Harper’s Magazine published a piece by Laura Kipnis called “The Domestic Gulag.” The author offers a brief sample of answers to the simple question: “What can’t you do because you’re in a couple?” (This information, she points out, is all absolutely true; nothing was invented. Nothing needed to be.)
“You can’t leave the house without saying where you’re going. You can’t not say what time you’ll return. You can’t go out when the other person feels like staying home. You can’t go out just to go out, because you can’t not be considerate of the other person’s worries about where you are, or their natural insecurities that you’re not where you should be, or about where you could be instead. You can’t leave your (pick one) books, tissues, shoes, makeup, mail, work, sewing stuff …lying around the house. …You can’t amass more knickknacks than the other person finds tolerable—likewise sports paraphernalia. You can’t leave the dishes for later, wash the dishes badly, not use soap, drink straight from the container, make crumbs without wiping them up (now, not later), or load the dishwasher according to the method that seems most sensible to you. … You can’t talk on the phone when they’re in the room without them commenting on the conversation, or trying to talk to you at the same time. You can’t read without them starting to talk, and you’re not allowed to read when they’re talking to you. You can’t use the “wrong tone of voice,” and you can’t deny the wrong-tone-of-voice accusation when it’s made. … You can’t ask for help and then criticize the mode of help, or reject it. …You can’t express inappropriate irony about something the other person takes seriously. …You can’t not be supportive, even when the mate does something insupportable. … You may not criticize the other person’s driving, signaling, or lane-changing habits. etc., etc., etc.”
Lots of our behavior in relationships is driven by complaint. How powerful are a person’s actions when those actions are the product of complaint? It’s doubtful we know any truly powerful people whose actions are shaped and driven by complaint. Complaint weakens our actions and our thoughts and our feelings. “The possibilities that exist between two people, or among a group of people, are a kind of alchemy. They are the most interesting thing in life,” says contemporary poet, Adrienne Rich. She goes on, in essence, to say, “When relationships are driven by complaint or by keeping track of who did what, or the need to be right, to control, they likely possess a dreary, bickering kind of drama, but cease to be interesting. The wonderful world of human possibilities ceases to reverberate through them.”
At some point in our relationships with our partners, our coworkers, family members, it seems we have the thought that we’re not fully satisfied. Even if there are long stretches where things are great, at some juncture we find ourselves disappointed about something, or feel that something is missing—that our particular relationship(s) are not all we’d hoped for. And once those thoughts make their way to consciousness, a refrain is sure to follow. Dissatisfaction invariably follows satisfaction, because what we so often do with satisfaction is try to hold on to it. Satisfaction held on to, however, becomes mechanical—the antithesis of satisfaction. In William Blake’s words, “He who binds to himself a joy/Does the winged life destroy.” Satisfaction can’t be held on to like a thing, it can only be created. To create something requires a space in which to create, and when that space isn’t there, most likely it’s because we’re holding on to something incomplete from the past.
Completing things comes down to a matter of getting beyond the “yeah buts” and “how ’bouts” and the “but ifs,” “onlys,” and “whens” about how things “should” or “need” to look a particular way. Completing things frees us up. It doesn’t automatically imply that everything is going to be wonderful in the future, but it does mean that we can address whatever there is to address in our present-day relationships, instead of dramatizing whatever might have been incomplete from the past. When something is complete it is as it is, there is not a need for something else. It’s as it is without being obscured by the way it should be. The should-bes, ought-to-bes, the way we want it to be—our ideals or comparisons with other things, other people, other times—all kind of drop away. There isn’t a sense that things “must” be different. It might be pleasant or preferable to have things be other than they are, but there isn’t an attachment to having something else, or a need for some part of it not to be there. The point is that something can be missing like a possibility vs. “missing” as if it is wrong or bad. When something’s missing as a possibility, there’s not a sense of insufficiency or inadequacy—there’s an allowing for and an acceptance of the way it is. What’s missing here doesn’t exist like a thing, but rather as a possibility for something—and with that comes a freedom.
Each of us has experienced moments in our lives when we are fully alive—when we have no wish for it to be different, better, or more. We have no disappointment, no comparison with ideals, no sense that it is not what we worked for. We feel no protective or defensive urge—have no desire to hold on, to store up, to save. Such moments are perfect in themselves. We experience them as being complete, and know a space within ourselves where such moments can be generated. It’s a shift or a state change, from being a character in a story to being the space in which the stories occurs—to being the author, as it were. It is a transformation—a contextual shift from being organized around “getting satisfied” to an experience of “being satisfied.”
And because relationships exist in language (not just as a set of feelings or accumulation of experiences, for example), there’s a malleability, a plasticity, a can-be moved-around-ness about them. When we walk around dissatisfied, thinking the other person should be different in one way or another, or say something like “they never really understood us,” or that “their expectations were unwarranted,” or “their idiosyncrasies were annoying,” what is really happening is that we are saying that. And the other person is likely saying, in some manner or another, what’s so for them. In all cases, it’s people speaking to themselves, speaking to others, or other people speaking about other people speaking to each other—it’s all occurring in language. When we shift the locus of our dissatisfaction and complaints from something “out there” to which language can only refer, to something that is located “in” language, what’s possible shifts.
It’s not necessarily a fact that we’ll be satisfied if such-and-such happens in a relationship, or doesn’t happen. Being satisfied is not a feeling later labeled with the word “satisfaction”; rather it is a commitment, a stand we’re taking for that possibility. That stand becomes the “chute” down which what we’re “up to” can be realized. When that happens, the conditions and circumstances for our relationships begin to reorder and realign themselves. How we see and hear others and how they see and hear us is transformed. This is what it’s all about—to be satisfied before anything happens.