Relationships Archives - The School Of Life

With one exception, no animal is capable of hating itself. That exception, of course, is human beings. It’s one of the strangest, and most regrettable, flaws in our condition. This tendency to self-hatred is not only destructive of our spirit; it constantly undermines our efforts to establish workable relationships. It is logically impossible to allow anyone else to love us insofar as we remain obsessed by the thought of our own loathsome natures. Why let another think better of us than we think of ourselves? If anyone did step forward and tried to be kind to us, we would have to despise them with the intensity owed to all false flatterers.

Photo by Victoria Strukovskaya on Unsplash

It therefore turns out that one of the central requirements of a good relationship is — surprisingly — a degree of affection for our own natures, built up over the years, largely in childhood. We need a legacy of feeling very deserving of love in order not to respond obtusely and erratically to the affections granted to us by adult partners. Without a decent amount of self-love, the love of another person will always be prone to feel sickening and misguided — and we will self-destructively — though unconsciously — set out to repel or disappoint it. It is simply more normal and bearable to be rejected.

If we are at the self-hating end of the spectrum, we should not continue to imagine that love could be easy, even if the most accomplished person were to enter our lives, indeed, especially if they were to make the error of doing so. Our underlying disgust at our own being would only create a harrowing conflict. We would recognise that another was offering us their deep affection but, in the secret folds of our souls, we could only be certain of a mistake or delusion. We would have to reject, recoil, not follow up, push away and in a thousand small and large moves, ensure that a lover would eventually have to align their view of us with our view of ourselves.

To begin to counterbalance the hatred, we have to learn to extend compassion to ourselves for our self-lacerating impulses; and remember that how we feel about ourselves is — we can be certain — a bitter legacy of how other people, at a formative age, viewed and treated us.

The adult process of recovery involves gasping that we have indeed absorbed unduly harsh ideas about who we are, but that it is entirely in our power to begin to counteract them by imagining how a better care giver might have supported us in the past — and how a kind lover might help us in the future. An ideal, compassionate figure at the start would have known never to equate lovability with perfection, they could have cared for us despite out coming last in the race, our missteps and our confusions. 

The phrase ‘self-love’ misleads us when we imagine that searching for it would mean striving to acquire a conceited, pompous view of ourselves. True release from self-loathing tends to be a great deal more modest: we are only after a sane, fair and more accurate perspective on our ordinary earthly nature. We can with kindness and good humour accept that being silly is entirely normal; wasting opportunities is universal; average sexuality is to be expected. Self-love shouldn’t be predicated on the competitive idea that we must pull off extraordinary feats of courage or intelligence. True love is only ever the compassion of the fallen for the fallen; it’s the search by one radically imperfect being to express their tenderness at the sight of the struggles and pains of another. We should — henceforth — allow ourselves enough self-love to be able to endure a little kindness.

Of course, most of us don’t officially have the slightest belief in mind reading. We scoff at the absurd idea that we might telepathically know what number between one and a million a stranger is thinking of, or that we could place our hands on someone else’s skull and thereby intuit the precise details of what they dreamt of last night. But in relationships, whatever our professed scepticism, we very frequently proceed as if mind reading were not only possible but a standard requirement and possibility in love, something of whose absence we would have every right to complain with bitterness and surprise.

In a great many ways, we simply assume that our partner must automatically be able to know the movements and preoccupations of our minds. Our expectations shows up in one of the standard ways in which we speak of the perfection of a lover in the initial days of rapture: they seem to know what we are thinking, without us needing to speak…

But our superstitious commitment to mind-reading soon evolves into something darker as relationships proceed. For example when: 

— We get huffy that our partner didn’t realise that our off-colour comment was only a joke.

— We can’t imagine they could even think we’d like the bizarre birthday present they bought us.

— We’re offended that they like a book we’ve already decided is silly.

— We’re annoyed that they didn’t know we wouldn’t want to go to the mountains this summer.

— They can’t understood the mood we are in when we get back from having lunch with our mother.

