10.17.2007

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

This is a bit more stream-of-consciousness than I usually am. I hope you'll get the gist, anyway. It's something that I've been thinking about for a long time, but it only coalesced into bloggable form recently.

If you've dated me (or are dating me), and think anything in here is about you, it probably isn't. Or it probably isn't only about you. Or maybe it is really just about you, but we dated awhile ago and I'm pretty sure you don't read this blog. I've tried to provide multiple examples here, some of which are real and some of which are made up, and hope I haven't mortally offended anyone. If I have (especially if you are dating me now), please let me know! (Um, and if you are dating me now, I think you're pretty darn cute the way you are. Just sayin'. Anything more would go against my iron-clad rule against blogging about current, personal stuff involving other people in my life who might potentially mind, without their permission.)

Okay, enough caveats.

* * * * *

Popular wisdom declares that it's not a good idea to ask the person you're dating (or married to) to change. First of all, it's unlikely to work. (Anyone whose parents have been having the same arguments about balancing checkbooks, being on time, not recycling the newspaper before the other person is done reading it, etc., for 30+ years know this empirically.) Second of all, if you're asking someone to change, then maybe s/he isn't the person for you.

In my not-very-vast dating experience, these issues--changing, not changing--have come up the most around issues of personal appearance. I have been asked to change certain things about the way that I dress or do my hair. I almost never ask a guy to change the way that he dresses, even if I would be more attracted to him if he did. I just don't feel comfortable.

I don't know if I've mentioned this here before, but about two years ago, I was talking to a married-for-30-years Israeli-American woman about the trials and tribulations of dating in New York City. I told her that I tried to dress decently most of the time (no stains or holes), but that I'm never going to care all that much about clothing or what's "in," and that I don't particularly like wearing makeup (when I do for a first date, which I inevitably do, I think of it as "tarting myself up"--no makeup on the second date so as not to falsely attract men who need women to be made up to be attractive), and that I want (possibly need?) to wear pants but want to marry someone frum. She suggested that it was worthwhile for me to change in order to ensure my marriageability. She said, "Is it such a big deal to go shopping, wear makeup, and just wear skirts for awhile?"

In retrospect, I think it is, at least the wearing makeup and only skirts parts. (I freely admit that I should learn to be better at clothing shopping and clothing wearing, but also that if, when I die, the worst thing people have to say about me is, "She wasn't so good at clothing shopping and sometimes her shirts were wrinkled," I will be a blessed woman, indeed.)

For me, the idea that I would be marriageable if I did those things and not marriageable if I didn't, is reason enough to stay single. Maybe at some point, I will get an extra dose of fashion sense, start liking wearing makeup more than 2x/month (max), and wear skirts more. But it has to be because I want to, not because I want some guy to fall in love with me. I don't want to end up with someone around whom I can never wear sweat pants or be shleppy. (I did date someone once who said that seeing me in sweatpants--ever--would be a major, and possibly permanent, turn-off. I was like, "Even to sleep?" and he said that one could sleep in nicer things than sweatpants. Sure, but why would one want to? It was a good thing that that ended.)

While I sometimes really feel like looking nice even if it makes me slightly uncomfortable, overall, I place a premium on being comfortable. It doesn't seem fair to me that I should have to put on makeup just because some guy likes it, if it's going to make me uncomfortable. Likewise, I sometimes wish guys I went out with wouldn't show up on the first date wearing a raggedy, stretched-out-at-the-neck t-shirt, but I don't think I can say anything about it. If that's what makes them happy, who I am to ask someone to please start wearing shirts with collars?

Short of asking someone to change outright, can we state personal preferences in the hopes that the person we are dating will like us enough to make the changes for us? I think this most often takes the form of, "I like you better when you..." or "I like it better when..." There are better and worse ways to frame these kinds of statements, obviously. Or can we make observations about a person's state, and suggest that they might be happier if they did x, y, and z, if x, y, and z also happen to be our personal preferences?

