We call them, for good reason, ‘adult’ relationships — that is, relationships entered into when we are grown up, and committed to the principles and virtues of a mature existence.
What can be paradoxical therefore is the extent to which —in the finest couples — the atmosphere owes a debt to certain of the moods and interests of early childhood. For a start, we might want to call the partner ‘baby’, and they might call us ‘poppet.’ We might speak in slightly younger voices and in a higher register. We might buy them a furry giraffe and they might buy us an equally adorable soft toy version of a golden retriever. The two animals might even play games with one another and give each other cuddles when they are sad.
It can all look — in the bright light of day — highly unfortunate and regressive. But this would be to overlook how much adult love necessarily sits on a base created in childhood and therefore should, when it is going well, share certain characteristics with the better moments of our pasts. It is no sign of folly when we use diminutives with our loved ones, it is evidence that we have found our way back to the vulnerability, defencelessness and need that we once knew how to express and entertain with refreshing guilelessness — and that we must reconnect with in order to have a chance to love even if we are, in the rest of our lives, mature defence attorneys, senior cardiac nurses or lauded venture capitalists.
We might — in turn — wonder at those who appear too keen to dismiss sentimental child-based play as ‘baby-ish.’ We might ask what happened to the infantile part of them and why it had to be disowned so forcefully. We might explore how hard it is for them to be witnessed as fragile — and therefore, perhaps, to be gentle around the fragility of others. True maturity doesn’t — ultimately — mean quashing all evidence of weakness or immaturity. It means according the younger part of us its due within the totality of our capacities. It calls for an ability to mother or father the younger self of the partner — and to allow them to do likewise to us.
We may have to wait until we are real adults before we can re-learn how to play — and love — with some of the authenticity and uncensored frankness of our three year old selves.
One of the most striking features of relationships is that, after a while, if things are going well, one or both partners will almost naturally start to refer to the other as ‘baby’. They might, alternatively or in addition, stick a diminutive on to the end of their name (‘-ie’), buy them a teddy (or show them their own from way back) and late at night speak to them in an unusually high pitched, soothing and sing-songy way.
We all invest a considerable part of our energy and our pride in growing up, in ensuring that we no longer need help in tying up our shoelaces, don’t need to be reminded to wrap up warm on cold days and can take care of combing our own hair. In short, we try very hard to be adults.
But successful grown up relationships demand something rather peculiar of us: while we are rewarded for the overall maturity of our characters and way of life, we are also invited – when striving properly to be close to someone – to access the less developed, and more puerile sides of us. It belongs to authentic adulthood to be able, at points in an intimate relationship, to curl up like a small child and seek to be ‘babied’ as one might have been many decades before, when we wore pyjamas with elephant prints on them and had a lisp and a small gap in our front teeth. It belongs to health, rather than pathology, to realise how much one might at difficult moments want to be ‘mummied’ or ‘daddied’ by a partner and to connect for a time with the helpless, frightened, dependent child one once was and at some level always remain.
Sadly though, this selective regression is no easy or charming journey back in time for those whose childhood involved them in scenes of petrifying suffering and humiliation. For them, growing up has involved a superhuman effort never again to place themselves at the mercy of those who might take advantage of their vulnerabilities. Returning into imaginative contact with ‘mummies’ and ‘daddies’ therefore holds no particular charm; their teddies will not be having a picnic any time soon. These bulletproof characters are likely to walk through the world with defiance and strength. They will have built a heavy shield of irony around their hearts. Sarcasm may be their favorite mode of defence – and they will have ensured in a thousand ways that no one would ever attempt to ask them, even in the briefest, most lighthearted and humorous way, to ‘come to mummy or daddy’ for a hug.
The defensiveness is hugely understandable, but it is not necessarily aligned with the real requirements of maturity. True health would mean recovering an easy and informal contact with one’s less robust dimensions; it would mean being able to play the child because one knew one was resolutely the adult, it would mean being able to be ‘baby’ because one was in no doubt that one had safely overcome the fears and traumas of the defenceless past.
