In the privacy of our minds, one thought – highly shameful by nature – may haunt us as we evaluate whether to stay in or leave an unsatisfactory relationship: what if we were to end things and end up in a place of appalling loneliness?
We’re meant to be above such pragmatic worries. Only cowards and reprobates would mind a few weekends (or decades) by themselves. We’ve heard of those books that sing the praises of solitude (the divorcee who relocated to a solitary hut on a bare Scottish island; the one who went sailing around the world in a dinghy). But we can admit that we’re not naturals at this sort of thing: there have been empty days when we almost lost our minds. There was one trip that we took on our own years back that was, behind the scenes, a psychological catastrophe. We’re not really in a position to wave away the dangers of being left alone on our rock.
But without wishing to play down the dangers unduly, there are nevertheless one or two things we might learn to weaken our fears. We can begin with a simple observation: it’s typically a lot worse to be on our own on a Saturday than on a Monday night; and a lot worse to be alone over the festive period than to be alone at the end of the tax year. The physical reality and the length of time we’re by ourselves may be identical, but the feeling that comes with being so is entirely different. This apparently negligible observation holds out a clue for a substantial solution to loneliness.
The difference between the Saturday and the Monday night comes down to the contrast between what being alone appears to mean on the two respective dates. On a Monday night, our own company feels like it brings no judgement in its wake, it doesn’t in any way depart from the norms of respectable society, it’s what’s expected of decent people at the start of a busy week: we get back from work, make some soup, catch up on the post, do some emails and order a few groceries, without any sense of being unusual or cursed. The next day, when a colleague asks us what we got up to, we can relate the truth without any hot prickles of shame. It was – after all – just a Monday night. But Saturday night finds us in a far more perilous psychological zone: we scan our phone for any sign of a last minute invitation, we flick through the channels in an impatient and disconsolate haze, we are alive to our own tragedy as we eat tuna from a can, we take a long bath at 8.30pm to try to numb the discomfort inside with scalding heat on the outside; and as we prepare to turn out the light just after ten, the high-spirited cries of revellers walking by our house seem to convey a targeted tone of mockery and pity. On Monday morning, we pass over the whole horrid incident with haste.
From this we conclude: being alone is bearable in relation to how ‘normal’ (that highly nebulous yet highly influential concept) the condition feels to us at any given point; it can either be a break from an honourably busy life, or sure evidence that we are an unwanted, wretched, disgusting and emotionally diseased being.
This is tricky but ultimately very hopeful, for it suggests that if only we could work on what being alone means to us, we could theoretically end up as as comfortable in our own skin on a long summer Saturday night filled with the joyous cries of our fellow citizens as on the dreariest Monday in November, and we could spend the whole holiday season by ourselves feeling as relaxed and as unself-conscious as we did when we were a child and hung out for days by ourselves, tinkering with a project in the floor of our bedroom, with no thought in the world that anyone would as a result think us sad or shameful. We may not – after all – need a new companion (something which can be hard to find in a panic); we just need a new mindset (which we can take care of by ourselves, starting right now).
To build ourselves a new mental model of what being alone should truly mean, we might rehearse a few of the following arguments:
– Our Solitude is Willed
Despite what an unfriendly voice inside our heads might tell us, we are the ones who have chosen to be alone. We could, had we so wanted, been in all sorts of company. Our solitude is – though it may not feel like it – willed rather than imposed. No one ever needs to be alone so long as they don’t mind who they are with.
But we do mind, and we have some very good reasons to do so. The wrong kind of company is a great deal lonelier for us than being by ourselves, that is, it’s further from what matters to us, more grating in its insincerity and more of a reminder of disconnection and misunderstanding than is the conversation we can have in the quiet of our own minds. It’s not that we have been rejected by the world; it’s that we’ve taken a good look at the available options and have – with wisdom – done some rejecting ourselves.
– Beware the outward signs of Companionship
It seems, from a distance, as if everyone is having an ecstatic time. The Party (what we imagine in our darkest moments to be the unitary joyous social event from which we’ve been blocked) grips our imaginations. We’ve passed the restaurants and seen the groups leaning back on their chairs and laughing uproariously, we’ve seen the couples holding hands and the families packing up for their glorious holidays abroad. And we know the depths of fun that are unfolding.
But we need to hold on to what we recognise in our sober moments is a more complicated reality: that there is naturally going to be alienation at the restaurant, bitterness in the couples and despair in the sunny island hotels. We picture intimacy and communion, deep understanding and the most sophisticated varieties of kindness. We are sure that ‘everyone’ is having precisely what we understand by true love. But they are not. They will for the most part be together but still alone, they will be talking but largely not heard.
Isolation and grief are not unique to us; they are a fundamental part of the human experience, they trail every member of our species, whether in couples or alone, life is a hellish and anxious business for all of us; we’ve chosen to experience the pains of existence by ourselves for now, but having a partner has never protected anyone from the void for very long. We should take care to drown our own individual sorrows in the ocean of a redemptive and darkly funny universal pessimism. No one is particularly much enjoying the journey; we are not built that way. As we should never have allowed ourselves to forget in front of the steamed up windows of restaurants, life simply is suffering for most of us for most of the time.
– We get statistics wrong
To compound our errors, we are the most hopeless statisticians. We should pin a notice to our kitchen wall reminding us of just this fact. We say that ‘everyone’ is happy, and ‘everyone’ is in a couple. But we haven’t taken the first steps towards properly evaluating what is going on in a factual sense. We are letting self-disgust, not mathematics, decide our vision of ‘normality’. If we really surveyed the question, if we grew wings and went up and examined the city, swooping in on this bedroom here and that office there, those families in the park and that couple on a date, we’d see something altogether different. We’d see millions of others like us and far far worse: this one crying over a letter, that one shouting they’ve had enough, this one complaining that they can’t be understood, that one weeping in the bathroom over an argument. It is regrettable enough to be sad, we don’t need to compound the misery by telling ourselves – through an absurd misunderstanding of statistics – that it is abnormal to be so.
