The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

If you can't be sure of a good apple...

Maybe you can at least avoid some of the rotten ones

More specifically in terms of relationships, we may not be able to come up with a way to ensure success. But we can probably look at some things that raise the chances of success--or pretty much guarantee failure. Each of the following has doomed at least two relationships I know of:

1) Track record. If you have to ignore the person's track record with out. If they've left a trail of angry partners, willing to lie about abuse, drugs, infidelity, etc: you have to ask why they're so angry, or why your potential mate has such terrible taste in partners. And...what if it's true?

2) Lack of track record. What if you can't find out anything about previous partners? There is no discernible dating or mating history? Based upon the instances I've seen, be VERY careful. Can you speak with his/her friends about previous relationships? Their family? If not, if there is no one you can trust to give you a sense of why their past relationships went wrong, keep your guard up. Example: when I met Tananarive, I wanted her to have every chance in the world to know if I was good for her. The first chance I got, I put her in a room with my ex-wife Toni, and daughter Nicki, told them to talk about whatever they wanted, and left the room. She deserved to know if I've left a trail of destruction behind me, didn't she?

3) Dishonesty. There is a gap between what they say and what they do. 90% of your opinion of someone should be based on what they do--or have done. In comparison, what they say is irrelevant. Do people deserve a second or third chance? Sure, but you have no obligation to be the one who risks your heart, home, finances and family to give it to them.

4) A serious mis-match in values and life goals. They need to be either similar or complementary.

5) Sexual heat is a very nice thing. If your partner doesn't groove to you, and vice versa, don't think its gonna get better.

6) Financial security and calm. I hate to say this, but finances screw up more relationships than infidelity. If you can't save and balance your checkbook, if you're still living with your parents or working a job you hate, don't be surprised if others can pick up on this subliminally, and you find yourself unable to attract an appropriate partner.

7) Someone who does not like/love themselves. Danger, Will Robinson. Someone afflicted with self-loathing CANNOT be loved enough to "fix" them. They do not see the divinity within themselves, cannot make contact with the loving child within them...were not loved without reservation by their parents...this person has work to do. Unless you want your bedroom to turn into a battleground, stay away.

8)Someone who expects you to follow their commands. Unless you like being dominated, stay away.

9) Someone who expects you to read their minds. Often with the b.s. "I know what you're thinking/want/need. Why don't you know what I'm thinking/want/need?" Utterly infantile, but we all do it a little bit, and some of us do it a LOT. Buy into this crap, and you're sunk, locked in a can't-win position with someone who has never gotten over the fact that, once upon a time, all needs were eat/sleep/change me/love me. When they grow up, they might be fine. Until then, beware.

10) Someone at a very different level of energy. This might be intellectual, physical, spiritual--whatever. "Energy" here is a deliberately vague term. You should feel either matched or complemented by their strengths and weaknesses.

11) You can't be in a relationship with someone crazier than you. If crazy people keep falling into your life, YOU are the one who needs help. Something is very wrong, and you may have a blind spot large enough to swallow your entire life.

12) Don't expect people to change. You can't fix people. If they have taken responsibility for changing, you can support them (there was a GREAT scene at the end of the second episode of the second season of Dexter that deals with this. I LOVE that show!)

13) Don't expect people not to change, either. Human beings are dynamic not static. Note the direction of their growth or decay. Does it match their stated values, beliefs, and goals? If so you can be pretty sure they'll continue on that path...but there will be change. We grow, we are wounded, we learn, we advance, we decay.

14) Know yourself first. If you've had a bad relationship history, take a year off and journal every day. Watch relationships around you. Specifically seek out people who have been happily married for ten years or more. I PROMISE that they did different things than you. Find multiples of them. Interview them about their relationship attitudes. Overlap the resulting data: where do they agree? Disagree? How does this agree or conflict with what you have done? Assume that your external relationships mirror your internal aspect. What would this say about you if this were true? The conclusion may not be "true" but it is likely to be embarrassingly fascinating. At the least, it points out potential directions for growth. And frankly? I'd rather assume it was true and do the work...and have it turn out that the work wasn't needed...than ignore the evidence, assume it was "those women" (or "those men")...and years down the road, after myriad heartbreaks, finally realize it was me, after all.

