A few weeks ago, we ran a post from longtime APW contributor, Manya, called “How To Be In Love.” It was a beautiful narrative about the small gestures that make her relationship meaningful, and it cataloged the ways that she and her partner are growing their love together. It was moving and illustrative and it became one of the most shared posts we’ve ever featured on the site (thanks Facebook).
You know what else it did? It turned me a little crazy.
When everyone else was sharing and commenting on the post, I was slinking off to a corner to push away doubts and worries that my relationship wasn’t at all like the one I was reading about. I couldn’t help but think to myself, “If this is what goodness looks like, and my relationship doesn’t look anything like theirs, what am I doing wrong?” It was during this reflective-moment-bordering-on-shame-spiral that I saw this comment on the APW Facebook page come through:
Sappy, but good advice. I envision most men trying their best to finish this article, with their partner’s urging. Most will finish paragraph two, and then say, “So can we do it yet.” I’ve been married fourteen years, just for the record.
And without warning, something inside me snapped a little. Part of me was upset at the comment for not giving men more credit. But part of me was also upset because the commenter had struck a familiar nerve. She was talking about my husband. And it made me sad. It made me sad because all of these people were connecting to this lovely story and I just…couldn’t. I wanted to. So badly. And I couldn’t. (I was jealous. Don’t make me say it out loud.) I was frustrated at the idea that I didn’t connect to something that so many people recognized as truth. I was frustrated that my Saturdays in bed are spent bickering over who’s going to make the coffee, not spent bringing it to each other. In the simplest of ways, I read the title “How To Be In Love” and thought to myself, “Well, then, obviously we aren’t.”
But shame has a funny way of presenting itself. Rather than acknowledging my insecurities and analyzing where they were coming from, I decided that the commenter was just wrong and it was my job to show the internet what was what. While simultaneously throwing a very quiet snit fit that involved a lot of shouting things from within the recesses of my brain like, “YOU DON’T KNOW ME,” I also did something else. I emailed Michael the article.
I thought, “I’m going to show you, commenter. You don’t know what you’re talking about. Husbands aren’t like that at all. Ever.” So I emailed Michael the post, setting a delicate trap that included a little note that said, “I really liked this. It’s a little sappy, but whatever.” (Subtext: I don’t actually think this is sappy. I think it’s BEAUTIFUL. But I recognize that this might not be your cup of tea, so join me in ignoring this knowledge and help me prove a point to the internet, will you?) Within half an hour he replied, “Good f*cking lord… I could only get through half of it…”
Manipulation fail. Internet—2; Maddie—0.
When Michael came home, I picked a fight about the article, the email, life. You name it. I cried in front of our roommate. I made Michael have an hour-long conversation with me about being nicer to each other while simultaneously implying that maybe he didn’t have feelings. Patient, sweet, kind Michael listened to my concerns, while lying facedown on our bed, possibly thinking about what I was saying, possibly trying to suffocate himself. When it was over, I felt better (as one does when they take their feelings out on an entire household).
Later that night, when I came to bed, Michael was still awake. As I crawled under the covers, he looked at me seriously and said, “Come here, would you like to nestle into the crook of my arm? I’ll be the big spoon. We can whisper sweet nothings to each other as we fall asleep.” He was mocking me. Bless his heart. It’s like he doesn’t know when to quit.
And you know what? It was the best thing he could have done. As I fell into a fit of giggles, I realized what I know is true: what we have is good. It’s just…it’s our good.
But that doesn’t stop scenarios like the one above from playing out again every few months. Because the truth is, my meltdown was never about Manya’s story. It’s never about whoever’s story has set me on edge this time. It is always about me worrying that I don’t measure up. I mean, here I am writing for this website, in front of thousands of you, talking about marriage like I know anything, all the while bickering with Michael about whose job it is to choose what’s for dinner.
The good news is, I think I’m starting to wrap my head around what’s going on. I remember reading something online not too long ago that stirred the same twinge of jealousy in me. I remember thinking to myself, “Damn, their relationship sounds so romantic. I wish Michael and I did nice things like that for each other.” Turns out? That couple is getting a divorce.
