One of the finest things about being a baby is that our minds can be read by others. Without us needing to say anything, people around us will have a guess at determining what we intend — and, typically, they’ll get it right. They’ll correctly surmise that we are craving some milk or that the sun is shining in our eyes, that it’s time for a snooze or that we want to jiggle the keys again.
This may be highly gratifying and important to us in infancy, but it can set up dangerous expectations for the rest of our lives. It can breed in us the sense that anyone — especially anyone who claims to care about us — should be able to determine our deepest aspirations and wishes without us needing to say very much. We can stay silent; they will mindread.
This explains a widespread tendency to assume that others must know what we mean and want without us having actually told them anything clearly. We assume that our lover must know what we’re upset about, that our friends should realise where our sensitivities lie and that our colleagues must intuitively grasp how we want things done in presentations.
Furthermore, we assume that if they don’t, then it must be a sign that they are being wicked, deliberately obtuse or stupid — and we are therefore justified in falling into a sulk, that curious pattern of behaviour whereby we punish people for having committed offences whose precise nature we refuse to reveal to them.
But in all this, we have, somewhere along the path of our development, forgotten the fundamental importance of teaching. Teaching isn’t a distinctive profession focused on imparting knowledge about science and the humanities to the under 18s. It’s a skill that we must put into practice every day of our lives — and the subject we must laboriously and patiently become experts in and deliver ‘lessons’ on is called ‘Ourselves’: what we like, what we’re scared of, what we’re hopeful about, what we want from the world and how we look for things to be formatted…
Babies, for all their intelligence and charm, only care about a handful of things; an average adult has thousands of very set ideas on all manner of topics, from the right way to govern a country to the right way to shut the fridge door. We should strive to deliver a few ‘seminars’ on our views before allowing ourselves to grow resentful and sullen.
Yet how understandable — in a sense — if we should fail so badly in our teaching duties. We’re not necessarily being lazy or unkind. It’s merely unbelievable that strangers would actually require us to talk them through yet another chapter of the dense instruction manual of our deep selves. We never had to bother with all that in the early years. We may be more nostalgic for our infancy than we might have dared to imagine.
It can seem very confusing why certain long-term relationships survive and some don’t. It can — from afar — look as if it’s the most cruel and alarming sort of lottery. Trying to explain love to a child or a visitor from another planet promises to be a perplexing matter indeed: all couples on their wedding day are united in wanting to make things work. Then, for reasons beyond anyone’s comprehension, some of them simply seem to dissolve and others don’t.
To remove some of the terrifying element of apparent chance (and encourage us to work on the right aspects of our own couples), it may be helpful to become deliberately reductive about the real reasons why breakups occur.
We need — in this regard — first to discount certain causes that gain far too much airtime relative to their actual likelihoods. Of course, sometimes people break up because one party wants a younger partner. Or because they want better sex. Or because they are seeking a more exciting companion. Or because their hobbies or political views have drifted apart. Or because things have — somehow — grown ‘stale.’
But let’s quickly try to reduce the role we give to such explanatory factors: given the costs of break-ups, given the massive investments that people make in being together, given the chaos generated if there are children, one can assert with a high degree of confidence that almost no one ever splits up for such familiar reasons.
The real reason lies elsewhere; the real reason for break up lies in one or both spouse’s sense that they have not been heard, that something very important to them has been disregarded, that their point of view has not, at a fundamental level, been acknowledged and honoured. It doesn’t matter what the subject of this non-hearing happens to be: it could be that they haven’t been heard about their views on money, or on the way the children are being brought up, or on how their weekends should be managed, or on how intimacy occurs or doesn’t occur.
It’s feeling unheard for our differences that is unbearable; it’s never the presence of differences per se.
We don’t break up because a partner doesn’t agree with us. We could stand not getting what we want. We could stand a partner who votes another way than we do. Or who is no longer as young as they once were. Or who has annoying friends. Or different tastes in holidays. What we can’t stand is someone who blocks us when we try to articulate how troublesome we find these areas of divergence; when our unique way of looking at existence seems a matter of basic indifference, that is too lonely and enraging to bear. It’s better to be single than unseen; after all, the unseen are alone anyway, whatever their ostensible relationship status.
