Reciprocity and Gratitude

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When I was engaged two decades ago, I was in a position to do things for my fiance that he could not do for me. This was OK with me at the time. I was in love: it brought me joy to do things for my beloved. It let me think of him, and imagine his happiness, and feel close to him.

At some point I noticed, however, that while he enjoyed the things I did for him, he didn't see them as special the way I did. Not only did they not require reciprocity--which we both knew he couldn't provide--they didn't even seem to require gratitude or, more disturbingly, acknowledgment at times. I began to realize that he thought they were his due, what he was entitled to, not something I willingly chose to do for him because I loved him, and that I could have chosen not to do.

I met my fiance in Arizona but he was British, and I knew that at some point before the wedding, he'd have to go back to England. The particular way he decided to go home involved considerable sacrifice and hardship for me. I wasn't happy about it, but I understood that sometimes, things just have to be a certain way. You deal with it as well as you can, which is what I tried to do; I also tried to make things easier for him.

On the eve of his departure, I told him, "I need you to say two words to me."

"What?" he asked, grinning. "Bug off?"

I can't tell you how much that hurt me. OK, he was young, foolish and immature. But he LOVED me, right? Why would he say something so ridiculous and mean? But I didn't react to the cruelty of that statement at all. Instead, I said very evenly, "No, it's what you say when someone has done something nice for you."

He frowned. "'I love you' is three words."

"Yeah, it is," I said. He shook his head and frowned harder. I waited. Finally his expression cleared. "Oh," he said. "Thank you."

"You're welcome," I said, and walked away.

He told me later how ashamed he was that I had to ASK him to say "thank you" to me, and that when asked, he still didn't understand the request at first. He has worked pretty hard to say "thank you" graciously and without prompting since then, not just to me but to everyone. Eventually--as in more than a decade after we broke up--he also worked very hard to reciprocate the generosity and kindness I gave him and which he failed to reciprocate or appreciate when we were engaged. All of which are more of the reasons he is one of my dearest friends.

But really, it gets a little tedious to have to tell people, "Don't be an asshole," or to do the job their parents should have done, and teach them, "When someone's nice to you, be nice back. That's how you keep friends."

About six weeks ago I sent a couple of songs to a couple of friends, one male and one female. It was interesting to see the responses: the woman let me know how much she loved the songs, and sent me a few songs she really liked as a gesture of gratitude. Before long we were regularly swapping music. It let us strengthen the friendship in many ways: we learned about each other's tastes; we increased our shared knowledge base; we were nice to each other.

The guy, on the other hand, thanked me for the songs, but did not reciprocate in any way. At one point he asked me for a particular song, which I sent, along with a few others. He not only didn't thank me for sending the song he wanted, he didn't even acknowledge receipt of it. Why should he? It was his due, what he deserved as a man.

The female friend and I discussed the fact that while both of us have given this guy music, he has never returned the favor, to either of us.

In another recent situation, a man became aware of some very trying circumstances I was going through in my life, which he was, oddly enough, partly responsible for. This guy claimed to be my friend, and we met socially a few times while I was dealing with all this crap. But as I finally pointed out to him, not once through the entire situation did he even inquire about my well being; not once did he ask the simple question, "How are you?"

I know, I know: men are uncomfortable with feelings, blah blah blah. But I've had other male friends who at least know that they're supposed to ask their friends, "So, how're you doing?" when shit is going on. And the fact is, a dynamic in which men expect and receive limitless sympathy but are never asked to extend it to women is something explicitly encouraged in Mormondom. In Fascinating Womanhood, women are told that they must "give true sympathy" to their husbands and "share his feelings. Suffer with him." But women are also told that "When you see the sensitivity of a man's nature, you know how careful you must be in conversation.... You cannot pour out your heart to him as you would to a mentor. You must withhold feelings and confessions which would wound his sensitive pride"--specifically, any acknowledgment that you are unhappy in any but the most superficial way, as this might force the man to admit that he is less than an ideal husband. So once again, women make gestures of kindness and generosity which men simply accept as their due, and do not reciprocate in any way.

