We’re unlucky enough if we meet with people who want to do us wrong, show us contempt and take advantage of us. But this is as nothing next to the monumental bad luck of encountering people who do all this to us while also being extremely skilled at pretending that they aren’t; those master manipulators who are at once innocent-seeming and, deep down, profoundly scheming. These people won’t only hurt us, they will do something far worse: rob us of our understanding of ourselves, strip us of basic trust and, along the way, for a time, make us lose our minds.
However good we might be at fighting overt antagonists, many of us are constitutionally unprepared to detect ones that have entered our intimate lives; we expect and can deal with enemies at the office, but the bedroom feels like a sanctum where our guard is down. Yet this doesn’t mean that some very dark things can’t unfold there. There are people we can take up with who have been so badly hurt by something in their early lives that they are committed to exacting revenge on anyone who comes too close to them: they may semi-consciously be seeking to exorcise on their partners a latent rage against a dead or depressed parent, they may want to punish a bullying sibling or release themselves from a sense of intolerable vulnerability created by an incident of early abuse.
Such dark possibilities are rarely spoken of in useful terms. There are plenty of popular references to ‘psychos’ and ‘lunatics’ but far fewer patient analyses of how exactly other minds can be distorted and how widespread longings for vengeance may be beneath smiles and good manners.
When we meet with difficulties, we have two explanations to fall back on: the first is to doubt ourselves. The second is to wonder whether, and how, the other person might be ill. If we almost always pick the former, it’s because of how familiar and reassuring it is not to take our own sides. It is so much easier for us to think that we are (as they also quickly tell us) irrationally prone to anger, over-excited, ‘insane’ and complaining for no reason — rather than deep in a relationship with a cruel soul.
Those who are most prone to being gaslit in adult love are, sadly of course, the very people who may have been gaslit by their own parents. The idea sounds yet more curious, but parents too can be adept at polishing their reputations and will insist that they are kind — while simultaneously expending enormous hostility on their thoroughly confused child.
Despite decades of training in self-doubt, we may need to do a remarkable thing: trust in what our unhappiness is telling us about those we think of as good. The test isn’t whether they tell us they love us, it’s how at peace they make us feel. We may have to accept that the world is filled with some very dangerous people who look entirely safe to our fatefully untrained eyes. We may need to think a bit less badly of ourselves and substantially worse of some sweet-seeming characters who claim with great sincerity to love us — and don’t.
Most of us have a general understanding that ‘games playing’ in relationships is a bad thing – and that all good people are opposed to them. ‘I don’t play games,’ is a favourite mantra declaimed by hopeful people at the beginning love stories the world over.
However, it can be less obvious what games playing really involves – and therefore how definitively to avoid its dynamics. We too often associate this “so-called sport” with its most obvious manifestations in the dating phase: for example, when a person hides their desire beneath a veneer of indifference, or goes cold as soon as love is reciprocated.
But there are plenty of other forms of games playing that are far more insidious, invisible and, in the long run, dangerous. They occur whenever we decide to stop saying something difficult, vulnerable or hurt that is on our minds and camouflage an injury instead.
We play games when our partner does or says something that wounds us but we choose not to reveal it, we stay silent and smiley, because to be honest would make us feel exposed, desperate, cloying and weak in front of someone who (we fear) might simply not care enough about us to listen. Therefore, we opt to initiate a so-called ‘game’ in which we do the following. We bury our ruffled feelings about this or that problem, but we do so deliberately badly, in the hope that our partner will in time realise their offence and then feel sorry for it and apologise – without us having had to be naked about our upset.
The ‘game’ sets out to provoke guilt as an alternative to emotional frankness. So rather than tell a partner cleanly that we’re a bit upset that they didn’t — for instance — buy us the medicine we asked them to pick up on their way back from work, we play the “game” of blithely not caring about their forgetting. We stay silent, and then, the next morning, we go to the chemist ourselves, and leave the box and the receipt prominently on the kitchen table. When (as we had hoped) they spot it and immediately say, ‘Oh god, I’m so sorry,’ we smile casually and reply, ‘Oh don’t worry, that’s fine, it wasn’t a bother for me.’
It may seem like a tiny incident but the seismologists of relationships will know that this is likely to be the harbinger of something far bigger: a fateful pattern of not declaring what is wrong, of hoping to be read without explaining, of not daring to speak about what matters, all of which can over time lead to a grave erosion of trust and destructive indirect methods of communication that bring anger and resentment in their wake.
Games playing is a subset of behaviour we know as sulking. When we sulk, it’s because a partner has in some way offended us. They have told a story in public that we wanted to be kept private, they have shown us a lack of tact, they have forgotten an important occasion, they have failed to listen to us. But the sulker acts as if from an unhelpfully romantic hope: that they should be interpreted without needing to speak. They dream that someone who truly loved them would guess what they were upset about, without requiring the offence to be spelt out to them in a medium as clumsy and as slow as language. They want to be understood without words.
