By Amy Alkon
Q: Your response to “Torn” really missed the mark. She is the 35-year-old woman whose friends and family think her 43-year-old boyfriend is lazy and not good enough for her and will end up living off her. She has a full-time job with benefits, while he works part-time and saves up when he wants to buy something. She says he supports her emotionally: “He … has my back to an unreasonable degree.” Yet, you contend that his lack of ambition may lead her to resent him. My advice to her: “If the relationship works for both of you, enjoy it. Nurture it. Keep the outside influences outside. And for crying out loud, woman, pull up your big-girl Underoos and tell your friends and family to take a deep breath and say a prayer to Saint Eff You.”—Better Idea
A: Your advice—that “Torn” should just flip the bird at all of her boyfriend’s detractors—is the perfect solution for any woman who has a number of smelly, unsightly friends and family members cluttering up her life. I offer a similar redo of decluttering queen Marie “KonMari” Kondo’s advice that we should go through all our stuff and see what brings joy. Yawn. The AlkonMari method: “Strike a match and run.”
But, wait, you say. He supports her emotionally. That, you insist, should be enough. Should be. And though it’s reasonable to prefer that it would be, the late Albert Ellis, co-founder of cognitive behavioral therapy, explained that “should” involves the irrational demand that the world manifest itself in an idealized way—the way it SHOULD be. This keeps us from dealing with it as it is. For example, I should be writing this response to you in a villa in the South of France with servants, a helipad and a moat. But here in the real world, unless I start moonlighting as a drug lord, I will continue writing from the cute shack in L.A. that I share with my dog and several million termites.
Likewise, in that magical land where children’s dentists send glitter instead of a bill, the perfect husband could be a sweet man who splits his time between a low-stress, part-time job and chillaxing on the couch with a doob. But women evolved to have emotional mechanisms pushing them to seek men who are willing and able “providers,” and a man’s ambition is a cue for that. Women can’t just yell at their genes, “Hey, it’s 2016, and I’m the VP of a successful startup!” As anthropologist Donald Symons explains, changing any “complex adaptation,” like those driving mating psychology, takes “hundreds or thousands of generations.” This is why—as I explained to “Torn”—research finds that women married to a Mr. Mom often end up resenting him, making those marriages more likely to end in divorce.
Should “Torn” stay or go? That actually isn’t for you or me to say, because our values aren’t her values and what works for us may not work for her. That’s why I suggested she mull over the potential issues—over time—and make an informed decision about whether to go all in with her Laid-Back Larry. Yeah, I know—love should “conquer all.” And yes, in a perfect world, we could respond to utility company disconnect notices with a sweet note: “Please don’t shut my lights off! XOXO!”
Q: I’m a 32-year-old lesbian and an aspiring fiction writer. I use my life in my work, but my girlfriend gets mad when she shows up in it. I think she’s being unfair. Isn’t anything I experience fair game?—Storyteller
A: There she is crying, and you’re rubbing her back, all, “Baby, that’s terrible.” And then you duck out of the room and dictate everything you can remember into your phone.
Um, no. Think of the details of your girlfriend’s life like some stranger’s lunch. The fact that their cheeseburger is within your reach doesn’t mean you get to grab it and be all, “Mine! Yummeee!” As Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren explained in an 1890 Harvard Law Review article on privacy, unless somebody is a public figure, they have a right to privacy, meaning the right to control who gets to know what about their persona and private life.
You cross the line from fiction writer to privacy invader when a character is recognizable as a particular person. It isn’t that you can’t use anything at all from another person’s life. Publishing expert Jane Friedman says you can create a composite character “with traits and characteristics culled from several people.” In other words, steal from the many instead of “the one.” Remember, it’s called an “intimate relationship” because it’s supposed to be between two people—not two people and the 8,423 others one of them gave their novel away to on Goodreads.