– There is nothing shameful in what we’re doing
Our images of being alone lack dignity. We need better role models. Those on their own aren’t always the cobwebbed hunched figures of our nightmares. Some of the greatest people who have ever lived have chosen, for a variety of noble reasons, to spend a lot of time by themselves. For our own self-compassion, we need to keep the difference between enforced and willed solitude firmly in consciousness. Here is a world-reknown scientist, spending twenty years on their own to finish a book that will change everything. Here is one of the most beautiful people nature has yet produced, alone in their room, playing the piano. Here is a politician who once led the nation, now preferring their own company. Those who are by themselves don’t comprise only the desperate cases, they number many of those one would feel most privileged to meet.
– Understand your past
The sense of shame you experience at being in your own company is coming from somewhere very particular: your own childhood, and in particular, from an unloveable vision of yourself that you picked up in the early years. Somewhere in the past, someone left you feeling unworthy and now, whenever you suffer a reversal, the story is ready to re-emerge, confirming what you think is a fundamental truth about you: that you don’t deserve to exist. It’s not essentially that you’re afraid of being lonely; it’s that you don’t like yourself very much – for which the cure is immense sympathy and psychotherapeutic understanding but not, it seems, the company of a partner you no longer care for or respect.
Once we can like ourselves more, we won’t need to be so scared of friendship with ourselves; we will know that others aren’t laughing at us cruelly and that there is no delightful party we’ve been barred from. We’ll appreciate that we can be both on our own and a fully dignified, legitimate member of the human race. We’ll have conquered the terror of loneliness – and therefore at last be in a position to assess our options correctly and chose freely whether to stay in or leave a relationship we’re in.
Some of the reason why our lives are harder than they should be is that many of us wander the world with a hugely misleading notion in mind of what a baddie might look like. We imagine those who could most seriously harm us in cartoon terms: they might have a mean face and an angry growl, they might carry a truncheon and wear a dark cape. Their intentions would focus on violence and transparent extortion. They’d be utterly unknown to us and surprise us at night by trying to scale our bedroom wall or smashing the front door in. They’d be a cross between Voldermort, Zorro and Darth Vader.
But it may be time to get a lot more imaginative and rather more realistic about what those who harm us might actually be like. We should learn to distinguish baddies not by their outward identity but by their wholesale effects upon us: a baddie is, in these terms, quite simply anyone who makes us less than we could be, anyone who impedes our growth and diminishes our spirit; anyone who draws us away from our best selves and highest possibilities, anyone who – despite a helpful outward manner – damages our brief lives.
Defined in these broader and less outwardly-specific terms, the status of a baddie might turn out to be entirely compatible with some of the following: having our front door key, knowing us well, being deeply kind to us at many levels, being extremely physically gentle, claiming to love us dearly, sharing our lives intimately, seeming highly logical and sane over a range of issues, being our good friend, our parent and, most terrifyingly and destructively of all, our lover…
How might such people earn the title of ‘baddie’? Not by hitting us over the head or stealing our money, not by badmouthing us in public or betraying our secrets, but by doing some of the following:
– telling us repeatedly how much they love and care about us while quietly failing to listen to our needs or attending to the real issues in our lives
– asking us to be close to them and give up our attachment to others while not allowing us properly into their hearts: wanting us and yet, when it comes to it, not wanting us.
– being masters of the art of apology and vowing always to change while reliably failing to do so.
– making highly intelligent-sounding and convincing claims to ‘know’ us and using that position of privilege to sell us a range of falsehoods about where our true interests and ambitions might lie.
– controlling us not through anger or force, but through sad eyes and a melancholy expression: using the suggestion that we are hurting them in order to hurt us in turn.
– masterfully denying any awareness of bits of their behaviour that we find problematic. Always using the argument that they love us to throw us off the scent and abuse our credulity – as though the claim of love were simply automatically the same as love itself.
– Using their knowledge of our fragilities and self-doubts as a weapon against us. Implying that we don’t know our own minds, that we are where it matters a little too insane or immature to understand what is good for us.
– continuously delegitimating our doubts, not by hitting us over the head, but by saying in the kindest voice ‘you should learn to trust me more…’
Like a cartoon baddie, real baddies are interested in extracting what they want from us. But they are too deft and complicated ever to allow themselves to be painted in villainous colours. They are our friend, and friends don’t harm those closest to them, do they?
Poignantly, baddies may not even be overly conscious of harbouring dark motives. If we were being very kind to them, we might say: perhaps they’re not bad as such, they’re just afraid of being abandoned. They’re not bad, they just don’t like dissent. They’re not bad, they just had a very difficult time when they were little and want to ensure that they aren’t left high and dry ever again. They don’t set out to destroy people, they are simply not so focused on the independent existence of others. They don’t mean not to listen to you, it’s that certain rooms in their minds are bolted shut. They don’t mean to harm you, it’s that they haven’t fully realised you quite exist as your own autonomous entity. They aren’t bad as such, what they are above anything else is very damaged and very ill in ways they cannot think about and that they will try at all costs to stop you noticing as well – but their effect on us most certainly is bad – and in that sense they may royally deserve the punchy title we’re threatening to accord them.
Interestingly, we’re not all equally poor at spotting baddies. There are backgrounds in which we were taught that if we were not happy in a situation, we didn’t have to worry about causing a problem, we could just politely make our excuses and leave. But others of us were brought up by people who were – in the sense we’ve been examining – something akin to baddies themselves, who sold us an ambitious story about loving us and then didn’t honour it, thereby seriously scrambling our ability to know our minds, recognise our feelings and protect our interests. We may now be adults who can’t tell for a very long time when bad is being done to us, who think it might be a good thing, or that it might become good over time or that it is a punishment we deserve or that a bit of trouble doesn’t really matter, given how little we matter in the end.
We learn the art of spotting baddies by realising that it isn’t anywhere written in the stars that we deserve emotional deprivation or punishment, control or submission. We spot the bad on the basis of a highly unlikely-sounding new skill: trusting that we are, where it counts, likely to be ourselves very much good enough.
At the root of many malfunctioning relationships and unhappy break ups lie two stories that run alongside one another but never manage to align or converge, about who has done what to whom and why. In the mind of one of the participants, the reason why, after so many fights and frustrated evenings, matters eventually had to come to end might be summarised like this:
My partner was cold: I tried so hard to ask them for greater emotional connection. But they always got furious and defensive – and eventually I had to give up to preserve my sanity.
But in the mind of the other partner (who might have spent five years in the very same bed as them), the story of exactly the same relationship might sound very different:
My partner was demanding and paranoid, always suspecting that I didn’t love them. But I did! Just in a different way. They kept getting furious and frustrated with me – and eventually that became impossible.