There is a big difference between a partner not doing what we want and a partner not hearing what we want. It’s entirely possible that one would remain with someone who doesn’t share most of our interests — so long as they happen to accept, and signal an understanding of, how much these interests matter to us. It would be possible for us to live with someone who doesn’t want the same sort of sex as we do (or wants no sex at all), so long as they can at points see matters from our position — and can give a modicum of empathy to our hopes and longings. We could be with someone whose needs for affection run in a different direction, so long as they have the courage to listen to how ours operate. We don’t need partners to agree with us on everything; we need them to give off signs that they can accept the scale and legitimacy of our vision. ‘I understand’ is the phrase that could single-handedly rescue more long-term relationships than any number of anniversary celebrations or therapy sessions; it deserves to known as the most romantic phrase in existence.
There is a lot of hope in this thesis. If we want to stay together, we don’t need to be exceptionally beautiful or rich. We don’t need to rely on chance. We don’t have to have brilliant sex or a friction free alignments of interests.
We just need to make sure that we are people who listen; who when the partner has something very important they need to get across to us, can bear to take things on board, can bear to acknowledge an opposite position, can bear to say: ‘I can see this matters a lot to you… and I will try my hardest to think about it and see what I can do about it.’ From here, it really doesn’t matter if things radically change or not; the vital work will have been done — and the relationship will have been assured.
People described as ‘defensive’ may have a thousand charms. But we should know that the most flawed open person is preferable to the most seemingly accomplished defensive one. The person we should settle down with isn’t the most attractive or the cleverest, it’s the one who feels no pride or compunction in readily saying: ‘I can hear what you are saying and how much this matters a lot to you… I get it…’ Or, ‘because I love you, this makes me curious, tell me more…’ This person will surely one day annoy or frustrate us mightily (everyone does). We’ll just be highly unlikely ever to want to break up with them.
How can you tell whether a relationship is going to last the course – or whether it’s doomed to founder? What’s the difference between fragile and solid couples? Here are some of the things to look out for…
Over-Optimism About Relationships
Fragile couples tend, paradoxically, to be very hopeful about love. They associate happiness with conflict-free unions. They do not expect, once they have found the person they unwisely see as The One, ever to need to squabble, storm out of a room or feel unhappy for the afternoon. When trouble emerges, as it inevitably does, they do not greet it as a sign that love is progressing as it should; rather as alarming evidence that their relationship may be illegitimate and fundamentally flawed. Their hopes tire them for the patient tasks of diplomatic negotiation and routine maintenance.
Out of Touch with Pain
Fragile couples tend not to be good detectives of their own sufferings. They may be both unhappy and yet unsure as to the actual causes of their dissatisfactions; they know that something is wrong in their unions, but they can’t easily trace the catalysts. They can’t zero in on the way that it was the lack of trust in them around money that rankles or that it has been their behaviour towards a demanding youngest child that has been hurting. They lash out in vague or inaccurate directions, their attacks either unfairly general or unconvincingly specific.
A shamed person has fundamental doubts about their right to exist: somewhere in the past, they have been imbued with an impression that they do not matter very much, that their feelings should be ignored, that their happiness is not a priority, that their words do not count. Once they are in a couple, shamed people hurt like anyone else, but their capacity to turn their hurt into something another person can understand, and be touched by, is recklessly weak. Shamed people will sulk rather than speak, hide rather than divulge, feel secretly wretched rather than candidly complain. It is frequently very late, far too late, by the time shamed people finally let their lover know more about the nature of their desperation.
Complaining well requires an impression that not everything depends on the complaint being heard perfectly. Were the lesson to go wrong, were the other to prove intransigent, one could survive and take one’s love elsewhere. Not everything is at stake in an argument. The other hasn’t ruined one’s life. One therefore doesn’t need to scream, hector, insist or nag. One can deliver a complaint with some of the nonchalance of a calm teacher who wants an audience to learn but can bear it if they don’t; one could always say what one has on one’s minds tomorrow, or the next day.
It takes an inner dignity not to mind too much about having to level complaints around things that could sound laughably ‘small’ or that leave one open to being described as petty or needy. With too much pride and fear, it can become unbearable to admit that one has been upset since lunch because they didn’t take one’s hand on a walk, or that one wishes so much that they would be readier to hug one last thing at night. One has to feel quite grown up inside not to be offended by one’s own more childlike appetites for reassurance and comfort. It is an achievement to know how to be strong about one’s vulnerability. One may have said, rather too many times, from behind a slammed door, in a defensive tone, ‘No, nothing is wrong whatsoever. Go away’, when secretly longing to be comforted and understood like a weepy, upset child.
