Saturday, February 11, 2012

A fragile relationship cracks under the pressure of reality

Reader Kyle S. sent me the link to an article in the New York Times, wherein the writer speaks of her relationship with a member of the US armed forces, and how it's going to end (or, rather, how she's going to end it) when he deploys to Afghanistan. Here's an excerpt.

I’m afraid that the loneliness that is starting to seep into his being, the loneliness that he will feel the full weight of once he puts on his uniform and that will sit in the pit of his stomach throughout the deployment, is contagious. I don’t want to share that burden with him. In fact, I’m afraid of catching it from him. Ending our relationship feels like my only option, the only vaccine.

But deep down, I know I’m already infected. I just can’t bring myself to admit it. Ending our relationship may not be the cure, but denial is a strong antiseptic.

The Army drives home the point that no man should be left behind. The way my guy’s demeanor changes when he speaks of his last deployment makes me question if that’s true. But even if it is, that saying doesn’t appear to apply to civilians back home. When a soldier in a relationship deploys, the dynamic that is created has two sides: there is the person who left, and the person who is left behind.

I don’t want to be the one left behind.

. . .

Several times a week, in the middle of the night, as I put my bed back together and will my breath to steady, I find myself wondering why he is the only one who gets body armor. Body armor will protect his heart, but my heart needs protection, too.

He has told me that getting to know me has been a gift in his life. So, in return, on his 27th birthday — which just so happens to be his deployment day — I will help him celebrate by taking away his gift and walking away. Walking back to a life where you actually get to eat cake on your birthday, and keep your presents.

It’s sweet that he views me as a present. But I am not a gift. I am only a girl.

I just wish I had the courage to really be his girl.

There's more at the link.

My correspondent was rather contemptuous of the attitudes displayed by the young lady who wrote that article. He pointed out the number of times she used terms such as "I", "me" or "mine", the rather fewer number of times she spoke of "he", "him" or "his", and the still fewer (minimal) number of times she referred to "we" or "us".

I'm not so sure she deserves the condemnation he was more than prepared to make. First of all, I agree with him that with her use of personal versus collective terms, she was making it very clear that she was only in this relationship on her terms, not on shared terms; but isn't that the problem with so many modern relationships? I've long since lost count of the number of 'problem relationships' where, as a pastor and/or chaplain, I would be asked to counsel the couple. Whenever I heard one party (frequently both) say something like "I'm not getting out of this relationship what I expected", my instant retort was always "Well, what are you putting into it?" It's part of the Golden Rule, which is found in every major religion on Earth and in most major secular philosophies. Variations include (but are not limited to):

  • "Do unto others what you would have them do unto you"
  • "As you sow, so shall you reap"
  • "Treat others as you want them to treat you"

It's a never-failing recipe for success in most relationships (assuming a reasonably sane and stable foundation to begin with).

Secondly, she's grown up in a society that preaches instant (or almost instant) gratification and self-centeredness, be it in shopping, or sex, or anything else. "You deserve this!" "You're entitled to happiness!" Sound familiar? Yet our not-too-distant forefathers would look at you in blank astonishment if you told them that. They grew up during the Great Depression, and fought World War II, and came home to rebuild their lives. Millions came home to divided families, as faithless spouses (both men and women) found that their wartime affairs had destroyed the foundation of trust in their marriages. Millions more didn't come home at all, leaving wives as widows and children as orphans. There was precious little talk of 'deserving' gratification or being 'entitled' to happiness . . . the survivors got on with rebuilding their lives, and their world, as best they could. They toughed it out, and made the best of a bad job.

My own parents are (or, rather, were) living proof of that. They married in haste during World War II, and shortly thereafter my father was drafted overseas. They didn't see each other for three years, during which time my father fought through the Western Desert campaign, and Mom spent many long, weary nights watching for the fall of German bombs and fighting fires started by incendiaries. When they finally met again, I think both of them realized that they weren't really compatible, weren't really the 'soul-mates' that the romance novels prattle on about: yet, they'd made a commitment to each other, and they were determined to make that commitment work. They succeeded - not without problems, not without some very serious difficulties, but they succeeded. They were together for 64 years. Together they moved to a distant continent, built new lives there, brought up four children, and earned a Ph.D. apiece. If you'd said to them that they deserved more happiness for less hard work, they'd have looked at you incredulously, then laughed in your face. They did what was put in front of them to do. That's the way it was - and still is for the vast majority of the world's population. It's only in the self-centered, affluent West that we've developed a different perspective.

That different perspective may have precious little to justify it in reality. After all, relationships aren't a matter of feeling - they're a matter of fact. If you're not prepared to truly commit yourself to your partner, to accept the worse along with the better and the poorer along with the richer, then you don't have a relationship at all. You're just playing at commitment. We don't teach our children to live that way today - the divorce rate proves it! I submit that our society, and our relationships, are the poorer for the loss of that perspective. The author of that New York Times article appears to me to be a perfect illustration of that reality.

What say you, readers? Am I on track with what I'm saying here, or am I simply too old-fashioned to recognize current reality? Please let me know in Comments.



Unknown said...