It is extremely gratifying to have to hand a story of a breakup that feels familiar, that positions one in a benevolent light and that casts doubt on the integrity of the departed lover. But unless a story can also in some way be corroborated by its co-creator, there is likely to be an enduring problem for both partners psychologically. We will be left feeling strangely dissatisfied, uneasy, questioning and, in our more courageous moments, sceptical as to whether we have in fact really understood what happened and why – together – we failed. We will have left but, as the expression puts it, we will be lacking ‘closure’.
Closure doesn’t involve magically eradicating all differences between two stories, but in harmonising points of view into a more generous joint narrative that holds room for alternate realities.
The difficulty of life without closure is that one or the other party must continuously be entirely right and the other, by necessity, entirely wrong, as if love were a court of law where the outcome had to be binary, and either someone would be wholly guilty or they would be wholly exonerated. So, in the case of our imagined story, either one partner was unnaturally cold and the other completely reasonable in the way they set about trying to build intimacy. Or else the allegedly cold partner was in fact thoroughly sane and it was their partner who was in every way peculiar in the intensity of their demands. This sterile debate may go on for years within the couple – and then in each person’s mind for decades after the break up.
But part of why we cannot rest easy is that we suspect – with good reason – that any story which feels too gratifying and too flattering to our own interests must in the end only ever be half a story – and half-stories have an unfortunate habit of not allowing us to sleep as well as we should. The choice is between clinging to a sense of being unquestionably ‘right’ – or of allowing ourselves to understand the reality of love.
The true story of the relationship, told from an Olympian vantage point by a warm-hearted narrator, will always involve a judicious blend of sympathies. Without knowing any of the specifics, we can be sure that the direction will be towards nuance and ambiguity. Yes, the partner was in certain ways at the colder end of things, but let’s call this emotional avoidance rather than coldness, as that term deserves sympathy and is hugely understandable, given their complicated and painful early history. And of course, the way the other person handled that tendency was not especially admirable. Shouting ‘be warmer to me, you weirdo!’ is a paradoxical request at the best of times. Then again, it would be fairer to say that this afflicted character wasn’t just mean, they were anxiously attached, a phenomenon which also has a history and carries with it plenty of grounds for compassion.
It takes great courage to surrender a tenacious hold on an overly neat story and to wonder whether what’s written down in an ex’s ‘book’ might hold one or two truths that we could benefit from assimilating. But when we dare finally to surrender full control and feel confident enough to cast ourselves in a not entirely heroic light, we will come into possession of something even more important than a neat story: a multi-faceted, intelligent, kind and closed one.
The most basic test of the viability of any modern relationship involves a criterion that would have appeared extremely odd to a French aristocrat in 1755 or to a Scottish crofter in 1952 or indeed to most people who have ever existed since the emergence of our species, but that is now universally accepted and very hard to overlook: an active and fulfilling sex life. It’s forcefully suggested to us that it would be highly peculiar and in certain ways rather suspect to remain with anyone for any length of time if there were no intense sexual connection – and we could correspondingly count on immediate sympathy and deep understanding were we to announce that we had split because sex was ‘no longer working.’ If we are looking for a decent reason to leave, unfortunate sex seems to be all we ever need to cite.
Yet we might also recognise that there is something peculiar and a little preposterous about this idea as well. Would we really leave someone because of the quality or frequency of a feeling that lasts only minutes and is from certain angles no more or less pleasurable than a fantastic dessert or a very exciting moment on the dance floor? Would one really shatter children, destroy a family, ruin assets and put oneself through hell for something like this? How seriously should we take the claims of sex?
Part of the reason we get confused is that sex is both a physical and an emotional phenomenon, a duality that can make it hard for us to determine the correct place it might have in our ledger of reasons to stay or to leave. There can be sex that has about as much meaning as a game of tennis and sex that seems to be a conduit to another’s soul. The act is the same, its significance can vary beyond measure.
We might at this point venture a large claim: no one ever feels a need to leave a relationship because of ‘bad sex’. They may say, and be inwardly convinced, that poor love making is the problem, but the real issue is almost certain to lie elsewhere. And equally, any degree of non-existent or physically awkward sex can be bearable, so long as other things can be in place.
What really cannot be borne, and truly is the grounds for flight, is an absence of affection. The entire point of a relationship hangs on the feeling of being witnessed, understood, accepted, stimulated, bolstered and cherished by another person. Without this, we truly might as well be eating on our own for the long term. But crucially, how affection is expressed and intimated is open to a wide degree of variation. It could be done with limbs and lips, with erotic carresses and the interplay of fantasies. But there might be other ways as well: it could be done through someone holding our hand, or hugging us at night, listening to our sorrows very carefully or keeping our needs closely in their minds. A light kiss when we return home can be as meaningful as full blown sex when it comes to securing a close connection.
The rejection of our advances in bed with a partner and long intervals between sex threaten to be distressing not so much because of the physical pleasures we’re missing out on as because we carry within us an ongoing requirement for evidence of affection: we want to be reassured, as directly as possible, that we retain a hugely significant place in a lover’s heart. It’s not lack of sex – in and of itself – that can really be the problem that might bring us to separation. It’s the lack of closeness and tenderness implied by the absence.
There’s a huge difference between on the one hand someone who really is very tired or not at the moment in the mood because they are preoccupied by a meeting tomorrow or by a child in the next room who might start crying, but who nevertheless understands the intensity of our longings – and on the other hand a partner for whom our advances and desires are merely unreasonable irritants and demands for a degree of closeness in which they no longer have any interest. The practical result may be the same: there is no sex. But the emotional dynamics are entirely different. In the first case, we can feel loved and wanted even though (sadly) our partner can’t respond. In the second case, it is almost certainly time to leave.
We could almost forgo the acting out of many of our desires if we knew that a partner could express why we mattered to them and could be warm and tender with us in daily life – even if (because of their own intimate history) their relationship to the erotic ran in a different and more invisible direction. Given enough affection between two people, the fact that one of them (for complex reasons) craves to perform certain physical acts – whether with them or even with someone else – and the other one has no appetite need not be a disaster or a terminal threat to the relationship. What is fatal is not so much that our partner can’t enact our desires but that they meet us with defensiveness, coldness, judgement or indifference.