Anyone who fails to do this is quickly taken by the sulker to be badly intentioned. There is little space to believe in innocent failures of empathy. The partner hasn’t merely failed to grasp what is going on, their failure is willed; they are doing this on purpose. To a feeling of abandonment, the sulker adds a layer of persecution.
For the sulker, it is a great deal more tempting to devote the next six hours to answering curtly, insisting that nothing is wrong and affecting a pained and melancholy look — than to strive to delineate the nature of their hurt.
We are taking our first steps towards a less fraught kind of coupledom when we are finally able to tell someone who has upset us that they have upset us – preferably within the very half hour in which they have done so.
A true commitment to not playing games involves a profound effort directly to say everything that has upset us at once. It could sound like we are being ‘difficult’. However, so long as we are polite, communicating hurt is anything but poor behaviour. It’s the greatest privilege to be in love with a true adult who can tell us what is wrong precisely when a problem occurs – and is brave enough to present themselves as weak so that love can stay strong.
Many tensions within relationships can usefully be looked at through the prism of a concept much used within psychotherapy: the idea of ‘rupture’ and ‘repair.’ For psychotherapists, every relationship is at risk of moments of frustration or as the term has it, of ‘rupture’, when we suffer a loss of trust in another person as someone in whom we can safely deposit our love, and whom we believe can be kind and understanding of our needs.
The ruptures are often quite small, and to outside observers perhaps imperceptible: one person fails to respond warmly to another’s greeting; someone tries to explain an idea to their partner who shrugs and says off-handedly that they have no idea what they’re on about; in front of friends, a lover shares an anecdote which casts the partner in a less than flattering light. Or the rupture can be more serious: someone calls someone a stupid fool and breaks a door. A birthday is forgotten. An affair begins.
The point about ruptures is that they say nothing – in themselves – about a relationship’s prospects of survival. There might be constant rather grave ruptures and no break up. Or there might be one or two tense moments over a minor disagreement – and things head towards collapse.
What determines the difference is something that psychotherapists are especially keen to teach us about: the capacity for what they term ‘repair’. Repair refers to the work needed for two people to regain each others’ trust, and restore themselves in the others’ mind as someone who is essentially decent and sympathetic and can be a ‘good enough’ interpreter of their needs. As psychotherapy points out, repair isn’t just one capacity among others, it is arguably the central determinant of one’s mastery of emotional maturity; it is what identifies us as true adults.
Good repair relies on at least four separate skills:
1. The Ability to Apologise
A sorry may not be as easy as it sounds, for it isn’t just a few warm words one has to say, the true cost is to one’s self-love. If one is already on the verge of finding oneself somewhat intolerable, then the call to concede yet another point – to own up to being still more foolish, emotionally unbalanced, controlling, hot-tempered or vain – can feel like a demand too far. We may opt to dig in and avoid a sorry not because we are overly pleased with ourselves but precisely because our unworthiness feels so painfully obvious to us already – and lends us no faith to imagine that any apologies we did make could arouse the kind of forebearance and kindness we crave – and yet so badly feel we don’t deserve.
2. The Ability to Forgive
There can be equal difficulty around being able to accept an apology. To do so requires us to extend imaginative sympathy for why good people (which includes us) can end up doing some pretty bad things – not because they are ‘evil’ but because they are in their varied ways tired or sad, worried or weak. A forgiving outlook lends us energy to look around for the most generous reasons why fundamentally decent people can at points behave less than optimally. When this kind of forgiveness feels impossible, therapists speak of a manoeuvre of the mind known as ‘splitting’, a tendency to declare some people to be entirely good and others, just as simply, entirely awful. In dividing humanity like this, we protect ourselves from what can feel like the impossible dangers of disappointment or grown-up ambivalence. Either someone is pure and perfect and we can love them without reserve or – quite suddenly – they must be appalling and we can never ever forgive them. We cling to rupture because it confirms a story which, though deeply sad at one level, also feels very safe: that big emotional commitments are invariably too risky, that others can’t be trusted, that hope is an illusion – and that we are basically all alone.
3. The Ability to Teach
Behind a rupture, there often lies a failed attempt by one person to teach something to another. There was something that they were trying to get across when they lost their temper or got into a sulk: something about how to behave around a parent or what to do about sex, how to approach childcare or how to handle money. And yet the effort went wrong and they forgot all about the art of good teaching, an art which relies, to a surprising extent, on a degree pessimism about the ability of another person to understand what we want from them. Good teachers aren’t after miraculous outcomes. They know how resistant the human mind can be to new ideas. They swallow a very large dose of pessimism about successful interpersonal communication in order to stay calm and in a good mood around the inevitable frustrations of relationships. They don’t shout because they didn’t from the outset allow themselves to believe in total symmetries of mind. When they’re trying to get something across, they don’t push a point too hard. They give their listener time and know about defensiveness – and as a fallback, accept that they may have to respect two different realities. They can in the end bear to accept that they will always be a bit misunderstood even by someone who loves them very much.