And finally, there's guy number three. He and I share some interests and goals, and in the course of interacting in a forum we both participate in, I offered him some resources and assistance, just because I saw an opportunity to do so. He also has not really reciprocated, though I am happy to say that I did finally get a meaningful "thank you" from him recently--I'm just sort of struck at how long it took to arrive, and that it finally came when I revealed that the idea of doing him one more favor didn't exactly fill me with pleasure.

What flabbergasts me most about these Mormon guys is their sheer bad manners. They're all assholes not because they're MEAN; they're assholes because their sense of male entitlement is so profound that they can't even recognize that basic social conventions of decorum and etiquette should apply even to their relationships with women--even friendly, platonic relationships with women.

Of course, part of the problem is that Mormon adults are discouraged from having friendships, period. They're especially discouraged from having friendships with people of the opposite sex--because that invariably leads to infidelity, right? Judging from certain stories I've heard and situations I've observed, that might well be true. Though I can't help thinking that if Mormons had more experience in maintaining respectful friendships with the opposite sex, falling madly into bed with someone just because you've had a really interesting conversation might be less of a danger.

So as a public service announcement to any man who might not have much experience in trying to be friends or even decent to women, let me spell it out:

Women deserve to be thanked when they do something generous or kind for another human being, even if that human being is male--it's not simply part of what women are obligated to do for men, because men are men and women are women. In other words, guys, if nothing else, learn to fucking say THANK YOU!

And saying "thank you" is the minimum, guys. You might also think about working on a little reciprocity. If a woman does something that makes your life better or more enjoyable, look for a way to repay the favor! And NOT as a means to get into her pants, but just as a way to be a decent human being.

Finally, ASK WOMEN HOW THEY'RE DOING, AND GENUINELY CARE ABOUT THE ANSWER, EVEN THOUGH CHANCES ARE GOOD YOU AREN'T GOING TO LIKE IT IF SHE TELLS THE TRUTH ABOUT WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO BE A WOMAN AND DEAL WITH YOUR SHIT.

6 Comments

Basic courtesy and kindness, that's not asking too much of anyone. Thank you for the reminder and excellent blog Holly.

Glad you liked the entry, Todd, and delighted to have you comment on my blog!

I'm interested by the idea that Mormon men are discouraged from having friendships with women because it too often leads to infidelity. It would seem that this is also evidence of the profound sexism in Mormon thought: relationships between men and women must lead to sexual attraction because when you boil it down, that must be the only use for women for Mormon men - reproduction. That may be a little unfair on Mormon's marriage ideal, but more evidence it that I can tell you Mormon men are not taught an equivalent set of behaviors when it comes to relationships with wives as you touch upon. We are groomed to believe in this sense of entitlement that holding the 'priesthood' gives.

I have shared with you, Holly, my own belief that there's some kind of sexual attraction in all friendships and we have discussed the possibility that that is a reflection of my own nature rather than any profound truth - but as an ex-Mormon perhaps that's where I got the idea from... I will have to think about that some more.

But I agree with you that if mormons did cultivate more friendships - especially with those who are different in any way from themselves - they might become nicer people. I think this also has a lot to do with empathy - something that mormons are also not strong on.

I work in a multi-cultural environment and have noticed that the French do not say think you very often, either, especially in a work situation. 'Why would you thank someone for doing something that is their job', is how it has been explained to me by a Frenchman... which looks pretty similar to the mormon idea that women are doing their job in supporting men. The difference between the French people I work with and the mormons I did know was that it was easier to teach the French to say thank you when they thought is was unnecessary than teaching a mormon to be grateful for anything that wasn't related to a blessing from God (to whom they express thanks fairly often). But of course, that's probably because for them God is most certainly a man.

Hi Matt--

It would seem that this is also evidence of the profound sexism in Mormon thought: relationships between men and women must lead to sexual attraction because when you boil it down, that must be the only use for women for Mormon men - reproduction.

