So last Sunday I saw the most recent (I can’t say latest, it’s been out for so long you can download it legally now) Spider-Man, and something made sense. A few days before, my partner and I were at a station watching a little cluster of teenage men cracking each others backs. The process is that you cross your arms over your chest, fist to opposite shoulder, and your friend stands behind you, grips you at the wrists, and lifts you up. You can feel your vertebrae popping and it makes a fantastic noise.
In Spider-Man – spoilers ahead – one of the spiders-man does it to one of the others. Web-swinging is apparently murder on your middle back. And I was suddenly reminded of these boys, and also of this work by Barbara Kruger, which is burned into my brain:
Because it’s true, isn’t it lads? We don’t want to give each other a hug, but you’d crack a back for your bro. Because it’s about proving you’re strong, right, and doing a favour, and not at all about comfort and pressure and feeling held and feeling not alone.
And I just – I enjoyed it. I liked seeing guys looking out for each other and being brotherly in a movie that is marketed as a nice, fun, non-dramatic movie.
It’s nice to see boys just being boys.
Did you know that in scientific papers the scientific authors will scientifically enumerate the number of mice that they’ve ‘sacrificed’?
It’s a weird word to use for a scientist, I think. I think this in part because I was brought up very Christian and so the word ‘sacrifice’ has, hum, had meaning for me for a long time. The first story in the Bible is about sacrifice, and how God was not hugely pleased with the selection of vegetables that Cain offered up.
I think in modern parlance ‘sacrifice’ has come to mean ‘prioritise’, and I don’t like it, and I especially don’t like it in the context of relationships. Let me tell you how I define a sacrifice, coming as a I do from a Christian background, and then you can either explore other words we could use or ignore my definition entirely.
A sacrifice is a gift, freely given, in the hope that you will in future receive something greater in return but accept you may also not receive anything at all. It is therefore completely necessary to a relationship with God, and fundamentally unsound for a relationship with a person. For what it’s worth, I think the scientists are using this definition: every scientific endeavour is a sacrifice of time and money and sometimes lives in the hope that what will be returned will be worth more.
(Your understanding of ‘worth’ might differ from those scientists, and perhaps your definition is the one we should accept and behave as if it were correct, but for now let’s accept that folks have different meanings for this stuff)
God and I have long since parted ways, though we are still on nodding terms, so let’s talk about this definition of sacrifice in the context of human relationships. There is this phrase, “I sacrificed (thing) for you.” In my experience it does not usually mean that they burned (thing) at an altar with the appropriate prayers and rituals. What they mean is that they prioritised you over (thing), and they feel you should have:
- noticed and reciprocated by sacrificing (other_thing) of equal value, or
- given you the return you thought you were due, or
- told them to prioritise (thing) over you
I firmly believe that this phrase is indicative of a transactional view of relationships (gross) and also cowardice. If you sacrifice a thing and then get mad about it, what you actually wanted was an exchange. Built into the idea of a sacrifice is that sometimes you get nothing. Sometimes you get nothing because what you’ve received is a lack-of-bad-things; that is, through the sacrifice you have avoided a piano falling on your head or avoiding a terrible disease.
Sometimes what you get for your sacrifice is the knowledge that God is “doing keto right now, yeah?”.
So sacrificing something and then becoming resentful that you’ve not received your just reward is such, such a clear sign to me that you don’t know what a sacrifice is. What you’re thinking about is a trade, and love is not governed by the Law of Equivalent Exchange.
What then of cowardice? Cowardice is the outsourcing of your choices to someone else. If you prioritised your partner and their wants and needs over yourself, then that is your decision to own. Why do you now resent them? Is it because, unbeknownst to them, you were not prioritising them: you were sacrificing something, in the full expectation that you would reap its rewards? That’s not a choice, that’s treating your partner like a piggy bank that you can smash open later.
Transactions happen in a relationship, and so do compromises: I make the dinner tonight and you wash the dishes; I will get over my thing about poop and you will accept that my nappy-wrapping won’t be as neat. We are human beings and we can make these exchanges. You can talk to your partner about what you want to trade and compromise on, as long as you can accept that you’re not always going to get your way.
But your partner is not God, nor a force beyond human ken.
They cannot know the sacrifices you make in secret, and they cannot uphold the sacrifices you declare. They can only be themselves. You have to choose, and if you choose wrong you can only choose again.
If you keep prioritising your partner’s wants and needs over your own and they also prioritise their own wants and needs over yours then, friend, talk to me please because I’m not convinced that’s a healthy dynamic.
And none of this, mind you, is to say that there are no sacrifices in a relationship. But I firmly believe that if you make a sacrifice for the sake of the relationship then it should be in the hope that it will be good for the relationship, which is this weird messy complicated thunderstorm of your wants and their wants and your potential future wants and what you imagine they will want, and so on. Bluntly, I would expect a sacrifice to be in the pursuit of some benefit to everyone in the relationship.
This piece still isn’t where I want it to be. I think there’s some wooly thinking here. But we’re getting there.
Let’s have a good weekend all.