S’il te plaît… apprivoise-moi! — Relationships and responsibility

[Disclaimer: this post has been (heavily) edited on July 21, 2013]

In this post I want to reflect upon my current understanding of meaningful relationships. Before jumping into the topic however, I want to explain a bit about the first half of this post’s title… It comes from one of my (if not my most) favorite books: Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

For those of you who do not know the book, it is the story of a man in a desperate and life-threatening situation–having crash-landed his own, small airplane in the desert, and not having much water to survive. He meets “the little prince”, who through conversations reveals what I would call extremely valuable truths about life: how people treat their existence, and how if they treated it differently their experience could potentially be much richer and fulfilling. The language is poetic as well as naïve, in the sense that it seems to be written for children; but for me, with every reading as an adult, I still “learn” from it. Many times, I was able to rephrase my own life in the terms the book provides and “see with my heart” to what extent I was able or not to already incorporate the notions I consider relevant and worthwhile.

To illustrate and give one of the most profound ways in which I experience relationships, I want to quote from the book–in the original French with a few comments of mine. After his arrival on Earth, but before meeting the pilot and narrator of the book, the little prince with his wheat-colored hair also meets a fox and they share a conversation. This is a part of it:

“S’il te plaît… apprivoise-moi!” dit-il.

“Je veux bien,” répondit le petit prince, “mais je n’ai pas beaucoup de temps. J’ai des amis à découvrir et beaucoup de choses à connaitre.”

“On ne connaît que les choses que l’on apprivoise,” dit le renard. “Les hommes n’ont plus le temps de rien connaître. Ils achètent des choses toutes faites chez les marchands. Mais comme il n’existe point de marchands d’amis, les hommes n’ont plus d’amis. Si tu veux un ami, apprivoise-moi!”

So, in this first part of the conversation the fox tries to explain that it is worth “taming” someone, that is to say getting close to as a friend; in fact it is the only way to make a friend, by spending time with and on someone. It is followed by an explanation on what exactly entails taming: the slow and deliberate process of establishing mutual benevolence, respect, trust, limits, rituals, and allowing natural and intuitive reliance on these relationship foundations to form over time. The little prince engages in this process, and by the end of it, evidenced by the following (shortened) dialog, has successfully tamed the fox:

(…) Et quand l’heure du départ fut proche:

“Ah!” dit le renard… “Je pleurerai.”

“C’est ta faute,” dit le petit prince, “je ne te souhaitais point de mal, mais tu as voulu que je t’apprivoise…”

“Bien sûr,” dit le renard.

“Mais tu vas pleurer!” dit le petit prince.

“Bien sûr,” dit le renard.

“Alors tu n’y gagnes rien!”

“J’y gagne,” dit le renard, “à cause de la couleur du blé.” (…) “Va revoir les roses. Tu comprendras que la tienne est unique au monde. Tu reviendras me dire adieu, et je te ferai cadeau d’un secret.”

(…) Et il revint vers le renard:

“Adieu,” dit-il…

“Adieu,” dit le renard. “Voici mon secret. Il est très simple: on ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” (…) “C’est le temps que tu a perdu pour ta rose qui fait ta rose si importante.” (…) “Les hommes ont oublié cette vérité,” dit le renard. “Mais tu ne dois pas l’oublier. Tu deviens responsable pour toujours de ce que tu as apprivoisé. Tu es responsable de ta rose…”

In other words, once someone has been tamed as a friend, he or she will always remain special and, as the fox says, we remain responsible for keeping it that way. At the very end of the book, the author reflects on how meeting the little prince will always be a source of joy and meaning for his own life. And with that in mind, I am turning to some of my experiences…

About five years ago, only a few months after arriving in New York–and the United States for that matter–I got to know my first ever boyfriend. While it may not have been love at first sight, we developed a great sense of comfort, and despite our differences I think it is fair to say that we tamed one another: we allowed ourselves to become vulnerable, to rely on those elements of friendship and be hurt by their absence. Over time, we both experienced hurt and pain, and looking back I would say the biggest factor in the prolonged pain was a lack of determination and courage to communicate some of the aspects that were lacking or remained unsatisfactory. At some point I felt this relationship to be no longer adequately taking care of some of my needs. At first this was unconscious, and only too late it became fully visible to me.

Unfortunately, this lack of courage didn’t allow me to communicate this sense of dissatisfaction better with my boyfriend of then four years. I very unceremoniously and not at all truth-fully broke up with him. However, both due to the fact that we had tamed one another as well as my not being able to fully appreciate and boldly accept some of my needs–in part driven by very early childhood experiences, I believe–I decided to get back together to my ex-boyfriend, only to fail again…

From the past few months, I have learned it is essential for me that, once someone opens up to me and makes him or herself vulnerable, I do actually want to accept at least part of the responsibility for how he or she becomes fragile and that I want to take care of their needs and feelings, at least to the point that is part of the promise made during the taming. And now I simply have to accept that I cannot take anything back that I did, but want to look into the future and remain open in case my caring is appreciated and wanted. So, as one important life lesson learned: after breaking up with someone, I don’t want to cut the other person off.