The more difficult the early years have been, the more of our undeveloped self must be disavowed, the more we must appear grandiose, impregnable and daunting. Nevertheless, we will know we have acceded to genuine adulthood when we can hold out a protective hand to our frail younger self – and reassure them that we will from now on be their reliable guardians and protectors and allow them to visit us for a cuddle and a play whenever they need to.
We tend to assume that the best foundations for a good shared life for a couple lie in making an explicit commitment (probably in front of 200 guests and a large cake) to staying together for the very long-term. The more we are guaranteed that someone is going to stay with us pretty much indefinitely, the more we can mobilise our best sides and bring our virtues into play.
But at times, it might pay to consider an alternative and more paradoxical truth: that a healthy dose of insecurity, of wondering whether the other person truly is duty-bound to stay with us forever and vice versa, might in reality be the ingredient that helps us to be better people, to curtail our more self-indulgent sides and to conduct a more flourishing and valuable relationship. Rather than drowning in insecurity, might we not benefit – at points – from emphasising and embracing the fragility of our alliance? Rather than a solemn promise that this is forever, might the most romantic move (in the sense of the move most likely to enhance and sustain love) not be a gentle reminder that we could very well no longer be an item by next month?
Insecurity sounds unromantic, but one of its major consequences is the possibility of appreciating why we remain together. So long as we believe we are irrevocably attached, there is no need to feel grateful for a partner’s positive sides or to notice their contributions to our welfare. All these are merely a given, part of the irredeemable fabric of our emotional reality. It tells us something of the importance of remembering endings that, for centuries, the most fitting piece of interior decoration for a prosperous person’s study was taken to be a skull: a real-life skull with ghoulish eye sockets and anguished looking rotten teeth, so that as merchants or politicians went about their business, they would never be far from a reminder that every second was of value.
We should have our own skulls around love. For much of our romantic lives, however much the intellectual idea is in place, the reality of love’s demise remains only in shadow. It’s not a concrete, powerful conviction that courses through us every hour. And though this allows us to bring a reassuring degree of innocence to our plans, it is also the breeding ground for the most profound emotional complacency. We may not experience ourselves as inured to our partners, but in the lackadaisical way we too often approach them, we are implicitly behaving as if the business of waking up every new day next to them had privately been guaranteed to us by an all-knowing god – rather than was a gift daily offered to us by a fellow option-rich mortal.
Another paradoxical-sounding result of good insecurity is that it reduces the dangers of bitterness and suppressed irritation. So long as we have no option but to stay, a lot of what we’re unhappy about may end up hidden, because our complaints have nowhere to go. We can lose the right to have our needs listened to and respected because both sides know that there is no alternative. Our threats have no ammunition in them, we can stamp our feet like impotent emperors. However, when the relationship is fruitfully insecure, we can confidently state our problems with how things are, both sides knowing that our words mean something. And, of course, they can in turn make their dissatisfactions plain to us with equal force. We’re importing into the depths of our relationships some of the qualities that naturally attended their fragile beginnings: the empathy, the care and the effort to be pleasant. In a state of constant insecurity, the important focus becomes on why it might be exciting or helpful or interesting to stay together; it turns the decision to remain in a couple into a loving, authentic choice rather than a prison to which no one has the key.
It may sound kind but we are doing another person, and ourselves, a proper disservice when we promise we will never leave them. There is nothing more likely to usher in the death of love than the whispered words: I will always be with you. We can appreciate the touching sentiment; but we should never let ourselves become trapped in its many asphyxiating consequences.
Insecurity is, along the way, also hugely sexually enticing. There is nothing more devastating to sexual self-confidence than our knowledge that we could never legitimately be of appeal to anyone but our partner – or that they have themselves grown invisible to the rest of humanity. We want what others want – which might include slipping our hand inside our momentarily intriguingly-distant partner’s top. It’s when our lover spots us flirting with an unknown person at a party or when we are forced to note how appealing they are to an audience of strangers that sex will once again be more than a chore. It’s not for nothing that the most intense sex that long-established couples ever have is right after a furious argument, that is, after a vivid encounter with the independence and fiery competence of someone they had for too long mistaken for furniture. Feeling jealous is simultaneously the most abhorrent emotion and the one most necessary to galvanize us back into erotic life.
