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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   October 2008

So You're in Love with an Artist. . .

Being in a relationship with a creative person means being the third party in a mnage trois — you, the artist and the Muse.

By Bina Breitner

Artists are different from other people. I know that from my own experience as a professional musician (viola) and because I've worked as a therapist with creative people. Creative people — whatever their art, whether it's music, writing, theater, visual art or something else — are interesting, often lovable, people, but they can be hard to put up with. Loving an artist is easier if you understand what you're dealing with — so, for what it's worth, here's what I've figured out over the years.

We all have a little voice inside that murmurs about how another person is thinking, what matters most, whom to believe, and how to get what we want from other people and situations. Each person's voice tells them what's "true," for them. We could call it the voice of the Self.

For artists, that voice is louder, more persistent, and more determined to have its way. It insists on things that don't fit the prevailing sense of reality, and it has no interest in whether that truth is inconvenient. You can tell an artist about the obvious need to earn money and get along with people, about the commitment of going to his day job whether he feels like it or not, and about adjusting to the way things are in this world: "Nobody gets everything they want, you have to grow up and take responsibility," etc.

But the artist lives in a different reality. He (or she) may be practical, but only so he's free to make art. Money is necessary but, by itself, not particularly real; it's pieces of paper. The artist is really after the expression of whatever is percolating inside him. Money matters when he runs out of it.

Although he'd enjoy worldly acclaim or high income, he's not driven by ambition for them. They don't tell him how good he is. (Van Gogh never sold a painting — did that mean he was untalented?) The artist believes in himself most of the time — he has to, to get out of bed in the morning — but only time will put him in his rightful place (or not).

He may stare into space a lot, or putter, cook, work out, build things, daydream, go hiking, take naps and generally look like a procrastinator. Then, for no reason anyone can figure out, he comes up with whatever he's supposed to create next and he gets to work, at which point everything else becomes irrelevant. All that procrastination and irresponsibility were actually part of his preparation. He doesn't know how long the preparation will take; he doesn't know what his next project will be. If he can't make sense of it, how can you?

He also has a hard time planning ahead. He doesn't know how he'll feel next Thursday or in three months, and certainly not next year, so how can he be expected to make these commitments? He lives on the schedule of his creative process, which isn't predictable. Maybe he'll be involved in a project then, so he won't want to travel or even see extra people during that process.

If you're the love partner, you'll get impatient. His moods go up and down with his artistic satisfaction. He's not contributing his fair share of the money. He's wasting time every day, he's not selling what he's creating, he's not even caring about the money. . . . And, by the way, he's selfish. He doesn't really care about you, because if he did, he'd respect you and your concerns: He'd maintain a "day job" (some people call it a "real job"), he'd contribute more to the household expenses, he'd make plans with you (and keep them, this time), he'd be more secure and sociable in the world, and he'd care more that all this matters to you.

The artist may tell you that none of his inattention is personal. It isn't about you, for goodness' sake. It's about the demands of his art. He's preoccupied by his insecurity and his worry, because he doesn't really know how good he is, or whether his creative juices will keep flowing, or whether he'll die before he gets it all out of his imagination and into his art. He doesn't know if he'll be able to create something where there had been nothing. (The painting, the book, the song, the performance simply don't exist until he generates them).

He feels guilty about not contributing or earning enough money. He resents his series of day jobs, because they take time from his art, but, even more, because they take time away from owning his mind. During job hours, his mind is in the service of some function the employer requires, and isn't that an infuriating waste of his gifts?

But do you understand all that? Usually not. You don't get to indulge yourself the way he does. You don't feel like doing all your duties, but you do them anyway. You didn't invent the world, but you've adapted to it, so why can't he?

Let's face it. His primary relationship is to his art, his imagination, his Muse. It's inside him, it's willful and determined, and you, the love partner, are second in line. He may love you as much as he'll ever love another human being, but you'll always be sharing him with his art. (A friend told me about a dinner party with Murray Perahia at which his wife joked about sharing him with his mistress, the piano. He corrected her: She was the mistress. The piano was his wife.) Small wonder you sometimes get resentful and even jealous.

But it's really not his fault: Being artistic is not a choice. If he's an artist, it isn't because he decided to be an artist. He didn't ask for that inner voice that won't shut up, won't leave him alone, and punishes him cruelly if he ignores or dishonors it. He has to do this creative work. That's not choice. That's the Muse cracking her whip. It's lonely, and it's insecure in just about every direction.

If the artist is going to stay productive amidst so many uncertainties and in such a demanding relationship with the Muse, he has to become self-protective. He has to guard his creative turf: his sensibilities, his imagination, his freedom. He's ever-evolving (if he's any good), so he has to maintain space around himself and his artistic process. He has to be free to try new things, to fail and try again, to "become" — which means evading all attempts to define (and thereby limit) him. You see the difficulty of adapting all this to a conventional love relationship.

Still, he does have responsibilities in his relationship with you. No special privileges apply unless he's actually doing his artistic work. He doesn't get to skip or complain about the day job, avoid making plans, fritter his time, be moody, and expect support and understanding from you unless he produces his art. If he isn't fulfilling his duties toward his Muse, he'd better take more care of his duties toward you and your relationship.

He also has to be held accountable for emotional honesty, which includes recognizing the validity of your needs and appreciating all you give. Since he has an intense intimacy with his own imagination, he could be lazy about his engagement with you. When things aren't going his way, he could walk away and still have his primary relationship. It's like bigamy. You have one husband (him), but he has two wives, so if he loses one he's still got the other (his art). That means he doesn't have to work as hard on the relationship as he probably should. He can cheat you, and he can cheat himself, of the happiness and love that result from people's deep commitment to each other. And he might be able to get away with it — at least in the short term. (In the long term, the loneliness of his artistic solitude will catch up with him.)

So where does all this leave you? You're the third party in a mnage trois — not most people's first choice for their role in a relationship. The artist and his Muse are the committed couple. And you have to manage that reality, or let go. It's an intriguing challenge, with special benefits and vitality, but no one suggests it's easy.

Bina Breitner is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist in private practice
at 808 W. 8th St., Silver City. She can be reached at 538-4380.

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