I have difficulty knowing which of the following statements are reasonable and which are "dump that chump or chick"-worthy. Anyone have thoughts? Should everyone just keep their mouth shut about these things, or is it okay to state preferences and either expect or not expect the other party to heed them?
  • "You have such nice hair--why do you put gel into it? It looks a little greasy that way."
  • "I wish you would wear tighter, more revealing clothing. I'm much more attracted to women who dress that way."
  • "My God, pleated jeans and pleated khakis--both--are a terrible idea. You would look much better in flat-front pants."
  • "Please wear makeup more often."
  • "I much prefer you clean-shaven to scruffy."
  • "I love it when you wear your hair down."
  • "You'd look cuter in a kipa than a baseball cap."
  • "Please don't cut your hair short. I love it long."
  • "I wish you would wear high heels without socks/stockings. It's so sexy."
  • "I love it when you look relaxed and less preppy. Please stop wearing sweater vests."
  • "This is not a religious thing. I am just much more attracted to women who wear skirts than to women who wear pants. It's okay with me if you wear pants, though--I'll try to get over it."
  • "I am much more attracted to men who wear white, button-down shirts than to men who wear polo shirts."
  • "I am much more attracted to men who wear button-down shirts than to men who wear oversized t-shirts."
  • "You would look so hot with blond highlights in your hair."
  • "You should wear green more often. It makes your eyes look awesome."
Obviously, some of them are stated in more polite or less polite ways, but that mostly speaks to how likely they are to be heeded, not whether it is appropriate to express the ideas behind them, period.

I tend towards the "praise the behavior you like rather than punishing the behavior you don't" school of thought in general, and I guess I try to apply that to this issue as well. I respond much better to praise than to disparagement, and I figure that other people must, as well. But, really, I think that the method of delivery is separable from whether the thought out to be shared or kept secret. Is it just my imagination or my particular idiosyncrasy, or are men better at making these kinds of statements?

Back to the issue at hand: What's fair to ask or say? Given that I try to dress better than usual when I think it might make a difference to someone else (employer, colleague, client, date), can I ask/suggest/hint that a guy dress nicer for me the way I try to for him? Does doing so make me some sort of superficial ditz? What if he's already dressing nicer and I unintentionally insult him?

And how much is it about the asker vs. the askee? "I am much more attracted to you when you wear makeup" sounds pretty innocuous unless you phrase it as, "I need women to wear makeup to be attractive to me." Thinking about it this way makes it seem like "You change or I leave," which I don't think is always the case. But maybe it is. When someone told me that I wasn't pretty enough for him and that he was embarrassed to introduce me to his friends because of this (after months of dating; I'm sure he has his own version of what he said), I was, thank the very good Lord, at a point in my life where I realized that wasn't about me at all, but about his (sadly mistaken) perception of beauty.

But that's what this is all about, isn't it? Our differing perceptions of beauty and attractiveness? That's part of what makes me hesitant to share these thoughts sometimes. Our perceptions of physical attractiveness sometimes seem so arbitrary to me. And if they aren't arbitrary, then they seem like they're lifted straight out of the advertisements that assault us daily. Maybe his hair really does look good with gel in it, or maybe he really does look good in pleated pants, and I just don't see it because I expect something else or because I randomly, arbitrarily, find that look distasteful. And, if that's the case, I should change rather than he.

* * * * *

What does this difficulty/impossibility of asking someone else to make small changes say about all of the much bigger differences between any couple? I mean, bigger issues are going to come up than heel height, shirt collars, and makeup, and I think it's inevitable that there are going to be a lot of disagreements about those bigger issues. The more married couples I know, the less I find that spouses are at all similar to each other. Yet, in my experience, most of these unions work. How?

I was talking to my paternal grandmother over a year ago about what kinds of differences with a spouse are okay and which are too vast to overcome, and if one should bail if a relationships feels like hard work. She claimed that she and my grandfather mostly agreed on things, and that things were different when everyone married someone from roughly their neighborhood/background/socioeconomic situation. My father remembers them disagreeing more than my grandmother does, so some rose-colored-glasses-wearing may be going on here. Another interesting thing: She and my great-aunt were married to two brothers, who have both since passed away. She claimed that marriage is easy and is not really hard work, and my great-aunt claimed that marriage is very hard work, indeed. I am inclined to agree with my great-aunt, who also dispensed some fascinating wisdom about her married life. She said that she and my great-uncle spent six months discussing long-term relationships, marriage, whether they were suited for each other, how each of them was and how they would work together, before deciding to get married. Over the ensuing decades, they found out that nothing that each had said about him/herself was really true (because they didn't know themselves well enough, not because any deceit was going on), but that their marriage was great anyway--just not as they had predicted. Which goes to show that no matter how much you talk, you are unlikely to predict how you will be in ten or twenty years, or how you will be with a spouse, and I guess you just hope that it works out anyway. I dunno. That's sort of what I'm asking here.