4. The Ability to Learn
It can feel so much easier to get offended with someone than to dare to imagine they might have something important to tell us. We may prefer to get hung up about how they informed us of an idea rather than address the substance of what they are trying to convey. It isn’t easy to have to imagine that we are still beginners in a range of areas. The good repairer is ultimately a good learner: they have a lively and non-humiliating sense of how much they still have left to take on board. It isn’t a surprise or a cause for alarm that someone might level a criticism at them. It’s merely a sign that a kindly soul is invested enough in their development to notice areas of immaturity – and, in the safety of a relationship, to offer them something almost no one otherwise ever bothers with: feedback.
In the Japanese tradition of kintsugi, broken pots and vases are artfully mended using a gold inflected lacker and displayed as precious works of art, as a way to emphasise the dignity and basic human importance of the art of repair.
We should do something of the same with our love stories. It is a fine thing to have a relationship without moments of rupture no doubt, but it is a finer and more noble achievement still to know how to patch things up repeatedly with those precious strands of emotional gold: self-acceptance, patience, humility, courage and a lot of tenderness.
We live in a culture that firmly suggests that the essence of true love is for one person fully to accept the other, as we like to put it, just as they are. In moments of quiet intimacy, the most romantic thing one could ever hear from a partner is, apparently, ‘I wouldn’t want to change a thing about you’ just as the most bitter and disappointed enquiry one could ever have cause to throw at a lover in a declining relationship would be: ‘Why can’t you accept me as I am?’ If things do end, we can be guaranteed to garner a substantial degree of outraged sympathy from friends and onlookers by explaining bluntly that we left: because they wanted us to change.
It sounds almost plausible – until we pause and modestly remember what the human animal is: a demented, broken, agitated, blind, deluded, barely evolved primate. We are, each one of us, and with nothing derogatory being meant by the term whatsoever, simply quite mad. Outside a carefully crafted facade, we are evidently only just holding it together. We are the inheritors of deeply peculiar childhoods, we over and under react in a shifting set of areas, we fail to understand key aspects of reality, we get other people wildly wrong, we are unsure of our path, are entirely questionable in many of our judgements and a lot of the time, plainly have no idea what’s going on.
Against such a background, to insist that there would be nothing about us that we should change, that to be asked to change would be an offence, that we should be loved just as we are, such a position isn’t merely a pleasant romantic trope, it is the height of arrogance and wilful delusion. Given the facts of human nature, our own and that of everyone else’s on this wretched planet, how could we be anything other than profoundly, tirelessly committed to change? How could we not be thoroughly embarrassed of who we were last year, let alone yesterday or right now? How could we not heartily embrace the idea of anyone with a modicum of curiosity and patience proffering certain suggestions about how we might evolve? By what species of manic defensiveness have we built a culture where it might be thought Romantic to deny oneself the chance of psychological growth?
It’s time to redefine a functioning adult. This isn’t someone who bristles at the idea of change, gently suggested; it’s someone who immediately and instinctively welcomes it as a path to redemption. The true adult knows they need to grow up. The truly healthy person knows they are ill (we all are). And conversely, the people who really need to change are precisely those who think they don’t need to change at all (and say it’s your problem when you float the idea), those who get furious with you for even vaguely suggesting the concept and storm off into the other room calling you weird or over-intense.
Of course, change has to be asked for in kindly and mature ways. We’re not talking here of a bullying demand for evolution. We’re talking about how much we are right to love our partners and still, nevertheless, want them to grow up in particular ways: learn to listen more, learn to be more present, learn to be more affectionate or at least explain why they can’t be, learn to get better at fathoming their sexuality, learn to understand their past and how it affects their present, learn to defuse what makes them irrationally angry, learn to admit to their addictive behaviours and seek the help that would be on offer, learn not to humiliate us in company or betray us with friends or our children, learn how to be loyal and kind and relaxed and present and good…
Of course we want them to change and of course they should want to change us. This isn’t incompatible with love, it’s the work of love. Love should be a classroom in which we mutually undertake to educate one another, in a spirit of support and compassion, to grow into the best version of ourselves. Love shouldn’t be a casern in which we endorse each other’s worst sides and suffer in silence around the difficulties the other is causing us. ‘What would you like to change about me?’ should emerge as the kindest and most mature of enquiries between partners. Rather than giving each other presents, couples should merely hand over the greatest gift of all, the sincerely-meant question: How can I change to make it easier for you to endure me? That would be properly Romantic.