To get the benefits of insecurity, leaving has to be a real possibility. Our readiness to quit can’t be uttered as a hollow threat blurted out when we are fed up or angry while both sides know that we would in reality be pressed to pack our own suitcase or operate our bank account. It has to be built upon a mature realisation that it would be inherently plausible for us to be on our own; that we could manage our own finances, construct a decent social life and do the grocery shopping.
If there are children involved, it is sometimes argued that that they need to know that we will never part in order to have the security to develop without anxiety. But this is – once more – a misreading of the benefits of eternal promises. Maintaining insecurity in a couple isn’t about trying not to be together; it’s about understanding the best preconditions for being so.
Therefore, one of the most constructive things we might do, in the pursuit of a more fulfilling relationship, is to look in an estate agent’s window and work out, realistically, how we could get an apartment for one. With a secure, positive sense of our own capacity for independence we would learn to see our relationship not as the union of two desperate, option-less people unable and too frightened to face life alone, but of two creative independent, sexually alluring individuals who could have an extremely interesting time apart but have chosen to take real pleasure in being with one another to enrich themselves and grow – at least for the time being…
It can feel very weird, and a bit threatening, to talk about taking the pressure off a relationship. Our collective, inherited Romantic culture likes to imagine functioning couples doing more or less everything together and being the centre of each other’s lives. The good couple is, we are told, one in which two people mean more or less everything to one another.
In a sound relationship, we are supposed to meet each other’s needs in every area of existence – from sex to intellectual stimulation, cooking styles to bedroom habits. We’re supposed to lead our social life in tandem, be the primary sounding board for one another’s problems and complete each other in spirit and in matter. If they’re involved in a sport, we should at once join in or at least come and support them every weekend; if we want to visit a particular country, they are supposed to trot along enthusiastically with us; our friends are meant to be their friends…
It sounds sweet but it is – over the long term – a recipe for disaster. No two people can ever match each other across all areas of existence; and the attempt to do so inevitably ushers in bitterness and rage. We have, at the collective level, given ourselves a hugely unhelpful picture of how love should go. Any independent move is read like a sign that we can’t actually love one another: it is taken to be a sign of imminent danger if we visit other countries on our own or sleep apart. So we end up badgering each other to do things that we don’t really like (we force each other to endure tedious hobbies or see each other’s peculiar old friends), not even because we inherently want to do so but because any other arrangement has come to seem like evidence of betrayal.
A more realistic and in the proper sense Romantic view of couples would suggest that there have to be a few strong areas where we can meet each others needs, but that there should also be plenty of others where we are clearly better off pursuing our goals on our own.
Consider the following list of independent activities and give them stars (from one to five) if they strike you as relevant:
I’d like to …
– Travel without my partner
– Have dinner one to one with a friend
– Be able to go to a party without my partner, and not have them feel left out
– Visit my parents alone
– Have my own financial adviser
– Go for long walks on my own
– Have a separate bathroom
– Go shopping with a friend rather than with my partner
Look at each other’s stars and list. Is there anything that you feel you could accommodate?
We should recognise that a degree of independence isn’t an attack on a partner: it’s a guarantee of the solidity of the underlying commitment one has made. Truly stable couples aren’t those that do everything together, it’s those that have managed to interpret their differences in non-dramatic, non-disloyal terms.
Ultimately, a reduction of dependence doesn’t mean a relationship is unraveling: it means that we have learnt to focus more clearly and intently on what the other person can actually bring us and have stopped blaming them for not being someone they never were. We no longer need to be upset that their ideal holiday destination strikes us as unappealing, or that their friends seem boring. We have learnt, instead, to value them for the areas where we truly see eye to eye.