We get worked up because we can’t conceive that certain ideas and feelings that are so vivid in our minds should not immediately be obvious to someone who professes to care for us. We quickly fall into believing that the partner’s incomprehension can only be explained in one way: it must come down to wilfulness or nastiness. And therefore, it seems only fair that we respond with one of our standard forms of punishment due to all those who should have known better: a sulk — that paradoxical pattern of behaviour in which we refuse, for several hours or even a day or two, to reveal what is wrong to our confused partner because they should just know

The origins of our reckless hopes are, in a sense, extremely touching. When we were little a parent really did, at key moments, seem to know what we were thinking without us needing to speak. As if by magic, they guessed that we might want some milk. With a medium’s genius, they determined that we needed a bath or a nap or that a blanket was a bit scratchy for our cheek. And from this, an equation formed in our minds: whenever I am properly loved, I do not need to explain

But however great our parents were at reading our minds, they had a huge advantage over our partners: we were — back then — really very simple. Our requirements were usefully few: we needed only to be fed, bathed, slept, taken to the potty and entertained with a picture book or bit of string. But we had no advanced views on politics, we had no complicated opinions on interior design, our psyches didn’t register feint tremors of sarcasm or hypocrisy, we couldn’t be thrown off course by the pronunciation of a word.

How much more complicated we have grown since then. We are now adults who can feel very strongly that a table must be placed symmetrically in a room twenty centimetres from the door to the kitchen; or we like it very much when or partner rolls up their sleeves but we hate them wearing a short-sleeved shirt, especially the green one; we like being teased (but only sometimes and never about our age); we are very critical of our mother but can’t allow anyone to mention her habit of being late; we come across as confident but think of ourselves as shy; we like art but have an aversion to museums; we love stone fruits but hate peaches; we talk a lot about politics but can’t stand reading newspapers. Our partner’s inability to know all this — fast and decisively — necessarily feels like an intimate insult and the complex task of explaining our thoughts and attitudes like an unreasonable imposition. 

But once we accept that there is no such thing as mind reading, a central part of our relationship  becomes the slow, careful process of piecing together — in one another’s company — what matters to us and why, with all the surprise and moments of genuine revelation this entails. We accept that there will be an immense amount we need to teach each other about who we are pretty much every day — while trusting that this is not an attack on the idea of love. 

One of the most important preconditions of a good relationship is a satisfactory perspective on being single. The more we are happy to be on our own, the more we will be able to exercise the correct degree of caution around finding a new companion. The bedrock of true love is happy singledom.

Photo by Sasha Matveeva on Unsplash

Yet our societies do very little to help us to be calm or at ease in our own company. Singledom is framed as an involuntary, depressing and always hopefully temporary state. The notion that someone might want or need to be on their own, perhaps for a long while, terrifies a world shaped by legions of silently miserable couples who need confirmation that they have not chosen the wrong path. To enforce the idea of what single people are missing, advertisers can never have enough of showing off tantalising images of happy couples walking hand in hand on beaches — and most entertainment venues, holiday destinations and social occasions feel compelled to patronise, overcharge and otherwise demean anyone who has had the impudence to venture out on their own.

Unfortunately, being miserable while single fatally undermines our judgement about who we might get together with. When someone is starving, they will eat anything (Dostoevsky wrote a harrowing short story about a famished child who eats a candle made of pig fat). We’re equally liable, in emotional desperation, to run into the nearest nightclub to secure a chump we’ll be appalled to find beside us at daybreak. Eventually, we’ll learn that being in an unsatisfactory relationship is clearly worse, that is, even more lonely, than being alone. 

The central challenge of being alone is coping with the fear of what singlehood means: being alone is bearable in relation to how ‘normal’ (that highly nebulous yet highly influential concept) the condition feels to us at any given point. It can either be a break from an honourably busy life, or sure evidence that we are an unwanted, wretched, disgusting and emotionally diseased being. 

This is tricky but ultimately very hopeful, for it suggests that if only we could work on what being alone means to us, we could theoretically endure long periods alone.

To build ourselves a new mental model of what being alone should truly mean, we might rehearse a few of the following arguments. Despite what an unfriendly voice inside our heads might tell us, we are the ones who can chose whether or not to be alone. Our solitude is willed rather than imposed. No one ever needs to be alone so long as they don’t mind who they are with. But we do mind: the wrong kind of company is a great deal lonelier for us than being by ourselves. It’s further from what matters to us, more grating in its insincerity and more of a reminder of disconnection and misunderstanding than is the conversation we can have in the quiet of our own minds. Being alone is not proof that we have been rejected by the world; it’s a sign that we’ve taken a good look at the available options and have — with wisdom — done some rejecting ourselves.

