Help me accept fabulous 'cos perfect doesn't exist
January 21, 2010 8:01 PM   Subscribe

No relationship partner can fulfil us in all ways. I know this. But I need some tips and tricks on how to accept it.

My partner Ziz is a very loving person. Ziz is emotionally mature, highly intelligent, kind and thoughtful, sexy, confident, talented, creative and practical. We have great chemistry and the same tastes and values. Our relationship is fairly new (1 year) but it has always been easy going. We live and work together from home. We are in our 40s.

I am a wordsmith, writer and avid reader. I grew up in a household of big words and lots of books. I had a good education. I have a substantial vocabulary. Language is an art to me. I love being literate.

Ziz grew up in a house of few books, missed out on adequate literacy training when young and had a parents who didn't do much schooling themselves. Ziz can read & write and is not functionally illiterate, but the standard of reading/writing is low and displays aspects of dyslexia. Ziz has never read a novel for pleasure, will occasionally glance through a newspaper but will read operating manuals as required.

Ziz is very sensitive about the lack of language skills and thinks it indicates 'dumb'. (Ziz had a head injury as a child and thinks it might have caused long term damage.) Started literacy classes just before we met but later dropped them. Ziz never much liked school.

Our differences in use and appreciation of language is beginning to frustrate me. I can't make the verbal jokes that are a large part of my conversational enjoyment. I can't use subtle language to express myself. I have to use simple, standard, common words to communicate. Ziz is very sensitive to body language and can sense when I am frustrated. Add to this the hearing problem where I regularly have to repeat myself... and I sometimes feel my patience wearing thin.

I love Ziz a lot for a lot of good reasons. But I am starting to very much miss the verbal play that has in all cases, been a mutual attraction in previous relationships.

In the early days Ziz would ask for an explanation of words they didn't understand. This has been happening less and less. Sometimes I volunteer information on words that may have an etymological interest for them, but I am doing this less and less too. I've read stories out loud, but it doesn't spark much interest.

Being critical is one of my less likeable attributes. I find myself being frustrated and silently critical of Ziz when I get a kind of 'huh?' look after making a wordplay joke or using a unknown word. I feel a sense of intellectual constraint, a self-censoring and dumbing down in the words I have to choose to use, rather than the word that comes first to mind. Instead of being able to have fun and banter, the conversation just kinda stops or turns to more practical things.

Despite this, the positives in our relationship far outweigh this negative. And I know that there is a reverse problem - music is a big part of Ziz'z life enjoyment; I don't play an instrument while Ziz plays four. Ziz has said that in their perfect world I would also play, but is happy that we both share a love of music. We also share a strong interest in invention, and we both get a lot of satisfaction from what we imagine, design and achieve together.

My desire for my Ziz - physically, emotionally and intellectually - is high. My desire for a life commitment with Ziz is high. But I worry that if I don't find ways to abate my sense of loss for my lack of literate companionship and quick wit, then after a few years I may develop a 'grass is greener' attitude especially if I meet a literate witty cutie.

We live in a rural area. There are no colleges nearby where I could indulge in intellectual pursuits but there is a mediocre book club within an hour's drive. I am thinking of joining so I can at least talk books with someone face to face. But that's just a bit of the issue and is not going to solve my problem over the longer term. What I need is to change me from the inside so that I can grow in my appreciation of all of Ziz's aspects and qualities and not focus on the lack of literacy.

In writing this question I've come to realize that I have a sense of grief. I want my relationship with Ziz to last, and thus I know I have to let go of wanting something that Ziz can't give me.

I am looking for a mental approach that can help me stop the internal critic, help with the acceptance, and let me appreciate and value Ziz's many qualities rather than bemoan the one that is absent.

Tips, tricks and anecdotes welcome.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (33 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have another outlet for your verbal/wordplay side to get out? I know it's frustrating to have to switch from a fun, satisfying method of expression to one that is flat and utilitarian and boring. Maybe if you got another way to play it wouldn't make it so bad when you got home.
posted by amethysts at 8:08 PM on January 21, 2010

It sounds as though you've both got worlds to which the other lacks access. It's good that you recognize hers, because playing music is just as rich and sophisticated as wordsmithing.