Hopelessness About Dialogue
Fragile couples often come together with few positive childhood memories of conversations working out: early role models may simply have screamed and then despaired of one another. They may never have witnessed disagreements eventually morphing into mutual understanding and sympathy. They would deeply love to be understood, but they can bring precious few resources to the task of making themselves so.
None of these factors mean a couple will split up, but they are generators of the states of emotional disconnection that can eventually break two people apart. Outwardly, things may seemingly be well. A couple may have an interesting social life, some lovely children, a new apartment. But a more judicious analysis will reveal an unexpected degree of risk. The good news is that knowing a little about the risk factors can help us identify them in good time – and, with the help of good advice from the School of Life, fix them in time.
Many people, after they’ve been in a couple for some time, will privately admit that they are – in many ways – frustrated and disappointed by the person they’ve chosen to share their lives with.
If pressed for details, they will have no difficulty coming up with a list: their partner, they might complain:
- Is too loyal to their irritating family
- doesn’t share their views on the layout of the living room
- Never wants to go on camping holidays
- Plays tennis every Wednesday evening, no matter what
- Doesn’t like Moroccan food
- Doesn’t share their enthusiasm for 19th century Russian novels
- Has a friend who laughs for no apparent reason
- Likes doing jigsaws
- Drinks coffee from a big mug with ‘1984’ inscribed on the side
- Has a habit of adding ‘actually’ to every second sentence, when it’s actually redundant
As the list gets longer, they sigh; they still love their partner and long to be happy together, it’s just that it seems impossibly complicated to make this relationship work.
What’s driving the frustration isn’t that they’ve sadly fallen for an idiot as a mate; it’s rather that we have all inherited needlessly complicated ideas of what a relationship is supposed to be for. We are told that love is meant to involve the almost total merger of two lives: we expect that a loving couple must live in the same house, eat the same meals together every night, share the same bed, go to sleep and get up at the same time; only ever have sex with (or even sexual thoughts about) each other, regularly see each others’ families, have all their friends in common – and pretty much think the same thoughts on every topic at every moment.
It’s a beautiful vision, but a hellish one too, which places an impossibly punitive burden of expectation on another human. We feel the partner must be right for us in every way, and if they’re not, has to be prodded and cajoled into reform. We are in search of an ideal being who likes everything we do, down to Moroccan cuisine and long books about people called Natasha and Pierre. And every departure from this menu has to be framed as a betrayal of the purpose of love.
But there’s another perspective: relationships don’t have to be so complicated and ambitious if we keep in view what in the end actually makes them fulfilling. If we boil matters down, there might really just be three essential things we want from one another:
Kindness: a partner who is gentle with our imperfections and can good-humouredly tolerate us as we are.
Shared vulnerability: someone with whom we can be open about our anxieties, worries and the problems that throw us off balance: someone we don’t have to put on a good front for; someone around whom we can be weak, vulnerable and honest – and who will be the same around us.
Understanding: someone who is interested in, and can make sense of, certain obscure features of our minds: our obsessions, preoccupations and ways of seeing the world. And whom we are excited to understand in turn.
If we have these three critical ingredients to hand, we will feel loved and essentially satisfied whatever differences then crop up in other arenas. Perhaps our partner’s friends or routines won’t be a delight, but we will be content. Just as if we lack these emotional goods, and yet agree on every detail of European literature, interior design and social existence, we are still likely to feel lonely and bereft.
By limiting what we expect a relationship to be about, we can overcome the tyranny and bad temper that bedevils so many examples. A good, simpler – yet loving – relationship could end up looking very different from the conventional picture. We might not socialise much together. We might hardly ever encounter each other’s families. Our finances might overlap only at a few points. We could be living in different places and only meet up twice a week. Conceivably we might not ask too many questions about each other’s sex life. But when we would be together it would be profoundly gratifying, because we would be in the presence of someone who knew how to be kind, vulnerable and understanding.
A bond between two people can be deep and important precisely because it is not played out across all practical details of existence. By simplifying – and clarifying – what a relationship is for we release ourselves from overly complicated conflicts over routines, friends and holiday destinations – and focus on our urgent underlying need to be sympathised with, seen and understood.
When people try to account for why couples break up, the emphasis typically falls on the idea of difference: a disorganised creative type was up against a highly managerial ordered one; one of them liked hill walking, the other hated the outdoors. Someone was gregarious, someone else loathed parties. No wonder – it seems – they had to split.
