I’m the dog in the romantic comedy movie.
Here’s an archetypical scene from a romantic comedy:
Female lead returns to her tasteful, quirky apartment. She’s distraught. She enters and collapses on a couch. Her trusty dog comes up, wag-wag-wag, and then notices she’s crying. He tilts his head. Perhaps he gives her a ball. Play? But she’s too sad to play, and tells him so. He makes a sympathetically sad noise, and puts his head on her knee. She hugs him. He doesn’t understand, and he can’t solve her problems, but he gives her unconditional love. What a good dog!
I am that dog.
Here’s the deal: I’m in a long-term polyfidelitous triad. What’s that mean? It means me and my two partners are exclusive to each other and have been together for years. They’re women. I’m a man.
My partners are delightful, intelligent, fascinating, beautiful women who’ve survived lives that would’ve turned many others into piles of quivering goo. As such, they’ve got issues. They’re working on their issues. Every so often, these issues pop up — mostly manifesting as sadness.
Cue the romcom dog response.
See, I don’t understand. I see that they’re sad. I want to help. But my world is so much simpler than their world. It’s taken me a long time to figure out why, but I think I have a handle on it. It’s because I deal with things right away.
Somebody makes me angry. I display anger. Somebody makes me sad. I display sadness. I don’t let things fester. I don’t let things go unsolved. I confront, and I resolve.
Part of the reason I can do this is because of male privilege. An example: My partner went to her bank to discuss an unauthorized withdrawal. The teller decided that she’d lecture my partner about her overdue credit card instead of solving her problem. The teller absolutely refused to deal with the problem, but instead told my partner she had to deal with her overdue bill, instead.
So I went into the bank. Got the exact same teller. Said words like “unacceptable” and “ombudsman” and the like. Bang! Problem solved.
Do I think this is because I have a penis? Yes, I certainly do. People in North America are conditioned to respond to a specific kind of male authority that I’m quite capable of projecting. You know the kind — polite, calm, but firm. Maybe a hint of anger underneath, a whiff of potential explosions to come.
Both of my partners were raised in somewhat stereotypical North American fashion, to differing degrees. I was not. I was raised with women who didn’t take shit from anybody. They deal with problems the way I deal with problems: immediately and until they’re resolved.
The problem with letting a problem fester is that another problem will come along. And the second problem can intersect with the first one. Or the third problem will. Eventually, at some point, the problems intersect, and builds a structure, like a house of cards, but a lot more sturdy. A house of problems, as it were.
For example: Let’s say you had a parent who made you the babysitter, because you’re a girl and that’s what girls do, right? They nurture. They take care of babies. They’re all presumed to be mothers-in-waiting.
Now, you don’t want to be the babysitter, but you’re not aware that you have a choice. No one has ever offered you a choice. So you babysit. There’s problem one: your agency has been robbed.
Next up, the parents accuse you of being a shitty babysitter. They undermine your self-esteem. There’s problem two, which has now been laid over problem one.
Neither of these problems gets resolved, and as the house of problems grows, your issues become more and more complex, interwoven with subtleties.
Years later, you hook up with a couple who has a kid. You like the kid. The couple nervously asks you one day if you’d mind watching him for an hour or two. You are immediately caught in a cognitive dissonance. You love them and you want to be helpful. You don’t want to be a babysitter. You like the kid. You don’t want to get in trouble for babysitting wrong. You feel guilty and ashamed that you don’t want to help. You feel angry that you’ve been asked to help. And so on, and so forth, each step in the process refactoring the single white beam of “Can you watch the kid?” into a spectrum of emotional subtleties.
I’m not really good with subtleties. I haven’t had to be. I had a problem; I solved it. I was raised to be aware of my agency, at all times, and aware of my emotions, and to honour them, rather than repress them.
Which has become a problem. My partners have complex, decades-old issues that they’re struggling with. And they come to me, and my answers are…well. They’re pretty lame.
Recently, one of my partners was bemoaning that she’s stuck in the house so often. While we three try to parent our child equally, the realities of employment make that difficult, so one of us has ended up as the primary caregiver.
My partner lamented her lack of drive, her lack of friends, her lack of interest in things.
So, what did I suggest?
It seemed so simple to me. Bowling would get her out of the house. She could meet people. It’d give her a break from having to be a mom so often. She’d get new experiences, get a bit of exercise. I was frankly amazed at what a smart solution I’d come up with. I was Alexander, cleaving the Gordian Knot with my brilliance!
Needless to say, she was not impressed.
See, this is where I fall down. My problems are simple. I don’t let them become complex. For my partners, because they’ve got levels upon levels in their houses of problems, all problems beyond the most trivial seem complex…and sometimes even those.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not a constant, these issues. They come up now and again. And inevitably, I listen, I hug, I comfort, and I sympathize. I occasionally posit solutions, to which I usually get a vaguely condescending pat, and an A for effort.
I want to help. I want to wave my magic wand and have their problems disappear. On the surface, their problems seem so simple. But the depths elude me. The depths often elude them. One can’t explain why my offhand comment about upgrading their computer is somehow connected to feelings of inadequacy and imposition. The other can’t explain why they feel jealous of time I spend with our child, even though they don’t actually want to spend more time with him.
So I do what I can. I feed them. I do chores with them. I take care of the kid, because I love the kid and want to spend more time with him.
I hug them when they’re sad, and I get them tissues when their noses are running. I give them, in other words, unconditional love.
And I feel helpless when they’re really upset, and confused, because their problems are full-on Technicolor, and like a dog, I’m colourblind. I wag my tail and ask them “Play?” and put my head on their knees with sympathetic noises.
I wonder if unconditional love is enough. I hope that my love provides them with enough reassurance and fuel that they can sort out their problems without any real comprehension from me.
So far, so good.