Both my 29-year-old daughter and my 22-year-old son are in the midst of navigating their most serious relationships to date and I am removing myself from a friendship that wasn't what I thought it was. Of course, we are always in the midst of relationship activity, but this is a lot new and changing activity at once. Which provides a terrific opportunity to reflect on the nature of crazy as it relates to the ones we love.
Each of us brings some level of crazy to a relationship. Of course, to us it doesn't usually feel like crazy. It feels more like our normal, or perhaps we recognize it as our baggage, but we rarely view ourselves as crazy. But from the outside looking in, what feels like the love of a good argument may look like a crazy need for conflict to someone else. My partner loves to contemplate our finances and financial future before we go to bed. I know I react with what might look like a bit of crazy to her, because thinking about money before bed is sure to keep me awake half the night.
My relationship advice to my children has always been to pick the crazy they can live with, and don't waste time looking for someone with no crazy at all. But that's easier said than done, because a few things happen early in a relationship that get in the way of assessing that. The first is that most people are self-aware enough to hide their crazy, at least for a while. The second is that sometimes what we initially find attractive about a person may have a lot to do with their particular brand of crazy. Even in non-intimate relationships it can take a lot time to determine precisely what the crazy is, because we don't spend as much time with our adult friends as we do with our adult intimates.
So how do you know what crazy you can live with?
Start with a few non-negotiable ground rules. No physical, emotional, or psychic violence. Anyone who would try to hurt you does not possess a brand of crazy you should learn to tolerate. After this, it becomes all kinds of gray, and requires a lot of contemplation, self-awareness, and empathy. In most cases, learning to accept a loved-one or friend's crazy has a lot to do with processing our own crazy.
For example, in my own relationships I have a very difficult time dealing with anger. Not scary, about-to-hurt me anger - just normal human anger. I don't let anything rile me up and I find it objectionable when others don't exercise the same self-control (insert a whole wad of judgmental thinking here). Why? I don't know actually. It might have to do with being a middle child and wanting everyone to get along. It might have to do with never wanting to make my parents angry. Maybe it's just the way I'm wired. What I do know is that it's my baggage. I have a lifelong friend who didn't get her mother's red hair but she sure inherited her Irish temper. She reacts to the unexpected and undesirable with anger first, and she processes later. She's never dangerous or even scary. She just gets mad. For many years our friendship was on-again, off-again as I reacted to her various bouts of anger. Finally, a mutual friend said to me, "It's her anger. Let her have it. Why does it have to have anything to do with you?"
Why does it have to have anything to do with you?
And that, I found, was the way to determine if one could live with someone else's crazy. Can that person I love, or that friend that I enjoy, have her crazy without dragging me into it? If she can, then it's all good. In the case of the anger, my friend doesn't require me to become angry with her, she doesn't even require me to listen to her (though now that I no longer freak out, that's much easier for me to do). Her anger is crazy I can now live with, and as a result our friendship is stronger than ever.
I know a woman who is beautiful, smart, kind, and funnier than David Sedaris and Amy Pohler put together. She also says pretty much whatever pops into her head - without filter - and can be scandalous at times. I absolutely love being out with her because she's so much fun. At one time she was engaged to a man who was clearly excited to have such a beautiful woman on his arm, but he was incapable of accepting her just as she was. He was constantly shushing her in public and arguing with her after social events about what she had said. His need to be perceived in a certain way, to carefully monitor how everyone in his world viewed him, didn't allow for a fiance that was unconcerned about what people think. This was crazy that she could not live with. It was crazy that did violence to her sense of self, because it dragged her into it by requiring that she behave in a way that was not her. Of course, her crazy probably had the same effect on him - because it dragged him into a social spotlight that he could not tolerate. Now, several years later, she is engaged to another man who completely digs her and every funny thing she says.
I have another friend who is deeply insecure, and I know that on a regular basis she struggles with comparing her accomplishments to those of everyone else around her, including me. But she doesn't require me to go down that path with her. She never needs me to be hateful and she doesn't expect me to change who I am or what I do. She appreciates it when I listen, but doesn't abuse it either. When on occasion I experience a success that triggers all her self-doubt and self-criticism, she may struggle for a while to let me know how happy she is for me, but she keeps that struggle to herself, because she is happy for me - she's just mad at herself. I know some people find that dealing with deeply insecure people is crazy they can't handle. In this case, my friend is dear to me and hers is a crazy I can live with. But I mentioned earlier in this article a friend from whom I have withdrawn. She and her husband are also deeply insecure. Their brand of insecurity leads them to suspect that everyone is trying to steal something from them, trying to get one over on them, or will somehow reduce them. Their insecurity is about living in a zero-sum world. When they turned that insecurity on me, they became abusive and even litigious. After trying to help them calm their fears, I realized that theirs was crazy I could not live with. In the first example, my friend does not make me participate in her crazy or diminish me in any way by it. In the second example, I became the target of their crazy.
Once I understood the concept of why does it have to have anything to do with you, I became much better at figuring out quickly if a relationship was unhealthy or was simply going through a rough patch.
Sometimes there's a time-limit on crazy
The most obvious example of putting a time-limit on crazy is teenagers. As parents of teenagers, we recognize that their brains are going through rapid transformation, awash in hormones, and they are impulsive and moody and always tired. And then they grow out of it (well, most of them do). It's part of parenting, this craziness that we accept out of love for the people they are becoming and our role in helping them get there. Other examples of extended tolerance for crazy is when a loved-one has experienced a significant loss, of a parent, or a mate, or a child. Whether that loss is through separation or death, the grieving period takes time - in some cases years, not months - and out of empathy we hang in there with their grieving form of crazy.
How do you know if you are hanging in long enough, or if you have been waiting too long? Start by reflecting that any relationship worth having is worth having for decades. When my life partner Mar lost her parents - both within four days of each other - her grieving was intense and lasted for at least 14 months. Of course it affected everything from intimacy to social fun, but we are both very clear that we are in this relationship for however long forever can be, so a year or several in that context was not too much to give. All the time she was working on her grief - not just running from it - so I knew she would ultimately get better, and she did.
There does have to be balance over time. But good relationships are found in the balance over time, not just on a day-to-day basis or even week-to-week.
Keep it in perspective
We all want our happily-ever-after, but somewhere along the line that became synonymous with easy. It's tempting, when a relationship fails to be easy, to think that it is therefore bad. If we want to be in fulfilling relationships that deepen over time, we have to be prepared to deal with a bit of crazy from others, and recognize that we are bringing some crazy to the party ourselves. While I, too, have loved the early stages of intimate relationships with all their heat and excitement, I know that one has to choose. If you want to experience the joy that comes from 50 or more years of deeply knowing someone and letting them know you, you have to reject the excitement of the starting-overs. And you have to learn to pick your crazy wisely.