This method of explanation is underpinned by an implicit and hugely dominant theory of love which goes as follows: the reason why couples function is similarity; what tears them apart is difference. We get an inkling of just how widespread this theory might be when we consider the operations of modern dating sites. In their wish to help us find what they term the ‘right’ person, they scour their databases in order to try to match us with a creature who will most exactly share the greatest number of our tastes, interests and attitudes. The smaller the differences – so the theory goes – the more likely the relationship is to work.
However plausible this might sound, it skirts a fundamental truth about love which we ignore at enormous cost: no couple ever breaks up because of the differences between them. They break up because one of them is fed up of not being heard. A couple might disagree on a thousand things – from the optimal frequency of sex to what kind of social life to lead – and still stay together, while another might be similar in almost every area, but be torn apart by a vicious sense that their competing realities were not being recognised.
What ultimately counts for the success of love is not whether or not there are differences, but how whatever differences there happen to be are handled; whether with curiosity, a willingness to change, mutual forgiveness and modesty – or whether (in the doomed cases) with defensiveness, rigidity and entrenchment.
We know that compatibility can’t be the basis of lasting love because, by its logic, it invariably ends up escalating absurdly. Two people who like reading, crosswords, northern Italian cooking, ice hockey and the music of Joni Mitchell might at first fall passionately in love, but gradually grow cross with one another as they learn that one is sympathetic to ballroom dancing while the other has an occasional wish to think about archaeology. Or one is interested in ragu, while the other favours casseroles and pies. The temptation is to resolve such frictions by abandoning all divergent partners and refining our search criteria ever more tightly. But this only forces us to seek out implausible degrees of alignment. We may end up searching for a partner who is keen on fly-fishing and the novels of John le Carrè but doesn’t like salted butter and is good at shutting cupboard doors, or someone who loves going camping in North Cornwall in September but who is interested in the Liberal Party (yet is also an enthusiast of tactical voting). However, of course, two such well-matched people could easily come to blows over the colour of the bedroom curtains, children’s names, the use of napkins, or the ethics of fracking.
Pre-existing compatibility can only ever get us so far. At some point, inevitably, even the best matched partner will in some way emerge as unlike us in some way. What then matters is how the mismatch is handled. One kind of response is deeply romantic, and almost aphrodisiacal in quality; the other, deeply disappointing and over time plain insufferable.
This is what we need to hear above all when a conflicting perspective rears its head: I hear you; I understand what you’re saying, I am going to think about that, perhaps I will need to change. In other words, we need to feel that our point of difference has been witnessed and, to a degree, respected. The partner may not accept our position or observation entirely, but they can see where we are coming from and are committed to examining our stance – because they know that it matters to us, and they fundamentally respect our existence. They don’t rush to take every uncomfortable issue off the table. In relation to gently worded complaints or criticisms, they do not immediately deny our remarks and grow enraged. They don’t turn around and tell us that a problem lies entirely with us, that we’re being deliberately mean, that we’re the odd one out not them – and why are we complaining anyway when they’ve had such a hard day and this is the last straw. They strive not to take immediate offence, get stern or fall apart. They are at moments alive to the idea that they may need to change or evolve. They don’t expect to be loved exactly for who they are right now; and they respect that – of all the people in the world – their partner probably has a fairly accurate grasp of key aspects of their psychology that they might need to focus on.
On the other hand, what gradually destroys love in the long-term, even in the case of the most apparently well-matched couples, is the opposite of the above: an attitude of defensive pride, a shutting of the ears, a refusal to countenance that the partner may be trying to say something of desperate importance and has the right to be heard with a certain good will and tolerance.
It’s not the frustration that kills, it’s how it’s heard – or not. One could imagine a couple with a highly dysfunctional sex life, but one which was nevertheless handled with such skill by both parties that it would never be the cause of a break up. This couple might have made love only once in the last five years and yet be so committed to exploring why, to explaining their feelings and taking the other’s view on board that the apparently grave mismatch would have no power whatever to shake the foundations of their union.
The single greatest explanation for all divorces is, in the end, defensiveness, the inability to listen with grace to what another person is telling us without resorting to stubborn pride and denial. There are no sexual problems too grave that they ever make it too hard to stay; there are no differences in social attitudes or interior design tastes too severe to doom a love affair. There are only ever terrible ways for our frustrations to be heard. The lover we desperately need isn’t the person who shares our every taste and interest; it’s the kindly soul who has learnt to negotiate differences in taste without defensiveness or impatience.