Love is not a place to seek support for one’s most compulsive and immature sides; to be backed up in defenses and seek confirmation that one is ok with every last subterfuge and prevarication. Love should give us the bravery to confront our flaws. ‘I want you to change’ is not a sign of cruelty: it’s proof that someone cares. Let’s go even further: the natural response to being with someone who keeps not wanting to change and who sees our attempts to change them as an insult, should be brutally realistic: we should leave.
In long-term relationships, whatever the pleasures, we are – statistically speaking – likely to spend up to 10% of our time caught up in the intoxicating and all-consuming business of arguing. Each argument will seem to be uniquely about itself. It will have its distinct flashpoint, features, injustices, stupidities and what to us appear to be self-evident truths that the partner is blithely resisting: the absurdity of proposing to leave at 7.23pm when we had both agreed – only two hours ago – that we’d leave at no later than 7.10pm; the idiocy of telling a younger son he could have extra screen time when we’d already explained to him that he’d breached his limit; the insult of the partner laughing aloud at our sister-in-law’s cheap jibe against us at the family reunion…
Faced with such offences, we dig in like eager, well-paid lawyers. We marshall evidence. We say, on the basis of this or that, they are obviously going to have to rethink their line and surrender to our perspective. The first round may begin peacefully enough, but the urgency and annoyance stand to increase as the second and third rounds unfold; each team adding a little vengeance and irritation to their proclamations. Sometimes, with the logic of the argument so stubbornly resisted by the other party, voices will be raised, faces will flush, someone (whom we have named in our will ,and to whom we have otherwise given our lives) may be called a c*** or a b******, a door might be slammed and a gloom could descend that will take a good two days to clear.
Such rigmaroles are so shameful and dispiriting, we tend not to mention their entrails to others – and others in turn keep quiet about their squabbles to us, deepening our feelings of isolation and embarrassment. We go around saying that we’ve had a bit of ‘a tiff’ or are ‘going through a bad patch’ – in lieu of confessing openly that the person we love appears, sometimes at least, to have substantially ruined our lives.
The great error we make is to assume that the way to fix an argument is to attempt to reach an objective truth that can, once it has been brought out into the open, neutralise the force of the fierce offence we feel. But there’s an unfortunate and somewhat paradoxical side of arguments in relationships: it substantially doesn’t matter what the truth is. It’s by the by who has the stronger case. It’s an irrelevance who can ‘win’.
That’s because there is only ever one thing we really want from our partners behind, or beneath, an argument: we need to know we are loved. We are arguing so bitterly not because a client has hired us in a courtroom but because we are emotionally in pain, because the relationship has forced us – as they will – to make ourselves awesomely vulnerable in front another person we depend on. What we are longing for, beneath our furious eloquence, is reassurance. We are calling them a c**** in lieu of asking them tearfully if they still love us and why, in that case, they have hurt us quite so much.
Rather than dwell tirelessly on the surface complaints, we might therefore learn to cut straight to the emotional substratum of the situation and raise one of six possible objections to the partner:
- I feel you don’t value me.
- I feel abandoned.
- I feel not good enough.
- I feel you are trying to control me.
- I feel you’re not accepting who I really am.
- I feel unseen and unheard.
We might, if the words were sometimes too hard to utter, simply paste the list to the fridge door and point mutely at them at the height of a dispute. Rather than try to win a proxy managerial battle over scheduling or bedtimes, we might immediately disclose the emotional explanation for our upset: when you are late for something we’d agreed on, I feel unseen and unheard… When you contradict me in front of my family, I feel abandoned…
By a grievous logic, it so often seems that the only way to feel safe is to punch back – when in love we are invariably going to be so much safer (that is, so much more likely to be a recipient of affection and atonement) if we manage calmly to reveal our wound at once to its (usually unwitting) perpetrator. The best response is not to make ourselves more impregnable, but to dare to be a little less defended.
Differences of opinion between partners may crop up over anything, but arguments – the sort of heated matches that end in slammed doors and insults – are only ever about one thing: the anxiety of being excessively vulnerable before someone we adore and can’t control. It may look like a fight over scheduling or childcare, really it’s a fight about the terror of emotional abandonment. If we kept this idea in mind, we might save ourselves so much time in legalistic point scoring, possibly four hours a week or more which could be put to use gardening, helping the aged or learning a foreign language. There’d be so much less to shout about – and so many more exciting things to get on with…
Our societies have a lot of patience for people who are in anguish at the start of a relationship because they need to know if they are loved – but a lot less time for those who – deep into established relationships – have an equally powerful longing to know if they are still loved. A nagging hunger for reassurance can easily come across as ‘needy’, ‘cloying’ or ‘desperate’. But that doesn’t mean it’s illegitimate; it’s a wholly normal, even healthy impulse to seek to know where one stands. One just has to find an artful and effective way of doing so.
I know this might sound annoying – and no doubt even a touch desperate…
We’re never unbearably annoying when we’re aware we might be so. Giving a mature nod in the direction of the danger suggests that we know the potential for extremes and are determined to avoid them. The truly deranged have no suspicion they might be so; they just wildly insist on their normalcy.
