“How do I look?”
I glanced over my shoulder. “You look fine.”
“Fine? I look fine?! Thanks a lot.” He glared at me.
I could tell an error had occurred. Relationships introduce errors into our programming. We’re raised to respond to certain stimuli in certain ways. An answer that would have elicited an affirmative reaction in my family of origin brought exactly the opposite in my partner. The partner I’ve just moved in with. Sigh.
I’ve discovered that when we ask each other questions like that, we want a very specific response. Rather than being an open inquiry, such questions are a test – one that I fail more often than not by being honest. On the surface, being honest is good, except when we have to use words (which is always). Words are ambiguous. We run into trouble when we disagree over the acceptability of words.
He’ll often ask me “How are you?”
“Only okay?” he wonders with concern.
For me, “okay” is a perfectly acceptable response, much like “fine.” It means there’s nothing wrong, nothing that needs to be fixed, nothing unacceptable about my situation. I am content. But to him, it means the situation needs improving because it is not yet “good.” This is how he’s been programmed to respond by his past relationships, both familial and romantic. Part of it is also personal preference; we’re not really machines after all.
These little interactions make me remember my familial relationships. We were (and are) not an effusive family. In fact, “How are you?” (as in, right now) was not a frequent question. “How was your day?” or “How are you doing today?” were more common, taking in a slightly larger context and allowing for the expected ups and downs of life. Our family maintained an equilibrium in which everything was assumed to be in order and ‘okay’ unless explicitly stated otherwise. Neither of my parents were much given to praise; basic competence and the ability to succeed was assumed, which had the benefit of creating a sense of worth, stability, and independence in my brother and I.
Yet, I do come out of my otherwise even keeled family with some baggage, which I suspect is particular to me. I was a non-cooperative child, quite at odds with my brother and parents. From my earliest memories to my high school graduation, compliments always came with a caveat, especially from teachers. “You’re so smart, if only you did your homework!” “Your hair is so pretty, if only you’d comb it!” There was always an ‘if only’ or a ‘but’ at the end of any compliment, which never failed to make me cringe. To this day, I praise is difficult to accept. It feels disingenuous. I find myself thinking “If they only knew X, they wouldn’t say that.” I do not feel like I’ve earned a genuine compliment, but that I’ve merely hidden the old flaw that would have resulted in the caveat. I know this is irrational.
As a result of both my family disposition and my personal baggage (collectively: my karma), I am not inclined to praise or compliment. It’s something I’m aware of and have worked deliberately to overcome. Yet when I’m at home, I’m relaxed, I’m “being myself,” and much of that conscious enactment of social norms goes out the window. So the person who both wants and deserves my praise most sees the least of it. We all want to shine the brightest in our significant other’s eyes, myself no less than anyone else. But I have a hard time conveying the sense of value I have for my partner in the ways he obviously expects. And the ways in which I do enact that sense of value sometimes go unnoticed due to their very normalcy, despite how much of a stretch they are for me personally.
The upside is that karma is not deterministic. My past influences my present, but does not determine it. This is a significant distinction. My partner and I can learn to communicate more effectively with each other to better express that sense of value and worth we have for one another. Like this morning, when I learned that “fine” sometimes has a different definition.