The problem today in my opinion is at one time war was seen as a necessary virtuous enterprise, temporary in nature and had us united in seeing it come to an end through the use of noble men conscripted to duty. Today, being a military person in a volunteer army, you are considered more of a mercenary, knowing what you are getting into when you sign the on the line. When I was serving in Iraq, many active duty personnel were already thinking 2-3 deployments in the future, realizing at this time in the nation we are at a constant state of war not to end anytime soon. Unfortunately being a combat soldier is a career choice and there are many hazards to having that as a long term career goal, both to the mind and the heart. War at one time was a last resort entered into with much hand wringing and reluctance, today, we are constantly scanning our lane for a new ass to kick.

WROlsen said...

As a child of the late depression I understand your position completely.
we grew up in a generation that considered fortitude to be a positive aspect of life, my children (hopefully) grew up in a generation that knew it deserved much, but is willing to work for the rewards. The present generation seems to be in life only for themselves and the gratification they can get from not being responsible for any of their thoughts and actions.
But in my present work as a mediatior I am seeing indications that the future generation might well be inching back to an era of responsibility and self reliance.
They carry my hopes (and fears) with them and I can only wish them "fair winds and following seas".

Anonymous said...

You're spot on. I'll be passing this along to my wife for some educational reading... :-\

Anonymous said...

I think the girl (not mature enough to be a woman) is doing the soldier a favor.

He can do better for his self.


Anonymous said...

Self absorption and the resulting indecision are wonderful things to see!

In the photo, she looks like an adult woman. Her thinking and emotional maturity place her at about 12 or 13.

I think she is a prime example of the Perpetual American Child.

Perhaps, she deserves pity more than condemnation. And a kick in the pants.

Anonymous said...

I feel sorry for the gal, a touch, because I don't think she realizes what she is missing. And in some ways she reminds me of the little (17 y.o.) gal who complained to Dear Abby about wanting to break up with her steady because she wanted to see what a relationship with "drama" and pain was like. Abby told the young lady to count her blessings and stick with her steady.

I was born at the tail of the Boomers but before Gen X and was raised by parents who have more of the Depression/WWII generation mindset than the "Boomer" approach, i.e. no one worried about my self esteem. Every time I read or see an ad about "you deserve it" my teeth clench. No, you work for it and earn it, whether it is a healthy relationship, a promotion at work, or that overly-sparkly diamond ring. (I prefer colored stones in a low mount, should anyone be looking for a good home for such things ;) )

No, Peter, it's not you, it is society. And the folks who grew up in the late 70s, 80s and 90s are getting a very rude wake up, even though the media do not seem to have realized this. The young lady may learn the lesson about relationships and life the hard way.


Chasing Freedom said...

I think she's doing him a favor in the long run; however, she's doing it in the cruelest way possible. To break a relationship 1. on someone's birthday and 2. on their deployment simply boggles my mind. It's not like she's 17 and he's going off to college. He deserves time for an explanation and time to cope before being sent to a war zone. I'm with Anonymous, she does portray the stereotype of a perpetual child.

Silver the Evil Chao said...

I dunno, maybe it's because I'm speaking from a kind of experience, but I disagree with the assertion that you should stay together even when you're not sure that things are going to work out.

My parents (my dad being military) were in an unhappy marriage for ten or so years. It did more harm than good for them in the long run, IMO.

trailbee said...

This girl was very honest but wanted to publicly punish him for leaving her,and did that very well. He is one lucky guy. The pain will be short because he will be so busy when he gets where he's going, he won't have time for his broken heart.
However, I do hope that he will grow as a human during this tour and be VERY discerning and picky the next time around. :)

LabRat said...

I'm both with you and with Silver. I agree relationships take hard work and need to be on terms that are shared, and that prioritize the bond over individual satisfaction.

However, I've seen a lot of fundamentally sad and broken relationships involving people who stayed in them because "we made a commitment". The relationships didn't improve or get fixed, and they made the people within them totally miserable.

Ultimately the relationship DOES need to be satisfying because otherwise what is the bloody point? And if there are children, what model of a loving relationship are you actually giving them? In a world where abuse and misery are rife, I think "if someone is terrible for you and makes you very unhappy, you can leave" is actually an important lesson in its own right.

The girl in question sounds immature and narcissistic, which is exactly why she needs to leave the guy. She shows a glimmer of self-awareness in knowing she doesn't have the strength to be a soldier's Other. Perhaps in the interim she will begin acquiring some.

benEzra said...


Thank you. You put it more eloquently than I could.

Peter, one assumption you may be making is that the boyfriend is as (or more) commited to the relationship than she was. That may or may not be the case.

I live pretty close to two USMC installations and work with a lot of former USN and USMC. I have seen some soldiers and sailors who are great husbands, and I have seen some soldiers and sailors who only really want a woman in order to have sex with when stateside and take care of their kids and truck when deployed.

It takes *two* commited people to make a relationship work. One person cannot do it alone, and they will literally kill themself trying if the other person is just not interested in fulfilling their half.

Anonymous said...

A lot of people don't have what it takes to be a military spouse.

I tell my soldiers to "marry a stubborn woman" because people fall out of love, but they don't fall out of stubborn. I also tell my soldiers to marry a woman who can stand on her own two feet, because she'll have to quite frequently.

Staying married doesn't mean staying in love all the time, but if you stick with it it always gets better.