But I need reassurance – and I’m not getting it.
Too often, when denied a sense of connection, we go down one of two paths. Either we say nothing, avoiding a confrontation out of a sense that we don’t deserve good treatment (but then get bitter and go cold or have an affair). Or else we explode into uncontained rage, accusing the partner of all manner of extreme things, which makes it painfully easy for us to be ignored and labelled crazy. The trick is to come across as strong and, at the same time, vulnerable.
For me, a sound relationship is about a feeling of connection – and regular communication. I’m tough in every area in my life; I don’t want to be in this one.
A hint, somewhere in the message, that while we very much want to stay, we aren’t ready to do so at any cost; offering someone unconditional love sounds romantic, but it’s also a sure route to getting trampled on.
This might seem like a small thing to bring up, but you need to know that when you …. [insert issue, large or substantial: flirted at dinner/were absent for two days without saying where you were going/were sullen throughout the meal/abandoned your towel on the floor/didn’t take my hand in bed], it left me sad and a little angry.
We should never be humiliated into feeling that the things that make us unhappy in love are ‘too small’ to worry about: if they hurt us, they’re legitimate. We need to build up our sense that we have every right to speak, which is what will ensure that we can do so with composure.
I love you a lot – but I’m someone who needs to know we want the same things.
We often don’t ask if we’re wanted from a bare fear of what we might hear in return. But if a relationship is truly so fragile, we are better off not being in it in the first place.
Of course, I understand we have different styles of relating; I don’t want to put you under undue pressure.
It pays to signal our awareness that love can manifest itself in different ways; it is theoretically compatible with silence, or more modest sexual interest or a steady longing to hang out with friends or play golf. But these may also be signs of a distance that truly isn’t our style and that we have no innate requirement to endure.
I’m rather needy – and need a few more signs of life from your end.
It’s useful to win back a pejorative term, make it one’s own and triumph over its unfair negative associations. The really fragile ones among us aren’t those who can articulate their need for reassurance, it’s those who can’t bear the risks of being close.
One of our deepest longings – deeper than we even perhaps recognise day to to day – is that other people should acknowledge certain of our feelings. We want that – at key moments – our sufferings should be understood, our anxieties noticed and our sadness lent legitimacy. We don’t want others necessarily to agree with all our feelings, but what we crave is that they at least validate them. When we are furious, we want another person to say: I can see that you’ve been driven to distraction. It must feel very chaotic for you inside right now for you. When we are sad, we want someone to say: I know you’re unusually down and I understand the reasons why. And when we can’t take it all any more, we want someone gently to say: It’s been too much for you; I recognise that so well; of course it has.
It sounds desperately simple, and in a way it is. And yet how little of this emotional nectar of acknowledgement we ever in fact receive or gift to one another.
The habit of not having one’s feelings properly acknowledged begins in childhood. Parents, even the most loving ones, frequently stumble in this domain. It’s not that they don’t theoretically care intensely for their children, it’s that they don’t appreciate that true care involves regularly reflecting a child’s moods back to him or herself – rather than subtly pushing the moods away or denying that they exist. Here are some typical unacknowledging parent-child exchanges:
Child: I’m feeling sad.
Parent: Don’t be silly, you can’t be, it’s the holidays.
Child: I’m really worried.
Parent: Darling, now that’s that’s ridiculous, there’s just nothing to be scared of here.
Child: I wish there wasn’t any school ever ever.
Parent: Don’t be so silly. You know we have to leave the house by eight.
How different things might go, and what a different sort of adult the child would have a chance to grow into, if such dialogues were only slightly tweaked: if, for example, the parent could say: ‘It’s weird isn’t it how it’s possible to be sad at the oddest of times, even on a beach holiday…’ Or: ‘I can see you’re scared: that wind is really fierce out there…’ Or: ‘It must be horrible having double maths all morning, especially after such a nice weekend…’
There is one reason why we don’t acknowledge as we might: fear. The feelings we push away are all, in some shape or other, emotionally inconvenient, or troubling or upsetting: we love our child so much, we don’t want to imagine that they might be sad or worried, lost or having a terribly difficult time at school. Furthermore, we may operate with a background view that acknowledging a difficult feeling will make it far worse than it is. It will mean fostering it unduly or giving way to it entirely. We fear that if we give a bit of unbiased mirroring to our child, we might be encouraging them to grow cataclysmically depressive, unfeasibly timid or manically resistant to authority. What we’re missing is that most of us, once we’ve been heard, become far less – rather than far more – inclined to insist on the feelings we’re beset by. The angry person gets less rather than more enraged once the depth of their frustration has been recognised; the rebellious child grows more, not less inclined, to buckle down and do their homework once their feelings that they want to burn the school down, break the headmaster’s glasses and abscond to a desert island have been listened to and identified with for fifty-five seconds. Feelings get less strong, not more tyrannous, as soon as they’ve been given an airing. We become bullies when no one’s listened, never because they listened too much.