To enjoy a harmonious union with someone, we should ensure that we have plenty of sources of excitement, reassurance and stimulation outside of them. When we hit problems, we should be able to lean on other supports. The demand that another person compensate us for all that’s alarming, wearing or deficient in our lives is a mechanism for systematically destroying any relationship. Our conflicts and disappointments will at once feel more manageable when we stop asking our partner to function as our long lost other half. The more we can survive without a relationship, the greater will be its chances of survival and fulfillment. We will truly give love a chance when we stop believing it can single-handedly save us.
The surest indicator of the success of a relationship is not whether or not there are arguments, moments of fury, stretches of loneliness or incidents of betrayal. It is, quite simply, whether or not two people want to be together.
If they do, and if they firmly know this of themselves and of the other, then pretty much every obstacle can be overcome. The fractious current state of a relationship is never enough to doom it. Saying in the heat of an argument that one hates one’s partner and wishes to divorce them tomorrow morning (or worse) means nothing whatsoever. All that matters is the underlying concrete intention that one carries in one’s heart and which – surprisingly – people often don’t share either with their partner or with themselves… until it’s too late.
Therefore, we want you to consider whether or not you can sign up to a declaration. We are interested in intentions, not (yet) in action.
If you can sign up to these words, however many squabbles you may have had, however hard intimacy might be, however many bad words may have been said in fury, then half the battle at least has already been won.
I still love you and want to be with you.
We are both responsible for the pains we have gone through.
Neither of us is perfect. We both bring deep-seated problems and faults to our relationship – many dating back to our childhoods. These are extremely hard to notice, change and account for. We will do our best, but if we can’t manage certain steps, we would at least like to confess that – like everyone else on the planet – we are a little mad, and we’re deeply sorry about that. It’s the way we’re all built. We know we’ve brought trouble into each other’s lives. Once more, sorry.
We want things to go better between us because we profoundly care about one another, despite everything. We admire each other still.
For things to go better, we will both need to be modest and newly humble. We will need to let go of some very entrenched positions. We will, the two of us, have to give up on the pleasures of feeling in the right.
The work we’ll do together won’t be fast – and it will at points be rather painful. But we’re committed to being curious about one another, to acknowledging errors – and to hearing uncomfortable truths. We’ll try not to get cross – and when we do a bit nevertheless, we’ll try to figure it out and go easy on one another.
We will never be perfect.
We want love to work for us. That it hasn’t been too simple so far is no indication of anything other than that what we’re trying to do is very hard indeed. We do truly love each other, at least sometimes. We want this to work.
It’s a deep and powerful feature of our minds that we quickly interpret what’s happening in a situation, on the basis of a few slight clues. But, without realising it, we also sometimes smuggle in ideas which are more to do with us than with what’s actually happening. This is called ‘projection’: we make an emotional assumption about others based on a hidden bias in our own experience.
We can catch sight of projection in action when we contemplate certain works of art and try to say what’s going on in them.
Consider this portrait of a mother and daughter:
Different people might see this in very different ways. One person might say the mother looks like she’s hardly interested in her daughter, and seems quite cold and disengaged. Another person might feel that the mother is lost in tender but anxious thoughts: thinking how little her girl is and how large and complex and dangerous the world can be. Someone else could see the daughter as timid and clinging to her mother for reassurance, while another individual might say the daughter looks bored: it’s as if her mother is holding her back from going off and doing whatever it is she’d rather be doing.
Historically speaking, we don’t actually know anything about the relationship between this particular mother and daughter. The different ways of viewing it don’t identify what was really going on between them: rather they reflect the inner emotional world of different viewers. Suppose, when we were little, we suffered because our own mother was often distracted and inattentive. The idea of a disengaged, melancholy mood will probably have grown more instinctive to us. Our minds are always seeking to find this familiar emotional state – even if there isn’t really too much evidence for it in the world. A tiny suggestive hint will be enough (downcast eyes, a slightly tense mouth): these will be sufficient to make us feel sure that the other is withdrawn and sad, even if we don’t really know what they are feeling at all. Similarly, if a parent was given to anxious foreboding, it will feel natural to us to see this woman as having these same kinds of thoughts. Or if as children we felt shy and fearful, we’ll be primed to see the child in similar terms.