The more I think about two distinct, adult individuals building a common life together, the more outlandish the whole enterprise seems. Obviously, both sides need to make compromises for it to work, but what kinds of compromises? What compromises are reasonable? Which are unnecessary? How does anyone ever end up having kids and not destroying them with the inherent contradictions and differences between the parents?

And will you please put on a clean shirt? Thanks!

11 comments:

smoo said...

Various comments sans clean shirt:

Having been married and single again, I find it fascinating that you said, "Is it just my imagination or my particular idiosyncrasy, or are men better at making these kinds of statements?" I can't tell you how many women wanted me to have a beard or not, dress up or down, be more assertive or less. I think we have all had our fair share of dissatisfied partners and I don't believe the scales could swing too much in either direction although the guys aren't as smooth and subtle about it how they present it. But ultimately the message is the same.


If you both can't accept each other for who you are then there's gonna be trouble. The famous saying about teaching a child according to his ways lest he veer in his old age is really a misinterpretation of the phrase. Rather you should teach a child according to his ways because even as he ages his nature will remain fundamentally the same. The lessons he learns early must be able to work for his personality even after many years. So thinking your going change more than some superficial aspects is a recipe for disaster.

There are things one does in a relationship that, in effect, are compromises (hopefully not begrudgingly so). When I go out with a woman and find that she likes a certain t-shirt I sometimes wear, I get excited about doing things that will make her happy. Things that don't detract from who I am or detract from my own sensibilities are certainly worth making accommodations. Once we get into areas that are more serious, each issue must be weighed according to the individual's standards. Maybe I would compromise in an area that you wouldn't. It's best to run hypothetical 'war-games' to see how life's challenges may be played out and what areas are potential sources of conflict. A person should nonetheless be able to express his thoughts or ideas (politely) otherwise his partner will never get a true sense of the things that are important or satisfying to him. Without a meeting of minds, there can no meeting of hearts.

alg's mother said...

I'll never forget how, when I first met my future mother-in-law, an extremely intelligent psychologist, she took me aside and, with a smile, told me to forget about changing her son. He will never change, she said. She was right, as far as personality and some habits. But, 30+ years later, I think I have made some headway, in terms of table manners and clothes. No one is perfect for anyone and life is full of compromises. I think that, bottom line, partners need to be sensitive to and considerate of each other's needs.

BZ said...

A wise person I know was asked "Wow. How have you managed to stay married to the same person for 40 years?". She responded "What makes you think we were the same people for 40 years?"

[I'm paraphrasing and might be getting it wrong.]

Anonymous said...

A few quick reactions:

clean and neat are absolute requirements

within one month after getting engaged (or sometimes the fiancee is patient and it takes until one month after the couple marries) the
husband has new glasses

affecting each other's clothing happens gradually: if he likes a certain kind of sleeve and always compliments her when she wears a blouse or dress in that style, or if she likes dark suits and tells him that the navy blue suit looks great on him, no demands or orders have to be issued...the change in taste will happen by itself

I do think we each have an obligation to ourselves to present ourselves as attractively as possible

on the other hand, the use of make-up has gone overboard--a student in my class said that he doesn't know what any woman really looks like under the face decoration

Josh said...

My shirts may be wrinkled sometimes but they are ALWAYS clean

ALG said...

BZ--
I love that, and hope to one day have a marriage, and a life, like that.

Josh--
Me, too.

David said...

I think the idea that you can't have requirements for a potential spouse is one of the more ludicrous ideas which has come into the modern dating world.

When I met Sarah, she made it very clear that

1) I couldn't restart smoking, because she's athsmatic.

2) I needed to finish my degree if I was going to be serious about her.

I did these things because I wanted to be with her far more than I disliked college (and to this day, I have cigarette cravings, which I fight against, because I know that if I started smoking again it would put Sarah in a horrible position).

I do lots, and lots, and lots of things differently because I'm married to Sarah than I would if I were single: would I ever pay more than $15 for a haircut? heck no! But my opposition to doing so isn't as strong as my desire to see Sarah happy.

That's what love IS. When someone else's happiness matters more to you than doing things your own way.

Now, there is something to be said for "if you can't live with person X the way s/he is now, maybe you shouldn't be involved with him/her." - Notice that I had already quit smoking when we met, so it was known that I could do this.

Also, there are things I would not compromise whatsoever - and because Sarah loves me back, she wouldn't ask me to do them. But what clothing I wear isn't like that at all.

Passionate Life said...

ALG,

Very interesting post that most couples have to deal with.

