Sunday, January 07, 2007

Me First

Sometimes I feel a bit disgusted. It feels like the modern Western world has become all about Me First.

Now, I could rant about consumerism here. I could rant about the decline of morality, responsibility and even basic civility. But actually, I mostly hate this Me First attitude in relationships and especially among parents.

I see, all around me, people leaving their partners and the fathers or mothers of their children. And if you talk to those people, really talk to them, you can see why. A marriage that looks okay to other people can be full of a lot of silent suffering, invisible to outsiders. There can be a lot going on that no one would ever guess. Terrible things can happen - disabilities, infertility, mental illness, addictions, violence and so many other things - things that descend on us like a meteorite, leaving a burned out crater in the centre of our lives and our relationships. I get it. After all, I kind of live in one of those relationships myself.

But a lot, and I mean a lot, of relationships seem to break up for no really good reason. Because someone wanted to be free. Because someone feels they missed their chance to be young and cool and careless. Because someone wanted the romance and the passion and the being the centre of attention of the first years to go on and on. Or because someone wanted to just be a mum for a while and forget they had a husband as well. Or because someone, perversely, decided that they wanted to be a rude, bad-tempered, bitter old bastard or shrew who no one in their right mind would ever want to live with. Or because of some other combination of human laziness or apathy or selfishness or pig-headedness or wishful thinking that left the other person alone, abandoned and trying to do the impossible: fixing a relationship by themselves.

Because when it all became too difficult, for whatever reason, one or both people involved tried for a while - they tried everything except brutal self-reflection, honest confrontation, the pain and effort of long-term personal change and the embarrassment and expense of professional help. And then they decided Me First, and bailed.

There always seems to be a lot of people available to cheer this person on. After all, the world is full of frustrated adults, frustrated parents. We want more sex. We want more love. We want more attention. We want more intimacy. Or maybe we just want to be left alone and not have any of those things demanded of us. And it's not wrong to want any of these things. A lot of adult life sucks and is tedious and boring and romance and intimacy and sex, or even the right to neglect our partners and treat them like shit, are the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. Wife or husband or partner not giving us those things we want? We've been cheated. We are entitled. We should find someone else. Me First.

And in a way, I agree. People are free to pursue happiness. People are free to look for their perfect mate, the one who they believe will complement them in every way. People are free to marry and divorce and remarry or any number of permutations of those choices. And there is a lot of it about. We seem, in Australia, to be heading for about a 30% divorce rate. And that doesn't count all the people who don't get married in the first place: O brave new world, that has such people in it!

But I wonder about it when kids are involved. I really wonder. Because the truth is that this brave new world has a cost and only some of the cost is paid by the parents. Most of the tab is picked up by the kids.

I know. I am a judgemental asshole who doesn't understand and I am giving you all the shits.

But I say this because I was one of those kids. One of those kids who gets to overhear those conversations about how he or she is unhappy. How he or she feels they married too young or married the wrong person. How he or she doesn't want to be married any more, at least not with this person. How the price is too high, the sacrifices too great. How they just want to be happy.

One of those kids whose father or mother leaves in the middle of the night - a hug, a blur of tears and he or she is gone. Gone for good. Or maybe not gone for good, but it's never the same. Maybe one of those kids who gets to tramp around between houses, carrying little suitcases. Who gets to see daddy or mummy at weekends. Who gets to become a little diplomat who learns to make awkward conversation with daddy's new girlfriend or mummy's new boyfriend. Who gets to smile politely, or even to burst into tears, as the stranger we wake up to find in bed with mummy or daddy fumbles around, unable to decide whether to try being a friend or a substitute parent. Who gets to understand that we can't have that simplest of childhood pleasures: to take our boring, irrelevant parents for granted.

I know how it feels to be left. To feel like the fact that he or she left must be our fault, however many times you are told it wasn't, because we believe that if we had only been more beautiful, more interesting, better behaved, we would have been a more compelling reason to stay. To have that belief so deeply ingrained that it, in turn, influences our own choice of partner, our own relationships.

And yes, I know that there comes a point in life where we have to stop blaming our parents for everything. Where we see our parents more realistically, with more compassion, and realize that they did their best, even if their best wasn't very good. But there also comes a point in life where we see, we really see, certain things about ourselves, including about our childhoods and why we are the way we are.

