Q: I’m a 32-year-old gay man, and my boyfriend of three years sometimes vents to his friends about our relationship. I feel a little betrayed by this—like my privacy’s being violated. Why can’t he figure things out on his own—without bringing in a jury?—Disturbed
A: A few years back, a woman with a grudge against my assistant called me to try to get me to fire her: “She talks trash about you!” Me: “Everybody talks trash about their boss!”
The truth is, we all do a lot of grousing to others about people in our lives—our romantic partner, our business partner, our criminal conspirator. That’s actually a healthy thing, though it runs contrary to what emotion researcher Bernard Rime calls the “Lone Ranger individualist perspective of adult emotional regulation.” This, Rime explains, is the mythic view (held even by many psychologists) that healthy adult processing of emotions involves a sort of “rugged individualism”—meaning being “self-contained, independent and self-reliant.”
In fact, Rime notes, emotion seems to have evolved to be not just an internal, solo process but a “fundamentally interdependent process.” Rime explains that our emotions—especially painful ones—can be overwhelming to us. Experiencing emotion “is a dense and diffuse experience in need of cognitive articulation”; that is, it needs to be hashed out and understood. “By using language and by addressing others, individuals ‘unfold’ the emotional material” so they can understand and manage it and maybe gain objectivity and insight.
Understanding how driven we are to share our experiences might help you stop feeling like your boyfriend’s betraying secrets and instead see it as his seeking a sounding board. There’s a good chance that this serves to improve your relationship—sometimes by confirming that he has a legit issue to discuss with you and try to resolve.
Of course, we’re all prone to latch on to crazy and ride it like a pony. We need someone to talk sense into us—like to convince us that the jail time isn’t worth it, despite our partner’s disgusting, depraved indifference to all that’s good and right. Yes, I’m talking about atrocities like opening food packages from the middle (“Hello, are you a rodent?!”) and vacuuming in weird, random lines (like a serial killer!).
Q: I’m a 66-year-old man. I got married in my mid-20s. I was totally faithful, but my wife left me after 10 years (I think for another woman). I was with the next woman for 20 years. Again, I was faithful, but she left me, too. Is being faithful overrated? I thought it was the way to secure a relationship.—Failed Relationships
A: It isn’t a surprise that you’d go, “Wait, faithful to the first one, faithful to the next one—must’ve been why these relationships tanked!” This leap you’re making probably comes out of how uncomfortable our minds are with uncertainty (stemming from ambiguous situations, unanswered questions and other mental untidiness). According to research by cognitive neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, a mechanism in our brain’s left hemisphere that he calls “the interpreter” steps in to fill in the blanks, to save us from the cognitive chaos by coming up with an explanation. Unfortunately, it’s like the world’s sloppiest detective. It quickly scans for any patterns or vaguely plausible meanings and then just goes with them—creating a narrative that seems to make sense of our experience.
A more productive take would be accepting that relationships end and considering whether there’s anything you might have done better, both in picking partners and in being one.
You might also reconsider the notion that you had “failed relationships.” The reality is, partners change and grow apart. They come to want conflicting things (like a wife perhaps wanting a wife of her own). Or they just get bored with each other. As I see it, a 10- or 20-year relationship is a feat to celebrate—not only making a relationship work for a whole lot of years but refraining from bludgeoning your mate for the horrible, psyche-scraping sounds they make when they chew.