That all I ever had to do to find happiness was take responsibility for being an asshole...and change. I sometimes suspect that such insights come to too many of us only after we're run out of places to hide from ourselves. For too many I suspect that doesn't happen until we are old and broken. And God, that would suck.


What other principles have I missed?


wraith808 said...

I think a really important one is the ability to be honest with yourself. All of the steps in the world won't help if you aren't willing to be honest with yourself and make these evaluations talking to yourself with a sense of honesty.

I was unable to see a bad relationship coming, and as a result suffered through a very bad marriage. I don't blame her- I blame myself, because I should have been able to see it coming, and should have done a lot of things differently.

But I compounded a lot of it by not realizing and being honest about the damage that had been done to me by the marriage, and not being able to be honest about that made me not able to be honest about the people and relationships I entangled myself in after that.

I only saw this after I was able to be brutally honest with myself, and make changes in order to bring about healing within.

I've heard that the biggest change you can make in any relationship is yourself. This is true, I think, even before actually entering into the relationship - when evaluating your potential partner.

Thomas Terashima said...

Seemingly minor tell-tale:

Take a ride in their car and see how they drive. I once turned down a woman after seeing how she drove.


Daniel Keys Moran said...

Only piece of dating advice I've given my daughters (18 & almost 17) ... listen to how he (he or she, in the case of one of them) talks about ex's ...

If everyone a given person's ever dated was an asshole ... it's them. And you'll be the asshole they used to date.

Of my four major adult relationships, I'm still on good terms with all of them. I've seen all three of the women I'm not married to within the last six months -- dinner w/two of them, a visit to a Coffee Bean to hear the third's husband perform country music.

Short of how my kids are turning out, this is probably the thing I'm proudest of in my entire life.

Anonymous said...

I think that you've mentioned this here before, Steve, but the question of how they treat waitresses and other help is important. How do they treat people that they don't have to be nice to? How much do they take others for granted? How will they treat you when the honeymoon is over? Observing a person when they interact with "inferiors" gives useful insights into character.


Anonymous said...

i don't know why i like lists, numbers, and bullet points. That seems to be the BEST way for me to GET. IT. Serendipitous that THIS would be the blog today. It's got my name alll over it. I think I'm great until the truth of how I feel about myself surfaces, and then ... well you can imagine. NOT a pretty sight. That self-love is MORE than a notion for adults who grew up hearing and SEEEing how unlovable and worthless we were...I have ENOUGh sense to free folk before they get caught up with trying to "fix" me. As a result, still on good terms, never any ugly breakups. My crime, serial monogamy, lol. I've always sensed that I was the X-factor, the proverbial problem in the relationship...hence, solo I remain until i can love me enough so i can love someone enough so they can start loving me.

Steve Perry said...

Never eat at a place called Mom's. Never play cards with a man named Doc ...

Anonymous said...

"The first chance I got, I put [my possible future wife] in a room with my ex-wife..."


But I really wonder how many of us who've been divorced could do that, particularly if a divorce was really acrimonious or just really painful.

--Erich Schwarz

Kami said...

This may fall either under the category of values or commanding, but inflexibility sprang to mind. They don't necessarily command you to do things a certain way or insist you yourself be a certain way, but environmental things have to end up going or being their way. They'd rather do it themselves, the 'right' way, than have someone else do it 'wrong.' It's a combination of being over-controlling and not valuing and/or trusting another person's way of doing things. I see this tendency in myself. Hopefully I'm not too horrible now. It's taken a long time for me to move away from trying to do everything and learn to praise other family members' housekeeping, etc. and to acknowledge that their efforts will suffice. Sometimes they exceed what I'm capable of, which reassures me and reinforces my growth in this area. Boy, it's hard to admit I'm a poopyhead in this department but it's true. Thank goodness my family is patient with me.

Also, I'd be leery of anyone who's manipulative. All people manipulate each other all the time. It's human nature. But there are grand, masterful manipulators who often don't realize they're being manipulative (though there are those who purposefully do) and you don't want to get caught in that. Crying, tantrums, silent treatment, huffing, networking friends and family to pressure 'good' behavior and so forth is no fun to deal with. It hijacks a person's desire to be included and liked and valued. Again, I feel all people have this tendency including myself, but when you get into the extremes it can be really damaging and it's hard to break out of the cycle/situation.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

Sorry no source, but I've heard interviews with a researcher who did long term studies of relationships, and found that contempt kills relationships in about five years and no fun kills them in about fifteen.

