It’s important for me to ask some basic questions when getting relationship advice.
Chad and I are sitting in the smallest coffee shop in St. Paul, sipping slightly spicy lattes, while Mary works the espresso machine for the yuppie who has just walked in with his rodent-dog. Chad and I are talking about the guy I’m currently dating. He said he wasn’t sure about the relationship.
I ask, “So, is your issue because of him, or because he’s a guy?”
It’s an important question for many of my Catholic friends. I suspect that thinking something can’t work is more or less the same as not wanting it to work. It’s the difference between despair and hope. So when I ask my Catholic friends about me dating other guys, I have to know whether their concerns are coming from a perspective of “you’re dating this person” or “you’re dating a guy.” I have to know whether the primary issue is “he’s not nice to you” or “he’s a dude,” whether the concern is “you’re neglecting your friends” or “he’s a dude,” whether it’s “this doesn’t seem to be helping you with chastity” or “he’s a dude.”
To want a relationship to work is to live in the world of all the reasons it might work. But when I go to some of my friends with possible relationships, I can tell from their faces that they live in a world of all the reasons it shouldn’t work. That is, they don’t really want it to work, even if they might say that they do. When they hear from me that things are going well, their internal dialogue continues, “For now…” And when things go badly, it says, “Well, of course.” So their advice just might not be as helpful for someone who wants his relationships to work.
We often underestimate the influence of desire over understanding. Knowledge accompanies the intake of perception, but understanding organizes itself around desire. The structure of facts only arises through the architecture of longing. Thus, factual knowledge is insufficient for either empathy or discourse. What is needed, rather, is the imaginative adoption of desire, an intuition into another’s longings, something which is necessarily transformative of the self.
Of course, others might be able to explore my relationship with openness even while holding their own disagreements. But that depends on whether they’re willing to pick up my perspective for a bit, whether they’re willing to try on someone else’s shoes, even if they think I don’t have the most practical footwear. So when he tells me that he isn’t a fan of our relationship, I ask, “Is it because of something about him, or because he’s a guy?”
“… Because he’s a guy.”
And there it is. I feel like I’ve been tricked. I’ve been listening to advice with the presumption that I was having a conversation about my relationship. Instead, I’ve gotten the prerecorded message that just happens to come out of the lips in front of me. The advice comes from the vision of someone who doesn’t want it to work, a very different moral atmosphere from someone who might hope for something. The decision’s been made, and there isn’t really a realm of possibility to explore.
I change the topic. It’s not necessarily that I’m mad. It’s just a waste of my time, and not very helpful.
“Every fall into love involves the triumph of hope over self-knowledge.”
-Alain de Botton
None of this is to say that I can’t be friends with such people, or that they don’t have lots of good advice to give me. It’s just to say that I probably won’t get great advice on this particular question. I think it’s silly to refuse to be friends with people who don’t agree with all your life choices, even your relationship choices. I’m more than those things, and so are they.