Another big thought is that we need to appreciate how long it will take to find someone, given how choosy we are (for very good reasons). We aren’t just looking for anyone. The right candidate will be no less easy to find than a great job or a beautiful house. It might take many months, probably years. Expectations matter. If we regard a decade as a plausible time frame, then six months will skip by. 

Photo by João Ferrão on Unsplash

There is no better guarantee of a successful relationship than knowing that we could — and can — manage perfectly well on our own. It means that we will only look for someone who can deeply contribute to our life, not someone who can do the laundry with us or keep us company on Sunday evenings. This gives us the strength to back out of unsatisfactory unions as quickly as we should. Being in a couple can’t and shouldn’t mean that we are utterly reliant on the other for our self-esteem, our daily self-management or for the meeting of our domestic needs. When we have under our belt a significant experience of thriving on our own, we will be able to cope with the inevitable points at which even a very nice partner can’t sustain us; we’ll be less demanding; more competent and more forensic in what we seek from a lover. It turns out that our willingness to stay on our own is what centrally predicts how likely we’ll be to find and bring to fruition a relationship with someone else. Being at ease with being single is the needed, secure platform from which to make a sane and wise choice about who to create a joint life with.

One of the most provocative analyses of love ever produced is to be found in the writings of the Danish Existential philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. In a book entitled Works of Love, published in Copenhagen in 1847, Kierkegaard — then thirty-four years old — proposed a theory which deliberately upset every leading idea that his own age  (in this respect very similar to our own) liked to entertain about this hallowed concept.

First and most importantly, Kierkegaard insisted that most of us have no idea what love is — even though we refer to the term incessantly. The first half of the nineteenth century in Europe saw the triumph of what we today call ‘Romantic love’, involving a veneration and worship of one very special person with whose soul and body we hope to unite our own. 

Kierkegaard insisted that through concentrating on Romantic love, we develop a narrow and impoverished sense of what love can actually be. 

Love is not, Kierkegaard insisted, the special excitement we feel when in the presence of someone unusually beautiful, pure, clever or accomplished. He proposed that we return instead to an exacting version of Christian love, which commands us to love everyone, starting — most arduously — with all those who we by instinct consider to be unworthy of love.

He made a distinction between what in Danish is termed kaerlighed — true love, the kind Christians are commanded to give, and elskov — erotic love.

For Kierkegaard, we should learn to love all the many people it would be so tempting to curse and to hate; those whom we believe are mistaken, ugly, irritating, venal, wrong-headed or ridiculous; those who may have made some truly serious mistakes and offended our moral codes. To learn to love such people, to practise kaerlighed,  this is the real accomplishment — and the summit of our humanity. 

It is love when we can look at someone who appears misguided, lazy, entitled, angry or proud and instead of labelling them despicable, can wonder with imagination and sympathy how they might have come to be this way; when we can perceive the lost, vulnerable or hurt child that must lie somewhere within the perplexing or dispiriting adult.

Love means making the effort to extend our compassion beyond the bounds of attraction so that we may look generously on all those we might at first glance have deemed beyond the pale or ‘undeserving’. 

Kierkegaard tells us that if we understood love properly, when we said we loved a person, we wouldn’t mean that we admired them but that we had a handle on all the many difficulties that underpinned their troubling and objectionable sides. 

Kierkegaard was especially aggrieved by how his contemporaries had replaced the Christian-inspired emphasis on forgiveness with the pursuit of something that feels a great deal more objective, hard-edged and rational: justice.

The pursuers of justice want to give everyone what they actually deserve. This sounds extremely reasonable — until one comes face to face with an uncomfortable fact: that if we all actually ended up with what we truly ‘deserved’, the world would at once be rendered entirely unlivable. The attempt to pursue justice at all costs, and the belief that doing so is theoretically possible, gives rise to appalling intolerance, for if one really believes that one can be a flawless instrument of righteousness, then there is logically no limit to the degree of rage or the sternness of punishments that can be brought to bear upon ‘wrong doers’.

