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Relationships • Breaking Up & Heartbreak

Exquisite Agony in Love

When we think of a ‘bad relationship’, the mind tends naturally to go towards the darkest and most appalling scenarios: physical violence, substance abuse, rage, coercion, manic criticism. It is a long and highly alarming list. 

To minimise any of these would be a folly. If anyone we cared about (it might be us) were in such a situation, we would want the most urgent help for them.

Nevertheless, we might propose that there is another variety of relationship that deserves attention for its levels of pain and danger but which – from the outside – is devoid of any egregious scenes or deplorable behaviours. The neighbours would not notice that anything was up and nor, for a long time, might we. We could never say that this sort of partner was bad, evil, or ill-intentioned and that is the precisely problem. 

This is a form of relationship where the intensity of the pain is directly related to the intensity of the loveliness. We find it extremely hard to get away precisely because – at so many levels – we adore being there. The situation is at once at points awful and, for significant stretches, nicer than we’ve ever known it before. We have been placed by a mischievous Cupid into a zone of exquisite agony.

Raphael, The Triumph of Galatea, 1512

Let’s imagine the sort of person under discussion. First and foremost, they have a genuinely very good heart. This is no narcissist, gaslighter, manipulator or any other term in the contemporary lexicon of moral retribution. We know this is a kind person through and through. They are tender, funny, sweet and very nice towards us. They truly love us and mean well – and we know it. They understand important parts of us, they take time to listen to us, they might have nursed us with great sympathy when we were unwell and shown us incontrovertible signs of loyalty at central moments.

But then in another part of their character, there are things at play that mean we cannot, despite all our longings for commitment and all our hopes for a long term bond, ever properly relax, ever fully enjoy the relationship, ever feel as safe as we would like or ever be as distant as we would want from another episode of doubt and upset.

Perhaps the partner is trying to achieve success in a job which means we can never know exactly when they are going to be available to us or for how long. We could not possibly blame them, we understand what they are going through and the pressures they are under. And yet…

Or they are wrestling with certain psychological challenges which we know very well (we might have had our share of comparable episodes). They might sink regularly into troubled low moods. These have nothing to do with us, they are rooted in childhood issues for which we have a lot of care. And yet…

Or perhaps the partner suffers from a form of unreliability that could be related (they speculate) to a kind of neurodiversity. Maybe they really want to be punctual and well ordered and sensitive to some of our concerns. But too often, we are left confused and waiting for them; uncertain of when they will communicate or show up, slightly resentful that certain practical burdens have again fallen on us. We are sympathetic. And yet…

Or they may have great difficulty getting bad news on the table. They have a gentle temperament and hesitate to disappoint anyone. They try never to let down their friends or us, but that has meant – more often than we would like – that they have intensely annoyed or worried us. 

As if to add to the difficulty, all along, we are able to have good conversations about these matters with them. They try to listen, they really do. They see what we mean. They are alive to how troublesome it can be to be around them. They ask us to forgive them and apologise in impressive and moving ways. And yet…

The term ‘gaslighting’ suggests that anyone who mixes love and behaviour that harms us must be doing so both consciously and with manipulative intent. The word ‘narcissist’ similarly leads us to imagine harm being done by someone with an icy heart and a quietly monstrous nature. But if we wanted to set a robot the challenge of creating ‘the hardest person to know whether to stay with or leave,’ they wouldn’t ever create a demon; they’d create the very nicest, most thoughtful, kind and generous-hearted soul imaginable who would still, in their way, at regular intervals, render us sad, annoyed and unsure.

In the end, in such situations, the only way to break the deadlock is by focusing on one issue above all others. Not how nice they are. Not how much we care for them. Not how much they care for us. These thoughts – however otherwise useful – are no good here. We have to zero in on a matter that we have probably been sidestepping for a while now: time. More specifically, the fact that we don’t have an infinite amount of it. Every day that goes by in uncertainty and tension is another day that we will never sample again. Every day that we don’t have the calm and the clarity we long for is another day closer to our funeral. How generous do we want to feel on this score? How many sheets of the paper of the sheaf of life do we want to tear off and have to discard? 

We haven’t fallen into the hands of a monster; that would be far too easy. It’s just that we may not – in the end, however intense our feelings and warm our bond – really have time for this…

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