Instead of seeing this as a barrier, can you view it as just another point of contact? It might be fun to see communicating from these different places as an intellectual activity.

We also share a strong interest in invention, and we both get a lot of satisfaction from what we imagine, design and achieve together.

How would she feel about you reading her some of your favorite passages or pieces or poems or stories? She wouldn't have to get all the words, the voice and the body would communicate enough; but maybe she'd respond to words with a real weight and materiality to 'em. Could she pluck an instrument while listening? Does she sing? Could you write lyrics? Ask her to dramatize through music something you're working on. Use one of her songs, if she's got any, to inspire your next piece.

On another front, write letters chock-full of wordplay to get it out when you need to. Post on MetaFilter. Think about the musicality of language.
posted by inkytea at 8:52 PM on January 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

It sounds as if you like a mental challenge. Look at it this way: For someone as literate as you, talking to a level of literacy (not intelligence) of Ziz requires much mental agility and gymnastics and wordsmithing, just the other way. You are used to working your way up. Take the challenge of wordsmithing down. Reward yourself when the conversation goes well, that is when you do not have to explain yourself. THe glass is half full. This can be a terrific mental challenge. Don't fight it, embrace it.

And find another outlet. Have a friend you can Skype call regularly to play Scrabble or some other game?
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:55 PM on January 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

You'd both have more opportunities for interaction with other people if you lived in a less rural area. How attached are you to where you live?

I know that a lot of people are really romantically invested in the idea that their partner will be all things to them all the time, but honestly, I just don't get this, especially when we meet our better half after having been independent adults for quite some time. In your situation, I'd find Ziz more musicians and you some highly verbal friends and then come home and snuggle and tell the other alllll about it.
posted by desuetude at 9:25 PM on January 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

I don't think that this will help you with your desire for witty banter and sophisticated conversation, but it may help ease your irritation with your lady.

First, make a list of all of your faults. You don't have to show it to anyone, so be honest. Excruciatingly, face burningly honest. Does she treat all or most of these faults with grace and affection? If so, remind yourself daily of how lucky you are to be loved by someone who accepts you for exactly who you are.

Second, make another list of how amazing she is. You already started that here, so keep going. When you start to get frustrated with her, remind yourself of everything that she lived through to be the talented, imaginative, smart, kind woman you love. You were raised in a family of smarty-pants, so it's not much of a leap for you to be one too. From the way you describe her background, she had to travel much further than you did - cultivate an attitude of tremendous respect for that accomplishment. She has a hearing problem but plays four instruments! How bloody cool is that? If she's hearing impaired, dyslexic and had a head injury as a child, then it makes sense that she didn't like school. Who wants to suffer through an institution that makes you feel stupid all day every day? So while you are reminding yourself of howe cool she is, you're also reminding yourself of how much compassion you should have for how she must struggle with certain aspects of life.

If and when she does decide to crack a book or endeavor to improve her language skills, treat that desire with unflappable encouragement. Tell her how smart she is, (you should be doing this anyway) tell her that she can do it and help her with endless patience and kindness. She's likely quite if you don't.

What I'm getting at there is this: upwards and onwards with both your own humility and your awe for your girlfriend.

In the meantime, do what others here are likely to tell you as far as meeting your own needs for finding your fellow wordsmiths. Write, start your own book group, go online, consider relocating if that is at all possible, post ads for friends - most online dating sites have options for that. You're right, no one person can tease out every facet of our personality. Hopefully you can find your balance.
posted by space_cookie at 9:44 PM on January 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

Of course you need somebody to talk to, you live and work at home. Can you get a job at an office? My husband isn't a big talker/reader/thinker, which is fine with me because I get paid to do all my talking/reading/thinking at work.
posted by crazycanuck at 10:08 PM on January 21, 2010

Are you interested in learning to play a musical instrument at all? She could help you learn and you'd thereby probably gain even more respect for her talents which would help you overlook the lack of language skills. Plus playing music together is very fun and an activity you don't need words for.
posted by hazyjane at 11:00 PM on January 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't have much to offer, but I love the idea of the two of you as songwriters. One of you writes the words, one of you the music. Awesome...
posted by Vaike at 11:04 PM on January 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

Seriously, you just suck it up. You deal with it. The other anachronism has a startling lack of general knowledge (particularly history). At various times I have had to explain who Winston Churchill is, the whole World Wars thing, the Liberal party, civil rights and the state of healthcare in the US.

