Sunday, July 19, 2020

Stubbed-Toe Compatibility

Ian Ayres

Years ago, when I was in my late twenties, I was dating a Washington lawyer named Claire whose young sister tragically died in the Alaskan wilderness.  The three of us had planned to go on an end-of-the summer vacation near Charlottesville. But when Tara failed to appear, concern soon turned to distress as we learned that Tara had never returned from a camping trip with her native Alaskan boyfriend. 

A day later, instead of starting that vacation, I found myself embarking on a cross-continental trek to the northern slope of Alaska to join Claire and her family in their search for Tara.  Flying by myself, in an era before cellphones, I was left to wonder what Tara’s family had found when they had arrived ahead of me.

After hours of travelling incommunicado, I finally was able to unfold my 6’4” jet-lagged body from a small propeller plane in the distant town of Barrow, a hamlet figuratively at the end of the world.  Claire was waiting to pick me up at the gas-station sized building that served as the town airport.  With just a few words, I learned that Tara was dead.  Tara’s overturned boat and her drowned dog had been found at the edge of a vast, barren delta.

I can still viscerally replay the uncertainty I felt about how best to console my sweetheart.  She was grieving and my first instinct was to enfold her, literally and figuratively, in my care.  But it wasn’t clear to me what she wanted.  Could giving her space to be with her family or be by herself be the best consolation? Even asking her seemed to be imposing a burden at the worst possible time.  I didn’t want this to be about me.

Later that evening while talking with Tara’s brother, I realized that Claire had gone off to bed.  Unsure of where to sleep and unwilling to disturb the family by knocking on unknown doors, I ended up sleeping in my parka on a bare wooden floor in a narrow hallway.

A few weeks after my trip to Alaska, I gathered with Claire’s family in upstate New York for Tara’s funeral.  I was happy to be tasked with running several small errands.  But when I returned to the auditorium just before the ceremony was to begin, I was again paralyzed by indecision.  Should I try to find where the family was gathered back stage?  Were they expecting me to sit with them?  Would it be an imposition to even ask?  I remember thinking that if I sat with the family, it would decrease the chance that Claire would have a parent or sibling sitting on each side of her.  I ended up silently taking a seat among Tara’s many University friends several rows back.  In the car to the cemetery, Tara’s brother kindly emphasized how much he wished I had sat with the family. 

Within a few months, Claire and I were no longer a couple.  I don’t believe my failures to console Claire caused the break up.  Rather, it seems that those failures were symptomatic of a broader incompatibility.

I’ve continued to think about these moments over several ensuing decades. I happily married another, and our two children are now roughly the same age I was when I confronted this dilemma. I worry that they, like me, will not know how best to console their loved ones when the need arises. 

Death is not the only test of sympathetic compatibility. Abraham Lincoln liked to tell the story of a boy from who “stubbed his toe while running to see his sweetheart.”  When asked how he felt, the boy said he was too big to cry, but too badly hurt to laugh.  Lincoln’s tale asks us to consider the liminal emotional state of the person who hurts himself in front of his sweetheart, but what happens next in the narrative may speak volumes about the couple’s prospects for happiness. How we react to something as trivial as a stubbed toe might tell us something about whom we are compatible with as partners. 

Imagine that you stubbed your toe in front of your sweetheart.  Would you want to be hugged?  Or would you prefer to be left alone until the pain subsides? 

Either reaction is perfectly reasonable. People who harbor deep desires to be consoled would be additionally hurt if their sweetheart failed to step forward.  On the other hand, people who want a moment of solitude might be irked that they have to “deal with” their beloved’s unwanted attention on top of the toe trauma. 

These divergent preferences to be or not to be consoled can impact compatibility, because sweethearts sometimes also have strong desires to console or not console. Consolers can be hurt if they are denied the opportunity to hug a loved one who is in pain.  Non-consolers can feel burdened if they have to hug.

Couples have what I’ll call “stubbed-toe compatibility” if they have mutually compatible preferences with regard to consoling and being consoled.  Couples can be compatible in a variety of ways.  Imagine that Chris wants to hug when seeing his or her sweetheart in pain, but doesn’t liked to be hugged after a good toe-stubbing.  Chris will be most compatible with someone who likes to be hugged but doesn’t like to hug.  Compatible couples might both like to receive and give hugs; they both might like to leave the other, and be left, alone.  Or, as with people like Chris, they might have compatible preferences where one person prefers to be and one prefers not to be consoled.

None of the possible preferences that someone might have carry any particular moral weight.  Hallmark-card movies tends to extol hugging culture, but the negative connotations with the words “cloying” and “clingy” are equally valid.  Neuro-atypical people who prefer not to touch or be touched deserve equal respect.

While your preferred reactions to a stubbed toe are not of any great moment, these preferences tend to persist across different traumas.  Paying attention to what you and your sweetheart prefer with regard to seemingly trivial stresses can provide insight into how best to react in the face of more serious traumas.  Assessing your stubbed-toe compatibility may be a useful relationship diagnostic. If I’d paid closer attention to how Claire reacted to more trivial obstacles, I might have been better prepared when she confronted the catastrophic.

Sweethearts might also talk through the stubbed-toe parable to better manage possible incompatibilities.  The preferences described above need not be invariant. Couples who are initially incompatible are not doomed to failure.  Often the preference of a partner will be to do whatever will provide the most comfort to their grieving loved one.  That was my overarching desire years ago in Alaska.  Communicating your preferences – providing advance directives about how you would best like to be consoled—or consciously considering what your sweetheart wants with regard to small bruises may help guide responses to larger future traumas.

When there are incompatible consoling preferences, the person who hasn’t experienced trauma should try to accommodate the desires of person who has.  Indeed, the more serious the beloved’s pain, the greater the responsibility to try to overcome one’s own preferences about how to console.  Yet even here incompatibilities may persist.  In the play Curious Incident or the series Atypical or Big Bang Theory, characters manifest a range of discomfort in consoling through touch.  In the movie, Rain Man, a momentary touching of heads is the most that the autistic protagonist can manage.  I think of myself now as a hugger, but my indecision in Alaska is also indicative that in some situations I may be more comfortable hanging back. 

My quandary over what I should have done or not done in Alaska has haunted me over the ensuing decades.  In retrospect, I wish I had explicitly asked what kind of consolation Claire wanted.  I wish I had gone backstage at the funeral and asked if there was anything else I could do.  The efforts not to burden the grieving and to avoid making this about me ended up isolating me from people I cared for. 

Providing consolation to a loved one is a kind of gift.  And while, like any present, it might be valued more if you can suss out what your sweetheart wants without having to be told, sometimes the stakes are too high to hope for a lucky guess.  It’s one thing to take a chance on giving a loved one a bobblehead lookalike (a birthday present I recently gave my beloved spouse, which she definitely wouldn’t have purchased for herself).  But on serious issues, it’s not prudent to blindly guess at what your loved one needs. 

To be human is to encounter pain.  Any long-term relationship will inevitably have to find ways to cope with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.  Finding someone with compatible consolation preferences might help you weather the storm.

Another time, another hallway, I encountered another loved one suffering the death of a sibling.  A few months after my son was born, my wife’s sister called me at work out of the blue to tell me that my wife’s younger brother had died in a distant southern city.  The sister wanted me to break the news to my wife in person.  And so, in a kind of a daze, after being driven home by a colleague, I found my beloved spouse at the top of the stairs in our front hallway. Neither of us can recall what I said, but have the indelible memory that we held each other for the longest time.

*Claire and Tara are pseudonyms.

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