Love and Commitment: The Termite Solution

Love_James_Cospito_+_LiAnne_Cospito,_Brooklyn_Art_Project_Meetup_2009-10-01_20091001.10D.55056.P1.L1.BW_SML_(4007179135)

Randy (not his real name) had a bad relationship history. Oh, he had plenty of relationships, but everything fell apart as soon as he and his lady friend lived together.

Randolph was almost — almost — the perfect boyfriend, up until the moment of cohabitation. He was tall, handsome, thoughtful, considerate, funny, and generous. Randy made a good living and made time for anyone he loved.

But living together was a wholly different and painful experience. He joked that his family had come from Slobovia, a fictitious country of his own invention, and that was why he was called a slob by some, at least regarding his spacious and expensive apartment.

Randy claimed that his family came from “Upper” Slobovia — the Slobovian nobility — and therefore became accustomed to lots of servants picking up after them. When the revolution of the “Lower” Slobovians finally came, the family fled the country in order to survive, but discovered that they had lost the ability to do the housework. Thus, he explained, he came by his messiness honestly. It was all a joke, of course, one that got stale pretty quickly.

Nor was it consistent with the fact that Randy kept his clothes clean and crisp, his shoes shined, and his personal hygiene tip-top. It was all the rest that went to hell, which his girlfriends always thought they could change about him. None succeeded and so he became relationship shy, at least to the extent of ever wanting to make a permanent residence with his romantic partners again.

He simply could put up with more clutter, more clothes on the floor, papers in piles, and the occasional cobweb in a dark corner than the more fastidious and beautiful women whom he dated.

Randy was about 35-years-old and looked a bit like Richard Gere at that age when I met him and his girlfriend Jill in relationship therapy. Jill reminded me more of Laura Linney in The Truman Show: blond and pretty, but not drop dead gorgeous. More of a healthy, attractive, girl-next-door type than a seductress.

256px-LauraLinney07TIFF

When we started, Randy told me that he really loved Jill, or so he said, and it was clear that she was crazy about him. Jill (not her real name either) was not a cleanliness nut or obsessive compulsive, but she was neat, didn’t like piles of books and papers or CDs growing like some in-home land-fill.

This young, accomplished, and very pretty lady wanted her bathrooms hygienic and the mess swept away before their friends began to think that his apartment was actually a larger than normal room of a teenaged boy. Nor did she desire to be a slave to keeping up the house cleaning. Randy needed to do his part. She couldn’t just leave the dishes in the sink in the evening, which was Randy’s habit, home and away, when he spent his nights with Jill. Order was important to her and Randy was indifferent to it except regarding his work and his appearance.

The man realized that he was at risk of losing his girlfriend once again, which was a good start to treatment. He was still leery of moving in with the woman he loved, but said he’d give therapy a try. It wasn’t until I’d seen photos of “ground zero” taken by Jill that I understood why, despite his other fine qualities, Randy’s mini-Slobovia was a relationship-killer. The Slobovian told me that he would put everything he had into this process, because he knew Jill was something special.

We’ll see, I thought to myself. Talk, as we know, is cheap.

We made a behavioral contract that both of them signed involving various tasks and elimination of clutter. Certain activities that Randy enjoyed were contingent on his fulfilling the contract and he agreed to forgo them unless he kept his part of the bargain: things like watching movies with Jill, going to concerts, and the like were forbidden unless he did. The contract worked briefly, but after a few weeks it was clear that Randy was still Randy. He’d found other things to fill his time and so wasn’t sufficiently motivated by the deprivation of the fun stuff he had put aside.

Neither one wanted to give up sex, at least while there were other possible therapeutic interventions that might work, so my suggestion about making sex contingent on the cleanliness and order of his apartment was dropped for the moment.

I’d noticed the apparent contradiction between Randy’s grooming and his messiness around the house. Indeed, he was even more fastidious about his appearance than I first realized. He got, and could afford, a weekly straight-razor shave at a high-end, specialty barber shop, where his hair was also trimmed regularly. He always wore patent leather shoes except when lying about the house or playing sports, the kind that dazzle the eye with their shine and that most of the rest of us only sport at our daughter’s wedding to complement a rented tuxedo. His finger nails were even manicured with some frequency and he had a monthly deep-muscle massage.

As you might have gathered by now, Randy lived the life he wanted to live, a life most of us can’t afford, and had a more than healthy dose of self-love, something all of us need in a smaller amount. If Randy’s narcissism could be measured by the cup of a typical morning coffee, he’d have three cups to everyone else’s one or two.

My plan then was to get Randy to agree not to go to the barber, not to get the weekly straight-razor shave, not to wear his patent leather shoes, and to forgo manicures and massages until he did the weekly chores that would make his apartment look less Slobovian. I think this would have worked, but while we were still negotiating the details (with expected reluctance from Randy) something external intervened.