Don't try and make your partner your whole life. That doesn't work. Don't make one sole 'thing' your whole life either. You aren't your sparkling wit. She's not your whole life. Realise that her awesomeness is worth just as much (or even more than) yours. Repeating yourself can be frustrating, no doubt about that, but it's part and parcel of being around people with hearing issues. Having to be clear and concise doesn't destroy conversation unless you let it. So you don't get to throw around a bunch of fancy words? Deal with it. Clarity in speech (both sound and meaning) is a skill. One you might want to cultivate.

Your partner should complement you. That's rarely accomplished by being the same.
posted by geek anachronism at 11:16 PM on January 21, 2010 [5 favorites]

I'm usually not one to bring this up, but there is no language in the question that should lead anyone to think that Ziz is female over male. So let's stop assuming it's a girl who's less literary, 'k?
posted by greta simone at 11:20 PM on January 21, 2010 [18 favorites]

Lack of literacy is a pretty superficial reason to have a problem with a relationship. You're both fluent in English right?

Have you considered the problem may be lack of basic communication? Or perhaps you both just have a very different sense of humor and aren't really as compatible as you think.

If you care for Ziz as much as you indicate, where's the desire to learn more about her passions? About her as a person? Do you talk with her much about what she does with music?

You say there are lots of positives in your relationship, but then you don't list any. If you don't find yourself particularly interested in what she does, do you think you two are really so compatible?
posted by fan_of_all_things_small at 11:24 PM on January 21, 2010

sorry, read the first reply that says "she" and assumed Ziz was female.
posted by fan_of_all_things_small at 11:25 PM on January 21, 2010

I think the songwriting thing is a great idea too. Better yet - how's your voice? Maybe you can sing the songs you write while Ziz plays the music.
posted by Xany at 11:33 PM on January 21, 2010

You already know Ziz is intelligent, but just expresses it differently. What if you met a literate cutie who happened to be fluent in spanish, not English? Ziz is that person, only Ziz'z fluency is music.

It's not a loss at all. It's a gain. Get a few subscriptions for yourself (LRB, Atlantic, whatevs) and some highly talky music for Ziz (singer-songwriters, hip hop, whatevs) and enjoy your exotic sweetie.
posted by Cuppatea at 12:01 AM on January 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm usually not one to bring this up, but there is no language in the question that should lead anyone to think that Ziz is female over male. So let's stop assuming it's a girl who's less literary, 'k?

Worth repeating. Especially given the careful crafting of the question, every use of "she" in this thread has caused me to glare daggers at the poor monitor.

Ziz loves music, you love language. Why don't the two of you read poetry to each other? Perhaps your showing Ziz the music in the words will show Ziz that language can be beautiful and mellifluous and something in which to delight. People watching a Shakespeare play don't care that they don't understand half the words, they just let the melody suffuse them.

And perhaps not. Even if so, your question glows with your love for and appreciation of Ziz. Keep making sure that Ziz is aware of these feelings, which should mitigate the criticism somewhat. And come to terms with the fact that just because this one person isn't a compendium of your ideal traits doesn't make them wrong for you. Nthing the suggestions for getting your verbal jollies elsewhere.
posted by Devika at 12:04 AM on January 22, 2010

D'oh! I assumed that a guy would be the more critical partner. My sincerest apologies.
posted by space_cookie at 12:36 AM on January 22, 2010

I am in a similar situation, although it doesn't bother me in the same way.

Two things that I think help make it work:

1. Appreciating the skills that my SO has that I don't. In our case, SO left school at 16 to work in construction: so his lack of academic skills directly correlates with practical skills that I don't have because I stayed in the classroom. So in any given situation, often one of us has the better skills to solve the problem and the other doesn't: what a team! We wouldn't be nearly such a good team if we didn't have such differing backgrounds.