Or suppose we ourselves have often felt a desire to escape from overbearing demands – maybe from our parents or from the constraints of education or from the burdens of our working lives. The idea of being held back looms large in our minds. It comes to guide the way we interpret others. We may not have fully acknowledged our own sense of being trapped, but it’s there in our souls, and we project this feeling outwards and see others as being in a similar situation – even if they’re not.
We can sometimes pick up on the projections others make of us, because we can see there’s a real gap between what they feel sure we’re doing and what we know we’ve done.
– Sometimes my partner imagines I’ve done something on purpose to thwart them, when I haven’t done anything at all. They can’t find their car keys and they’ll go ‘why did you move my keys, why would you do that?’ and they’re on the verge of getting really angry – as you might if someone really had deliberately hidden your keys. But actually I haven’t even touched them.
– I get one quite well with my parents in law and I was texting them about having lunch with them over the weekend and my partner got the idea I was ‘complaining about them’ behind their back. I wasn’t at all. If I meet up with friends, afterwards my partner will say ‘did you talk about me?’ It’s as if they’ve got this picture of me in their heads that’s not entirely connected to reality.
We can make sense of the idea of other people projecting. But it’s harder to notice the phenomenon in our own case. We don’t too often or too readily feel that we’re taking our own past and using that to come to skewed interpretations of what’s going on; and yet we may be…
To close in on your own patterns of projection, look at this picture:
Individually, pick the statement that is closest to your own instinctive sense of what’s going on with this couple:
A: They’ve just had a row and she wants to leave.
B: He’s being domineering, she’s upset but too intimidated to say anything
C: She’s being difficult, he’s trying to understand to to help
D: They’re having a really interesting conversation, she’s paused to gather her thoughts and he’s just waiting to hear what she’ll say next.
It’s important to note that there’s no correct interpretation of the picture: there’s no external evidence at all about what they were saying or feeling. Take turns to consider what it might be in your own background that prompts you to see this couple the way you identified.
As a second exercise, take turns to complete the following sentences: answer as quickly and spontaneously as possible, don’t think it out, just give the first answer that comes to mind:
1. If a really good dancer sees someone floundering gracelessly on the dance floor, they probably think ….
2. If you are wearing smart clothes and trip over in the street, the people around would probably …
3. You notice that some driving a car is speaking on their phone – give a quick sketch of the kind of thing you imagine they’re probably saying
4. A middle-age couple are sitting silently opposite each other at a table in a restaurant – what’s the state of their relationship?
A key point here is that there could be multiple different answers that make perfect sense. A good dancer might be contemptuous of someone who can’t dance at all, or they might be delighted to see someone having a go or they might not think about them at all, or it might remind them of a beloved friend who recently died. At the moment it doesn’t matter what the statistical norm is (it may be, for instance, that 63 % of good dancers feel contempt for those who can’t dance) because this gives no precise guide to what is actually happening in any particular case.
What’s at stake is what immediately comes to mind for you: this gives an approximate but revealing glimpse of the way you might be projecting onto others.
Take turns to try to explain, without being defensive, why you gave the answers you did.
Now try to identify occasions when, in your own relationship, you might be projecting onto one another. What unfortunate consequences follow from this?
We don’t project because we are bad or stupid or unkind. We project because that is the way our minds function. We use familiar emotional patterns to imagine what’s going on for others – though we’ll sometimes get it very wrong. We’ll imagine our partner is deliberately upsetting us when they aren’t; we’ll suppose they are angry with us when they’re not; we will misconstrue their motives and moods. We make panicked, alarmist interpretations of what they are up to, not on the basis of reality, but because of our own complex background emotional history.
One of the constantly surprising aspects of relationships is just how much reassurance we need to believe that we are actively wanted – and, equally, how easy it is to forget this awkward fact both about ourselves and the other person.