For Kierkegaard, our goal should not be to create a world in which everyone gets exactly what they deserve; it is to try to ensure that as many of us as possible get the kindness we need

Applied to children, concepts of justice quickly reveal their absurdities, Kierkegaard could see. If parents were to give their children exactly what they ‘deserved’, most small people would at a stroke be put out on hillsides to die. The pursuit of justice may spring from the noblest of motives but it is a quick route to an unloving hell.

Kierkegaard proposed that there is a ladder of love, from the most undemanding to the true. On the first rung of the ladder, we love those who love us; then we love those who do not love us, then we love those who persecute us and finally, and triumphantly, we should love everyone without exception. 

Kierkegaard mocks those who say they believe in love but add that they haven’t found someone they can love. There are millions of people around. If we say that they are not worthy of love, we haven’t understood love. We need to love those we can actually see, not ‘invisible beings.’ A Kierkegaardian dating site would force us to love utterly random candidates, not based on admiration or virtue, but on the basis of our shared humanity. He bemoaned ‘the selfishness of preferential love.’ ‘Christianity has never taught that one must admire his neighbour,’ he wrote, ‘one shall simply love him.’

Kierkegaard detects an appalling snobbishness in Romantic love. People who otherwise pride themselves on their lack of prejudice will apply terrifyingly strict criteria to their choice of partner: they want someone with just a certain sort of face or income or sense of humour. They think of themselves as kind and tolerant but when it comes to love, they have all the broad-mindedness of a believer in ‘a caste system whereby men are inhumanly separated through the distinctions of earthly life.’ Kierkegaard adds: ‘Christians don’t only love the poor; they love everyone. The rich, the corrupt, the powerful: “He who in truth loves his neighbour loves also his enemy…” Love is the fulfilment of a law…’

Kierkegaard talks about Christ’s love for his disciple Peter, who repeatedly lets him down: ‘Christ did not say: “Peter must change first and become another man before I can love him again.” No, just the opposite, he said: “Peter is Peter, and I love him; love if anything will help him to become another man.”’ 

So, in imitation of Christ, we should love people especially if they are hateful: doing something hateful does not disqualify anyone from love, in fact it makes them all the more deserving of it. ‘We speak continually about perfection and the perfect person. But Christianity […] speaks about being the perfect person who limitlessly loves the person he sees […] with all his imperfections and weaknesses.’

Ultimately, Kierkegaard wants us to do something that sounds both utterly odd and yet entirely kind: ‘To be a Christian means to be the imitator of Christ […] and to be an imitator means that your life has as much similarity to his as it is possible to human life to have.’

Danish readers of the 1840s who came across Kierkegaard’s writings on love must have been as surprised as we are on what this philosopher had to say on the subject — because his perspective is so different from that we ordinarily operate with. But however arduous his message to us may be, we can see how relevant it remains. We too so often get stuck on the idea that we have not found ‘the one’ and on that basis refuse to love anyone; we too judge and moralise rather than forgive and lend sympathy. We may still be at the dawn of understanding what true love really offers, and requires of, us.

There’s a story going on, a very lovely one, but we can’t know the details for certain. In this respect, we are standing outside a window ourselves, in the most agreeable of ways.

Jacobus Vrel, Woman at a Window, Waving at a Girl, c. 1650

We can guess that the relationship is a kindly and tender one. This is Granny, Mummy, Nanny or Auntie, and just beyond the window, through those delicate panes of 17th-century Dutch glass, there is little Maries, Annelies, Sofie or Wilma. Maybe it’s a game: I’ll run outside and wave to you and your job is to wave back. Or: You cover your eyes, I’ll duck beneath the window, give a little tap and then you have to spot me before I drop down again. Or, more simply: When I have to go home after a day with you, I miss you so much and I like to say goodbye many times: four times in the room, twice from the hallway and once again at the window.

In other words, in some undefined way, this is a portrait of love. An adult, probably quite a serious one who has known many cares and has considerable responsibilities, is bending to the sweet and imaginative will of a small person, in whose reflection she sees a version of herself (Vrel hints that the window is a mirror; the old woman is gazing at a version of her younger self). A grown-up who could easily have humiliated the child – said she was busy or that it was all too silly – is joining in enthusiastically and giving the ritual or game her all (she might even fall off her chair).