He also found that it isn't a problem if people in relationships get really angry with each other and show it, so long as they're also willing to hear what the other person is saying.

Kami said...

Speaking of research (thanks for the memory jog, Nancy) I remember seeing something about marriage counseling and one of the best counselors in the nation said that when he sees heavy, continual sarcasm (which I believe is a sign of contempt, especially when I saw it in action on the program, yuck!) it's likely that the marriage is doomed. People who are naturally self-effacing may see someone else's sarcasm as a humorous commentary on their own fallibility, but it gets non-funny and belittling fast.

Josh Jasper said...

See how they treat waiters and clerks, and other people in service industries.

See if they're able to pull themselves together when the situation calls for it.

Pagan Topologist said...

Tis is an interesting and useful post, but there is an aspect that no one has brought up. In the 1960's and 1970's, I was thoroughly brainwashed by the feminist women I knew to believe that:
1) Whenever a woman leaves a relationship with a man, she is self actualizing and freeing herself from oppression; and
2) Whenever a man leaves a relationship with a woman, he is worthy only of contempt, since he is abandoning his responsibilities and becoming an even greater part of the problem.

I very strongly internalized these and have always congratulated women when they ended relationships, but I never felt that I had the right to end one, no matter how much emotional abuse I was putting up with. Maybe most men don't take women seriously enough to swallow this line, but I still have trouble with the indoctrination that women are valuable, but men are valueless. This viewpoint actually dates back to my childhood religious training, which the feminist movement just strengthened, I suspect.

Unknown said...

Of my four major adult relationships, I'm still on good terms with all of them.

I wish I could say that. Of my several most significant adult relationships other than my husband, one man is dead, and I lost touch with the others.

Sorry no source, but I've heard interviews with a researcher who did long term studies of relationships

Perhaps Dr. John Gottman(

Unknown said...

Whenever a man leaves a relationship with a woman, he is worthy only of contempt

I've never divided things up that way; I expect both men and women to initiate a break up or two on the way to finding the person they'll marry (even if they actually manage to make that first marriage last). Breaking up a relationship that isn't working can be absolutely the right decision, for a man or a woman.

But when a man walks away from his children, then he's abandoning his responsibilities and deserves any flack he gets. For various reasons, that choice tends to be more of an option for a man than it is for a woman, so men need a little more "step up to the plate and be a father" pressure than women do to step up to the plate and be mothers (not a case of women being better than men in a global way, since the sexes' different roles have different weaknesses - but this is an important weakness in men's filling of their role that needs addressing).

Unknown said...

And, a corrolary of that is that, if you're a woman and expect to have kids, signs to whether the guy's capable of being a responsible father to his kids are very important in picking your relationships.

Mike R said...

I found this rather interesting;

Some social science research provides evidence for expected truths. Other times it comes up with unintuitive results. Here's a piece of research that does both at the same time. If a good-looking guy has just flirted with your girlfriend she is more likely to forgive you for a bad thing you did?

Temptation may be everywhere, but it's how the different sexes react to flirtation that determines the effect it will have on their relationships. In a new study, psychologists determined men tend to look at their partners in a more negative light after meeting a single, attractive woman. On the other hand, women are likelier to work to strengthen their current relationships after meeting an available, attractive man.

I can understand the evolutionary origin of the male reaction. When he thinks he's got other options he's more likely to be less tolerant of perceived short-comings of his mate. But the female reaction is more puzzling. Anyone got a good evolutionary explanation for the origin of this behavior?

Nancy Lebovitz said...

Thanks-- it's definitely Gottman. I was thinking Gottlieb, and at that point, google was no help.

wraith808 said...

But when a man walks away from his children, then he's abandoning his responsibilities and deserves any flack he gets. For various reasons, that choice tends to be more of an option for a man than it is for a woman, so men need a little more "step up to the plate and be a father" pressure than women do to step up to the plate and be mothers (not a case of women being better than men in a global way, since the sexes' different roles have different weaknesses - but this is an important weakness in men's filling of their role that needs addressing).