The fastest, easiest and most inadvertent technique for messing up one’s life remains that of getting into a serious relationship with the wrong person: with very little effort, and without any innate taste for catastrophe, one can end up – by middle age or earlier – contemplating wholesale financial ruin, loss of parental rights, social opprobrium, homelessness, nervous exhaustion and shattered esteem, to begin a lengthy list of harrowing side-effects.
It may be rather fun, and in a way sweet, to watch couples on their early dates, in their fine garb, downing cocktails, while outside on a mild summer evening, boats sail by and music drifts in. But it’s in essence like witnessing a toddler playing with a loaded rifle or ceramic steak knife.
To choose a partner is the most important job interview we are ever asked carry out. Around half of us get it very wrong, not because we are inept, but because we are wounded. We might think that there would be a minimum of training and some hazard lights to guide us. But our dedication to public safety ends squarely at the door of our dating interviews. We’re supposed to need to be left strictly alone to follow our (misfiring) instincts. Out of some peculiar fear of infringing on our liberties, we are abandoned to make our own beautiful disasters, generation after generation, without drawing the slightest benefit from the sufferings and late-life realisations of others. And therefore, with horrifying predictability, the most cautious types routinely come adrift without discerning the multiple cataclysms they are incubating – and which may take a good two decades fully to come to light.
What, above all else, clouds our judgement is something we have scarce control over and are seldom granted the opportunity to explore in sufficient depth: our childhoods, and more particularly, our messed up childhoods, for the single greatest predictor of unhappy adult love is, in a process that layers misery upon misery, simply and squarely our miserable time at the hands of significant others in our early lives. It’s expecting too much to think that one might have been substantially unloved or troubled as children and then grow up to make any sort of reasonable or successful choices in our adult years. The best we could aim for is a live appreciation that our instincts are liable to be profoundly unreliable guides to our future contentment – which might inspire a commitment to getting someone else, a wise impartial judge, to check and help us with our homework.
This is some of what happens when our interviewing capacities have taken a hit:
1. We can’t sift
What singles out the emotionally damaged from the more robustly healthy is not their involvement with mad candidates, these are everywhere and are often irresistibly delightful on the outside, it is their propensity for being unable to spot the problems in due time and extricate themselves with the requisite ruthlessness and decisiveness. Above all, a difficult childhood inducts us into getting interminably stuck.
2. We aren’t a friend to ourselves
The reason for the stuckness is hugely poignant: that we don’t like ourselves very much. Therefore, when someone blows hot and cold, lets us down, plays games with our minds, makes and then routinely tramples on promises, denies us tenderness and swears they won’t do that nasty thing to us again and then promptly does, our first, second and hundredth impulse is never simply to up sticks and leave. Our tendency is to wonder what we might have done to provoke the problem, whether there is something that we have misunderstood and whether we might learn to be more skifull in not upsetting them going forward. Our past gives us a touching but ultimately disastrous tendency to think against ourselves – and give an unnatural degree of credit to the other. It might take us a decade to make a simple realisation that someone else could have reached in an evening: that they’re not worth it.
3. We can’t disappoint anyone
Looking after ourselves requires a rare skill: a capacity – at selective moments – to disappoint another person in the name of our own protection. To remain sane, we may have to say no to a party, decline a friend’s suggestion, swerve an invitation – and in love, upset someone else substantially – even when they have, in many areas been kind to us. To someone who doesn’t possess a full tank of inner love, how dare one turn down the love of another, even if it comes wrapped in tricky or poisonous elements? How, given who one is, dare one make someone else cry?
4. We hope too much
Children who grow up in the company of difficult adults cannot change or get rid of their care givers. From a position of impotence, they settle on doing one thing extremely well: hoping against hope that these adults will magically change and learn to be kind. If they just hold on long enough, and are sufficiently polite and compliant, then the difficult adult will take mercy and alter. These suffering souls then take their misguided patience out into their adult relationships, with similarly negligible results. They are barred from a crucial insight: that health at points involves a lively capacity for giving up on certain people.
5. We are overly scared of being alone
Our readiness to exit an unsatisfying relationship is partly a measure of our confidence that being on our own will be bearable and open us up to future, more gratifying partners. On both scores, an unhappy regard for oneself will continuously undermine our reasonable expectations. Who else would have us and, worse, how could it be pleasant for any decent person to spend time nurturing someone like us? How much better to watch our best hopes crash helplessly against the shores of our current partner’s obdurate and quietly or even unconsciously sadistic personality?
