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Relationships • Conflicts

A Rule to Help Your Relationship

A basic principle to guarantee the health of any relationship is that we should try always to stick as close as possible to the truth of what we’re really feeling – and to convey this to the partner in a way that they will understand, which in practice means, with as much kindness and politeness as we can possibly scrape together. 

We normally do things quite differently. We say: ‘I don’t care in the slightest when you come home, I’ll be asleep anyway,’ when we really mean: ‘I miss you so much; I’m rather upset that you keep going out with your friends.’

Or we say, ‘Go to hell and die, I hate you,’ when we really mean: ‘I’m terrified of how much I depend on you.’ 

Or we get into heated arguments about politics when we crave something far more domestic: a small hug. We sternly criticise their timekeeping because they didn’t ask more about our day. We find fault with their mother because we’re furious that they have repeatedly sidestepped sex. We say, ‘Will you stop fussing around the kitchen preparing things I don’t even want to eat,’ when we mean: ‘I’m being cruel because I don’t know how else to express my hurt.’

Pablo Picasso, Arlequin, 1923

Why can’t we more often say what we mean? We aren’t just being silly. None of this is simple. In a better arranged world, we would have Olympic competitions to focus our minds on, and celebrate, the skills involved, and the winners would be given large houses and often appear on television. To speak candidly yet kindly is as complicated as to play the violin and (perhaps) a good deal more useful and beautiful (the violinists having a big advantage in access to schools in all the major cities and rigorous years-long training programmes. Whereas with love, we’re meant to have been born knowing how to do things – or are left to pick clues from stray pieces like this one).

We don’t say what we mean because we have no experience of anyone pulling off such a wondrous and mature feat anywhere around us. We were likely to have been brought up by people who said things like ‘You’re off my hands now, it doesn’t matter to me what you do,’ when they really meant ‘I crave closeness and wish you would call more often.’

We don’t say what we mean because doing so threatens to bring us up against our shocking dependence on another human – with all the ensuing vulnerability and fragility. We get angry, silent, sarcastic, mean, hysterical and oblique as a way out of having to share news of our tender state. We don’t say what we mean because we really mean things like: Help me, I’m feeling as sad and small as an infant. Love me more. Don’t abandon me. Cherish me. Stop suffocating me and (minutes later) stop deserting me. No wonder we might prefer to sound forbidding and angry.

Part of the problem is that we have had so little experience of that key subsidiary (Olympic) skill: getting the truth across with politeness and kindness (and even – and here we’re in gold medal territory – with humour). We don’t actually face a choice – as we too often implicitly think – between a purse-lipped cheeriness on the one hand and a rant on the other. We can turn raw emotional material into something still substantially honest and yet capable of absorption and understanding.

In our spare hours, after yet another row, we might begin to practise the exercise (which should be taught in the last year of secondary school) of turning the inner chaos (A) into its more digestible vehicle (B):

A: Shut the hell up about your stupid friends.

B: I’m feeling a bit ignored at the moment; it’s ridiculous I know, but I can’t help but feeling a little jealous of how much time you seem to be spending with Andy and Mo. (with a smile) Do you hate me for bringing this up?

A: I never want to see you again, you stinking rat faced little shit.

B: It seems I’m feeling really pretty upset at the moment – and it makes me want to take a bit of distance. I guess deep down I’m terrified you’ll abandon me.

A: I don’t give a damn who you talk to at the party.


A: Why didn’t you tidy the kitchen?


A: Fuck off and die.


It’s easy to get carried away with large plans for our futures. We can improve them immeasurably with one modest-sounding, extremely difficult vow: to pause at key moments and ask ourselves: ‘If I were to be three things – honest, kind and polite – what would I say now?’ It could change our lives. 

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