One of the unexpected origins of something as serious and consequential as adult mental health arguably begins right here. If we find ourselves as grown-ups feeling creative, knowing how to appreciate ourselves, understanding how to remain calm and ready to give affection to others, it is almost certainly because at some point, a long way back, someone did for us what the woman in Vrel’s painting is doing for the little girl: giving us attention, making us the focus of tenderness, appreciating us on our own modest but vital terms.

Children who end up sane have been spared the need to be very good or very reasonable too early. We can’t know much about the economic status of Vrel’s figures. What we do know is that such games and the love behind them belong to what it really means to have had that most invaluable of things: a privileged childhood.

If we were ever tempted to despair about the human capacity for love, we might recover hope by considering James Gowan’s relationship with Little Tommy Tittlemouse. The bear was given to him by a relative when he was 1 year old in Colonial India in 1908, and James was to talk to him and love him passionately and loyally until his death in 1986. Along the way, the bear went to boarding school at Stanmore Park and then Rugby, saw many foreign countries, received a postcard from James every year on his birthday (24th November), sat with him during a long marriage and got to know his grandchildren. Finally, at a distinguished age, after James had read an advert from the Victoria and Albert Museum calling for elderly bears to be gifted to a new collection of historic toys, he was handed over to his country for posterity.

Little Tommy Tittlemouse, now in the V&A Museum

One reason why our love for our bears tends to be so strong and so rewarding comes down to a paradoxical but telling detail: how little we expect of them. Unlike what we ask of humans, we don’t need bears to understand us across all areas, to share every last taste, to express exactly the right opinions or to have identical views on how to throw a party, decorate a kitchen or spend the holidays. We just want them to be there for us, to listen quietly to us, to receive us in their arms and to look at us with kindness. On this slender and limited basis, true love has a chance to grow.

By contrast, we too often place an impossibly punitive burden of expectation on the human beings we love. We feel a partner must be right for us in every way, and grow intolerant and impatient at any departures from our hopes. We want them to approve of our taste in politics, to share our reservations about friends and to have just the right degree of suspicion of our parents or bosses. If they lapse in any area, we are liable to become furious, accuse them of betrayal and withhold our affections.

We are trying to do too much. By limiting what we expect a relationship to be about, we are often better able to honour the real claims of love. Guided by bear-love, we might realise that a bond between two people can be deep and important precisely because it is not required to play out across all practical details of existence. By simplifying and clarifying what a relationship is for, we release ourselves from overly complicated conflicts – and, as Tommy Tittlemouse understood, we can then focus on our urgent underlying needs to be sympathised with, seen and hugged tightly.

Some people assume that you can’t really say what a good — or indeed a bad — parent actually is.

Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

But we don’t agree. So we’ve designed a checklist of what we think makes up a good parent.


Firstly and most obvious, a good parent adores their child. They’re simply overjoyed that they exist and don’t mind telling the offspring that fact, in direct and indirect ways, at small and large moments, pretty much every day. There is no risk of spoiling anyone like this: spoilt people are those who were denied love, not those who were regularly bathed in its calming waters. 


Secondly, the good parent is attuned to their child; they listen — very closely indeed — to what the small person is trying to say. This means getting down on their knees and calmly paying attention to certain messages that may sometimes sound extremely weird or frustrating. Maybe the child is saying that they are very sad, even though it’s their birthday and the parent has gone to enormous trouble with the presents. Maybe they are saying that they are angry with the teacher, even if education is in principle very important and the school was difficult to get into. Children are filled with complicated emotions; a good parents allows these room.


A good parent isn’t envious of their children. They are strong enough to allow them to have a better life than they did. 


Good parents are on top of their issues: they don’t think it’s a good idea to make someone very unhappy because maybe someone else made them miserable long ago.


Good parents know about boundaries. The game was hilarious for a long time, but now it’s the moment to wind down, to put the paints away, to get back to work or to go up to bed. The good parent doesn’t mind being hated for a time in the name of honouring reality.


Good parent don’t seeming a bit boring and predictable. Small kids don’t need excitement and drama from their parents. They want a secure base from which to explore the world.