In order to see whether a relationship may be saved we need to accept that we may not directly be facing a sex issue, but one of underlying distance. It might theoretically be entirely survivable if a partner never sought to have an orgasm with their companion or never fully engaged with a fantasy so long as both parties were able to feel genuinely loved and wanted. The distinction matters because, if we end up splitting, we need to know the real reason: if we persist in thinking the problem is a lack of sex (or not the kind of sex we want) we may misread what we are in essence seeking from another person: we aren’t (as we’re too often taught to think) after the perfect sexual partner, we’re after something yet more critical and often harder to secure: a good enough source of affection and understanding. We might in a next, but better relationship, end up having the same rather negligible quantity of sex but no longer resent the paucity because we have found a raft of other, and perhaps more stable, ways of feeling assured of another’s love.
When a relationship ends, we expect it to be fairly easy to determine who ended it and who wished it to continue: the person who said they wanted out, who explicitly called for the break up, who bought a new apartment and who might be on the search for a new partner is evidently the one who ended things – and the one who proposed remaining together, who argued for giving it another shot and who said loudly they had no wish whatsoever to break up is just as evidently the one who remained loyal.
But this may be a rather naive and unwittingly rather cruel view of how relationships can end. It isn’t – in reality – the one who leaves who is necessarily doing the rejecting, nor the one who ostensibly seeks to remain who is the one being rejected. The person who really ‘leaves’ is the one who withdraws love. And the one who really ‘remains’ is the one who believes in closeness but would in extremis prefer to be alone than suffer the denial of their hopes.
Beneath the distinction between leaving and staying lies a more important distinction still, between loving and indifference. Though one could imagine that leaving would go with with indifference and staying would go with love, one might seek to keep a relationship going and yet still be subtly indifferent to one’s partner or feel the urge to leave while still craving a love that never comes.
Oddly perhaps, many people who are emotionally or physically unavailable in relationships are for that matter extremely keen for their relationships to continue. They may say quite clearly that they don’t want matters to end. But to the profound puzzlement of their partners, their day to day behaviour expresses something rather different; their manner may be distant, their caresses few, their physical attentions negligible.
The double-speak can drive the other partner to the brink of a breakdown, for they are being told that what they long for is available even as the practical evidence points to the contrary. There is always a reason why it’s too late for sex or a hand isn’t there to hold – but to complain is invariably to meet with anger and denial. Not only is the partner neglected, they are made to feel increasingly insane for believing they might be so.
Eventually, worn down by the dissonance between word and deed, the emotionally ignored party may lose their temper and declare that they are off, not because they truly want to be, but because they’ve been forced to conclude with considerable dismay that their partner will never be able to recognise their needs as would be appropriate. They are leaving not because they don’t love but because the love they have to give doesn’t feel as if it will ever be answered.
It’s the ultimate burden that the rejected partner not only has to bear the sadness of being turned down, they also have to bear the guilt of having ended the relationship in the face of a host of protestations of loyalty. To spare themselves the ravages of self-hatred, the departing lover should daily rehearse in their minds how they got to this particular place. They retain so much love for their partner, they simply can’t subscribe to the barren vision of coupledom on offer. Their real message as they head for the door is not ‘I am leaving you because I hate you’ but ‘I am leaving you because I love you so much and have tried so hard, too hard, to elicit a matching love which never came.’
Such an awareness won’t dull the pain but it will correctly repatriate emotions and alleviate an unfair burden of responsibility. One is leaving perhaps; but one simultaneously deserves all the sympathy and compassion due for someone who has at heart been gruesomely – but surreptitiously – rejected.
When it comes to relationships, our age has a firm belief in distributing practical tasks equally: both parties are meant to display comparable competence at, and enthusiasm for, earning money and managing household chores. There is nothing remotely acceptable about complaining that buying dishwasher tablets or spending the day in an office might ultimately not be ‘one’s thing’.
Nevertheless, beneath the radar, a lot of relationships show considerable variation from the official ideology. In private, there are a great many couples where someone is doing very little of the earning and/or very little of the ironing or dentist-appointment scheduling.
The problematic dimension to this has little to do with politics and everything to do with what may occur when the relationship starts to experience a serious breakdown in intimacy and connection, at which point it risks emerging as the single greatest contributor to a feeling of stuckness and entrapment. Honesty may force us to admit that at heart, and however humiliating this might sound, we are unable to leave a union not because we don’t know our own hearts or still have hope that communication might improve, but because we wouldn’t have the remotest clue how to pay a tax bill, call up a plumber or refill the car with windscreen-wiper fluid. We remain because we are terrified of laundry.
Though the problem tends to manifest itself in the head of one party, it is really both members of the couple who are responsible for the creation of a romantically unbalanced union – and as ever, the past explains most of the dynamics.
All children require, in their early years, two kinds of love, what we might call practical love on the one hand and emotional love on the other: they need to have their clothes changed, their shoelaces tied, their meals cooked, their homework interpreted and their hair combed; but they also need to be cuddled, held, heard, sung to, played with and cherished.
Unfortunately, the rightful balance of practical and emotional loves is easy to lose. There are cases where a parent may find it a great deal easier to take care of the practical than the emotional dimensions of the relationship. They may love their child deeply, but not be in any position to convey their love freely in an emotional key. They may limit their role to ensuring that their child will always have new shoes for school and never develop a cavity. At an extreme, the parent may require the practical weakness or cluelessness of their child in order to bolster their own sense of worth. Sensing the parent’s limitations, the child may then unconsciously collude in giving the adult as much opportunity as possible to express their concern and aptitude. They will become helpless to ensure that an adult they love will have a role: they can’t do very much around the house, they lose all their school books (and the parent is wonderful at finding them again), they love the parent’s food but wouldn’t have the first clue how to fry an egg, they often fall ill and very much need someone to bring them medicines and tea. To reject any of the parent’s help would (the child instinctively grasps) be to deliver a cruel blow to their identity. It works – in a way – for both parties, though at considerable internal cost.
The danger is that these exaggerated patterns are then repeated in adult love. Here too we may find a partner who shuns some of the rawness and exposure demanded of emotional love in favour of immense devotion to practical tasks. Almost without being asked, they may start buying their partner all their clothes or taking on any job that comes up around the house, they may monopolise every aspect of the finances or take over the entire management of the kitchen. This absorption of the practical realm may also feel compelling to their partner who, because of their own historic association between love and practical care, will gratefully acquiesce to ever more assistance, growing increasingly incompetent and dependent in the process until they genuinely believe themselves unable to put on a wool wash or earn a pay slip.