2. I've come to realise that my habit of speaking only in a fairly literary style with complex structures is limiting. Many many people might not be comfortable listening to it, and it's a serious mistake to write off all those people and fail to communicate with them. As a start, non-native English speakers are going to struggle with a lot of esoteric words or complex tenses or convoluted sentence structures. At my work we sometimes have to write manuals for people who don't have English as a first language, and it's quite an art form to trim everything down and simplify it while still saying what needs to be said - remembering that it's not the intelligence that's missing, just the English language skills.

I think it's good for anybody with an interest in language to get their head out of the academic sphere and learn to use English more simply without losing their core meaning.

You might like to have a look around the Simple Wikipedia for an example of people using simpler language to transfer complex information, and taking pride in doing it in the best way possible.
posted by emilyw at 12:52 AM on January 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

Forgot to add - seeing the enjoyment you take in reading poetry aloud may help Ziz to associate the complexities of language with positive instead of negative sentiment, which may help you two reach some common ground.
posted by Devika at 1:04 AM on January 22, 2010

Gah, I didn't mean to refer to Ziz as she - sorry.
posted by geek anachronism at 2:07 AM on January 22, 2010

For someone as literate as you, talking to a level of literacy (not intelligence) of Ziz requires much mental agility and gymnastics and wordsmithing, just the other way. You are used to working your way up. Take the challenge of wordsmithing down.

As a writer and editor, I find this a tremendously good idea. I'd favourite this answer over and over and over again if I could.

Many writers benefit from having to use exact and clear language, and not all writers are good at it - quite the opposite, in fact. This is a very important and useful skill that has to be learned, as much as using versatile and rich language is.

Having a way with words doesn't mean you have to use all of them, all the time. Sometimes the beauty of language is in its simplicity, not its versatility. Teach your brain the way with simple, clear, to-the-point words, and I'm sure your wordsmithing will benefit from it. Good luck.
posted by kaarne at 2:54 AM on January 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

Ziz is very sensitive about the lack of language skills and thinks it indicates 'dumb'.

Ziz is very sensitive to body language and can sense when I am frustrated.

Being critical is one of my less likeable attributes. I find myself being frustrated and silently critical of Ziz when I get a kind of 'huh?' look after making a wordplay joke or using a unknown word.

I think you're probably already aware of the downward spiral this creates, with your physically visible frustration pushing on his 'I'm dumb' insecurities. Being critical is not, however, an attribute; it's a defense mechanism and a habit. In the context of a committed relationship, it's a destructive habit. Work on learning some alternative habits. Try, for example, to formulate a request for Ziz -- something he/she can do differently to help you feel better. (Also seek alternative outlets for the wordsmithing drive).


One of my very best friends is dyslexic, with a reading level similar to what you've described in Ziz. He constantly misunderstands and misuses words. His emails are brief to a fault and full of capitalization, grammatical and spelling errors. But he's extremely bright. He's musical, mechanically brilliant, a shrewd negotiator, and the sort of superhero-like, shockingly hard worker than nobody else can keep up with. As I got to know him, I worried that other people would underestimate him because of his language skills, and that he seemed to underestimate himself. So rather than being critical, my instinct was to fight the intimidation he clearly felt with regards to his language skills. I treated his insecurities as unfounded. I did my best to show him that people who used complex, inaccessible-seeming language were not necessarily talking about complex, inaccessible topics. He seemed profoundly reassured by this approach. His language skills have improved a bit since I met him, but the far larger change is that he's no longer ashamed of his limitations, and so isn't held back by them. When he doesn't understand something, he ASKS what is meant instead accepting his ignorance as innate. He gets out there among other smart people, and works and interacts with them, to everyone's benefit.

I'm not married to him so it's not the same, but still -- this is about more than just your comfort level
posted by jon1270 at 3:38 AM on January 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

Repeating yourself can be frustrating, no doubt about that, but it's part and parcel of being around people with hearing issues.