The problem of unacknowledged feelings doesn’t – sadly – end with childhood. Couples routinely put each other through the same mill. For example:
Partner 1: Sometimes I feel that you don’t listen…
Partner 2: That has to be rubbish; I put so much work into this relationship.
Partner 1: I’m worried I might be fired
Partner 2: That’s not possible, you work so hard.
All the way to the divorce courts – or an affair.
The good news is that an enormous uplift in mood is available right now, with very little effort, if we simply learn to change the way we typically respond to the I-statements of those who matter to us. We only need to play their feelings back to them, even the potentially awkward feelings, for a few moments using certain magical phrases:
I can hear that you must…
You must be feeling so…
I can understand completely that…
Such phrases can change the course of lives. The person who needs their feelings acknowledged will almost never take a hearing as license to increase their distress or blame; the laws of psychology dictate that a crisis will immediately start to decline once a simple non-judgemental mirroring has taken place.
Crucially, we don’t need to be listened to by everyone. We can bear an awful lot of unacknowledged feelings when just a few people, some of them in our childhood, and ideally one of them in our bedroom and in our friendship circle every now and then plays us back to us. The ranter, the person animated by a rigid desire that everyone should listen to them, hasn’t (of course) been overindulged: they are just playing out the frightening consequences of never having been heard when it mattered.
There is almost no end to what we may be ready to do for those who pay us that immense, psychologically-redemptive honour of once in a while acknowledging what we’re actually feeling, however odd, melancholy or inconvenient it might be.
People around us often behave rather badly – and when they do, we tend to rush in with some very punitive explanations: they’re trying to hurt us, they’re deliberately attempting to ruin our lives, they’re morons, they’ve thought long and hard about harming us…
Interestingly, small children also sometimes behave in stunningly unfair and horrid ways: they throw stuff on the floor, they scream and say mean things, they try to hit us or steal something from their little brother. But, crucially, our response to this is quite distinctive. We stay calm. We gently sort out the mess. We tend, almost unconsciously, to ask ourselves five key questions:
- Might they be tired?
- Might they be hungry?
- Might they be sad?
- Might someone have hurt them?
- Might they need a cuddle?
How far we are from behaving like this when we are with fellow adults in general, and our lovers in particular. Here we know at once why they did a bad thing: because they are a terrible person. Because they’re trying to destroy us. Because they’re hateful.
But if we employed the infant model of interpretation, we would do something very different. We would, almost unconsciously, before looking elsewhere, ask ourselves those five very same questions:
- Might they be tired?
- Might they be hungry?
- Might they be sad?
- Might someone have hurt them?
- Might they need a cuddle?
It’s very touching that we live in a world where we have learnt to be so kind to children: it would be even nicer if we learnt to be a little more generous towards the childlike parts of one another.
It sounds strange at first – and even condescending – to keep in mind that in crucial ways other adults always remain childlike in part. But this way of seeing a person may be a helpful strategy for managing times when they are very difficult to cope with.
When people fall far short of what we ideally expect from grown up behaviour and we dismissively label such attitudes as ‘childish’, we are, without quite realising it, approaching a hugely constructive idea. We see it simply as an accusation, rather than what it truly is: a recognition of an ordinary feature of the human condition.
Adulthood simply isn’t a complete state; what we call childhood lasts (in a submerged but significant way) all our lives. Therefore, some of the moves we execute with relative ease around children must forever continue to be relevant when we’re dealing with another grown-up.
Being benevolent to another person’s inner child doesn’t mean infantilizing them. It means being charitable in translating things they say in terms of their deeper meaning. ‘You’re a bastard’ might actually be a way of trying to say ‘I feel under siege at work and I’m trying to tell myself I’m stronger and more independent than I really feel.’
We’d ideally give more space for soothing rather than arguing; instead of taking our partner up for something annoying they’ve said, we’d see them like an agitated child who is lashing out at that the person they most love because they can’t think of what else to do. We’d seek to reassure and show them that they are still OK, rather than (as is so tempting) hit back with equal force.
Of course, it’s much much harder being grown-up around another adult whose inner child is on display than it is being with an actual child. That’s because you can see how little and undeveloped a toddler or a five year old is, so sympathy comes naturally. We know it would be a disaster to suddenly turn on the child and try to hold them fully responsible for every moment of their conduct. Psychology has been warning us for half a century or more that this isn’t the right route.
We are so alive to the idea that it’s patronising to be thought of as younger than we are that we forget that it is also, at times, the greatest privilege for someone to look beyond our adult self in order to engage with – and forgive – the disappointed, furious, inarticulate or wounded child within.
Complaining carries such negative connotations, it can be hard to remember that there are better and worse ways of doing it – and indeed, hard to realise that an essential ingredient of love is to know how to level complaints kindly.