On both sides, a challenge is being avoided: for the helper, the challenge of betting that one can be loved by someone not because one has rearranged their sock drawer or paid for lunch, but because one is worthy of being honoured and appreciated for one’s own essential emotional self. And for the helpless dependent, the challenge of believing that one can enjoy a love not based on practical care but on fulfilling emotional and sexual connection with an equal.
In order to exit a stuck relationship (and prise ourselves free from the potential for repetition) we need to disentangle – and remake more accurately – the association that may have built up in our minds between practical and emotional love. We need to have the courage to stop manically looking after people in a material sense as an alternative to allowing ourselves to experience the vagaries, exposures and joys of a psychologically mutual relationship. And we need to stop colluding in our own infantilization and trust that we are as capable as the next person of emptying the rubbish and calling the dentist.
We may need to leave – or perhaps should try to stay. But we will never know which it is until we have purged the relationship of the unhealthy choreography of helpless child on the one hand and super-practical adult on the other. We’ll be in a position to assess our real options when we’ll have done the easy bit – figured out how to earn some money and clean the oven – and moved on to the real hurdle: allowing ourselves to need, to be vulnerable around and to trust an equal.
Let us imagine that we know what we want – to leave a relationship – but that we are suffering from a problem which inhibits us from acting on our wishes: we can’t bear to cause another person pain, especially another person towards whom we feel a sense of loyalty, who has been kind to us, who looks up to us for their safety and their future, who has expectations of us and with whom we might have been planning a trip to another continent in a few months. Perhaps we have come near to telling them on a dozen occasions, but always pulled back at the last moment. We tell ourselves that we’ll get around to it ‘after the holidays’, ‘once their birthday party is over’, ‘next year’, ‘in the morning’, and yet the deadlines roll by and we are still here.
Our discomfort has to do with the thought of unleashing an appalling upset: they will dissolve into tears, there will be sobbing, which may last a very long time, there will be wailing, uncontrollable cries and mountains of wet tissues – all because of a truth that currently lurks in the recesses of our cranium. We will have been responsible for dragging a formerly competent and independent person into chaos; it’s more than we can bear. It sounds peculiar, but it might be better for us to spend the next few decades unfulfilled than experience even five minutes of unbounded upset. In another part of our minds, there may also be a terror. More than we realise day to day, we’re scared of our partner. By telling them it’s over, we risk a discharge of titanic anger. They may scream at us, accuse us of leading them on, of being a charlatan and a disgrace. There might be violence and danger.
There is a certain symmetry to our fears. We may tell them and by so doing, kill them. Or we may tell them and they will turn around and kill us; kill or be killed. No wonder we put off the news. The reasonable adult part of our minds knows that these fears of killing and dying can’t be true – but this may weigh very little in how we unconsciously feel. Wielding sensible arguments can at points be as effective as telling a person with vertigo that the balcony won’t collapse or a person with depression that there are perfectly good grounds to be cheerful. A lot of the mind is not amenable to hard-headed logic. In an ancestral part of us, we simply operate with a sense that going against the wishes of a significant person will mean either endangering their lives or our own.
To explain the origins of such terrors, childhood is the place to turn, as it always is when trying to account for disproportionate and limitless fears. Perhaps we are the offspring of a fragile parent whom we loved profoundly and whom it would have broken our hearts to disappoint. They might have been struggling with their mental or physical health, they might have been maltreated by another adult. Maybe they were relying on us to hold them back from despair or justify their whole lives. We may have derived an early impression that we had to conform to their idea of us if we weren’t to cause them grave damage, that our wishes and needs could easily have driven them to the edge, that by being more ourselves, we might have broken their spirit. We simply loved them too much, and at the same time, felt them to be too weak, to ask them to take on our reality. We can be three years old and, without knowing any of this consciously, have taken such messages on board. And as a result, we might then have learnt to play very quietly, to reign in our boisterousness or mischievousness, our aggression or our intelligence, to be extremely cheerful and helpful around the house, to be ‘no trouble at all’ towards a beloved adult who already seemed to have far too much on their plate.
Alternatively, we might have spent our most vulnerable years around a person who responded to any frustration caused by another person with extreme anger. It can be hard to appreciate just how terrifying an enraged adult can seem to a sensitive two year old. Another adult might know that this red-faced figure of course wasn’t going to murder anyone, they’re just letting rip for a while and will pick up the pieces of a smashed vase soon enough, but that’s not at all how it can seem through a child’s eyes. How are they to know that this person many times their size wouldn’t just go one step further and, at the end of their ranting, pick up a hammer and smash their skull in? How can they be certain that the momentarily genuinely out of control parent who just broke the door wouldn’t for that matter throw them out of the window too. Child murder may be entirely alien to the furious adult, but that’s not how it can strike a sensitive offspring. One doesn’t have to actually murder anyone to come across – to an unformed mind – as someone who seriously might. No wonder we might be a bit scared of sharing some awkward news.
Our minds are freighted with fears that stem from things that happened under precise circumstances long ago but that continue to have a potent, subterranean, scarcely recognised and immense force in our lives today. By taking stock of the past, the task is to acknowledge that these fears are very real but only in a very limited place: our own minds. They don’t belong to adult reality. The catastrophe we fear will happen has already happened: we have already experienced someone who seemed to risk killing themselves if the news grew too bad – and someone who looked like they were perhaps going to kill whomever displeased them. But these issues are firmly located in another era. We need to take on board an always unlikely-sounding thought, we are now adults, which means, there is a robustness to ourselves and to our dealings with others. Another adult is highly unlikely to collapse on us and if they do, there are plenty of measures we can take. We will know how to help them cope with their grief, directly and indirectly. It may seem as if it will never end, but that is a child’s reasoning, not an adult’s. In reality, it will be very bad for a few hours, or days or weeks, but then eventually, as happens, they will get over it. They will recover their good humour, they will wake up one morning and see the world hasn’t ended and that they know how to go on. Similarly, they won’t actually try to pick up the nearest axe and chop us into small pieces. They may be furious, they may shout, there may be some ugly words – but again, we are now tall and independent, we can get away, in extremis, we have the number of the police and a lawyer, we can let the fury vent, and like a well-built bridge in a hurricane, be utterly confident that we can withstand anything that will come our way.
