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Relationships • Mature Love

How Love Can Teach Us Who We Are

One reason why relationships are valuable is that they enable us to know ourselves better; being part of a couple can help us to understand who we are.

With a partner alongside us, we can – to an unusual extent – be properly seen. Someone is there late at night and first thing in the morning; someone can hear our private fears and uncensored joys. Someone can witness us without our masks on, in playful or despairing moods, when we say things we generally don’t; when we are no longer playing a role. 

As a result, some of what we keep missing about ourselves can come to light. Our partners may see what we no longer can; both what is adorable and what is more perplexing and difficult. They might, for example, remind us that we’ve told that anecdote (three times) before or that purple doesn’t suit us. They can tell us that we’ve overreacted to a problem at work or that we’ve placed our trust in an envious friend. They can suggest where we should not worry so much and where it would be wise to fret more. Their responses give us a chance to grow sightly less obtuse, haughty and peculiar. 

Painting by Felix Vallotton of waltzing dancers.
Félix Vallotton, Waltz, 1893

But despite the potential of love to function as a route to self-knowledge, in practice, we are likely to walk away from our relationships with most of our delusions intact. Some of our problem comes down to pride. We cannot find it in our hearts to forgive our lovers for catching sight of material that fails to accord with what we want to be true of ourselves. We come to love hoping to be admired; they note that we aren’t always very funny, that our novel is patchy, that we are prone to self-pity, that we lose our temper too fast, that we have disappointing household habits or cannot properly communicate our feelings.

Far from using these bits of difficult news as goads for self-improvement, we find it substantially easier to get insulted, to say that a partner is being ‘mean’ or ‘inconsiderate’ and to block our ears. We fall back on a noxious but highly prevalent idea about love: that, in a good relationship, no one should be trying to ‘change’ anyone. Presumably because we are perfect enough already. Or else because we should have all our faults forgiven, as they were when we were infants. True love means – we are told – not wanting to alter a single thing about someone. Were we to share among friends that we had ended a relationship on the basis that a partner was ‘trying to change us’, we could count on being widely commended for our bravery. 

Yet given how monstrously imperfect we all are, true kindness should never mean abandoning a person to their eccentricities, their losses of perspective, their unjustified fury, their unexplored hurts or their questionable dress sense. It should mean helping them – gently but frankly – to learn more about who they presently are in the name of the better person they might one day become.

The fault doesn’t only lie with us as the recipients of feedback; we tend to usher our partners towards self-knowledge with unhelpful brusqueness and anger. Whereas the gossamer-thin human ego begs for a tone of reassurance and patience, we allow irritation and fear to cloud the important truths we are trying to impart. We attempt to instruct our partners in vital facts about themselves last thing at night or the moment they get home in a rain storm. We are so scared of what they don’t know of themselves, we destroy any chance they might have of patiently coming to understand it. We grow too angry to remember that we are trying to help someone to evolve, not punish them for having fallen short of our hopes. At worst, despite fine intentions, we give up after only a few minutes of measured conversation, call them a ‘sh**head’, slam the door and shout that they are ‘as bad as their mother or father’. A good deal of what we say in anger may – ironically – be entirely true. It’s just that no one has ever learnt anything about themselves in conditions of belittlement and humiliation.

In order to capitalise on the potential of relationships, we should be stricter on the ground rules:

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