Clearly its a balancing act. We certainly should be able to express preferences, but never as a prerequisite for loving a person. Certainly if we know it will cause hurt feelings or great discomfort if we truly care about the person we wouldn't put them through it.

The extremes are pretty clear. Its the middle ground that can get fuzzy.

I have told a few women one of your sentences:

"Please don't cut your hair short. I love it long."

I think that has nothing to do with changing who a person is. Most women have worn their hair both ways through their life times and if your man has a preference its the decent thing to do. Its true it does take more time to care for longer hair - but oh, it is so worth it!

However something like high heels can be trickier. I (and most men) think that high heels makes a woman more alluring and feminine. However I am very aware that for many women it can be painful and certainly wearing them for extended period of time is.

So that's where compromise comes in. I would only ask a woman to do so in an appropriate situation like a fancy evening out that won't involve a lot of walking and certainly not if its painful.

I did laugh at your next line:

"This is not a religious thing. I am just much more attracted to women who wear skirts than to women who wear pants. It's okay with me if you wear pants, though--I'll try to get over it."

I never had the opportunity to say that but I can imagine saying it. It is a pretty strong cultural thing for many people. But I can't understand the guy who told you that if he ever sees you in sweat pants (even lounging around the house?!?!) he can't get over. He does not sound very mature.

There are some folks who get very hung up if you ask them to veer towards your preferences because of the whole feminism thing of, "how dare you tell me how to look!" I think they need to chill and we all need to make some compromises towards our significant others preferences.

alg's dad said...

I've always felt that people have a few core values that they really care about, and define who they are, and lots of other tastes and preferences that are less important. If a married couple agrees on the things that they really care about, everything else is adjustable. In my case, my taste in clothing, hairstyle, etc., has always been peripheral. It didn't take 30+ years of marriage for Imma to influence my taste in clothing. Almost as soon as I started dating her, well before we got engaged, she persuaded me to get rid of the dull 1960s sports jacket that I had been using since 11th grade (9 years earlier), and buy a snazzy modern 1970s style sports jacket, in beige, maroon, and dark green. And to trim my beard more neatly. I was happy to change those things, if it would make her happy, because I didn't care about them very much in the first place.

The important thing was that we agreed on the things we really cared about--Jewish observance (though I was and am flexible about exactly what that means), loving and defending and looking out for the future of Israel and of Jews all over the world, as well as preserving their past, defending human rights, opposing racism, opposing any kind of pseudo-science. At least those are the things that I really care about (and maybe there are a few others I've left out). Imma would no doubt have a different list, though it would, I think, substantially overlap mine, and wouldn't contradict mine.

It's too bad, in a way, that clothing has become so politicized, within the observant Jewish community, compared to 35 years ago, or maybe it is only because I am comparing Berkeley 35 years ago to New York now. It mixes clothing style, which to my mind should be a peripheral issue of taste, in with these core values, and makes both men and women less willing to be flexible and compromise about them. For that matter, I sometimes think it's not good that Jews are so tied to one particular shade of observance within Orthodoxy, even aside from the sartorial implications, because it limits their potential marriage partners. But maybe my saying that is a way of trying to impose my own sense of what it important and what is not, on other people. And that's something that is against my values!

rebecca m said...

I [think I] would dump any guy who insisted I wear heels for any occasion.

Granted, I get shin splints at the drop of a hat, so this is closer to the smoking/ asthma issue.

I think this can largely be divided into:
-physical comfort
-identity
-taste/style

(I'm using the last category to describe only things not covered in the first two. And all have matters of degree.)

I'd react badly to a significant other telling me I *had* to change anything. And the first two categories are what is most important to me.

For example, wearing pants is a matter of both physical comfort and freedom, and identity. So it's non-negotiable. Not wearing heels is personal comfort/health, so it's also non-negotiable. Not wearing hot pink anything is also identity, though a bit milder.

But all this would be different for another person, who doesn't mind wearing only skirts, or high heels.

So for me, it's more about how the person views the issue, than the particular issue itself.

Anonymous said...

Hi ALG,

Formerly "notanewyorker" here. Long time no write. I am basically retired from blogging.

But I came across your entry and I just wanted to make a few comments and basically be your biggest fan... When you meet a guy that is for you, you will recognize him because he will tell you that you are perfect and sexy and fantastic and smart exactly the way you are. And you will believe him because he is telling the truth.

That is how you will know not to let him go.

Forget all those other losers. They are all ancillary.

And then when he says, I really like it when you wear (x), you will do it because you love him back.