Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Does Family Background Matter?

While I was getting prepped for dental work the other day, the dental technician began to make what I thought would be the usual make-the-patient-comfortable pre-op chit-chat.  I wasn’t especially interested in this – something about the technician seemed a little . . . off – but I couldn’t exactly ignore her.

“Are you married?” she asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Do you have any children?”


“How many?”


“How old are they?”

“Six and ten.”

“Wow, you’re just getting started!”

Really?  “They’re at their grandparents this week, and frankly I’m enjoying the break.”

“Yeah, sending my children to my parents house wasn’t really an option for me.”

I really, really wanted to let this go by; unfortunately, the dentist had arrived.

“What’s the problem?  They managed to raise you okay,” he piped up.

“Well, my father was a pedophile.  That’s why I left home as young as I did.”

Sweet!  Baby!  Gherkins!  In which ring of hell did you learn chairside patter?

Now, on the one hand, I inferred that the technician was married with children of her own, and of course I wish her every happiness.  But leaving aside the fact that I thought she was weird, this kind of claim, delivered in that way and in those circumstances, said nothing good about her even were we to take it at face value.  Goodness knows what kind of evil lurked in her genes, let alone the mental scars she bore personally.  I rather doubt that she enjoys even the average chance at domestic stability.

But I don’t recall giving much weight to that kind of thing back when I was single.  Given where I sought relationships, I had applied a filter for religion and probably education and class, but otherwise my criteria were:  (1) does she meet my attractiveness threshold and (2) does she give me the time of day.  I was mainly lucky (or rather, providentially blessed) to have fallen in with a girl from a quality family and with so many personal qualities I didn’t think to care about.

The dental technician, as it happened, was nowhere near my attractiveness threshold, but let’s consider Amy Adams’ character in the movie Sunshine Cleaning.  Now, at 34 (when the movie was made), Adams looks as cute as a button, but let’s also look at her character’s history:

  • Her mother committed suicide.  That’s a “family history of mental and emotional instability.”
  • Her father has a spotty employment record, characterized by small-time get-rich-quick schemes operating close to the line of legality.
  • While she probably doesn’t meet the technical definition of “slut”, she’s spent her adult romantic life having an adulterous affair with the ex-high-school-quarterback she dated in high school.  As Roissy would say, she chose “five minutes of alpha.”
  • In the mean time, she hasn’t done much with her life except having an illegitimate son by (presumably) the married ex-quarterback.  I don’t put much stock in women having careers, but to reach the age of 34 (or whatever her age is supposed to be in the movie) without college or a career or a husband is kind of loserish.

In a fit of self-awareness, she quits the adultery and resolves to turn her life around.  It’s easy to see her gracing her romantic attention on a “nice guy”/beta under these circumstances.  But does her resolution mean that she becomes a good LTR bet for the beta?

Frankly, I think not, at least not in real life.  On the other hand, a girl who looked and acted like Amy Adams would be impossible for a still-single version of me to turn down, regardless of her unfavorable background.

On a third hand, it was just a movie.  In real life, perhaps women with that kind of past don’t really have the disposition that Adams projects in movies.  Perhaps, to the extent it mattered, a bad history would assert itself in other incompatibilities of personality such that I wouldn’t really have to consciously take the history into account.



Justin said...

dear lord, what a effing nutjob. You really should get her fired. Just tell her boss that her demeanor and conversation made you very uncomfortable and you really can't see yourself coming back to that office with her there. Even if he doesn't fire her, he may at least get her to STFU, I mean, ahem, give her some valuable social feedback.

Professor Hale said...

I have always thought it odd that dental workers try to converse with you when the central focus of your being there is to have your mouth full of their hands and dental tools. They shouldn't be asking you anything that doesn't require a grunt for an answer.

A few years ago, the dental staff spent so much time talking to each other about their weekend plans that they forgot to match the patient (me) with the patient records and I got a filling I didn't need.

Φ said...

Justin: the dentist himself was there, so it would not surprise me if he took her aside later and said, ya' know, telling the patients about your dad might make them a wee bit uncomfortable.

Hale: I think all medical technicians are encouraged to do this. I remember the cute female optometry staff used to chat me up back in undergrad, which was great until I realized what the game was. After that it began to feel a little . . . manipulative.

trumwill said...

In a fit of self-awareness, she quits the adultery and resolves to turn her life around. It’s easy to see her gracing her romantic attention on a “nice guy”/beta under these circumstances. But does her resolution mean that she becomes a good LTR bet for the beta?

This... is a very good point. One I've kind of touched on and have a post coming up on next week. More thoughts to come on the rest of it.

trumwill said...

There is so much to touch on here the hard part is figuring out which part to comment on. I'll pick two.

Number one.

The fact that you felt weirded by her at the outset is probably as good a sign as any. There are circumstances that people don't have an appropriate sense of public decorum but are otherwise normal people (the dentist probably falls in this category). There are circumstances where people come from broken pasts and go on to become great people. There may even be people to whom both applies. But your instincts were probably telling you that she was not one of those people.

I do know some people that have overcome quite a bit of family drudge. In one way my wife is such a person. But these things are definitely reasons to be on the lookout. Things to be conscientious of. Not dealbreakers, but very significant. I wish I had appreciated the significance of this sort of thing earlier on than I did.

trumwill said...

Number two.

Your minimal criteria sounds familiar as I had something similar to it. The thing is, though, that I don't think you were ever in serious danger of finding a damaged person that fit those two bullet-points.

Once you catch the bus, you have to ride it. And if you're not actually compatible on some level, it's a bad ride. You meet a dysfunctional girl and date her, it won't take long at all before she is uncomfortable because she's always being judged (whether you say anything to her or not, it'll come out) and you are uncomfortable with her irresponsibility. You might end it or she might, but it would end (if it ever began, which despite the mutual attraction, it might not).

There's some give-and-take when it comes to how functional/dysfunctional someone is, but you run into walls when you are too far apart. It gets in the way of being able to relate to one another. It causes a drip-drip-drip of problems that come to a head one way or another. Those of us that don't like the thrill of misery either leave situations that make us unhappy or we try to make it better in a way that just makes it worse because "better" for you is not "better" for them.

I have some experience in this area and I've watched it unfold. Doesn't matter which party is the responsible one and which one is the wreck. I've seen it both ways. The only time I've seen it endure is when both parties, for one reason or another, don't want happiness or aren't ready for their happy ending yet. When they become ready, they either leave or drive the other person away.

Φ said...

Trumwill: You have a good handle on the way the relationship dynamics usually play out. "Either leave or drive the other person away."

You also make a good point about the importance of having similar levels of (for want of a better word) dysfunction. I'm reminded of the Apostle Paul's warning against being "unequally yoked". Something like that applies here.

It takes a lot of integrity to break off a bad courtship, and I say that as someone who never really mustered it. I had any number of reservations about the kinda-sorta-almost romantic relationship before Mrs. Φ, but I kept plugging away hoping that it could be made to work. My reaction when she broke it off was mainly, thank God that's over, which kind of proves that I should have been more proactive myself.