“…if you don’t want to eat Indian food with me, sweetie. There are plenty of folks who will.”
How do you interpret that statement?
There seems to be two ways people will parse out meaning:
- Emotional Blackmail: This is a coercive and guilt-inducing statement, basically meant to force the partner who doesn’t like Indian food into doing it because otherwise the speaker will just find someone else.
- Emotional Maturity: This is a comforting statement, respecting the boundaries of both partners and honoring both the relationship and the individual desires without forcing them on each other.
What’s surprising is that there really seems to be very little middle ground. It’s like the optical illusion of the vase/two faces – you can see one or the other, but not both at the same time.
Take a moment and examine what kind of narrative you created when you read the sentence. Was it a personal one, where you were either the speaker or being spoken to? Was it a couple? Perhaps just friends? Play around with various scenarios, tones of voice, and see how the meaning changes. In this age of verbal communication (a recent statistic estimated an average of 100,000 words come your way every day) it’s a good idea to be able to interpret a sentence in a variety of ways.
The Opposite of Starvation
For some people, the idea of “others” spending time with their partner, even doing something they don’t enjoy, feels like theft. It feels like something is being taken away – and that’s understandable, especially since we are, in fact, talking about time, an irreplaceable resource. The problem is that it’s not their time they are losing – rather, they are losing their claim on their partner’s time – time to eat Indian food, in fact.
It could be argued that they really don’t have a claim on that time – that it’s somewhat unrealistic to demand that your partner give up their enjoyment of curry simply because it takes them away from you. “I don’t like it, so you shouldn’t either” is never a very fair strategy.
However I believe a more moving argument is the idea that time is in short supply. Irreplaceable, yes, but the hard fact is that we all have exactly the same number of allotted hours in a day. The only difference is the quality of those hours – say, the difference between the way a partner would feel when guilted out of eating the food they love versus how they would feel supported in their desire.
In Amanda Palmer’s amazing book The Art of Asking, she talks about this idea of a “Starvation Mentality.” It’s when you grab and hoard and frantically gather as many resources as you can, because you fear that there will not be enough – for you, for those you care about, it doesn’t matter. It’s also thought of as a “zero-sum” game, and it’s applied to way more things than it needs to be. If you’re eating a cake, yes, there is a finite amount of cake. If you’re a parent, though, there is not a finite amount of love for your children. One, four, seven, you love them all.
Often people will talk about having a “Philosophy of Abundance” as an alternative to the Starvation Mentality, which is the idea that there is plenty. More than you’d ever be able to use! Did you eat all the cake? Make another cake! There’s always more cakes that you can make!
Before I slip into Dr.-Seuss-mode, let me tell you about Ms. Palmer’s view of this: “The opposite of starvation isn’t abundance,” she writes, “It’s enough.” How’s that for a liberating concept? No, it’s not that your partner has an infinite amount of time to spend with you, or that there will always be more – rather, it’s that the quality of the time you spend happily with each other, honoring desire and being what Neruda called “guardians of each other’s solitude“. That time will be precious, and it may even be scarce – but it can be enough. Enough to support and nurture and grow the love between two people.
Enjoy the time with your loved ones – whether you’re present or not. The tighter you grasp, the less you can feel.