Between one of our weekly couple sessions Randy discovered that he was not as much the king of his castle as he thought. An infestation of termites had been discovered on the window sill of the hallway. Once this was verified by the landlord, Randy was told he would have to vacate the premises for three days while the exterminators did their job. Randy would be compensated for his required hotel stay, but before he needed to vacate, the property manager decided that since all the occupants would be out of the building, it was a perfect opportunity to do some remodeling which was expected to be finished in “not too long” a time.

Well, if you’ve ever had remodeling done, you know that “not too long” should be translated as “way too long” or “much longer than we promised.” Randolph also had concerns about what kind of poison might be used to kill the termites, and whether it would really be a wonderful idea to return to his place after just three days and risk contaminating himself. Moreover, he usually worked from home, and thought the renovation during the day time would make his work impossible. He talked about this with Jill, who graciously, but with a little trepidation, invited him to stay at her small apartment for as long as it took.

It took six or seven weeks, a period that tested both the lovers. Could Randy respect Jill’s desire for neatness and order? Would the two of them get into fights over it? Or perhaps they would find that her place was simply too confining and that he was cramped by a space much tinier than his own?

Something pretty remarkable happened. Randy saw, close up and every day, that Jill was doing everything she could to accommodate him and make his unexpectedly long stay pleasant for both of them. He knew that Jill was a teacher, but had never seen her do the tutoring she always did on Thursday night. The man observed the woman’s way with her struggling students, her patience, the manner in which she made work into play; but with a steady hand that ensured the work would be understood and completed, fun or not.

367px-Aiga_bus.svg

Randy tried hard to change his ways and realized that he had been too self-involved all along with the women he had known. The phrase he had used in his younger days — that “A woman is like a bus. If you miss this one, there will be another one along in ten minutes” — certainly didn’t apply to Jill. He was used to the attention of attractive women and the (for him) never-ending line of them waiting for the chance to know him. He realized, too, that he didn’t want to know any other women ever again; that Jill was his one and only.

One day, at our weekly therapy session with the couple, he said, “I know that I will age and Jill will age and that there will probably be other younger women available to me. Some might be richer or poorer in some ways, but I won’t ever meet someone who has as good a heart as Jill — who loves me as much as Jill, who makes me a better person, and whom I love as much as I have come to love her.”

Randy returned to his apartment and to the lease he had signed months before and lived out the time there until his obligated stay was fulfilled. But he was neater now and he didn’t require much encouragement on that count. He wanted to do it because he saw himself more clearly, saw his selfishness more clearly, and wanted to please the woman he now knew was the love of his life. They then searched for a place together and were expecting to move in when therapy ended.

Still, as a therapist you never know. All the old axioms apply: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating” or “Time will tell” seemed to fit this circumstance the best. I was, as I usually was in my therapeutic career, pretty sure, but not certain that things would work out for Randy and Jill. As it happened, they sent me a note about a year later, thanking me and saying that their life together was better than ever. And, in another few years I received a referral via their recommendation of my services to a friend. She was told by them to report to me that they were still doing very well. Randy had permanently surrendered his Slobovian citizenship and now there was a little one in the home.

Therapists only succeed when their patients want to change more than the therapist wants them to change. As the old joke goes, “How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb?” The answer is “One, but the lightbulb has to want to be changed.”

Counselors, in other words, can’t do everything, but we can do some things. Still, I never had a case quite like this one. Narcissists rarely have the kind of epiphany that Randy had. And there is more that made this special, because it was not even Randy or Jill or I who had to play our parts, but termites that made it all possible.

The top photo is not of the couple described in the essay. It is called After the Kiss: James Cospito and LiAnne Cospito at the Brookly Art Project Meetup, October 1, 2009. The picture was taken by See-ming Lee and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by russavia. The second image is Laury Linney, taken at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival by gdcgraphics. The final picture is a Bus taken from the AIGA Symbol Signs Collection commissioned by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation. Like the other pictures, it was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Be Bold! Dating Advice For Insecure Young Men

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/a2/Be_Bold_coffee_mug.jpg/256px-Be_Bold_coffee_mug.jpg

“What does she see in him?” Both men and women ask this question when they see a man of unremarkable appearance with a strikingly attractive woman. Sometimes the quality is money, sometimes status, sometimes a good sense of humor.  Perhaps it is great charm, a good heart, or a rare temperamental match. The explanation can be found in a resemblance to a father or mother figure, as well. But what is often unseen is perhaps more important than any of these qualities: boldness.

A man who has confidence and acts boldly will find a companion, period. He may be a boor or a clod; he may be self-involved, dishonest, or have poor personal hygiene. Unfortunately, there will be some companionable soul who responds well to his strength, confidence, and persistence despite all these negatives. A young man should not let this person’s coarseness obscure the fact that such brutes still have something to teach him: prospective mates will admire your willingness to take the lead, to act, and to attack problems in a seemingly fearless display of self-assertion.

