Wait, I'm Supposed To Be Nice to My Partner?

It’s such a simple concept, such a seemingly easy way to repair relationships strained by everything we have to do with our time on any given day.
Publish date:
October 26, 2012
marriage, partners, being nice, compromise, I'm not actually a very nice person

It's quite easy to get caught up, as the author of this recent Daily Mail piece apparently did, in the grind of our daily lives. There are bills and chores and people who cut us off in traffic and the guy who grabs the last bag of Brussels sprouts at the organic food co-op.

(Sometimes, I must admit, I am that guy. Metaphorically speaking.)

What Lauren Libbert seems to have figured out is just how easy it is for married couples (I think this applies to partnered couples in general) to lose a sense of connection with each other when that grind takes up too much of our focus. I don't think this is a surprise to anyone, partnered up or not. We hear, repeatedly, the cheering (sarcasm) statistic that half of all marriages are going to end in divorce -- all those people aren't splitting up because divorce is fun for the whole family, you know?

After she and her husband both forgot their 6th wedding anniversary, Lauren decided that the way to fix her marriage -- which appears really to only have been broken by the reality of the world in which we all live -- was to consciously and consistently be nice to her husband.

(Note: Ed and I are awful at anniversaries. I don't actually think not putting a priority on an anniversary is a sign that there is something wrong, but that's going to vary from relationship to relationship. Use your own personal metrics, y'all.)

I'm kind of fascinated by this story, both because I like being nice to people and because I believe we are not obligated to be nice -- niceness does not exist in a vacuum in our culture, especially for women.

You can see this in the oft-discussedcase of menon the streettelling women to smile. The cultural expectation is that we, as women, owe our cordial pleasantness (and, of course, our fuckability) to the men who must view us when we dare to leave the house.

You can also see it in the way so many women are NICE to the people who harass them -- often past the point of danger. And then our niceness is used against us as a reason why the "poor guy" didn't know his attentions were unwanted.

Philosophically, the US was founded on the idea of individual liberty -- this has been inconsistently applied, of course, depending on the race/class/gender/sexual orientation/and so on of the individual in question. But we're very much a nation that values the theory of the individual. I mean, that’s why we’re so enamored of the bootstrap concept.

This makes sense in some ways. No one is going to take care of you the way YOU can take care of you, after all. We're not really a nurturing society.

But relationships -- of just about any kind, I think -- are predicated on giving up just a little bit of that individual independence. To whatever degree, we link our lives with someone else's life; now we have someone else to consider.

When this goes badly, we end up in co-dependent disasters. Or thoroughly emotionally enmeshed in ways that actually threaten our ability to act as an individual.

But when it goes well, we wind up in a relationship of reciprocal care. In whatever way, we take care of each other.

There are cultural models founded on this reciprocal care concept as well. And those cultures (both inside the US and elsewhere where they are the dominant paradigm) have issues as well -- I'm not painting any model as superior here because there are challenges inherent in all of them. But the dominant paradigm in the US (arguably a white and middle class one) sees us experiencing a constant tension between our needs as an individual and the needs of our partner(s) in the whole relationship adventure.

I advocate for taking care of ourselves, and I use the oxygen mask metaphor -- if we can't breathe, we certainly can't help anyone else breathe. This is why marriage is a constant balancing act.

And I understand how Lauren might have lost that balance. We have this Western idea of Romantic love, one that means soulmates and happily ever after -- one that rarely acknowledges or teaches people how to do the work of maintaining a long-term relationship. The goal, as our rom-coms tell us, is simply to Find A Person; but, really, the goal ought to be to figure out how to stay with a person.

(I mean, Ed is awesome but we're not living some kind of fairy tale. We work really hard at this awesome sauce.)

That’s one thing I actually appreciate about Lauren’s story. The first time I read it, I winced because she seemed to be sacrificing her own preferences for the sake of making her family happy. But with a bit more consideration -- and acknowledging the word limits and tendency of journalism to, uh, paint a more extreme picture than might actually exist -- I suspected that she was actually compromising.

The joke is that compromise means no one is happy.

In real life, which is often not quite so comedic, compromise means everyone’s needs are at least heard -- both parties have to make concessions but both parties also get what’s most important to them. Compromise is hard and messy and sometimes it is heartbreaking because you do not get something you really, really wanted. But that’s what happens when you link up with another person -- no one can be the person who gives all the time.

Lauren’s husband was at first suspicious. And then he responded with niceness of his own. And now they’re looking forward to celebrating their 7thanniversary with love and enthusiasm.

(And SEX, says the 12-year-old part of my brain.)

I like this. It harkens back to the first great kindergarten lesson: Treat other people the way you would like to be treated. It’s such a simple concept, such a seemingly easy way to repair relationships strained by everything we have to do with our time on any given day, all those errands that frazzle us, all those deadlines that leave us short-tempered.

The problem is that it’s a great theory but it doesn’t always happen in practice. I winced because Lauren gave up the activities she preferred to do -- because I expected her husband to simply accept that sacrifice on her part with nothing given in return, no reciprocation.

A lot of nice people, regardless of gender identification, get taken advantage of, get taken for granted. A lot of other people know how to take but aren’t very good at giving anything back.

I’m not a cynic -- I just think the dominant social narrative in the US isn’t set up to teach us how to be part of a relationship.

So, niceness that is dictated by socially enforced gender rules bugs the shit out of me. But when it comes to the people we like, well, aren’t those relationships worth a little compromise? Are those people we like the very people to whom we should be the nicest?

I mean, yeah, doing nice things for strangers is no bad way to live. But isn't part of the definition of liking someone treating them well? What do you think about this, xoJaners? Do you think tired relationships just need a bit of consideration, a bit of niceness? Is your partner nice to you?

Marianne is usually very nice on Twitter: @TheRotund.