Monday, February 20, 2017

Dysfunctional Relationships: Sometimes They Work and Sometimes . . .

One could argue that ALL relationships are dysfunctional. For the purposes of this post, I am addressing relationships where there is an obvious imbalance within the relationship dynamic: the woman who wants to marry a daddy figure; the man who wants to marry a mommy type; the ill person who marries a caretaker (where caretaking is the element that holds them together) and so on.

My perspective is that however off-putting I might find this type of dynamic, if it works for the involved parties, good for them!

Problems occur when (1) the people involved in the relationship change, thereby dropping the roles that run the dynamic; (2) the people involved in the relationship want outcomes incompatible with the dynamic.

Dollhouse by Ibsen is a good example of both. The relationship between husband and wife is a father-daughter one. Nora is a little-girl woman, being endlessly cared for by her husband, Torvald. Until it turns out that Torvald is lousy at being a father figure. When Nora realizes that he wants her to be both little girl who follows his lead AND independent woman who makes difficult choices for the family, she figures, "Why bother?" and leaves.

I don't see this as necessarily a feminist message (and other critics agree) since I maintain that the original dynamic was okay so long as the people involved were also okay with it.

Konohara uses a similarly disturbing
relationship dynamic in About Love: needy
guy demands constant reassurance from
his kind but teasing lover--however, in
About Love, the characters both seem
okay with what they have signed up for.
Not-being-okay-with-it reminds me of a YA book I read ages ago, whose title and author I have since forgotten. A young man "rescues" an overweight, non-popular girl in his high school. Once she gains confidence and loses weight, she moves on. The young man is dismayed and feels rejected, but the book  doesn't automatically defend his viewpoint. The girl was tired of being treated like a project--except treating her like a project is precisely what enthralled the young man. He wasn't going to change, so she did.

Don't Tell Mama by Narise Konohara uses a similar plot but is far less realistic. Yuichi falls for Imakura when Imakura is a whining, tubby, low self-esteem mama's boy. Konohara--who is a decent writer and character analyst--does a notable job selling Yuichi's attraction to Imakura. Yuichi is a bit of a bully but not enough to want to abuse someone. The relationship dynamic of controlling-man-who-pampers-his-babyish-yet-endearing-lover satisfies his ego and his sexual needs. Yuichi doesn't want Imakura in spite of his traits--he is turned on by those traits.  

This, I maintain, is not only believable (hey, relationships are weird); it isn't a problem. Chacun a son gout or "Whatever turns you on," as Detective Wentworth says on Barney Miller ("I thought [that saying] was about your health," Wojo says. "It is," she replies).

The problem with the novel is not that Imakura will go back to living with his mother once he and Yuichi leave their island love nest. Narise Konohara disposes of this issue by having the mother remarry, leaving Imakura at loose ends. I find it entirely plausible that Imakura would then turn to his lover to supply him with the relationship needs he has lost. Since Yuichi is willing--that's the end of the story!

Actually, it's not. Konohara has Imakura undergo substantial changes--he gets a job doing something he likes, becomes a decent co-worker who looks out for others rather than blaming them for his mistakes, moves out on his own, and even loses weight. Yet she wants to reader to believe that Imakura and Yuichi can still make a go of it.

I get a kick out of the utterly
dysfunctional relationship here, mostly
because--in true academic fashion--both
characters are aware of their problems 
and even capable of (over) analyzing them.
Not that they will act on the analysis.
It's about self-knowledge, dude.
I should clarify at this point that I'm not saying that people in relationships can't change and grow while remaining together. It happens all the time! I am saying that when a relationship is based on a particular set of variables, changing those variables will (temporarily or permanently) unsettle the relationship. And if attraction is based on those variables, removing those variables will inevitably challenge the attraction.

At this point, the die hard romantics may wish to contend that Yuichi didn't fall in love with Imakura's mommy issues, his babyish behavior, and his weight but with his essence.

Except that "falling in love with someone's essence" is about as remote and meaningless as, well, most metaphysical statements. It also contradicts the text. Yuichi clearly falls for Imakura on the island (before most of Imakura's major changes) and falls for all of him, from his personality flaws (passivity, neediness, inexperience) to his physical self. In fact, Yuichi is a little surprised to discover how much the relationship satisfies him at a psychical level. Some link in his mental blueprint of relationships has snapped into place--why ruin a good thing?

In other words, Yuichi does not fall in love with Imakura's potential. He and Imakura discuss what Imakura might do with  his life after the island, but none of those discussions motivate Yuichi in the present. Yuichi is entirely motivated by Imakura being passive, pathetic, needy, inexperienced and a literal handful. 

Consequently, the end of the book leaves one with the uneasy feeling that before long, Yuichi will be forcing Imakura to quit his new job, never take the initiative in the relationship, run to Yuichi for ego boosts, and gain back the weight he lost.

Which could work!--so long as the reader believes that such an outcome is what Imakura truly wants. Otherwise, the guy needs to get himself into a more workable relationship. Yuichi can find someone else to pamper.