Joan Didion1 is wise:
There was nothing I did not discuss with John.
Because we were both writers and both worked at home our days were filled with the sound of each other’s voices.
I did not always think he was right nor did he always think I was right but we were each the person the other trusted. There was no separation between our investments or interests in any given situation. Many people assumed that we must be, since sometimes one and sometimes the other would get the better review, the bigger advance, in some way “competitive”, that our private life must be a minefield of professional envies and resentments. This was so far from the case that the general insistence on it came to suggest certain lacunae in the popular understanding of marriage.
The only amendment I’d make is that it’s not just popular understandings of marriage but of any close relationships. Siblings and close friends are also popularly supposed to be in competition with one another.
I remember when me and two good friends were up for the same scholarship. One of them won. No one would believe that we were happy for her. They did not understand that we could be disappointed for ourselves and happy for her at the same time. Clearly they feared their heads would explode if they admitted that those two feelings could exist side by side.
To avert said head explosion they questioned us further, adding more “reallys?” and “are you sures?” to their questions. We kept saying that we weren’t jealous, that we were overjoyed for our friend. They changed tactics and accused us of protesting too much. We sighed and backed away.
What can you say when you are asked if you’re jealous of your parent/sibling/lover/spouse/best friend? It’s like being asked if you still beat your spouse.2 In fact, just writing this will convince some people that I’m being defensive. (Or that I’m still beating my spouse.)
This view of the world mystifies me. Mostly because in my experience people who see themselves as being in competition with you, who are cranky when you succeed, and rejoice when you fail are not your friends. They will not do good by you. Flee from them! Let me repeat because I think it’s really important:
People who are cranky when you succeed and rejoice when you fail are not your friends.
When someone asks me if I’m jealous or resentful of someone I care about it feels like they’re asking me to say that I’m not friends with that person. Which is why I find it such a weird question. I still haven’t figured out what to say to the people whose response to my boasting about the achievements of a loved one is to console me. Huh? It’s like we’re not living on the same planet.
Why do so many think spouses or siblings or best friends in the same profession are automatically in competition? Is it because movies such as A Star is Born have trained us to think that way? Are we confusing fictional narratives and plot devices with real life?
Because, me, I really don’t get it. Can any of you clue me in?