Scientists suggest that a tendency for women to be attracted to strong men is the evolutionary product of prehistoric life, when a woman needed a male’s protection and ability to carve out a living, especially when the female was pregnant or the children were small. That didn’t make such men “nice,” but it did make them essential. The good news in 2012 is that you needn’t and shouldn’t be some version of a caveman in order to find a way to a woman’s heart; and that women can do quite well without a man.

Even today, however, the boldest men are the types who keep knocking on a door until the door sunders under the assault; or display the cleverness to find another path to their goal when the door fails to give way. They can be admirable in their ingenuity, less so in their bullheadedness. Not every woman will appreciate those who behave as if they were cartoon caricatures of a “macho-man”, but a few will succumb to them. They might not be well-liked, but their relentlessness, their strength of will, their “not to be denied” single-mindedness doesn’t require a standing ovation. And that indifference to the admiration of others is by itself a quality that produces a quantity of admiration, at least from a few potential companions.

The take-away? Show some persistence. Expect some rejection. The strongest men aren’t impervious to the injury that comes from being set aside, but it doesn’t cause them to abandon hope. Some confident women will be won-over by a man’s constancy and pluck. Others will see it as obtuse — not “getting it” — or  stalker-like. Don’t be a stalker, but do show that you can take a punch without breaking down or running away.

Some men accept that they won’t win all the females they pursue, but take the regrettable attitude that “a woman is like a bus — if you don’t catch this one there will be another one along in 10 minutes.” Callous? Yes. Offensive? I think so. But — and this is the point — it is an approach to dating from which an insecure man can learn, while avoiding what is most reprehensible in these alpha males. To put it another way, don’t treat every lass as if your life would be incomplete without her after knowing her for only two weeks.

To succeed with women one needn’t be like the overconfident souls who are too full of their own self-importance and who too easily objectify women — the men who think that one female is easily replaced by another. Yet the shy, hesitant man should not assume that his many good qualities will be sufficient by themselves. Thoughtfulness, intelligence, the ability to make a good living, and perhaps even good looks can be insufficient without the addition of confidence, decisiveness, authority, and the capacity to take some chances. Lacking these, celibacy is more likely than celebration with a co-ed.

“Faint heart never won fair lady” or so the old saying tells us. A man must craft the hardiness required to take a blow, get up off the floor, and come back for more. His personal sensitivity and fragility can disadvantage him if taken too far, however good may be his heart. Cleverness and decency might not overcome a lack of will — of will power: the quality that makes one person a winner and another a loser, even though the loser might have better ideas and be a finer human being. A man who is too hesitant or expects the woman to make decisions for him risks not finding a mate, while the more decisive man will.

As I have written elsewhere, insecure young men need to ask themselves some questions: do you routinely efface yourself and place yourself at a disadvantage — letting others go first, speak first — reluctant to raise your hand? Do you hesitate to take your turn? Are you extremely self-sacrificing? Insecurity can make you wait and wait until the opportunity before you is behind you. Excessive deference displays little regard for yourself, even if some amount of it is often a sign of good breeding and consideration for others.

Of course, there isn’t (or should not be) shame in being an insecure young man. I dare say, most young men start out as insecure. But if you accept your position as a second-class citizen, shy away from challenges; let other, lesser males get to the front of the dating queue again and again, then at some point you have earned your loneliness. If you think that you must first make more money, get your degree, build your body, learn more about the social graces — all that is fine. Do learn what you can. But you still need the hard experience of actual contact with women; and you will probably have to practice a more assertive stance before you have perfected or achieved all the rest. The strength of your will grows with the use of your will, just as a muscle grows with proper exercise.

Take things (and women) on. Show initiative. Many of the fairer sex are waiting for a man to do this, not wishing to carry a relationship on their shoulders alone. They are probably scarier to you than reality justifies. More than a few lack certainty about what they want in a companion until a man offers a relationship-vision that is acceptable; persuades the female not by florid oratory, but by the radiation of personal strength and conviction.

There is a quality of robustness in this that needn’t and shouldn’t be abusive. Lead and there will be followers. Even better, show that you have strength and find a companion who matches you and with whom you can have a co-equal relationship. Look inside and find your ambition, your courage, your unconquerable determination to master your relationship fears and boost your confidence. Get therapy if that is what will assist you to become the person you wish to be — to get beyond awkwardness and social anxiety.

I am not suggesting that you be a brute. But you must be a man, young man.

For a few instructive personal examples of what I’m talking about that don’t have to do with the pursuit of women, see He Who Hesitates is (Sometimes) Lost.

The above photograph is a Be Bold Wikipedia coffee mug, taken on October 4, 2010 by LiAnna Davis and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.