My normally serene morning routine of coffee, email, and Facebook was interrupted when my friend Marcus suddenly downgraded from "In a Relationship" to "It's Complicated" and a stream of sympathetic well-wishes and sad-moticons began to pepper the screen. Marcus is a good guy and, like everyone else, I felt bad seeing him going through some obvious interpersonal turmoil. At the same time, I felt a little uncomfortable getting such a minute-by-minute account of his relationship woes. I had a disturbing image of Marcus, in the throes of an angry fight with his lover, marching over to Facebook and changing his status before hurling his iPad across the room.
For someone like me, who's been in a relationship for a long time, a change in status would be a seismic event. I'd have to come home to find Karen playing spelunk the money with the cast of Glee to consider venting my dismay on the internet. And even should something so unlikely (and, yet, vaguely erotic) occur, I could never embrace "It's Complicated" as a relationship status at all. And that's because, after thinking about Marcus' predicament, I realized that the very idea of "complicated" is a myth.
Don't get me wrong, there are any number of things in the world that are legitimately complicated -- multidimensional string theory, Middle East peace, a Charlie Sheen tox screen -- but a healthy relationship is most definitely not. And though I suspect that most people know this to be true, plenty of folks still seem only too ready to fall back on the concept of "complicated" and use it as cover for all manner of douche-baggery and denial.
Here's a quick reality check for you: the fact that your current beau is, you know, "technically" still married to someone else isn't complicated. It's dysfunctional. Likewise, addiction and abuse and the five years of dating that haven't quite resulted in a long-term commitment. There's nothing complicated about how much you like strippers, or that you're secretly flirting with your high school boyfriend online, or that you derive your sense of self-worth from how attractive you are to complete strangers.
People describe their relationships as "complicated" when, in their hearts, they know that owning up to their behavior and its consequences would make them look really, really bad. Rather than accept that their personal baggage is what stands between them and happiness, they lay it all at the feet of the Byzantine nature of interpersonal relationships.
Worst of all, the constant categorizing of relationships as "complicated" means we start to believe love is supposed to be an unraveling mess of caveats, misgivings and lowered expectations. It's a sinister bit of self-deception that allows us to avoid a couple of very uncomplicated truths: just because a thing is difficult to do well, doesn't mean that it's complicated. There's a difference between things that are complex and things that are straight-forward, but demanding. Most of all (and this is the ouchy part), the failure of a relationship is most often a manifestation of the shortcomings of the participants in the relationship, not the shortcomings of relationships in general.
Yes, it's difficult to balance self-sacrifice and self-respect when it comes to being in a partnership. Without question, it can be frustrating to wade through the ocean of mediocrity we call "the dating pool" and to choose to be alone rather than be with the wrong person for the wrong reasons. A good relationship asks a lot from us but it doesn't insist that we sequence the human genome or solve Fermat's last theorem. Above all, a healthy relationship asks that we unfailingly deliver our best selves to the people we love and expect the same in return. That's a difficult thing to do, but it's not even remotely complicated.
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