Back in my grunge days, when wide-lapelled polyester shirts made a brief resurgence in popularity, I found myself routinely scouring the racks of the Salvation Army to secure what, at the time, was the height of fashion. As I rummaged through the one dollar impulse bin near the register, I came across a t-shirt that made me pause. It was a red shirt with a black imprint of two Edwardian-era young people standing apart on two sides of a fence, the young woman looking longingly at the man, who was casting his eyes off in the opposite direction. The phrase beneath the picture, written in block lettering read ‘FAMILIARITY BREEDS CONTEMPT’. As I held it up I noticed the print had been set on the shirt slightly askew, as if constructed in a slapdash manner by a scorned woman herself, hot tears in her eyes blurring her vision and preventing her from making out a straight line on which to place the design.
Of course I bought the shirt, both for its unusual design and for the fact that it was a dollar, and wore it for many years throughout my grungy/Goth twenties. Each time I put it on, I would examine the faces of the couple in the picture – simple black printed expressions with little detail, fading with each washing but still remarkably expressive about the lost love that at one time existed between them. Lovers once with open eager hearts, but now practically strangers – their hearts and minds covered with cold, hard shellac that had grown slowly and steadily during their relationship. I had heard the phrase too, used in some adult context that I can’t now recall, but it had meant nothing at the time for a young girl with ideas in her head about love that were drawn with straight but somewhat fuzzy lines.
In fact, I might have already thrown the shirt away by the time its concept became more familiar and contemptible to me. It lingered in the back of my mind as I began relationships, always with the thrill and novelty that only new love can provide, and eventually ended them – sometimes my idea, sometimes his, always with bitterness and anger and the seemingly never-ending examination of perceived personality flaws and despicable behaviors. How could I expect to find long-term happiness when it seemed impossible to quell this need to fulfill a fantasy that only seemed to be sustainable by the unknown ambiguity of initial liaisons? In other words, the more I knew about the real person, the more insecurities, imperfections, and idiosyncrasies that revealed themselves, the less interested I was in hanging around.
To be fair, I expected no less than perfection from myself as well, which added to my dilemma. The idea of someone growing tired of me terrified me and I struggled to transform my behaviors to suit my suitor at the time, sometimes to the point of alienating friends and family. Connecting with a significant other seemed paramount – nothing else mattered as much. My parents’ unhappy marriage and eventual divorce seemed to heighten my awareness of the importance of doing it right. But, my expectations of love were too high and impossible to meet and therefore…weren’t.
Eventually I decided that I could not have it all and attempted to separate fantasy from a reality that I hoped I could live with. Ironically, I think my first husband suffered from a similar ailment and our marriage was even more of a disillusion to him than to me in many ways. I had never imagined myself divorced (I suppose brides never do), but starting over gave me an opportunity to re-examine my life, now with a child, and force me to put fantasies aside for good. Or so I thought.
Reconnecting with my current husband, a childhood friend, was as close as I thought I could get to the vision in my head of the perfect mate. We shared a foundation of knowledge, culture and morality. He was handsome without being annoyingly so, educated and ambitious and seemed to become more physically attracted to me the longer we dated. I was confident I had found what I was searching for.
And if we had moved to a tropical island to spend our days lounging beachside and sipping Mai Tais, I’m sure I would have remained as rapturously in love as I was the first few years we were together.
But, we didn’t.
We combined our families of children and were determined to raise them as siblings despite visitation schedules and challenging exes. We had another child fairly quickly after we were married and began the long sleepless nights of feedings and diaper changes. We suffered financial setbacks and legal woes and argued about money and cleaned up vomit and poop and watched each other get sick and ooze with mucus, bruises and rashes. I spent too much money on frivolous purchases. He lost his temper too quickly. I grew discontent and struggled to find myself creatively. He wrestled with his love of travel and adventure and his responsibilities as a father and husband. In short, we are imperfect. There are days that we struggle through to make it to dinner and moments when we wonder why anyone would get married at all, but my definition of love has evolved and I am the better for it. I am a stronger, wiser and more self-aware person and my relationship with my husband has helped to define who I am today.
I still think the familiarity of a close relationship breeds a certain definition of contempt….sometimes, but it’s up to me to move past it. I could choose to live my life attempting to avoid that predicament, enjoying that first blush of lust, anticipation and excitement before it fades into the mundane and sometimes exasperating series of disagreements, divergences and dissents. But, what I would lose is much more important. The progressing and solidifying of another kind of relationship – one that allows you to release that breath that you have been holding for years, waiting for the other shoe to drop. The feeling of having a partner, an equal, someone who has seen you at your worst and doesn’t look away. You force yourself to tolerate someone sometimes because someone is forcing themselves to tolerate you. Not because they just want to tolerate you, but because they love you.