At one time I would have agreed with you unconditionally. Now, not so much. I mean, in principle, the concept works. But in our society, there are prejudices now against men that place unequal and unfair burdens upon them. There are many movements for the woman's right to choose, but men are told if you have sex, you're at the mercy of the woman's choice. So someone that is totally and completely unprepared to be a father is placed in this position, when perhaps, other than celibacy, he has done everything to prevent it, up to, and including in some cases, vasectomy. So you get this mentality of men need a little more "step up to the plate and be a father" pressure than women when perhaps it is that the system that forces men into fatherhood against their choice in deference to the women's choice needs a change...

Daniel Keys Moran said...

So someone that is totally and completely unprepared to be a father is placed in this position, when perhaps, other than celibacy, he has done everything to prevent it, up to, and including in some cases, vasectomy.

That's a weak excuse. Get a vasectomy & wrap it twice. Get handjobs, oral and anal sex. Jerk off.

No man past the age of puberty in this country has an excuse for getting caught in this area. Period.

wraith808 said...


Was in an accident. She wasn't supposed to be able to have children either. Wrapped it in addition. It's not the child's fault, so I'm doing what I'm supposed to do. But until you've walked in another man's shoes and dealt with another man's statistics, you might want to check the self-righteousness at the door.

Daniel Keys Moran said...


I'm glad to hear you're stepping up, and if my response strikes you as self-righteous, I apologize. But I have the same take regardless.

Look, I had a gay friend tell me he shouldn't have gotten HIV because he used a condom all the time. I had a lot of sympathy -- I mean, HIV -- but my core take as to his responsibility wasn't any different than toward a man who gets a woman pregnant.

Sex is dangerous. It's always been dangerous. You got caught on the short end of bad odds, but there were ways to make a low probability event a zero probability event, if it matters enough.

wraith808 said...

So, even though the doctor says there's no chance - even now he's skeptical because nothing has changed as far as my ability to have children, it's still my fault? And even though she has a chance to choose after the fact, my only choice is to forego sex for the remainder of my life? And nothing strikes you as ... wrong about that? Hypocritical even?

Daniel Keys Moran said...

So, even though the doctor says there's no chance - even now he's skeptical because nothing has changed as far as my ability to have children, it's still my fault?

First, who said anything about fault? Sex between men and women is known to lead to children: this isn't a moral statement, merely a fact.

Is it your kid? I dunno. I know you can find out, though, and am not clear why you wouldn't.

And even though she has a chance to choose after the fact, my only choice is to forego sex for the remainder of my life?

1. Make sure she's on the pill. 2. Have her wear a diaphragm. 3. Get a vasectomy. 4. Wrap it. 5. Wrap it again.

You manage to get a woman pregnant under those circumstances ... well, I want you to buy my lottery tickets for me.

There are always options.

And nothing strikes you as ... wrong about that? Hypocritical even?

Wrong that she gets to choose? No, I think that's as it should be. You really want a world where the guy gets to force a woman to bear his child? Or force her to have an abortion? It sounds like you do, at least one of those options and maybe both.

wraith808 said...

As far as precautions go, the statistical chances were already as low as you describe. You don't know, and I'm not going into it here. But they are already as close to zero as you can get. Your continued harping on this fact though I've already stated that makes me thing that perhaps this isn't a conversation as much as a lecture.

And no, I don't want to force any choices on her, I just don't want any forced on me. Male reproductive rights is already an oxymoron. What I would like is for her choice not to be based on my support. If I had the choice to opt out, then let her *really* make a choice based on what she can do and what kind of life she'd have with a child as a single mother with no other support. Would I allow that to happen- no. If she still chose to have the child then I would support it. But it would be my choice, and I wouldn't have been forced into it. I know you won't be able to see the distinction- most people don't that haven't been unfairly put into the situation, which is the reason that we have the culture built up around these issues that we have. These feelings are valid, but they aren't validated. Instead they are ridiculed and ignored as totally irrational. It's a place that few acknowledge is a problem, and even fewer want to visit.