The standard narrative of love tells us that insecurity about being wanted is going to be at its height at the start of the dating period, when we are acutely – and rather sweetly – conscious of the many ways in which our partner might not be keen on taking things further. But, we assume, once a relationship has started, once there might be children, a home and an established pattern of life, then surely the fear of being unwanted should disappear.
Far from it. The fear of being unwanted continues every day. There could always be new threats to love’s integrity. Just because we were loved yesterday does not ensure a sense that we will be needed today. More perniciously, if a fear is left to fester, it can lead us to adopt a defensive position where, because we assume we are unwanted, we start to behave in a cold and detached way, which encourages the partner to act likewise. Two people who are, at heart, very well disposed towards one another can end up in a cycle of each denying that they need the other, because they cautiously and pre-emptively assume that the other person no longer wants them.
In order to try to calm these fears and cycles of unwarranted detachment, we should be sure to institute an apparently small but in fact crucial ritual into our lives: a morning and evening kiss. Every morning, before parting, no matter how much in a rush we both are, we should give one another a proper kiss on the lips, for at least seven seconds which is – in reality – a very strangely long time. Lean in close together, don’t think about the many things you have to do in the hours ahead. Simply concentrate on the sensation of their mouth on yours, feel your nose against their skin. Don’t break off abruptly at the end: keep looking at each other for another few moments and give a smile. The same should be repeated every evening at the point of return.
When we kiss we are tapping into a central channel of emotional connection. Intimate physical contact affects us in a way that’s both distinct from, and in many ways superior to, words or ideas. We are sensuous creatures to at least the same degree as we are rational ones: a smile or a caress can therefore reassure us far more deeply than can an eloquent phrase or a well-articulated fact (‘of course I love you…’). As babies we were soothed by touch long before we could understand language, and we therefore continue to need physical contact to believe, truly to believe, that we have a place in another’s life.
Normally a kiss follows from a tender feeling: we have an emotion first and then we express it. But there’s another way our minds can work, a way in which a feeling follows from an action. The morning and evening kiss should hence come first, independently of whether or not there is as yet a tender emotion. But then, almost for certain, if we go through with the kiss, the emotion will occur (it’s very hard to kiss and feel nothing). We may need to make that rather odd-sounding move in love: a small effort.
The morning and evening kiss should be a ritual. A central feature of rituals is that we do them whether we feel like doing them or not. The kiss should take place even if you’ve just had a rather sarcastic argument or if you are racing to an important early meeting – or if you are feeling resentful. Better feelings will follow.
When leaving the house and heading to the station, we should no longer only ask whether we have remembered the keys or the report. We should always ask ourselves if we have done a far more crucial and love-sustaining thing: exchanged a seven second kiss.
It would be most of our first choices to have relationships in the real world; but for many of us, it is a great deal more plausible to pursue them with, and via, our phones.
Phones provide exemplary compensation for the frustrations of living with actual people. Unlike them, they are always responsive to the touch and their malleability provides the perfect excuse for disengagement from the trickier aspects of true connections.
When a friend or partner launches into an account of their day or an analysis of one of our alleged faults, it becomes almost irresistible not to give these phones a quick check: a friend in another country may have just had a baby or someone we vaguely know might have a new opinion on a change in direction in the nation’s foreign policy.
Our phones promise us access to people who are so much less tricky than those in close physical proximity. Humans we have known for years get judged against angels we have yet to spend a real-life minute with.
At our most vulnerable moments, technology companies promise us that they will be able to locate that lode star of contemporary romance: ‘the right person’. The pictures they lay out before us are certainly beguiling. The implicit thesis is that relationships have gone wrong for us so far not because they are inherently hard and we are properly tricky to live with, but because we haven’t yet found people with whom we are sufficiently compatible. There is not much room for the idea that compatibility may be an achievement of love and should not therefore – fairly – be expected to be its precondition.
