The same day I had my victim-blaming epiphany, I had another one.
Long ago, I rejected the notion that we should all like everyone else. Sometimes there are people I just don’t like, and people who just don’t like me; there are people I like less than others, and people who like me less than others; and so on. This seems normal and natural to me. On the contrary, it seems rather contrived to me to pressure everyone into liking everyone else.
However, this is not an accepted societal norm, generally, until you are very old, and then you’re allowed, sometimes, to get away with saying you just don’t like a particular person. They call you eccentric then, and shrug it off. Since I am not a very old person yet, I instead get the backlash that I “should” like that person, or else I need to provide a damned good reason why I don’t. There isn’t always a reason, per say; often it’s just a personality clash. It’s not that we had angry words, so now we don’t like each other, but just that I sense the personality clash, so I choose to avoid this person when I can. It just seems like a sensible thing to do, and I am annoyed at the suggestion that I should have to justify it. I don’t have to justify not liking parsnips, or camping, or public transport, or any number of other things in life, generally, but on this matter, bystanders demand an explanation.
And when I do have an actual problem with someone – we have gotten to that point of exchanging angry words, for example – I have nearly always been seen as the one who’s being unreasonable for not brushing aside my problems with that person and pretending that everything’s okay. Through all of life, I’ve noticed this pattern. The other person may be subject to the same censure, for all I know, but definitely I’m expected to sweep my feelings under a rug and be a doormat, or else I’m being unreasonable.
But this day, a friend mentioned the work she’d done on her relationship with a family member over the years (which is now making life easier in their shared current difficulty). Suddenly, it was clear: No, the answer is not to sweep my feelings under the rug – the answer is to do the work to deal with our joint feelings.
This is the harder path in the short term, because it needs both (or all) parties to actually do work, rather than just bite their tongues for the next 75 years. But it is actually the other option, and I am not unreasonable for not wanting to be a doormat.
Following on from that, I realized that the thing is, all relationships are work, and we don’t really acknowledge that. Instead, what we generally do is this:
The vast majority of the people we interact with, we do so on a very surface basis – the cashier at the store, the guy we’re networking with, etc. It’s fairly easy to get along well enough with anyone at this sort of surface level for as long as we need to to do those sorts of things.
For relationships that progress beyond this point, we might reach a sticking point (or several) where we no longer get along so easily. We don’t really know what to do at this point. We’re taught repeatedly that relationships are work, but we always take that to mean our romantic relationships. We could reach this sticking point in any sort of relationship – family, friend, romance, acquaintance – and where we don’t realize we need to work through it, we’re more inclined to just bury it or walk away.
It is, of course, not always appropriate to bring it to the other person and say, “I have a problem with you doing X, Y, Z” – that guy you’re networking with might be flabbergasted to find you telling him you don’t like him picking his nose while he’s talking to you (though really, you totally should tell him that). But just as it’s important and vital for the longevity of your romantic relationship, so too is it important and vital for your familial relationships and your friendships.
They could ignore you, or tell you off (“It’s my business if I pick my nose!”), which really doesn’t leave you any worse off than you already are if you’re at such a sticking point. The difference is that if you tell them, you give them a chance to know, a chance to change (“I didn’t even realize I was picking my nose, sorry.”), and for all you know, what’s a big deal to you is a non-thing to them, and the problem could be easily solved. Or perhaps it’ll be harder. But I generally find it easier and better to be forthright with people than to leave them wondering.