That's a fairly caustic summation of the attitude, but I think you're right. And I also think that despite the fact that so many Mormons talk about their spouses in terms of "best friends" (don't know if this is still the case, but in the 80s it was all the rage to have a wedding announcement that read, "This day will I marry my best friend, the one I laugh with, live with, love" or some such saccharine sentiment), many marriages don't really have much of an element of friendship. They are the only venue and source of intimacy many people have, and it passes for friendship, because they don't really realize what they're missing.

I have shared with you, Holly, my own belief that there's some kind of sexual attraction in all friendships and we have discussed the possibility that that is a reflection of my own nature rather than any profound truth - but as an ex-Mormon perhaps that's where I got the idea from... I will have to think about that some more.

I don't know that I would always call it a sexual attraction, but I definitely experience an attraction with a physical component, and an awareness of my friends' beauty. It's not like I choose my friends for their beauty, but I have this experience over and over, where I meet someone and sort of think they're pleasant-looking enough--actually it's more accurate to say that I don't really notice what they look like, aside from being able to recognize them when I see them again later.

But over the course of pursuing just a normal friendship, I begin to see them differently, until one day, I look at them and think, "How did I fail to notice that this friend of mine is really quite gorgeous?" It doesn't mean I then fall in love with him or her; it just means that their physical presence speaks to me in a vocabulary I have learned to appreciate or recognize or something.

I don't know. These things are hard to talk about, partly because I was trained not to think about them for most of my life.

Anyway. Thanks for your comment--you have given me more to think about. I may have to develop these ideas into a longer post someday.

Hi Holly,

I came across your blog via Main Street Plaza, and really enjoyed the Porn Works post and this one - thanks!

I thought the bits about friendship were interesting. I'm an ex-Mormon myself, and I agree that friendships didn't seem encouraged. At BYU I developed a close friendship with a girl - both of us were single and we spent all our time together, had fun sleepovers, etc. And every now and then we'd get remarks like "soooo ... you two sure do spend a lot of time together" - implying we were gay, presumably? I was often not sure what was intended, but would respond, "Um, yeah, that's normally what friends do ..." But it was just funny that the concept of even two GIRLS have a caring, close, intellectually intimate but nonsexual relationship was so utterly foreign.

But I've experienced this same cluelessness about friendships in non-Mormon settings too - I think it is also a part of general American culture. Americans do not value friendship as much as, say, Germans - I was an exchange student in Germany, and the attitude towards friendships there, whether same-sex or opposite sex, was vastly more positive. It wasn't assumed just because a single guy and girl spent a lot of time together that it ever had to "go somewhere" or become sexualized.

I have a theory about the Mormon mistrust of friendship: the best sorts of friendships can encourage a certain freedom of thought, being nonauthoritarian and relatively free of the kinds of power struggles that go on in romantic relationships, marriages, working relationships, and so on. As an authoritarian institution, the Church would rightly be suspicious of the kinds of egalitarian friendships that encourage mutual independence and help people learn to think for themselves - many of my most valued friendships over the years helped me do just that.

In classical times, in the world of Socrates, Plato, et al, friendship and philosophy were closely intertwined.

I have a theory about the Mormon mistrust of friendship: the best sorts of friendships can encourage a certain freedom of thought, being nonauthoritarian and relatively free of the kinds of power struggles that go on in romantic relationships, marriages, working relationships, and so on. As an authoritarian institution, the Church would rightly be suspicious of the kinds of egalitarian friendships that encourage mutual independence and help people learn to think for themselves - many of my most valued friendships over the years helped me do just that.

Very, very interesting, Therese--I think you are right. Furthermore, I think the church encourages a particular kind of disclosure that passes for intimacy or closeness--i.e., testimony bearing--but this disclosure is too scripted and restricted to allow genuine emotional, spiritual or intellectual camaraderie and sharing to emerge. I'm thinking of mission companions here--I generally "got along" OK with almost all of my companions, and even enjoyed their company in many ways, but it was rare that I felt truly close to them, able to share what was really in my heart--or, I should probably confess, even all that interested in knowing what was in theirs. Of course, that probably had something to do as well with maintaining at least a little privacy in a very unprivate relationship. Still, mission companionships are often held up as models for how relationships work--and I don't think they're especially good models.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on December 8, 2009 7:04 AM.

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