In the end, in my opinion, life is all about the choices we make. And when one of those is taken totally out of your hands, it's a very crappy place to be put into. Especially when everyone around you says you should have made a totally unrealistic choice of not doing something that is totally natural, that our bodies and emotions crave, if not need.

Daniel Keys Moran said...

Charles, this is an area where I do indeed have strong opinions. If my expressing those opinions makes you feel lectured, you're getting something I'm not offering.

Look, I'm male. Really. Working equipment and everything, if a little less driven by it than in days of yore. If you're really the guy who hit the lottery in this area, please accept my sympathy. But really, dude, 99.99% of the men out there in your position didn't hit the lottery, they just didn't take precautions. Whatever your personal circumstances are, that's a true statement.
(And when I used the "weak excuse" phrase above, I really didn't realize you were talking about personal circumstances; I thought you were making a general social observation. If I'd clued in, I'd have used a less harsh phrase.)

And yeah, I can see the "opt out" argument. I disagree with it, but it's not a contemptible position -- the "force her to an abortion/pregnancy" thing pretty much does strike me as vile, but what you're actually advocating, the "opt out" .... I think it's bad social policy and I'd vote against it, but I understand the feeling.

Pagan Topologist said...

I heard a story once that a woman had sex with her husband on Saturday mornings and then left, to return later on. They were using condoms for birth control, and she was taking the condoms, unnoticed by him, and artificially inseminating three of her girlfriends. A couple of years later, he was sued for child support and had to pay it. Sorry, Dan, I think there are circumstances where a man did not have much, if any, choice.

This story was told to me as true; I cannot vouch for it. Nevertheless, it is possible.

Daniel Keys Moran said...

Look, there are child support scenarios where a man might legitimately feel screwed -- I'm raising 3 of another man's kids, and in their whole lives (the oldest is 18) he's barely contributed to their financial needs. Hell, the year before my now-wife left this guy, I loaned them more money than he made.

There are edge cases out there involving fathers, mothers, children, child support, etc. -- but it's hard to make law on the edge cases. (Not impossible, just hard.) But in the great majority of cases of unwanted fatherhood, the law does the correct thing -- doesn't enforce correctly, and you can trust me on that, but at least assigns correctly.

Unknown said...

This story was told to me as true; I cannot vouch for it. Nevertheless, it is possible.

Sounds like an urban legend to me.

More generally, let's say we have three categories of men who find themselves the fathers of unexpected pregnancies.

Category A: The man was careless. He didn't wrap it; he didn't get any reasonable assurance that the woman was on reliable birth control. Now, surprise!

Category B: The man exercised all reasonable care that he could (given that he was having intercourse with a pre-menopausal woman and neither had been sterilized) to avoid pregnancy. He wrapped it, and he also made sure that any woman he was sleeping with was using reliable birth control. She got pregnant anyway. Tough luck; he got the lousy end of the odds.

Category C: The man's involvement is truly involuntary. Someone pointed a gun at his head and forced him to have sex. Or someone stole his used condom to impregnate herself. Or, he's really a twelve-year-old boy being molested by his junior high school teacher.

Now, how common, relatively, are these three categories going to be? I would say that Category C is going to be extremely small - significantly smaller than the set of women who get pregnant after being raped (and even that set is much smaller than the set of pregnancies that result from mutually enthusiastic sex).

Category B? Not so small. Contraception fails; sex has an inherent danger to it, as Dan says, and a lot of pregnancies are contraceptive failures. You can reduce your odds of falling in Category B by using your contraception with more care. Don't just wrap it, but be sure you know what things make condoms more likely to fail or break and don't do them. Don't just sleep with a woman who's using contraception, but with one you can be reasonably sure is using it reliably. But, short of sterilization, pregnancy's always a possibility.

Category A? Easily the largest - not because men are careless, but because, after all, people who haven't done much to reduce their odds of fatherhood are far more likely to find themselves fathers than those who have. This category is also likely to increase any time men's incentive to use condoms and care about birth control is reduced; some men will still be responsible, but there's a set who won't.

Now, as charles said, when a pregnancy results, not the child's fault. And the child is still better off with a father than without, so, you have to trade off the hardship to the man of having a responsibility he didn't want or plan on against the hardship to the child of having no father.