Then, to compound the situation, our phones offer to show us a fascinating range of people without clothes. Porn doesn’t judge and it doesn’t ask for anything back. Closeness to a real life partner brings with it so many complications: unresolved resentments, a daily need to put up with a person’s less reasonable sides and an imperative to face up to our own huge failings. But the porn site doesn’t mind that you slammed the cupboard door and it has no desire to take you up on your attitude to credit card debt. It doesn’t need intimacy and it doesn’t complain if you don’t say much. Its implicit message is: we don’t care about anything other than your pleasure, you can be as you are. With bliss and at a terrible hidden cost, it removes sex entirely from the emotional landscape.
Then there are the small hearts and ticks. It can feel desperately naive or narcissistic to admit it – but in essence, almost all of us deeply like being ‘liked’ – and our phones know this so well.
We are genuinely moved by a message letting us know that Matteo from Wisconsin or Emile from Livorno wants to be our friend. These little words ‘like’ and ‘friend’ set off such deep and tender longings in our souls.
The momentary excitement they unleash reveals a secret pang of hope that our inner solitude will be pierced, that our troubles and joys will be truly understood by another; and that all the messages we wish to send to the world will be received and perfectly understood, at least by someone. It is poignant – and, in its own quiet way, properly tragic.
We should not be frightened by our loneliness or by the difficulties of our real relationships. What we should perhaps try to avoid is the faith that our phones can offer us a genuine solution to the tensions of love. We should, when we can manage it (and often we simply can’t), try to put these technological wonders to one side and try to do something properly futuristic for a while: attempt to love the bewilderingly complex, often maddening and sometimes very precious flesh and blood people presently dwelling in the vicinity.
Every year, all around the world, millions of couples are forced to recognise – with considerable guilt – that they are emotionally defective. Despite what they would ardently wish, they do not measure up to prevailing ideas of how one should be and feel in a relationship. So, two by two, or perhaps one by one, they file into therapists’ offices, meditation centers, love addiction groups, sexual clinics and other headquarters for the management of the mind – to correct what they have been told are their emotionally defective characters, in the hope of one day being able to rejoin the ranks of the romantically healthy and normal.
There are two topics in particular which almost all of us fail at within relationships: sexuality and intimacy. The modern world requires very particular things of us in these areas, and entry requirements are specific and arduous. When it comes to sexuality, we have to find someone we deeply love, and then want to have penetrative sex with them – and only them – for the next fifty years. To the left and right of this ideal lie all kinds of well-defined pathologies: not wanting sex very much; wanting sex a lot; wanting sex with people other than the partner; preferring sex via porn; requiring only cuddles, or cuddles from one partner and then more emotionally-indifferent sex from a stranger.
When it comes to intimacy, the rules are equally strict. We should not want excessive closeness; that smacks of neediness or weakness. But nor should we want excessive distance; that’s indicative of coldness or defensiveness. We shouldn’t want to spend too much time with our friends, nor seek to travel too far without our partner. We must not sleep on our own. But nor should we want to cuddle and hold tight for more than a prescribed period.
Almost everyone finds, after a few months together, that they hit on a major problem in the field of either sex or intimacy. The discovery is accompanied by considerable shame; it feels like we must be one of the very few who have a sexually or emotionally incongruous relationship. We must be the only ones who sometimes find porn more interesting than sex or who’d like to cling more tightly to the partner than is allowed. Sure that we have been singled out and uniquely cursed by an emotional malfunction, we take ourselves off – with heads bowed – to the garage of love.
But looked at another way, perhaps the faults are not all our own. We have set up a collective ideal which at least 90% of modern couples cannot reach. The ideal is in many ways profoundly beautiful and indicative of maturity, but when it fails us on this sort of scale, it should not be immune to examination. We could well reframe a lot of our so-called problems in ways that would lay some of the blame on our ideals themselves.
Imagine if we were prepared to think that it was really extremely unlikely that a couple could or should maintain sexual excitement over 50 years. Imagine if we recognised that love and sex could belong together, but could also, without anyone being mentally ill, drift apart. Imagine if we could countenance that being very close to someone is properly challenging for some of us who are not bad people but who are more naturally oriented towards independence and self-exploration. Imagine if we questioned the wisdom of expecting that we should get everything from a single person over a lifetime; that we should live in a small apartment and raise 2 children in cramped conditions, working all the time, cut off from friends and family and collective support and identity – and that this could really meet all our desires for community, curiosity and togetherness.