I can't really speak to the rest of your post, because mr desjardins is smarter than I am, but I am hearing impaired, and I hope to god I never read that he's frustrated about having to repeat himself. This is akin to being frustrated that your paraplegic partner can't run as fast as you. Ziz's hearing impairment is almost certainly frustrating to them if they are missing words. Sometimes all I can say is "uh huh" if someone's speaking too quickly or has a strong accent, because I don't want to appear stupid, even though I know I'm not. I have trouble participating in group conversations, so frequently I'm pegged as the shy one or the snobbish one. Possibly people think I'm ignorant of the subject matter. My point is that this may be affecting Ziz more than you know. If Ziz hasn't sought medical help for the hearing impairment (aids, cochlear implants), encourage them.

I'm an impatient person by nature, but meditation has helped me grow my capacity for patience. Metta (lovingkindness) meditation in particular has increased my level of compassion for others.
posted by desjardins at 6:00 AM on January 22, 2010

I am literary. My husband is not -- he's actually more musical instead, like your Ziz. I have an especially literary friend as my outlet. We lend each other books and talk about writing together. We don't live in the same city anymore so we talk online instead. If you have trouble finding someone in the area, then there are a lot of online forums for book discussions and such. I've been pleasantly surprised just by posting book reviews on GoodReads and having people respond or friend me. I've had some great conversations with people who disagreed with me there, too.

The humor thing in particular, though, I could see being very frustrating. My husband doesn't read a lot of fiction but aside from that, he's a literal rocket scientist and does know and understand nearly as many words as I do; he writes quite well, just succinctly and without any flourish or real character. Our senses of humor are closely-matched; with my friends, I always have to tone down or play up different kinds of jokes, but I don't have to do any of that with my husband. Personally, having matching senses of humor has always struck me as something I couldn't do without. There's no telling how it will work out for you, but see how you feel once you get another outlet for word-related things.

Odd side note: I assumed Ziz was a guy because of all the studies showing that women read more fiction.
posted by Nattie at 6:30 AM on January 22, 2010

A couple more suggestions -

Can you find something completely different from either music or words to do/learn together - kayaking, rock climbing, french cooking, whatever? If you can build something together where both of you can shine, maybe that helps.

For your intellectual pursuits, I recommend Rex Parker does the NY Time Crossword.

Lastly, I see this question as more about attitude than practical how-to. I don't think I have any advice, but I do have a warning. If you can't figure out how to deal with it, then figure out how to let it go. I hate watching couples where one is always condescending to the other. I never understand how the other puts up with it.

Also, yesterday's episode of Gray's Anatomy had this very same theme: if you have to choose between your "gift" and your love, which do you choose?
posted by CathyG at 6:51 AM on January 22, 2010

Your partner can't be the outlet for every single part of your personality, it's just not going to happen. You need a good friend who you can engage in your verbal play with. Preferably a woman, as you seem to be attracted to men who you engage with in this way.
posted by sid at 7:05 AM on January 22, 2010

I think you guys need to deescalate this issue slightly and remove some of the fear that is there. This is actually the sort of thing that counselors are great at, communicating to Ziz, "hey, anon likes words, and that fact is all about anon and has nothing to do with your own sense of being dumb," and communicating to you, "hey, Ziz doesn't like words, and that's just who Ziz is. Also, when you bring your word requests in such-and-such a way, that makes the fear worse." It's not that you'd suddenly have knowledge you don't have now, but you'd end up on friendlier and more open terms about the issue. There'd be less fear of the unknown for both of you (what IS anon thinking when I don't get the joke?), and you'd get to come clean about and let go of your fear that one day this might split you apart, and ultimately, you'd get to be your wordy self and Ziz would probably be a little less intimidated and more friendly toward that aspect of you, and you'd be more understanding and accepting that Ziz is another way entirely, and you'd know how to be wordy while being aware and sensitive about any of Ziz's fears. In the end, the fundamental difference would remain, but you guys would be on the same team and trying to make one another as comfortable as possible about that issue. In the absence of a counselor, I'd advise you to move towards the issue, not away. Try to discuss it in a way that really listens to and respects where Ziz is coming from, and that makes requests rather than holding expectations. It's an actual need of yours, one that is just how you are (rather than "the right way to be"), and you can let Ziz know that it's important to you and you'd like to share that side of yourself with them. (Sorry this comment is practically one long run-on sentence, by the way.)
posted by salvia at 8:34 AM on January 22, 2010

It's great that you recognize Ziz has an amazing talent and passion of his / her own (music). Does Ziz try to press this on you or does s/he have a separate outlet?

