When a person is writing a work of fiction there’s pressure to make sure the characters are “believable,” that they sound true to life so readers aren’t jarred out of their happy cocoon thinking, “Nobody really acts like that.” But real life doesn’t have that constraint. Weird stuff happens and there isn’t always a good explanation for it. People think things that don’t have to make sense, they just are. You can think you know what you’re getting in a person and, unlike a good novel that gives you hints and foreshadowing, you can get surprised. Today, in the final installment of this series, we take another look at why we do the stuff we do, our characters–looking for the foreshadowing in real life.
Refresh Yourself–Part 7:
Character Studies, or
The Beginning is the End is the Beginning
(Yes, I completely ripped that line off from Billy Corgun. He worked with Courtney Love so he must be used to getting ripped off.)
If it seems like this seven-part diatribe is ever so slightly heavy on the importance of both discerning character and showing it rather than how many hours or days to wait before texting or calling after getting someone’s number, well, it is. There is a simple reason for this chronic refrain, CHARACTER MATTERS.
Comedian Ron White said, “You can’t fix stupid.” And he’s completely right. Stupid is pretty damn permanent. But, I’d like to add that you also can’t fix a lack of character. Character is either there or it isn’t.
By the time we’re grown up and let loose on the unsuspecting dating world, our characters are pretty much set—for better or worse. When life strips away our youth, looks, success, fortune, health, complaisance, badass persona, and all the other crap we spend our lives focusing on, all that remains is our character. If you don’t consider character to begin with, only the attractive frame and bundle of mutual interests or suitable pedigree blinking before you and your strong desire not to be single, then you deserve the box of chocolates you’re linked to—because you never know what you’re gonna get.*
Why, oh, why am I harping on this? I harp because character affects everything we do. Character development says it’s wrong to lie and to cheat, both issues fairly important in relationships. It also indicates what’s ultimately important to us, our core values, which will influence how we spend our money** and how we raise our children. You don’t have to look at too many divorced couples to know how unhappy mismatched values can make people.
But, despite the massive impact character will have on our relationships it is generally not a consideration when people start dating. First, we give people the once over and decide whether or not they satisfy our criteria for what we consider attractive. Next, we discern whether they find us attractive too. If all goes well, we spend time together discovering our mutual interests. Based on how that goes we either become a couple or go our separate ways. Couplehood can then lead to cohabitation and/or marriage. But when do we ask ourselves if this person is a good person?
And that is not always easy to see because people do the right things for a variety of reasons, not all of them very good. But reasons, and not only the end result, also matter. For example, just because someone is volunteering or singing in church doesn’t make them a good person. Volunteer work might give them an edge in getting accepted to a particular school or program. Singing in church could be because they like sound of their own voice and grandstanding in front of a captive audience. Maybe they don’t give a crap about any of it but simply can’t say no when asked to do something. Maybe they just do what is expected like an actor on a stage, quietly resenting it. Different motivations cast the exact same behavior into vastly different lights. When we care for someone we are more apt to see that person’s behavior in a favorable light regardless of the truth.
Culturally, we worship at the shrine of attraction, ranking character way the hell below chemistry and only slightly above our respective tolerance for webbed feet or outie bellybuttons. Maybe we figure that if the other person finds us attractive and interesting they must be a good person, after all, they like us. So, is chemistry important? Absolutely. We want to find out more about people we find attractive, interesting, and compelling. Hopefully, that fascination will lead us to a deeper understanding of the other person and what makes them tick. Ideally, we’ll find out something about what their core values are before we put our hearts on the line.
But it isn’t just our hearts we’re putting on the line. I was thinking about this the other day and it seemed as if it all comes down to this question: Does this person have my back? Or, even better, Is this someone I can trust with my power of attorney if I’m incapacitated? Because that is what you really need to know—when you are at your most vulnerable, will this person who has captivated you and revved up your libido have your best interests at heart. Sexy? Romantic? Not so much. But pretty damn important if you’re in a coma or under general anesthesia.
Life can be a funny thing, amazingly beautiful one moment and then one mofo of a nightmare the next. God forbid this ever happens to you, but a car accident, a cancer diagnosis, a child with autism, a military deployment, a lay-off, and everything changes. Here’s hoping, that this person who seems to adore you so much when everything is a dream come true will hold your hand and help you if it becomes a nightmare. In the end, that is a tad more important than how many days to wait before contacting someone after you score digits.
*Yes, I know, I ripped off/borrowed that line from Forrest Gump. It is a borrowing kind of day.
**Considering that money is the #1 thing that couples fight about, this should not be treated lightly. When you’re dating it might seem cute that she’s racking up debt to look gorgeous for you, but that charm wears thin when she’s burning through your savings for Versace’s spring collection and you can’t make your mortgage payment.
And, there it is. The thing we generally think of last is the thing that we should think of first, but we probably won’t. As always, thanks for reading. Tune in again next Monday for a look at my irritation at the gender gap.