To further lend us courage, we should remember a distinction between being kind and seeming kind. It can look as if the kind thing to do is never to anger or distress someone – and therefore, never to give a person we have loved unwelcome news. But that is to overlook the more insidious ways in which we can ruin someone’s life. To stay with a person because we wish to avoid a few hours of unpleasantness is no favour to them – if we then go on to be bitter, mean, snide, unfaithful and depressed around them for the next few decades. We’re not helping someone by sparing them a bad break up scene, if we then deliver a life-long foot-dragging scene.
A surprising amount of the misery of the world comes from people being overly keen to appear kind, or rather, too cowardly to cause others short term pain. The truly courageous way to leave is to allow ourselves to be hated for a while by someone who still loves us. We shouldn’t imagine that they will never find anyone else like us: they may believe it now and might even sweetly tell us so. But they won’t believe it when they finally understand who we are. Real kindness means getting out – even though the holiday has been booked, the apartment paid for and the wedding arranged. There’s nothing wrong with and nothing dangerous about deciding someone isn’t for us. There is something very wrong with ruining large chunks of someone else’s life while we squeamishly or fearfully hesitate to get out of the way.
For most of human history, people didn’t stay in relationships for love. They stayed in them in order to protect their assets, ensure their status, pool their resources, synchronise farming implements – and guarantee the welfare of their children. It is only in the last few minutes of our evolution (250 years at most) that we have conducted our relationships under a very different ideology, that of a movement of ideas known as Romanticism. For Romanticism, the most important aspect of any relationship is not practical, it has to do with the emotional intensity that connects a couple; how good the sex is, how much one feels understood and to what degree a partner still feels like a soulmate.
This hugely ambitious and distinctive philosophy of love has created a very large puzzle around what was, traditionally, an obvious priority for any couple: keeping a child under one roof with his or her own parents. From the dawn of settled agricultural societies, a high degree of family unity was understood to take clear precedence over the inner satisfaction and emotional buoyancy of the parents. That a husband might quietly be weeping because of his wife’s emotional distance or that a wife might be stifling her yawns at her husband’s repetitive conversation topics would have been considered unfortunate no doubt, but these were certainly not matters over which one would have any desire or indeed opportunity to run away and begin life anew. One stayed together not because one thought highly of one’s partner, but because one was bound to them by forbidding practical, status and religious obligations. It didn’t matter a jot whether one happened to be lyrically happy or on the edge of terminal despair.
This was extremely brutal at points, but it did – arguably – have certain upsides, or at least a certain clarity, as far as children were concerned. Mummy and Daddy were definitely not going to split up merely because they couldn’t align their conversational tastes or rarely tried out any new sexual positions any more. And children weren’t going to shuttle from one household to another and have a bevy of stepbrothers and sisters just because – a few years back – Daddy had started to feel very rejected when Mummy became unresponsive to his night-time caresses.
Nowadays however, any partner wounded by the collapse of the emotional bond with their partner is automatically faced with a momentous choice: Should one leave for the sake of one’s own heart. Or should one stay for the sake of the children?
A dominant theory has often sought to extend the concerns of Romanticism into the realm of children. According to this interpretation, children too care a lot about the authenticity of their parents’ bond. They think a lot about, and are exercised by, the emotional honesty circulating between partners. Like their elders, they also want love to be ‘true’. And as a result, advice is often given that couples should separate, in order to demonstrate to their children the wisdom of an emotion-centric Romantic existence. Better for children to have (for example) two bedrooms, and four step siblings and for them to know that at least Mummy and Daddy are, in their new respective unions, now properly fulfilled and in love.
It makes a lot of sense – and in many cases must surely be the right answer. But it is worth considering an alternative view that begins in a different place: with a contrasting analysis of what children might really want. In this philosophy, children are conceived of as essentially deeply practical creatures, comparable in many ways to guests who have decided to spend their holidays in a particular hotel under a certain management, of whom they’ve grown very used and usually very fond. What these guests want above all is to secure a set of deeply pragmatic and very understandable goals:
– they want a minimum of administrative hassle
– they want the adults around them to get on cheerfully
– they want as little alteration in routine as possible
– they don’t want to be made to hang out with new people
– they don’t want to meet a half-naked adult stranger at breakfast
– they don’t want rumours to circulate about their ‘hotel’ that make them look weird in front of their peers
That said, they arguably don’t particular care about a whole host of other things:
– they don’t care how often, or how pleasingly, their parents are having sex
– they don’t care whether their parents are the deepest sorts of soulmates
– they don’t care what their parents get up to in their spare time
These comparative lists start to suggest a possible answer to the dilemma of whether one might stay or leave in so far as the welfare of children is the issue.
The question can be answered either way. Both staying and leaving could be made profoundly compatible with children’s concerns, because the emotional satisfaction of their parents isn’t the central issue for these young people. The central issue is how much disruption there might be in their lives. There are ways of staying that will cause massive disruptions: horrific fights between the hotel managers that won’t allow guests to enjoy very much of their time. And there are ways of leaving that create extreme disruption – or ways that stir up almost no disruption at all! The reason the stay-or-leave question is so tricky is – in essence – that children don’t really care whether you stay or leave; they want an undisturbed life, a pleasant atmosphere, and a good mood among the management, which could be compatible or incompatible with either choice. It just depends how it’s done.
For those who might want to leave, one can imagine conceiving of a range of innovations:
– Perhaps the children wouldn’t move between homes, the parents would.
– Perhaps the children wouldn’t hang out a lot with new partners, just the parents would
– Perhaps the children wouldn’t have to know about the depths of the disappointment between the parents, they’d just notice a sensible and kindly relationship between them.
A concern for more authentic and emotionally alive relationships has been, in many ways, an enormous advance for humanity. But it’s left us very confused as to what the priorities are for children. A non-Romantic world-view provides a clear answer: one doesn’t need to spend the rest of one’s life with someone with whom one no longer connects ‘for the sake of the children’. But at the same time, one must ensure that if one leaves, everything is done to keep the practical basis of a child’s life as stable as possible – as with a hotel that has come under new, divided ownership, but bends over backwards to make sure its guests suffer few inconveniences.
