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I can imagine loving a Bob even if he kept me waiting, just as I can imagine tapping my foot in impatience. Can't we have them both, the tapping foot, the love? Bob's wife might yearn for more contact with him—which we can work on in therapy. But to reduce the issue of Bob's lovingness down to his lateness (or his sloppiness, or his inability to balance a checkbook) is a failure to see the man himself. The experience of an "incompatible" difference is then oftentimes a screen. Bob's wife has narrowed her experience of him, a narrowing that avoids intimacy. And by intimacy I mean the opening into another person's reality. Whether that would be Bob seeing his wife's vulnerability, rather than her anger, or the wife seeing Bob's wholeness, it's hard to predict which move might come first. But it's love in action.
A friend describes to me his sister's marriage. He thinks the husband is distractible and self-involved and neglects his wife, my friend's sister. "But she has no complaints about him!" He's amazed. "She doesn't need him to be perfect." And we marvel over that, the generous sister, her self-involved husband. "That's the ultimate coming-of-age life passage," he says, "the cosmic understanding that while we may want the perfect companion—or what we think is the perfect companion—we don't really need that other person to be perfect."
At some point, the task for rest of us—like Lisa and Walt, Carla and Dennis, Bob and his wife—is to mourn what we miss in each other, grieve the absence of perfect mirroring, give up the egotistical identification with ringing atunement. We can't protect ourselves from this bereavement: it's existential, part of existence itself, our vulnerability to other people's imperfections, other people's realness. Then it seems that the encounter with difference, when freed of its "incompatibility," its outrageous unfairness, might begin to stimulate our empathy and our generosity. It's a lifelong exercise, living with difference—just the right antidote to what would otherwise be a life small and vain and fearful and filled with resentment.
Molly Layton, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice in the Chestnut Hill area of Philadelphia who's written essays for the Psychotherapy Networker for 25 years. Her short story "What Love Is" was selected in 2007 for the Writing Aloud series at the InterAct Theater. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters to the Editor about this article may be e-mailed to email@example.com.