I know what it is like to be one of those kids whose parents were free to put their own happiness at the top of the priority list. Who were free to fuck up, fuck around and, finally, to fuck off. Who were free to look their children in the eye, harden their hearts and decide Me First.

And that's why I'm disgusted.

Not really with the parents who are breaking up around me. My disgust with what other people are doing is just a cover. Just a moment of frenzied self-righteousness that makes me feel a little better. Because I'm really disgusted with myself. With my own treacherous heart that looks at my life, my partner and my child and whispers Me First.

23 Comments:

Blogger F2 said...

OH EMILY!!! How dare you make me read these words that cut like a knife and leave me sitting here with my cloudy eyes and quivering chin and my heart sliced wide open!

Wow. I really just have to sit here for a bit and think about this. And then read it again. And maybe again.

If you had *known* about the past two weeks of my life -- if I had called you and personally told you -- you couldn't have written a more perfect post.

Thank you, friend. For while you were writing something that spoke to You... I daresay that God used it to speak to someone else.

I'm going to go cry, now.

:)

9:06 PM  
Blogger Rob said...

"Because I'm really disgusted with myself. With my own treacherous heart that looks at my life, my partner and my child and whispers Me First."

Maybe so Em but consider this: if you first aren't happy or love yourself first then how can you be happy and love others as well. It's all about balance, and (yes!) self-sacrifice often at times. We all are human and need to look at things with clarity and in an adult way. Bear in mind the responsibilities that others must assume also has an impact on our actions. No man (or woman) is an island in this sea of what we call life. Good post and excellent points that you make. Never downgrade yourself though. It solves nothing.

3:42 AM  
Blogger trueself said...

Emily,
f2 just wrote my comments exactly. Exactly. . .

Nothing more to add right now.

7:48 AM  
Blogger FTN said...

It's for many of the reasons that you wrote (very well, I might add) that I will *not* seriously consider leaving or bailing out of my marriage. Ever.

10:58 AM  
Blogger Cat said...

Emily your words are very compelling. And I respect your point of view. This was a wonderful post.

Even a "me first" person like myself can appreciate it.

11:56 AM  
Blogger Seeker said...

I agree - this is a very thoughtful post, Emily.

Remember though that we all live difficult lives these days. We are all influenced so much by the world around us, even if we don't realise it. TV and films, for example, are constantly full of people all pleasing nobody but themselves! It takes a very strong person to ignore all the influences and be totally unselfish!

All that we can do is try our best to constantly question whether we are being selfish before we act(as most people here seem to be doing) and try not to judge others when they behave in a way that we don't understand.

Take care.

12:45 PM  
Blogger Emily said...

Wow, I thought people would be arguing vociferously with me about this and damning me as a judgemental cow.

I do not think divorce or separation between parents is always wrong. I do think that at least some of them are unnecessary and feel extremely sad about the pain caused to children, who don't get much say.

Also, I hope its clear that my real focus in this post is not anyone else's behaviour but my own wrestling with the "Me First" mentality.

"Me First" is sometimes a healthy impulse. But then again, sometimes it really isn't.

3:56 PM  
Blogger Ali said...

Emily,

Amazing post. Amazing. REally made me think. Really made me reflect. It made me understand why my dad never leaves my mom, despite all of her emotional and verbal abuse.

Because he's a saint. And it's not me first.

In other news, I think we DEFINATELY must start a heretics club! It will be tons of fun! We could be GOOD people, and read any books we like, and be free to live and love and care as much as we can.

scandalous!

9:19 PM  
Blogger The Visitor said...

That post left me speechless, Emily.

3:25 AM  
Blogger Therese in Heaven said...

Oh, Emily, I sure do know the feeling. So many times in the past year I have wanted to throw in the towel and for once do something just for me, without any thought to how it would affect others. All I can say, though, is there have been so many blessings in my life as a result of not making that decision. I could have missed out on the opportunity to deepen my love for my husband, and for us to grow individually and together in our marriage. His and my son’s relationship would have been drastically affected, too, if I had given in to my desire to walk away.

You've talked about being on a spiritual journey right now. I hope you find, as I have, that God does bless people who are trying to do what they feel in their heart of hearts is right.

1:24 PM  
Blogger 2amsomewhere said...

My disgust with what other people are doing is just a cover. Just a moment of frenzied self-righteousness that makes me feel a little better. Because I'm really disgusted with myself. With my own treacherous heart that looks at my life, my partner and my child and whispers Me First.

