Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Thoughts on Familiarity

flickr 'relationships' [aka 'bullshit detector']

They say you never really know a person until you live with them. They also say familiarity breeds contempt. It was while researching the authorship of the latter (Aesop, from one of the fables) that I came upon a blog post in which the writer hinted the offspring of familiarity just might be a factor in the high divorce rates in this country. He went on to mention a citation from the New Testament, "a prophet is not without honor, save in his own country," as exemplary of the ways in which knowledge of a person can diminish an appreciation for their uniqueness.

At first, I wasn't sure what to think of his application. Contempt often finds a place in the litany of reasons for divorce, though usually in the sense of one or both parties feeling angry and resentful. Then I thought about "familiarity" and I've decided the writer has a point. When familiarity is taken as the tacit assumption that we know all there is to know about a person, or at least all we need or want to know, it can lead to boredom, dislike, or dismissal.

The most vibrant marriages I've witnessed, over time, were those in which both partners never seemed to cease being surprised by one another.
They possess an ongoing curiosity about each other, the anticipation that there's always something more than meets the eye. You could describe this as mystery, though not at all in the sense of things you wished you'd known before you said "I do," that come round to bite you in the back 20 years down the road. It's more the sense that the person before you has depth and character and discovering how they unfold from day to day is an adventure.

In my experience, mystery is strongly related to good relationship chemistry, and unfortunately, chemistry is something that's either there or it's not. I've never found a way to put it back into a failing marriage if it was never there in the first place. Growth, however, is something to which we can contribute, and we do that by having some interests that are ours alone, as well as the ability to meet our own needs for self-esteem. Persons who rely on others as resources for self-esteem or to provide opportunities for growth, tend to wear partners out fairly quickly. If the energy for partnership isn't mutually derived, eventually the well's going to run dry for somebody.

Where there is good, solid chemistry and the feeling that a relationship is pregnant with possibilities, familiarity breeds comfort. It helps create an atmosphere in which mutual exploration is welcomed and embraced. It helps create security and an environment conducive to growth. Familiarity breeds contempt in relationships when it's been earned and though it doesn't always have to be that way, sometimes it turns out that way.


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