Now we might think back to our pasts and give our carers a score out of ten to measure how things went. It isn’t unfair or mean sometimes — in the privacy of our own minds — to hold people to account.

Pick up a pen and paper as we run through a list — and score each option out of 10.

We don’t need a score of a hundred and twenty to be robust, but if things were to drop much below sixty, there might be grounds for a good deal of reflection and sorrow. 

The best thing, if you haven’t had a great childhood, is to be as knowledgeable as possible about what went wrong and why.

One of the stranger but more useful suggestions of psychotherapy — and in particular, a branch of it known as Transactional Analysis — is that all of us contain within ourselves three essential personalities:

— a child 

— a parent

— and an adult

To flesh these out a little: 

The child is typically vulnerable, touching, trusting, weak, in need, incapable of properly looking after themselves and crying out for assistance, tenderness, support, structure and some rules.

For their part, the parent is strong, dominant, in control, responsible but also often chiding, critical, hectoring — and busy from all their cares and duties.

Meanwhile the adult is sane, thoughtful, in command, neither too weak nor too strong, creative and kind.

In an ideal world, we would all be able to toggle between these three personality types with relative ease. In a good relationship, we would constantly be moving between all three roles in ourselves; mostly hovering in the adult zone, but able — when occasions demand this — to go into parent or child mode.

For example, when we are feeling sad and under pressure, it should be part of health to know how to become a child again, to show our need, ask for help, curl into a ball, become small and trust that we can be met with kindness and sympathy without fearing attack or belittlement.

Then again, there should also be moments in a relationship (particularly when our usually adult partner has hit a crisis and descended into a child-like mode) when we are powerfully able to step up into a parental role and become ministering, indulgent to weakness and tantrums, calm in the face of irrationality and secure enough in ourselves to know that the child partner will in a little while revert back to the maturity and self-command that we typically expect from them.

If a couple have small children, then for long stretches both may need to act as parent, but then once the kids are in bed, they might both have a go at being sweet slightly naughty children…or one might play adult to the other one’s needy younger self.

The difficulty — for couples and individuals — is when people get stuck in particular positions, when they can only ever be children, or only ever parents or only ever adults.

There are relationships where, for example, one partner is always the child and the other is always the parent. One person is forever being a bit irresponsible and naughty. They leave their clothes everywhere, they don’t book in for a driving lesson, they don’t go to the dry cleaner, they forget to do the shopping and they lose their keys. They can be highly endearing (when one is in the mood) but you’d hesitate a lot before leaving them in charge. And on the other side of the ledger, there is a parental type partner: always chiding; always reminding the child what to do; super competent; forever rather stressed; alternately indulgent to the child but also on the edge of being cross and punitive.

Associated with this can be a deep reluctance on the part of the parental figure ever to access their child self. They always have to be strong, forever playing the role of mummy and daddy. They cannot go anywhere near being baby. 

Why, we might ask, do people — and therefore couples — get stuck in these roles? Why can it be so hard to move? Why are some people rigidly incapable of feeling their way into the role of parent, or child, or adult?

In all cases, we are — typically — looking at something in the past which has made an easy transition to a particular position untenable or frightening.

There are people stuck in the child role for whom adulthood and parenthood present insuperable difficulties. Perhaps they are the offspring of a loving parent who couldn’t tolerate their own nascent maturity: to be deemed worthy of love, they had to stay baby. 

Or else, alternatively one may feel one has to stay stuck in the child mode because a parent would be angry, castrating and humiliating if one dared to show independence and pride in one’s adult ideals. 

At the other end of the spectrum, very poignantly, there are people whose younger selves were so badly treated, who experienced such anxiety and lack of support when they were children that the idea of being small even for a few hours presents unbearable challenges to their integrity. They may be very happy playing mummy and daddy; what they cannot ever do is be baby. 

The route out of all these impasses is, as always, self-exploration and mutual honesty in relationships. Problems are never as bad as they might be once we get them into consciousness and circulate them in discussion. To admit to being a child who doesn’t dare to be an adult, or a parent who doesn’t dare to be a child isn’t just a peculiar-sounding confession. It suggests the presence of someone profoundly committed to eventual maturity and on their way to being the best kind of grown up.

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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.

Photo by Renè Müller on Unsplash

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.

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.

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

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.