Few people are spared relationship problems. For thousands of years the divorce rate was kept artificially low by cultural injunctions against divorce, cultural norms that painted marriage as the only right and normal option, a vesting of privilege and control in men’s hands, and the enactment of laws limiting the grounds upon which a divorce could be sought. These artificial constraints forced unhappy couples to remain together and kept closeted the relationship problems that were indubitably there.
As freedom gained ground, as religion lost its iron grip, and as women secured rights and power, a time came when marriages had to stand on their own two feet if they were to survive. Between half and two-thirds of them couldn’t and still can’t. It turns out that if society doesn’t step in to artificially shore them up, the majority of intimate relationships are likely to fail.
There is nothing surprising about this. It is a myth that it ought to be easy for two people to live together in intimate relationship. It is a myth that someone or something is wrong if two people come together but can’t remain together. It is human nature to cast blame but many relationships fail simply because the two people involved do not possess sufficient reasons to share a bed, bodily fluids, and their dreams. This is true across cultures, in straight and gay relationships, and whether the couple is comprised of two non-artists, an artist and a non-artist, or two artists.
If an intimate relationship is to stand the test of time, the individuals involved must have not just some reasons for staying together but sufficient reasons. This sets the bar uncomfortably high but, in our age of freedom, there is no other place to set it.
For an artist many special factors enter the equation and make her relationship options both more scant and more complicated. Like anyone, she would love her mate to be her friend, lover, partner, sympathetic ear, intimate, and soul mate. But she also has some other special requirements. She needs her mate to provide her with real freedom, the freedom to hold her own ideas, make artistic and human mistakes and messes, spend vast quantities of time in solitude, and, in a sense which inevitably stretches the fabric of relationship, live a fully independent life.
She also needs her mate to appreciate her life project as an artist, that her commitment to the creative life is not “one of the things she is” but an imperative as real as breathing. Likewise, she needs her mate to put up with her inevitably rich and roiling inner life, an inner life that manifests itself as dreams, nightmares, a sudden need for Paris, a sudden desire to throw over painting for sculpture, and so on. To be sure, she may settle for a mate who does not meet these criteria—but if she does she will experience the relationship as a settling.
She is also likely to have special survival needs because of the way our culture is constituted. If she could paint and pay her bills, she would not need a mate with a salary. Because so few artists in any of the disciplines can earn anything like a middle class income, because typically there are only the extremes of poverty and celebrity, she is likely to be poor and to make certain mental calculations about how she might survive. One path, not always held consciously but nevertheless held, is to look for someone who, rather than choosing to manifest his creative potential, has gone into accounting.
An artist knows that she is not entering a relationship of this sort with perfectly clean hands. By the same token, she may truly believe that there are enough good reasons in play to counterbalance her calculated decision. The gal or fellow in question may be sweet, decent, charmed by the artist’s life, happy to provide, genuinely encouraging, and so on. Still, an artist’s choice to opt for this kind of security is likely to come back to haunt her.
Conversely an artist may say to herself “I will not choose a boring mate just because I could then get to paint” and may therefore choose her mate based on sympathetic resonances, resonances which will likely be found in the being and body of a similarly impoverished artist. Then the endless dramas and negotiations can’t help but begin: who will work the day job, who has the better prospects and is more entitled to a full shot at an art career, who will sacrifice for the other, who will bite the bullet and go into the world when times are hard (which will be too often or even all the time), and so on.
The upshot is that many artists find themselves spending long periods of time alone, as their needs and requirements are not easily met by the people they encounter; in distant relationships whose distance is a function of the basic incompatibility of the partners; in dramatic relationships, where each partner feels unjustly treated and makes that dissatisfaction known; in brief relationships, as their needs for intimacy collide with the fact that insufficient reasons exist for remaining with this or that partner; or in despairing relationships, where both partners feel emotionally and existentially under the weather.
More next week!