Imagine allowing ourselves to feel how normal it is to be unhappy in relation to the strange ideals we’ve set ourselves – and daring to look out for different ways to be without feeling we are bad for doing so, ways that are more flexible, truer to the vagaries of desire, more attuned to our longing to live in groups or forge our own path…
Imagine if we didn’t permanently have to feel bad for failing at a test we didn’t consciously agree to sit – and whose premises are at best questionable and at worst, naive and punitive.
We are almost all of us now characterised as emotionally defective but we are so only in relation to an idea of being normal which – when we can stop blaming ourselves – is surely ripe for a little questioning and nuance.
A question that rarely leaves us alone in love is: what exactly are other people’s relationships like?
The question is far from disinterested sociological curiosity. What we urgently seek to know is: are other people in as much trouble as we are? After a furious row over nothing very much at eleven at night or after yet another month that has unfolded with almost no sex, we wonder how statistically normal our case might be – precisely because it threatens to feel like a unique curse.
Most of us have a handful, maybe four or five, relationships that we know and keep in mind as standards of what we understand by normality. Perhaps we met these couples at university or they live on the street and are at a comparable stage of life. Without knowing they are playing this role, these sample couples function for us as our secret spirit level of love.
At tennis, we notice how kind they are to one another; as well as how energetic and lithe they remain. Over dinner, we note how much respect they show to their respective opinions. In the taxi on the way home, we spot the tender way they hold each other’s hands. And, naturally, we feel both highly abnormal and very wretched as a result.
But our assessment of our love stories suffers from a basic and unfair asymmetry: we know our own relationships from the inside but generally only encounter the relationships of others in heavily edited and sanitised form from the outside. We see other couples chiefly in social situations where politeness and cheeriness are the rule. We take on trust their blithe summaries of their lives. But we don’t have access to footage from the bedroom, the uncut transcriptions of their rows or their raw nighttime streams of consciousness.
However, we have all this and more about ourselves. We can’t help but be intently aware of our own relationships’ sorrows and absurdities: the cold silences, harsh criticisms, furious outbursts, episodes of door slamming, bitter late night denunciations, simmering sexual disappointments and times of aching loneliness in the bedroom.
Because of this asymmetry, quite understandably, we come to the conclusion that our own relationships are a great deal darker and far more painful than is common. In times of distress, we fling a definitive accusation at our partner: ‘no-one else has to put up with this.’
We need, to be fairer on ourselves and our beloveds, to create space in our minds for the scale of our ignorance. We simply don’t know. We are lacking data. We owe ourselves a richer picture of love than we have yet secured. This isn’t prying or cruel, we just need to better understand the true nature of the task we’re undertaking.
The truth is that misery – or at least some kinds of very serious longing and scratchiness – is the rule, far more than public sources will ever admit. It’s not that we as a couple are strangely awful or damned: it’s that relationships themselves are an essentially and inescapably difficult project.
Part of the reason we get it so wrong is that we have the wrong kind of art: the movies we watch are oddly coy, the novels don’t tell it how it is. It’s a marker of the problem that we almost never leave a cinema or close a novel thinking: that’s just like my life.
The dominant emotion of most relationships is ambivalence; that is, a complex mixture of love and hate, contentment and confinement, loyalty and betrayal. Most loves are too good to leave, yet too compromised to assure ongoing profound contentment. They subsist in a grey zone, where moments of joy bleed into stretches of melancholy, where at points we sob and are certain the partner has ruined our lives and then, the following morning, assisted by sunshine and black coffee, recover a feeling of things being basically fine.
If we could properly see – via tenderly accurate films and novels and chats in group therapy or with older honest couples – the reality of pretty much any relationship we might arrive at a surprising and deeply heartening conclusion: that our own relationship is – in fact – two things above all: very normal and quite OK.