Contracts, relationships, and our society at large

Yesterday I had a very nice chat with a friend and colleague, and as part of this chat, a theme that I had thought about before came back to my mind: whenever people interact with one another, this usually implies some sort of contract. And I want to start by giving my own, personal definition of what I understand when I use the term contract…

Naturally, there are written contracts, many of them being pre-printed forms where people simply fill in some blanks and, by signing it, indicate they are willing and accept to be bound by the terms stated therein. But I would argue that most contracts that people enter into are unwritten contracts. In that sense, for me a contract is indeed just that, the willingness and acceptance to display a certain type of behavior in the future, sometimes based on conditional contingencies, sometimes regardless of other future events. And quite a few contracts also contain some sort of provision of what will happen if the contract is not fulfilled. In some contracts this part is left out, which then means that the person misbehaving might be dragged in front of a judge, given that there was a contract to begin with, objectively speaking.

Put differently, whenever I have a (hopefully reasonable) expectation about someone else’s behavior–or more precisely for that behavior to be within certain limits–and this person implicitly or explicitly agrees to my expectation–and of course at the same time has expectations about my behavior in the very same situation–there is some kind of contract at work. And whenever such a contract is violated by straying from the agreed-upon path, there is a conflict that needs resolution.

Now, what are unwritten contracts? For one, as far as I can tell, being in any kind of relationship, including an intimate relationship, can be seen as agreeing to a contract, most of which are never written down but actually only inferred by habitual and customary behavior. To give a practical example: whenever I go shopping for groceries and I put my items on the conveyor belt at the register, I enter into a (sort of business) relationship with the person on the other side of the register, and I have a certain expectation of what is going to happen next. Unless there are circumstances at play that I didn’t notice or I have made some kind of error–for instance, I might have put too many items out for the express check-out line–I would assume that the associate of the store will start scanning or manually processing my grocery items and, once done with this task, ask me to pay for my shopping. In turn, the expectation is then that I will pay and take the items with me when I leave. Obviously, nothing of that is written down or agreed upon on an individual basis, but rather the idea of entering a groceries (or other) store, collecting, and finally presenting the merchandise at the register is seen as my entering into this unwritten contract.

When it comes to personal, intimate, relationships, the contract between the two partners might be much, much more complicated: it contains clauses covering behavior in many, many more domains and regarding many, many more possible situations. But, apart from its complexity, the contract is probably equally unwritten, and entered into–at least in the beginning–implicitly. In fact, even a first date, when two people have little to no knowledge about one another, still comes with a contract: for one, you expect the other person to behave with at least a minimal amount of dignity and respect towards you, and if that part is broken, the date usually ends prematurely.

One of the big differences, comparing such a contract to the one at the groceries store, is that people don’t always agree on what exactly that contract says, which leaves (a lot of) room for conflict. In fact, my take on relationship conflicts in general is that, other than bad intentions, ignorance, and negligence, disagreements in relationships are almost exclusively caused by two people applying different versions of the same contract to one and the same relationship.

Imagine going to the bank and signing two copies of a loan agreement, and the two versions differ in, say, the interest rate and the payment terms. I think, unless your copy has the higher rate and more frequent payments, the bank will be quite dissatisfied and upset if you don’t make your interest payments on time, in the expected amount…

The same is true in an intimate relationship, with the difference being that there is no written contract. In that sense, a relationship without a written contract requires that, whenever a conflict occurs, the people in the relationship must be willing to “spell it out” and renegotiate: what are my expectations? Why were they not met? Are my expectations unreasonable or even unrealistic? Can we find a middle ground?

For that to be successful, however, it is important that both parties in the relationship understand that the terms must be negotiable to begin with. As soon or as long as one party insists that their terms are “right” or that their views on things are “the only way to see it”, negotiation becomes impossible–something that reminds me strongly of the current political situation, both here in the U.S., but also abroad. And it is somewhat unfortunate that in quite a few situations, one of the parties in a relationship either subjectively or, even worse, objectively is in a position of power to almost dictate the terms of the contract, which, if abused, in the long run can lead to an undermining of trust, the basis for any future success of the relationship…

And speaking of relationships, here’s another idea (I know, coming back to the economy…): naturally, people who work their entire life have the expectation that their retirement will be a reasonably comfortable one, although they no longer put their work force into the generation of wealth and produce. To a certain extent–wherever financial assets and investments exist–this expectation might even be backed up by a written contract. But this obviously doesn’t change the premise of what is supposed to happen: those people have worked for most of their adult life and simply expect that they don’t have to keep working until they are on their deathbed. Society, on the other hand, makes the promise that the elderly as well as those unable to provide for their livelihood by means of work will be taken care of reasonably well.

This social contract between the older and younger generation as well as between working and non-working members of society is now threatened. Why? Over the past 40 or so years, the percentage of generated wealth, as measured by the gross domestic, attributed to the production factor of labor paid in wages has declined slowly but irresistibly–put differently, prices for every good and service used by an actual end consumer are no longer, in the main, determined by the cost of labor, but by the cost of capital and corporate profit margins. On the other hand, more and more–though still select and elite–people are able to afford living without working at all, throughout their entire life, not just retirement, simply by paying for their consumption out of some capital gains. If this trend continues, those who actually have to generate the wealth through labor will no longer be able to provide for everyone… And as much as I believe in free markets and capitalism, I think it’s high time to start re-distributing wealth to those who actually provide for it: the working class!