So many of our critical thoughts are legitimate, yet they are let down by their method of delivery: we nag, we harangue, we attack, we rant, we make cutting, sarcastic remarks, all of which make our partner deny and escape rather than investigate how they might learn.
Complaining is a skill. Typically if we haven’t carefully practiced a complicated task (like playing the violin or reversing an articulated lorry), we’ll do it very badly; but in principle it can be done successful, if we develop the relevant skills. So too with complaining. The notion of a skill is generous to the inadequacy of our natural instincts. It proposes that many important tasks will be beyond us, unless we undergo a period of training.
In this spirit, here is a short guide to how to complain well:
1. Layering criticism with reassurance
Any criticism (as we know when we’re on the receiving end) feels like a withdrawal of love. Therefore it’s extremely helpful to convey great admiration and respect as we’re announcing our negative insight.
Compare the effect of saying:
– You know your breath stinks. It’s disgusting.
As opposed to:
– I love giving you a kiss, but there’s just this one tiny thing: it’s even nicer when you’ve just brushed your teeth.
– Why the hell were you flirting with that idiotic person?
As opposed to:
– You are so lovely and I can’t help imagining other people finding you attractive. Don’t blame me for being selfish: I want to keep you to myself.
2. Making it clear that it’s normal, and understandable, for your partner to have this failing
One of the things we are primed to resent is being made to feel freakish or being negatively compared to others who are ‘good’, while (obviously) we are ‘bad’.
– No-one on the planet has to put up with this, why can’t you see that obviously it was your turn to take the bins out?
– Taking the bins out is obviously about the most boring task imaginable. I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to get out of it, but it occurs to me that maybe yesterday it was actually your turn.
– You’ve become probably the least imaginative person in the world in bed. Martin and Jannine are fucking like crazy, what’s wrong with you?
– I don’t know anyone whose sex life has stood the test of time, but maybe we could slightly buck the trend?
3. Use qualifiers – maybe, perhaps, possibly, by chance
Often what we hate about criticism is its directness. In a secret part of our minds we’re not inherently unwilling to accept that we’re very far from perfect – but we can’t bear having certain truths stated to us bluntly. Compare:
– I hate the way you try to tell a story: you’re like some demented robot that has no idea what needs to be explained first, what’s an irrelevant detail or what the point of the whole thing is.
– It sometimes seems to me that maybe you haven’t entirely got in focus the reaction you are hoping to elicit from others.
– You are such a revolting snob, I want to die of shame when I hear you pontificating in front of other people.
– I wonder if it’s just possible that at times not everyone fully identifies with the interesting point you are making.
4. Explain what is genuinely at stake for you
We don’t realise it, but often our criticism doesn’t perfectly target the real source of our distress: we lash out and condemn our partner in their whole being, rather than surgically addressing a very precise problem. We might say:
– You’re a cunt/bastard.
– When you were slightly abrupt with my mother, it made my unhappy. I totally understand: she’s not your best friend and she can be pretty annoying; but I feel I have to be loyal to her, I can’t emotionally afford to alienate her more than I already have. I hardly dare ask, but I’d love you to grit your teeth and be sweet with her. I know its a lot to ask but it would mean so much to me.
– You’ve ruined my whole life!
– It’s pretty difficult to explain, but I have this quite intense thing about cutlery. I know it sounds weird, but it does bother me when the knives and forks don’t match. Ultimately I suppose matching means harmony for me. It’s a little detail that speaks about a grand theme. When you bought those new knives, I know your were thinking they were a bargain – but would you mind very much if we kept them in reserve. Maybe on Saturday we can go and look for some others.
5. Reveal the longing beneath the complaint
Quite often, when we complain there’s a vulnerable part of us that wants to be recognised, appreciated and looked after. But we’re understandably nervous about revealing our deepest hopes. So instead we go on the attack.
We opt for:
– You promised you’d be here at seven and it’s seven fourteen, you drive me mad!
But don’t dare admit:
– I was counting down the time till you got here, I’m so excited and nervous that we’ve got this time just to ourselves, I worry that I’m keener on you than you are on me. I so want things to go well, that’s why I’m agitated – a few minutes doesn’t really matter.
– Did you really pay that for a haircut, I can’t believe how vain you are.
Because we can’t admit:
– I’m worried that you don’t think I’m attractive, so when I see you taking an interest in your own appearance it makes me feel you are too good for me. I feel very unsure about being liked or found interesting or appealing and I want you to understand this about me.
In each pair of statements the underlying criticism is exactly the same but it is delivered in radically different ways.
Taking turns, each imagine you are an actor trying out for two different roles in a film. One option is that you’ll be cast at as a harsh critic; and in the other, you’ll be skilled at delivering a critique surely but with minimal hostility. The film is based generically on your life as a couple. There are two versions for each scene: one in which the harsh critic appears, and one in which the gentle, skilled critic has a starring role.
