards, he doesn't bat a lash. My bills are paid. So are his. End of story. If you happen to be in a relationship in which it is agreed that one partner will stay at home to raise the kids or clean house, then the income should be divided equally, and you should still keep separate accounts. A stay-at-home spouse should not have to ask permission to buy a treat, just as the breadwinning half of the partnership should not have to wonder where all the money from the paycheck is going.
Don't get stuck in a rut. Routines can offer comfort, but if followed too closely for too long, they can become stifling. David and I like to shake things up; we might take an afternoon to relax in Balboa Park or sign up for a wine-tasting dinner. We thrive when experiencing new things together, whether it's a new land (like Japan) or a hip new restaurant in our neighborhood (like Café One Three). If dining out is not in the budget of those separate accounts, breaking out an old board game for a night of cozy fun or slipping into something less comfortable for a night of playing naughty games in another part of the house works equally well.
Don't keep score. David said he'd clean the toilet -- a month ago. I was tempted to tap him on the shoulder and "remind" him about his promise and then thought better of it. After all, David's been working day and night to prepare prints for his show at Bartram Gallery in La Jolla. I realized that instead of adding to his stress-load, I could reallocate five minutes of net-surfing time and clean our toilet myself. I reminded myself that we're on the same team.
After cleaning said receptacle, I had an urge to report my accomplishment. Again, I refrained from following my baser instincts. In so many words, I'd only be saying, "Hey, I did what you were supposed to and now you owe me one." This would be nagging and keeping score, like giving a gift and "accidentally" forgetting to remove the price tag. So I let it go. When David noticed the sparkling porcelain (knowing I must have donned a wet suit and gas mask in order to tackle a chore I find vile), he was surprised and delighted, and gushed his thanks.
"I know you've been really stressed, beh beh, so I just did it. No big deal, I had the time," I said, thus communicating my thoughtfulness and love, and eliciting in him the desire to return the favor. Committing an act of consideration is like throwing a boomerang of positive attention -- if you throw it right, it comes right back.