You need a separate outlet for your wordlove. I would suggest writing letters to the New Yorker in response to articles.

Also, please consider that your wordplay jokes may not be funny or entertaining and your use of unknown words may make you seem pretentious. I am very intelligent and fairly versed on words, and I too sometimes respond with the "huh" face, because I get it, but I am not amused.
posted by WeekendJen at 8:45 AM on January 22, 2010

Similar dynamic to yours, anonymous: I'm a word geek, while my husband is a music geek. I read books like an arsonist sets fires; he might thumb through a couple of pages of the newspaper now and then.

I get my verbivore kicks with other wordy friends -- the other night, I was rabbiting away with one pal about etymology and slang while he was talking to a friend about effects pedals and strings and whammy bars. We get to indulge our specialist subjects in different ways, and each is happy. Enjoy the differences between you and Ziz! You obviously have plenty of physical chemistry and mutual affection.

If it's hard for you to meet fellow word geeks where you live, check out some listservs where you can trade your smarts with fellow folks. I'm a big fan of the American Dialect Society's email list, which might satisfy some of your needs if you haven't signed up already.
posted by vickyverky at 10:47 AM on January 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

oops -- Apologies for starting the female-gendered pronoun here. I identify with Ziz not having that background of literacy and being sensitive about it. /projection
posted by inkytea at 11:03 AM on January 22, 2010

Learn an instrument, and allow Ziz to help you learn to read music. Music is complex and playful, and involves encoding and decoding that can be fun for a language-oriented person.

Also, consider you and Ziz learning American Sign Language together. You can both be beginners in that mode of expression, and then you can share a "secret" language around other people. You can have little "in" jokes in ASL and play around with how words look and feel kinesthetically.

While you may also want to have a friend with whom you can share the love of words (in English), I really encourage you to explore something new and different. Imagine, all your past relationships involved wordplay as an integral part of the attraction. Here you have someone to whom you're attracted who does not share that same passion. This is an opportunity for you to grow and develop new parts of yourself and learn to connect in different ways.
posted by lorrer at 11:08 AM on January 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

If it helps any, I grew up surrounded by books, read far beyond my grade level (Mom had to argue with the librarians to get them to let me check out grown-up books), and had lots of wordplay, good quotations, puns, etc in my life. My partner grew up in a small rural town with parents who did not encourage education, and he has mild dyslexia and does not enjoy reading.

We deal with this sometimes by me reading out loud to him. It's an activity that we can enjoy together. Othertimes, when some mad impulse causes me repeat some random French quotation or make a pun or whatever, he just looks at me funny and calls me "Phoebe" (after Phoebe Buffet). The long and short of it is that we love each other, including our differences, and we deal with it.

And, if I need a different level of "wordy" interaction, there's email, MeFi, all sorts of places online. You may be in a rural area, but the whole world is at your fingertips.
posted by Robert Angelo at 11:08 AM on January 22, 2010

I can't make the verbal jokes that are a large part of my conversational enjoyment. I can't use subtle language to express myself. I have to use simple, standard, common words to communicate.

I've been in this exact situation, and it was exacerbated by the fact that nearly all my friends are well educated people with at least Master's degrees. That said, I have absolutely no advice to offer. As geek anachronism said, "Seriously, you just suck it up. You deal with it." Either it's important enough to you to end your relationship, or it's not.

On a related note, if you're considering ending your relationship because someone better might come along, it's probably better for your SO that you just end it now.
posted by coolguymichael at 1:03 PM on January 22, 2010

"I am starting to very much miss the verbal play"

But you have MetaFilter!
posted by Jacqueline at 3:17 PM on January 22, 2010

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