In an ideal world, nobody would be a parent who didn't want to and no child would be abandoned. In the real world, where that's not always an option, the child's need for support trumps. It might be possible to exempt some of the edge cases - particularly the Category C ones - but it doesn't make sense to set public policy on those cases.

Rough on the men in Category B - but then, despite Roe vs. Wade, lots of women for whom abortion isn't a practical option are in that same category. And everyone's entitled to take his or her last clear chance not to be a parent, but only as long as there's no child to be harmed by abandonment.

As for the unnaturalness of being expected to be celibate if you don't want kids, yes, abstaining from sexual intercourse is difficult and to some large extent unnatural. Unfortunately for those who don't want to be parents, not becoming a parent is also to some extent unnatural. Using contraception reliably all the time isn't something we do easily (though it's easier than abstaining altogether from sex). Fortunately for those who don't want to become parents, one can often beat nature here. But not always. For better odds, well, there's anal, oral, mutual masturbation, and vasectomies.

I tend to think this fact has corrolaries for what sexual choices people should be making, and that, in addition to using contraception when appropriate, people should consider how they'd be able to deal with each other in the event of an unplanned pregnancy: Is this someone you could trust? Someone you can make decisions with? Someone you'd be OK taking a phone call from in a crisis? But a lot of people think otherwise, and figure reliable modern contraception means not having to worry about such things.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

One more proposed rule for Steve's list: Nathaniel Branden said "Never marry someone who isn't a friend to your excitement."

Here's a story I was told which I believe is true.

A woman told me, as an amusing thing, that she wanted a child and her husband didn't. So she got him drunk when he was watching the Superbowl, then had unprotected sex with him. The funny part is that the resulting son is a sports fan.

I was shocked and horrified (by the standards used for how men treat women, what she did was rape) but not very good at moral denunciation, so I thought for a bit, then asked about the husband's reaction.

She thought for a bit, suddenly looked unhappy, then said it might have had something to do with the divorce.

I have no idea how common that sort of thing is-- probably not very common, but I don't think I was told about the only case, either.

I don't know what everyone's obligations are in that case. Arguably, she should have lost custody, but he didn't want a child at all, so giving him full responsibility doesn't work either.

Unknown said...

That story I can believe - sometimes spouses do such unethical things to each other. I read a book once, by a woman about her journey through infertility treatment, where the way the process started was that, after she and her husband had firmly agreed that neither wanted children, she changed her mind and didn't even talk with him about her change of heart, but just went ahead and ditched her pills. He was angry when she confessed she'd been trying for months, but forgave her, stayed married, and went along with the infertility treatment, which I thought was a lot more than she deserved.

Flip side: back when Garrison Keillor was giving advice in Salon magazine, a woman wrote him who wanted a baby while her husband didn't, and he related the suggestion of a friend of his that she openly ditch her birth control and tell her husband it was his responsibility to use condoms. There was a chorus of response in the Salon letters that this was terribly unethical; I couldn't for the life of me see why.

I'm not sure how you avoid people who both change their minds about critical agreements and don't tell you of their change of heart, but having someone who both is on the same page with you about critical questions like whether to have children, and has the character to talk things out openly in the case of a change of heart is definitely what one would want, however one tests for the talking things out openly part.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

For the story I told, it's at least plausible that the man was offered some clues he didn't pick up on. Notice that the woman told me (a total stranger to her) that story as though it was funny (and as though she'd told it many times), and that it came as a surprise to her that her behavior had indirect consequences.

I wouldn't be surprised if she'd been talking for years about how she'd gotten things she wanted regardless of the people around her, and the man who married her thought she was cute or somesuch, or possibly that she was his best available mate.

This doesn't mean everyone who gets snagged by a mate like that is to blame (and I could be wrong in that case-- I'm guessing). There are certainly people who are better at concealing how they behave than that lady.

laughingwolf said...

good points, for me if there are no lies, no cheating, and no stealing, most other things can be talked over and a consensus reached...

writtenwyrdd said...

If your cat (or dog) won't have a thing to do with them, avoid them. The kitty barometer never fails.

Anonymous said...

qspace absurd perfection illustrative tkuh oxfam bentylol statutes ochas maturity margin
lolikneri havaqatsu