One’s own emotional maelstrom is deeply consuming; one day one’s offspring may have something similar going on in their lives but for now, as children, they are blessedly down to earth creatures: they want to know that no one is at anyone’s throat, that breakfast is going to be at the same time and place it’s always been and that they don’t have to become instant friends with a bunch of new guests they’re not in the mood for. Those should be our priorities as parents; all the other stuff is, in the nicest way, our business alone and should remain as much until the day, which might never come, when the now grown-up guest dares to take an interest in what the hotel management was really going through all those years ago.
On our way out of a relationship, we might be stopped by a highly unfamiliar and deeply perturbing thought: what if we were – somehow – a bit to blame as well? Naturally, ‘they’ are chiefly always at fault; it’s really the only way to sleep. But a primordial honesty may force us to wonder whether blame can invariably be so neatly apportioned in love. What if there was something we were doing to make our relationships harder than they needed to be? What if we were somehow psychologically troublesome? And what if we left at tremendous cost, but ignorant of ourselves, and then ended up in exactly the same sort of place with somebody else in a few months or years?
It’s hard to speak in favour of uneasy doubts but these may be about the most fruitful worries we can ever hope to have. Indeed, we really shouldn’t be deemed safe candidates for any relationship until we’ve started to wonder in depth about how dangerous we might be to be around. It should be standard practice to walk out on a dinner date with any candidate who isn’t able to come up with a sincere and considered answer to the question of what in particular might be mad and difficult about them. This shouldn’t be deemed an insult, just a very understandable check up on someone’s levels of self-awareness. Emotional maturity doesn’t begin until we are able to square up to a lot of what is desperate, broken and immature inside us.
The true tragedy of relationships isn’t that they go wrong but that we learn so little from them when they do. In a better future society, ending relationships should be rendered utterly simple at the practical level; marriages should be concluded without any of the current costs and bureaucratic delays. But only on one condition: that both parties would be able to show an advanced understanding of why their relationship had failed, what it was about them individually and as a couple that made their union so hard. One would need to pass an Exit Exam – and for a very simple and humane reason: that only when two people, who will presumably soon be dating again, have grasped why they might be difficult for someone else emotionally will the rest of the public be adequately protected from the huge risks posed by ongoing self-ignorance. The Exit Exam wouldn’t be a punitive measure, just a basic instrument of public health.
The most essential truth about relationships is that the way we love as adults has a history. The candidates we choose and our characteristic way of dealing with them and conceiving of their motives mirrors expectations formed around our earliest care-givers. We cannot understand the fate of any single relationship without threading it into the dynamics we knew at the beginning of our lives. We don’t as grownups so much find love as embark on a quest to refind it, striving with varied degrees of self-awareness to recreate with our partners many of the patterns and emotions we first experienced around parental figures.
If our adult love lives tend then to be so difficult, it is that the love we tasted in childhood will, in a great many cases, not have been entirely straightforward. There might have been affection and kindness, but these are likely to have come wrapped up with more troubling and painful emotions: a feeling of never quite being good enough, a sense that we needed to protect someone from certain truths about ourselves, a fear of abandonment or a rage we had to appease… We find ourselves gravitating towards people not first and foremost on the basis that they are good or kind to us, but because they feel familiar. With them, we re-experience affection and gentleness, but also at times, an impression of not measuring up to expectations or of being shut out or ignored. It may not be fun; yet it feels right. We may reject healthier candidates not because we don’t on paper recognise their virtues, but because (as we can’t ever quite admit) we sense that they won’t make us suffer in the ways we have to suffer in order to feel that we are properly in love.
More tragically still, not only do we sometimes refind unhealthy partners, we have a propensity to imagine we have done so even when we haven’t. Someone with a difficult past may permanently suspect – even of quite innocent candidates – that they are about to treat them like the damaging figures who let them down in childhood. Though this may be quite false, they will at every turn feel as if they are re-encountering the mother who humiliated them or the father who ignored them – and will as a result behave with a degree of instinctive defensiveness or untrusting aggression that is wholly unwarranted and may in the end exhaust the patience of the most initially willing partner.
All this a functioning Exit Exam would ideally start to tease out – and prepare us for. Here would be some of the key questions a candidate would face:
1. What was unsatisfactory or painful in your relationship with your parent of the gender you’re attracted to?
2. How have the difficulties above tended to show up in your adult relationships? Do you notice repetitions?
3. Alternatively, have you been so keen to get away from childhood dynamics that you have denied yourself some of the good qualities that existed, alongside the troubling ones, in your original caregivers?
Do you keep running into difficulties because you can only be attracted to people who are in no way (for example) intelligent or punctual, successful or sweet- natured – because these qualities evoke something too painful you are in flight from in your earlier life?
4. What awful or painful thing do you suspect a partner may do to you?
And what, in your fear that they may hurt you, do you do to or around them that is less than productive?
How fair is the fear?
5. What did you learn about communication in childhood? How good are you at getting across the more wounded, sad or emotionally vulnerable bits of you?
6. Complete the sentence: When I am hurt, I tend to…
Complete the sentence: Rather than explain clearly and calmly what is wrong, I…
Complete the sentence: I jump to conclusions around…
7. In so far as you have a tendency to pick partners who mirror past problems, to save time, on future dates, what is the earliest possible sign that would indicate that you had found someone who would end you up in a familiar frustrating place?
Knowing what you know now, what would have been the first warning signs that your soon-to-be-ex was going to prove challenging?
What do you vow to look out for and run away from more successfully next time?
8. We may not always have the option to change our types, but we have the option of changing how we characteristically respond to these types. Currently we often do so according to a script from early childhood. We behave with great immaturity: we sulk, we nag, we get defensive or furious.
But there is always a chance of responding in a more mature way (by explaining, not blaming ourselves excessively, avoiding rage etc.), which may be enough to transform the fate of a relationship.
How could you behave in more obviously adult ways in relation to the difficulties that arise with the kinds of people you are drawn to?
9. If you were able to pick a different sort of partner next time, what would they be like?
How could you be sure that they were not the same thing beneath a surface difference?
10. You may have spent a long time not leaving this relationship, despite gradually knowing it was wrong. What in your past can explain this propensity to get stuck?
What might you tell yourself to be more decisive and less compliant next time?
