Every once in a while I encounter something that rocks me a little, shakes up my presuppositions.
When I was a teenager and young adult, people were first beginning to talk about the toxicity of power differentials in relationships and marriages. I’m pushing 60. In the generations before mine, nobody would have understood the problem with differences in power. Men were the heads of family. Wives were perhaps not exactly subordinate, but they were not equal to their husbands.
They weren’t supposed to be —
Powerful men courted and wed their secretaries and other female assistants at work. Some women went to work to find men to marry, unapologetically, openly. Tenured university professors had flings with or courted younger faculty members and even women students.
In some ways, these practices were celebrated as romantic ideals.
If you’re much younger than I am, you’re probably scratching your head. I can just hear you. Seriously? Ideal? Doesn’t everyone know that relationships need to be built on equality?
Yes, we know that now —
I grew up watching that understanding take root. I’ve witnessed the good the understanding has caused. A lot fewer people, especially young women, are subject to being manipulated and taken advantage of by men.
Fewer young people are having their lives disrupted or ruined by more powerful older people using them and abusing them. Understanding the toxicity of unequal power has done a lot of good for a lot of folks.
I’m glad for this new understanding of ours.
Every once in a while, though, I see something that shakes me. Let me tell you a story.
My partner Lenny and I were dancing at a Saturday afternoon LGBT mixer at his synagogue in lower Manhattan, ages ago.
l caught glimpses of a striking couple waltzing, two-stepping, and fox trotting. They were both handsome, well dressed, fit but not gym-bunny fit. Jim, as I later learned the younger partner was called, had inky hair trimmed into tight ringlets. His full beard was not fashionable for the time, so he stood out. Drew my eye.
Larry’s auburn locks were longer, beginning to thin and fade a tad. They whispered something about feminine values. I judged him to be about 40. I figured Jim was closer to my 30.
The two men were beautiful in totally different ways, gems in a brooch that should have clashed, but ended up complementing one another. Something was odd about Jim, though. I couldn’t put my finger on it.
They were obviously in love. The way they looked at each other. The way Jim wouldn’t let himself be more than a few feet from Larry.
I asked Lenny about them as we were browsing the buffet. I pointed with my chin. “You know those guys?”
“Yeah. Larry? He’s a bookkeeper up at Random House. Good guy. Boring guy. You want I should introduce you later?”
“I mean, sure, I guess. I was just curious. That guy he’s with? What’s the deal?”
Lenny’s pale blue eyes softened. “Oh, Larry’s Jim? Sweetest thing I ever saw.” He glanced over at Larry just as Jim hand fed him a piece of pastrami sandwich and laughed like a little kid.
It finally clicked.
“Lenny!” I gasped. “Jim isn’t, I mean Jim is… He’s not…”
Lenny looked me in the eye and said the words very plainly, as he always did. “Yeah. He’s retarded. Slow… Really, really slow.”
“But they were kissing!” I was shocked.
“Because they’re lovers,” Lenny said softly, taking my hand. “They’ve loved each other for almost ten years. They live together.”
It took me a while to process. I slowly got to know the two. Not well, really. I saw them maybe once a month over the next several years. We had them over to dinner a few times.
I learned that Jim was diagnosed with a pretty serious mental disability. He could mostly take care of himself, but he wasn’t capable of living on his own. He couldn’t read, and his verbal skills were limited. He couldn’t drive a car or negotiate public transportation. He couldn’t handle a grocery store or ordering at a restaurant.
Some people whispered that Larry took advantage of Jim. Lenny had known them since they met, and he assured me that those accusations were baseless.
The more I came to know the two, the more I saw that Lenny was right. They were incredibly patient with each other. They were incredibly tolerant of each other. They were absolutely devoted to each other.
The last I heard, they were growing old together, still together.
If I had not come to know Larry and Jim, I think I would believe that a relationship like that could not work, that it might have to be abusive or exploitative by definition. The inherent power differential had to make the relationship impossible.
But I did meet them. I did know them.
And I know that each would be incredibly poorer without the other.
Don’t mistake the purpose of this story, please. I’m not suggesting that we ought to go back to the days when unequal relationships were expected and idealized. I’m just saying that sometimes we need to dig a little below the surface before we can understand the ground we’re walking on.