6. We find kindness ‘boring’
A troubled past will make us unusually unforgiving towards genuine kindness when it comes along. Nice people feel instinctively, boring, unsexy, queasiness-inducing and eerie. We may be unable to quite put a finger on what feels wrong with our very kind date. We may say there was no chemistry or that our interests don’t align. But if we were able to know ourselves better, what we would express would sound a lot stranger: that certain candidates feel wrong because we know they will be unable to inflict upon us the sort of suffering that we’ve grown up to feel is essential to our sense of feeling loved. They are wrong because they threaten to be kind.
In a better arranged society, there would be instruction in the art of love-interviews from an early age – and a process of vetting at least as strict as that applied to learner drivers. We would not be left to crash our lives without some prior help and counsel. For now, many of us should at least be aware of the extent to which our impulses will be profoundly misleading when the early years were filled with suffering. We shouldn’t blame ourselves, just accept that we need to learn how to do a very unfamiliar and for us rather extraordinary thing: treat ourselves well.
‘Can people change?’ The question may sound somewhat abstract and disinterested, as if one were asking for a friend or for the universe, but it is likely to be a good deal more personally – and painfully – motivated than that.
We ask, typically and acutely, when we’re in a relationship with someone who is inflicting a great deal of pain on us: someone who is refusing to open their hearts or can never stop lying, someone who is aggressive or detached, someone who is harming themselves or managing to devastate us. We ask too because the one immediately obvious response to frustration isn’t in this case open to us: we’re not able to simply get up and go, we are too emotionally or practically invested to give up, something roots us to the spot. And so, with the example of one troublesome human in mind, we start to wonder outwards about human nature in general, what it might be made of and how malleable it could turn out to be.
One thing is likely already to be evident to us: even if people can change, they certainly don’t change easily. Maybe they flare up every time we raise an issue and accuse us of being cruel or dogmatic; maybe they break down late at night and admit they have a problem but by morning, vehemently deny that there could ever be anything amiss. Maybe they say yes they get it now, but then don’t ever deploy understanding where it really matters. We can at best conclude that by the time we’ve had to raise the question of change in our minds, someone around us has managed not to change either very straightforwardly or very gracefully.
We might ask a prior question: is it even OK to want someone to change? The implication from those who generate trouble for us is, most often, an indignant ‘no’. ‘Love me for who I am’ is their mantra. But considered more imaginatively, only a perfect human would ever deny that they might need to grow a little in order more richly to deserve the love of another. For the rest of us, all moderately well-meaning and half-way decent requests for change should be heard with goodwill and in certain cases acted upon with immense seriousness. Those who bristle at the suggestion that they might need to change are – paradoxically – giving off the clearest evidence that they may be in grave need of inner evolution.
Why might change be so hard? It isn’t as if the change-resistant person is merely unsure what is amiss, and will manage to alter course once an issue is pointed out – as someone might if their attention were drawn to a strand of spinach in their teeth. The refusal to change is more tenacious and willed than this. A person’s entire character may be structured around an active aspiration not to know or feel particular things; the possibility of insight will be aggressively warded off through drink, compulsive work routines, or offended irritation with all those who attempt to spark it.
In other words, the unchanging person doesn’t only lack knowledge, they are vigorously committed to not acquiring it. And they resist it because they are fleeing from something extraordinarily painful in their past that they were originally too weak or helpless to face – and still haven’t found the wherewithal to confront. One isn’t so much dealing with an unchanging person as, first and foremost, with a traumatised one.
Part of the problem, when one is on the outside, is realising what one is up against. The lack of change can seem so frustrating because one can’t apprehend why it should be so hard. Couldn’t they simply move an inch or two in the right direction? But if we considered, at that moment, the full scale of what this person once faced, and the conditions in which their mind was formed (and certain of its doors bolted shut), we might be more realistic and more compassionate. ‘Couldn’t they just…’ would not longer quite make sense.
At the same time, very importantly, we might not stick around as long as we often do. We should at this juncture perhaps ask ourselves a question that may feel at once unfair and rather tough: given how clear the evidence is of a lack of change in a certain person, and hence of a lack of realistic hope that our needs are going to be met any time soon, why are we still here? Why are we trying to open a door that can’t open and returning to a recurring frustration and hoping for a different result? What broken part of us can’t leave a lack of fulfilment alone? What bit of our story is being re-enacted in a drama of continuously dashed hopes?
