Carolyn Hax is away. The following is from Jan. 4, 2010, and adapted from an online discussion.
Hi, Carolyn: I keep hearing you shouldn’t be in a relationship unless you’re perfectly happy without one. But if you’re totally happy being alone, why would you ever want to be in a relationship? I’m not being facetious, I really don’t get it. Relationships are hard work and they require a lot of selflessness.
On the happy-alone part: You can be perfectly happy with your sandwich and chips, but still feel lucky when someone says, “I have an extra cookie — want it?”
On the hard-work-and-selflessness part: Getting the cookie can move you to say, “Would you like some chips?” even though they’re your favorite chips.
This is profoundly easier to execute, obviously, when it involves chips and cookies rather than hometowns, family, faith, life visions and goals, careers, sex, money, ideals, health, dignity and everything else that gets thrown into the hopper of coupled life.
But while the execution gets complicated, the concept stays the same: When you’re complete without someone, you’re in a better position to see whether a partner enhances your happy life or weighs it down. When you have a void to fill, it’s hard to be that selective.
When someone enhances your life, by definition the sacrifices you make are for something you want even more. And when your favorite chips sound better than the offered cookie, then your basic “No, thank you” will do.
The problem is when you feel the ache for something else despite a dedicated effort to live your life on your terms. Loneliness for companionship isn’t just a switch you flip off when you want.
But finding companionship isn’t a switch-flip, either. There’s just no viable alternative to the goal of making your own happiness anyway, since the other choices are to seek companionship for the sake of a warm body (imagine waking up every day to someone who annoys you), or dwelling on what you don’t have. All we can do is make the best of things we control.
Dear Carolyn: We just took in my husband’s mom, who is pretty much an invalid. She has a million needs, she is cranky, and she is making my life miserable. She is also making my 11-year-old daughter miserable. My husband has asked us repeatedly to be patient, but he is away from the house most of the time and has not handled a single one of her meals, medicinal regimens, diaper changes. After one month of this I am more than ready to explore other options, but when I mention it my husband gets wildly offended. What do I do?
Agree to drop the subject of “other options” on one condition: that your husband uses vacation days to be in charge of his mom’s care for a week. Two weeks, if he has enough days in the bank. You and he can’t talk intelligently about this until he experiences for himself the life he insists that you live.
Presumably it gives him great peace of mind to know his mother is in your care, but I’m wildly offended that the person making this decision unilaterally is the one it affects the least. His peace of mind doesn’t trump fairness to his daughter, to you, or to his mom, whose needs apparently exceed one person’s ability to meet them.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.