If you can bear to, pick out for the director a few criticisms you’ve each recently had of each other and play out the scenes using the two divergent characters.
How would the harsh critic announce what they’re unhappy about? How might the skilled critic speak?
We can all – humblingly – imagine how true adults in a relationship would ideally communicate. They would understand their own moods clearly, speak with confidence but without anger or bitterness, always wait for an appropriate moment to make their case, have faith that they would be heard and so not rush or force the issue and never raise their voices or start to cry.
Unfortunately, very little of this ever happens, for we are – most of us – only adults by chronological age rather than inner maturity. Instead of communicating directly and serenely, we tend to send out a variety of garbled, indirect, peculiar and very unhelpful signals about what’s truly going on for us: signals that end up confusing, enraging and often boring our partners. We make it immensely hard for them to understand us with sympathy – and yet at the same time, we profoundly resent their misunderstandings. This tragic loop is so undignified and painful that we’re tempted to assume it must be unique. And yet in the privacy of our homes, poor communication is the rule. We should try to understand the obstacles and look with sympathy and extreme compassion at how we could do better.
There are four big features of how our minds work that get in the way of sound communication:
1: We assume that others should know
There is no more common belief in love than that the other person should understand what we want, feel, desire and are cross about without us needing to tell them. We carry with us a powerful idea that we can and should be read wordlessly or, to put it at its starkest, magically.
2: We panic
We get so scared that we won’t be understood that we behave in ways that are guaranteed to confirm and exceed our worst fears. Rather than lay out our case calmly, terrified that we are wasting our life with someone who is committed to frustrating us, we lash out at the very worst moments (often late at night) and grow vindictive or self-pitying as we make our case.
We get bossy and controlling or perhaps silent and stern. At points, we immerse ourselves in our work or try to numb our pain with too much food or wine. What our partner witnesses is our outward behaviour, rather than than the underlying distress – and so assume that we’re simply fussy or busy, sullen or self-indulgent. We lose the audience we would so desperately need.
Being as honest and detailed as possible, two members of a couple should complete the following sentence:
– When I’m feeling anxious, I sometimes try to cope by …
This is a moment to give a partner a crucial guide to understanding us. We’re putting into words what we usually express only through misleading behaviour. We’re admitting to the troubles that underlie our more unfortunate and foolish actions.
3: We seek attention in regrettable ways
We want our partner to turn their mind generously and sympathetically to what’s bothering us, but instead of quietly explaining, we employ indirect – and sometimes dramatic – strategies. Even an act as apparently dismissive as storming out of a room can be a plea for understanding (though delivered in away that is certain to fail).
Fill out of the following table together, each picking the entries that are most relevant to you:
|When I …||1. What I really mean is …||2. What I really mean is …|
|Suddenly lose my temper||____________________||____________________|
|Criticise you for …||____________________||____________________|
|Have a very long bath…||____________________||____________________|
|Flirt with someone else…||____________________||____________________|
|Stay on my phone…||____________________||____________________|
4: We sulk
A sulk is one of the more peculiar varieties of indirect communication. We both refuse to say what is bothering us in a polite and kind way – and at the same time perversely hope that our partner will understand what’s wrong and be wholly kind and sympathetic to our cause.
When our partner asks what’s the matter, we say very gruffly ‘I’m fine, nothing’s wrong’ – but what we truly mean is: ‘you should already have understood what you’ve done wrong and what’s upsetting me. I’m hoping you’ll now notice and apologise with great kindness but I’m going to make sure you don’t so that I can prove how unkind you are.’ It sounds absurd – and it is.
– Try to recall a particular occasion of sulking and explain:
- a) Why you got upset
- b) What you felt
- c) Why it was so hard for you to say it directly
The origins of indirect communication almost always lie in childhood. When we were very young, we often didn’t have the capacity or context to understand and explain what was upsetting us, so we resorted to saying nothing, to hating silently, to having tantrums and to stamping our feet.
– What did you learn about communication from your parents? What did they do when they were upset? Were you helped to find the words? What role models did you have?
– What were you allowed to do with your upset and angry moods?
Ideally, when faced with a miscommunicating partner, we’d do our utmost to read between the lines. We’d understand that, at times, they wouldn’t be able to tell us (or felt too agitated to tell us) what was actually wrong and so would behave in ways that sent muddled, unkind, indirect messages about their inner state. We’d appreciate that behind their tantrums lay desperate and disorganized attempts to be lovingly understood.
But when we were truly feeling a little stronger, we would both realise that the burden is ultimately on us both to learn to level our complaints in a way that is slightly more sober, serene and kind.
1. Sympathise with the difficulties of being mature (even if you are at an advanced age).
2. Pick a topic that often upsets and enrages you.
3. Practice laying out your case directly and maturely.
4. Reverse and repeat.