And, if we are talking of change, might we one day change into characters who don’t sit around waiting without end for other people to change? Might we become better at sifting through options and allowing through only those who can already meet the lion’s share of our needs? In addition, might we become better at deploying a dash of life-sustaining ruthlessness in order to leave those who tirelessly rebuff us? We may need to rebuild our minds in order – with time – to change into people who don’t wonder for too long if, and when, people might change.
This is a piece about geese, jackdaws, a man called Konrad Lorenz – and your love life.
Konrad Lorenz, who was born in 1903 and died in 1989, was an Austrian ornithologist and zoologist who spent most of his adult life in marshes and wetlands studying the behaviour of greylag geese and jackdaws. What particularly interested him was how these birds seem to develop an attachment to their mother from within a few minutes of their birth, following dutifully behind her and obeying her guidance in matters of sheltering and feeding. His observations led him to develop what is known as ‘the principle of imprinting’, a theory about the way in which nidifugous birds – that is, birds that leave their nests just after hatching – grow to develop an instinctive and rapid bond with maternal figures.
But what Lorenz discovered in his research was that, contrary to centuries of thinking, birds like greylag geese and jackdaws do not necessarily develop an attachment to their real mother; they develop an attachment to the first moving object that they lay eyes on within hours of hatching. They aren’t able to discriminate in any sophisticated way about who they form an attachment to: it might be a kindly maternal bird, but it could also be an indifferent farmer or a random piece of agricultural machinery. Rather cruelly but illuminatingly, Lorenz showed that a young bird can – depending on the experiment – develop an extremely powerful attachment to a scientist in Wellington boots, a bicycle, a tire, a garden hose or a mannequin.
Lorenz’s most famous book, “The Companion in the Environment of Birds” published in 1935 talked exclusively of winged creatures, but it was seized upon by psychologists reflecting on human behaviour – and used to shed light on a particularly painful phenomenon of our love lives: our tendency to seek out and trot obediently behind other humans who may not, all things considered, be in any substantial way fitting or appropriate for us.
Just like young birds, young humans develop powerful attachments to the adults who are closest to them in their early days. Yet also rather like birds, they are unable to discriminate very well between care-givers. They latch on to who is around, not what their deeper nature would ideally call for. They can, at the most extreme, develop attachments to people who not deserve their love at all, who are – as it were – as relevant to their needs as a bicycle is to a goose. An infant might not actually become attached to a tire, but they might – in a comparable process – grow powerfully impressed by someone who neglects them emotionally, who belittles them, makes them feel ashamed and visits considerable cruelty upon them.
Far worse, this early imprinting then has the power to govern the sort of lovers who these people, once they are grown, find themselves growing attached to in turn. With some of the same sort of almost laughable impressionability evinced by baby jackdaws trotting behind a scientist in a lab coat, an adult who has been imprinted with unhelpful ideas about who should give them care and nurture may spend decades devoting themselves to the most inappropriate and callous figures.
It seems – via Lorenz’s work – that our biological make-up privileges attachment to anyone over attachment to someone able to fulfill our needs. We are sometimes puzzled by how frequently we find ourselves in love with people whom we know – at a rational level – are not going to be good for us, but who mirror the disturbing patterns of our attachments from early childhood. The process may seem deeply dispiriting but Lorenz’s work opens up an avenue of compassion. We may be a great deal more sophisticated than birds in our mental processes, but when it comes to whom we are drawn to, we are prey to some of the same mechanical illogicality as they. It can take years and a lot of work to realise we are imprinted to follow fools and ingrates. When we trot without question behind a person who treats us coldly or plays with our mind, we should not merely hate ourselves: we should reflect on how much this unfulfilling adult mirrors an early attachment figure who indirectly mocked who we were before we had a chance to understand ourselves and what we deserved.
It is no insult to recognise that we are sometimes, in intimate areas of our lives, as helpless before the workings of imprinting as a goose. And yet, as always, it’s by realising our servitude that we have a chance to break free from it. We are not compelled to follow incessantly behind someone unworthy of our love. We are – as young birds are not – free to take off and seek out someone better able to deliver in an adult form the generous and life-enhancing love we should have known from the first.
There is no more common response, after we have been living alongside a partner for a few years, than a feeling of intense (though normally very privately-held) boredom. However intriguing they might have been at the start, and however accomplished they remain in theory, we tend to end up in the unfortunate position of knowing most of their anecdotes, of being able to predict their responses, of having seen them from every angle and of being left to smile wanly at their now awkwardly familiar set of jokes. Without meaning to be disloyal, our eyes develop a tendency to drift; we can fall powerfully for faces we glimpse only momentarily on the subway or in the grocery store, and which seem to harbour all the charm and depths of the unknown. Haunted by an impression of mesmerising but unattainable mystery, we become irritable and ungrateful towards the one person who has opted to spend their life in our company.