A relationship may be over; there is failure of sorts in that brute fact. But the end need not prove disastrous to either party in the long-term so long as sufficient insight can be pulled from the ashes. The least we can do to atone for the hurt we experience and cause in unhappy love stories is to make sure that we can – at a minimum – point to one or two things we have learnt through the pain that will make us a bit less dangerous and a little more grown up next time.
When we contemplate leaving a relationship, it is usually because – in the privacy of our hearts – we harbour expectations of being able to meet another, and in key ways, better kind of person. We are restless inside because we can no longer overlook the shortfalls in the present partner: a problem around emotional intelligence or sexual compatibility, beauty or vigour, wit or kindness. But no sooner have our doubts arisen than we may start to wonder whether we really have any right to harbour them. Anyone with a modicum of self-awareness, and therefore insight into their own deeply imperfect and in key ways unattractive selves, is liable to ask: who are we to complain? Isn’t it folly to hope for something better? Should we not merely accept and be grateful for what we have found? How much are we allowed to hope for? Aren’t we craving ‘too much’?
We can start with the good news. The sort of character we are dreaming about does exist somewhere on the earth, probably in multiple incarnations. We’re not foolish to picture them. We’ve probably met approximations of them in many different contexts over the years: on the arm of a friend, in the pages of a magazine, lost in a book opposite us in a cafe. We are – let’s assume – not asking for anything plainly crazed (the mind of Einstein in the body of a Hollywood star with the kindness of a saint and the resources of a titan). We are not naive, we know roughly what we’re worth and what we could conceivably attract. We just think – with reason – that we can have a shot at improving on the current candidate. There are seven billion inhabitants on the planet, one or two of them must be able to answer our more ambitious hopes.
Yet none of this is, in itself, any sort of guarantor. There is enough ill-luck, poor timing and unfortunate happenstance in romantic life to ensure that we may well quit our relationship and end up never finding anyone who is remotely able to honour our dreams. Perfectly-suited prospective partners constantly walk past each other and die unfulfilled and alone on opposite sides of the same street. Knowing that there really are people out there who could match our criteria says nothing at all about our chances of finding them in the time that remains.
We cannot – therefore – legitimately or in good faith ever tell anyone who is thinking of leaving their partner that their expectations for a better alternative can practically be met. We can – at best – eke out a philosophically-hedged ‘perhaps’.
But when we wonder whether our expectations are ‘too high’, we might pause and ask something slightly different: too high for what?
If by ‘too high’ we mean, too high to be entirely certain that we’ll be able to begin a deeply satisfying relationship with a prized candidate, then yes, in that sense our expectations may well be too high. ‘Perhaps’ is as good as we can get. However, if we’re wondering whether our expectations are ‘too high’ to leave our relationship for an uncertain but more honest future, if we’re wondering whether it is wrong to define an idea of the kind of person we want and then stick by it whether we actually find them or not, then the answer might be a resounding ‘no’.
In other areas of life, we can accept well enough and often deeply respect, people who stick by particular ideas they believe in, even when success doesn’t necessarily or immediately follow. There are people who will create a certain kind of art over many decades, and pay little attention to whether or not it meets with worldly acclaim. Or who will run a business that doesn’t alter its products simply to achieve greater profitability. Or who will stick up for particular ideas in politics, even if this prevents them from reaching high office. They would of course always prefer to have the applause, money and power – but it might be even more important to them to know that they are abiding by the art they believe in, the products they love and the ideas they identify with.
We would naturally prefer to have what we believe in and the right result from the world, but if it comes down to a choice between dumbed down art and acclaim, or shoddy products and high profits, or expedient politics and a job in government or – to shift to the romantic realm – someone to share a bed with but few of the psychological or physical criteria we are truly looking for, then we may prefer to pay the price of loyalty to our original ambitions.
There might be, in the context of relationships, two reasons to live like this, the first practical, the second more psychological or existential. At a practical level, there is an advantage in freeing ourselves from a frustrating relationship even in the absence of any immediate prospect of a successful replacement. Being alone gives us a more effective basis for finding love than being shackled to a partner we are surreptitiously looking to edge out. We are free to tell the world what we are seeking, we don’t have to lie or hide in the shadows, we won’t have to marr the start of a relationship with a messy exit from a previous one.
But beyond this, it may still be wise to abide by our real expectations whether or not there is a candidate around who can meet them. Our soul is liable to be slowly destroyed by leading a life that privileges mere companionship over companionship with the right person. We may not be able to escape the consequences to our self-esteem and to our sense of dignity if we know that our fear of being alone has trumped our ability to discriminate in favour of the kind of person who doesn’t secretly irritate or bore us. We may no longer like ourselves very much when we daily have to contemplate how far we’ve drifted from our genuine expectations in order to assuage an ultimately unnecessary terror of our own company.
Japanese history is filled with examples of what commentators have termed ‘noble failure,’ people with strong notions of what they respected in a given field (art, politics, business, culture) who remained loyal to their beliefs despite meeting with little or no worldly success, and sometimes having to pay a great price for their positions. A poet might end their life in obscurity in a hut outside the city, a potter might find their plain but handsome earthenware ignored in favour of more lacquered and showy examples and a politician might see their plans for a better society bar them from advancement at court. And yet these people could, in the Japanese mind, be viewed as something other than mere ‘losers’. They might, from one perspective, have lost, their art wasn’t recognised, their businesses failed, their projects weren’t enacted, but they are deemed to be worthy of respect nevertheless because they had something superior still to immediate fame, riches and applause: good ideas of what they wanted. Enacted on a far more modest scale over less consequential things, we too may – in romantic life – lean on the concept of noble failure to frame what might occur to us after our exit from a relationship. Our nobility will stem from not allowing our fear of loneliness to govern our conduct and from ensuring that who we spend time with matches an ambitious concept of human nature – even if this means we are predominantly alone for the long term. We will ultimately prove more loyal to love on our own than we ever could be in the wrong company – just as a lover of music might prefer silence to the wrong kind of background noise.
We may, after exiting a relationship, not succeed in any standard way. Our life may look a bit odd. We will have left an apparently sound-enough union in order to start a rather arduous existence by ourselves. But we will be something more interesting than merely sad, we’ll have failed nobly in the pursuit of love, we’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that we preferred to be true to our hopes than in the company of a human we couldn’t any longer respect.