I think they call such a phenomenon projection in the psychotherapeutic realm. ;-)

Believe it or not, that whisper does have some redeeming value. If you ignored it completely, you would die. It is when this drive gets out of balance with our obligations to others that things run amok.

It's good to write posts like this, and the courage you summoned to write it is worth commending.

I read something recently about our dark sides that bears worth mentioning. It said that what most people think of a dark side really isn't that at all. The real dark side is that part of ourselves whose existence we refuse to admit.

5:00 PM  
Blogger The Visitor said...

Emily - I am curious about what type of person (ality) you are. If you dont mind take the Jungian type test let us know. :)

8:28 PM  
Blogger Fusion said...

"After all, the world is full of frustrated adults, frustrated parents. We want more sex. We want more love. We want more attention. We want more intimacy."

Yes, yes, yes, and yes. I wanted all those things from my marriage, but never had. But I did stay because of my kids. And I guess my sense of duty? or commitment?
My wife and I became empty nesters this last year, the year we would have celebrated our 25th anniversary had she lived. I don't know if we would have made it to 26. "Me first" was in my head, and now I'll never know what might have happened.

3:21 AM  
Anonymous artnavy@rediffmail.com said...

Fusion's comments moved me as much as your post did.

But tell me would it not be awful for a kid to be subject to his/ her parents' bad marriage?

but who is to decide when it has turned so bad so as to give up on it

3:52 AM  
Blogger Finished Last said...

Strong food for thought and I appreciate your putting into print your heart and questions

7:52 AM  
Blogger FATSO said...

An amazing post Emily.

I think you touched right to the heart of many. I think that, unless you are in a tiny minority, these are thoughts you think, wrestle with and endure.

We all have our coping mechanisms, but your post is so raw tht it puts the sentiment out there in a way that few- if any- selfhelp book, marriage counsellor or relationship guru ever could.

You're not getting any "heated argument". No surprise.

10:06 AM  
Blogger FATSO said...

An amazing post Emily.

I think you touched right to the heart of many. I think that, unless you are in a tiny minority, these are thoughts you think, wrestle with and endure.

We all have our coping mechanisms, but your post is so raw tht it puts the sentiment out there in a way that few- if any- selfhelp book, marriage counsellor or relationship guru ever could.

You're not getting any "heated argument". No surprise.

10:06 AM  
Blogger FATSO said...

sorry for the double entry- my computer burped...

10:06 AM  
Blogger itchingtowrite said...

powerful and thought provoking within the context off course. however one needs to draw the line between being totally self centred and door mat and get a middling path. after all if self gratification is not there life loses some of the feel good factor. it might be as trivial a thing as leaving ur kids for an hour to go to the gym and during that time asking someone to take over - some me time or as fellow blogger says- momtini is allowed

4:16 AM  
Blogger Mr. Husbland said...

Yay! Good post and well written Emily.

And that whole, self love & self esteem, is a bunch of bull shit. Focusing on loving yourself more will only result in selfishness.

8:23 AM  
Blogger Zu said...

can i give you a hug?

please accept it *hug*

10:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well Emily, You sound like you are fairly young. As a mature woman of 55 having gone thur 3 marriages. I am in my 3rd marriage now of only one year, after my second husband left me for another woman (younger), I often think why did I not stick out the first marriage, if I had only tried, however, It was the ME First syndrome, that caused the divorce, My husband now, does not give me the attention that I need or any woman requires to know that she is number one in her husbands book. A card or flowers everyonce in awhile. Now is this the ME First syndrome, or just a womans need for attention? I find myself or maybe any woman in my position always giving and doing but NEVER receiving from husband. So now, what I have learned is that if I'm not happy, he want be happy. I have left no words out when talking to him of what my needs are. But, that makes no difference. There was no change, so is it divorce or give it more time? Or just go for the ride and to HELL with it. Just stay married and deal with it. Does'nt that seem like the right answer. Is that what helps marriages last for 50 years. Does anyone understand marriage?
lost in the country

7:58 PM  
Blogger mafalda's daughter said...

just saw your blog. i too was one of those children whose (in my case mother) decided - me first. at the moment i am battling on in a hard situation, not because i don't love my husband but because he is ill and its tough. thanks for writing this.

2:11 PM  

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