I’ve never been the kind of person who keeps up with the Joneses. I understand that when I walk into someone’s house, I can’t just have the things they have by wanting them. The things have to make sense with my life. I need to be able to afford them. Michael and I should probably both agree that the things are indeed good things that we want. But the internet, with its delicate balance of being both real life and fantasy, has a way of making me covet the emotional property of those around me in a way that I don’t in the physical world. Maybe it’s that it seems that much more normal when its online, that much more attainable, more possible.
The problem, also, is that the internet exists without context. If I’m keeping up with the Joneses in real life, chances are I at least know how much the Joneses make. I’ve probably seen them yell at their kids from the front lawn (well, if growing up we were the Joneses, that would’ve been the case). By the nature of proximity and occasionally witnessing them air their dirty laundry, I am that much more capable of understanding what’s reality in my perception of the Joneses and where I’m filling in the blanks on their lives. But the internet is an entirely different beast. Because the internet has no inherent boundaries, we’re all just constructing them as we go, deciding what’s appropriate to share and what’s not. So while maybe not fully intentional, our lives are more curated online. And as a viewer, it’s difficult for me to know if certain aspects of life are being omitted because they didn’t happen, or because it wasn’t appropriate for sharing.
Even now as I tell you this story it probably seems like I’m letting you in on some raw truth of my relationship with Michael. But this story is still safe. It has a happy ending. It’s within my boundaries. I’m not telling you about the fights we have that don’t get resolved, about the real anxieties I have about marriage and long-term commitment. And I probably won’t ever. I regard my online identity like I regard my house when I have guests over. I’m not going to wax the floors or anything, but I’m probably going to close the door to my bedroom, which is littered with dirty clothing. Similarly, I’m not going to suggest that Michael and I don’t fight, like, all the time. (Actually, I’m the only one who fights. Michael likes to win arguments by refusing to rise to the occasion. No fun.) But I’m also not going to fight in front of you. Because that would be inappropriate, online or off. Perhaps it’s because of the perception that everyone overshares online, but the internet seems to be the place where we are more likely to supplement this lack of information with assuming that there is a lack of bad stuff. Which I understand. Because clearly I do it all the time. (Sorry again, Manya.)
Yesterday Meg talked about the lure of Pinterest and building up a digital file of all the things we want in our lives without actually taking action on any of them. I think it’s only fair to assume that if we’re doing that with physical things, like hammocks and chevron-painted walls, we’re probably also doing it with experiential and emotional things, like Saturday morning coffee and snuggles and sweet nothings. In some cases, we can do as Meg suggested and take our inspiration to the streets. We can initiate a Saturday morning routine with our partners or spend a few minutes longer spooning on the weekends. But the rest of the time, I think it’s our job to see the internet for what it is: the reality TV of our time. Just as I can’t expect myself to keep up with the Kardashians, I should also learn that I can’t be expected to keep up with Joanna Goddard either. Because she has a real life that is more complex than what exists online, and I have a real life that is more complex than what exists online (well, my social media feeds are disproportionately filled with photos of my dog and my hair, so maybe that’s not true). And my suspicion is that if we looked very closely, our two lives are, in fact, much more alike than the internet might suggest. But the point is—that shouldn’t make a difference anyway. Because what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is yours, and our relationships are far too nuanced and magical to be comparing notes composed in 140 characters or less.
Editor’s Note: When I told Manya about the subject of this article, she sent me the “dude version” of her original post. I thought it was too good not to include here. Michael told me it was readable, which is like getting a three star Michelin rating from him.
How To Be In Love, Dude Version
- Cuddle (sometimes)
- Coffee (always)
- Don’t let her see you taking a shit (ever.)
- Call her by a special name
- Sex. Also, sex.
- Keep doing interesting stuff alone and together
- Accept she’s not perfect… You’re no prize yourself
- Buy her impractical gifts, lavish ones when you can