It is understandable enough that we should seek novelty in love; our characteristic error is to believe that this must mean seeking out a new partner. Restless, we miss out on a critically redemptive idea: that the person we have been with for so long, perhaps for many years, is in fact a stranger. And, paradoxically, they are a stranger precisely because our physical proximity and familiar joint routines have lulled us into assuming that we know them thoroughly already, which is what dissuades us from continuing to bring to bear on them the kind of searching intelligence we would naturally apply to someone we had only just met. It is our assumption of knowledge that deals our curiosity a fatal blow – and encourages us to feel listless and dissatisfied where we should more fairly remain inquisitive and enchanted.
We are helped, in the early days, by the obviousness of our ignorance. We have no option but to understand that we need to get to know the basics: the structure of their family, their educational and career trajectories, their friendships and travels, their cultural tastes and domestic habits. But at a certain point, astonishingly, we stop. We believe we have done enough, we trust that it might be possible to understand someone in the course of around a 150 hours or so of chat. And then we shift to practicalities, to reflections on the news, the latest things at work and when someone might be coming to check the boiler. We no longer expect big disclosures and cease to prepare or hunt for them. Our partial knowledge functions as a dispiriting reason not to ask for more. We fail to extend to them the basic insight we all know from within: that we are never quite done with understanding the mind, that only a tiny portion of its endless canyons is ever illuminated by reason (and therefore available to oneself let alone another person) and that we can orbit consciousness for years without ever grasping more than a fraction of its content. We confuse seeing our lover every day with understanding their soul.
Our neglect of the complexities of our partner only mirrors our jaded attitude to the world around us more generally. We are no less lacking in curiosity about our country, our city or our own home. In these cases too we look around and see only banality and the mundane – and are prone to long for the obviously exotic and foreign instead. One counter to this settled ingratitude lies in certain works of art, which contain coded pleas for us to start noticing the intricacy and beauty of overlooked aspects of the everyday. Artists of genius have over the centuries used their talents to say what amounts to, in effect, ‘Notice the astonishing sunlight as it hits the top of the trees, the delicacy of the water rippling by the shore, the solemnity of the fog hugging the landscape at dusk…’ They challenge us to notice afresh what we jadedly think we have already seen.
We can think in this context of the work of Edouard Manet, who in 1880, looked afresh at a bunch of asparagus – that is, looked at a spring vegetable with the appreciative sensitivity of a martian or a young child newly landed on the planet. Where we might have been prepared to recognise only dull white stalks, the artist observed and then reproduced vigour, colour and individuality, recasting this humble foodstuff as a sacramental object through which we might recover faith in life more broadly.
Edouard Manet, Bunch of Asparagus, 1880.
In the spirit of Manet, we might turn to consider our partner as if they too were an alien wondrous object worthy of sustained appreciation and study. We might begin by inviting them out on a date – and talk to them as if we knew almost nothing about them, which – in fact – it turns out we don’t. We could with newfound modesty consider all the topics that we had skated over far too fast at the start and then never bothered to return to. What was their relationship with their father like? What did their parents fail to understand about them? In what ways were they misunderstood as a child? We might – over the main course – turn to their careers: what gives their work purpose? In what areas do they lack confidence? Where do they see their essential strengths? We could then move on to their aspirations: what remains exciting for them? What would they be sad if they never achieved? What are their hopes for the future? What, in their eyes, is the meaning of their life?
Later in the evening, in a similar vein, we could remember that we know next to nothing about them sexually, even if we have made love to them hundreds of times and slept many thousands of nights with them (especially and particularly then): where do they most like to be touched? What turns them on? What are their most intense fantasies? We could put aside the veil of partial knowledge which has prevented us from seeing them and unclothe them properly as if for the very first time. And we might do this not once, but as a regular exercise to remind us of the ongoing mystery of someone we could only ever think of as familiar by error and hubris.
With such techniques in mind, we stand to recognise something at once alarming and deeply relieving; that we don’t necessarily need to go out and find a new lover in order to recover a sense of excitement. We don’t need to learn to look at new people with jaded eyes, we need new eyes to look afresh at the familiar world around us – and in particular, the total stranger in the bed beside us.