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Relationships • Conflicts

On Being Upset Without Knowing It

We might expect that, if we were in any significant way annoyed with our partner, we would naturally and spontaneously notice the matter. If they had let us down, if they had failed to respond to our needs, if they’d left us in doubt as to their feelings, we should without effort be aware of the problem – and then be able to address it at speed.

But that would be to misjudge quite how opaque and unknown we generally are to ourselves. It isn’t in any way inevitable that we register everything that courses through us. Much of what we are isn’t experienced; a substantial share of our true emotions fail to make it along the mind’s internal labyrinths to conscious awareness. In order that they do so, we rely on particular encouragement; we require an environment that legitimates our concerns and allows us to remain curious about ourselves, especially when what we feel doesn’t accord with prevailing notions of normality or respectability. Small children don’t understand a lot about themselves unless there are adults around who can pay attention to their cries of pain. We rely on a rich, nuanced, sympathetic vocabulary from without to register things that are going on within.

Painting of an artist and his wife sat by a canoe next to a river. The artist is sketching his wife, though both are looking away from each-other.
John Singer Sargent, Paul César Helleu Sketching his Wife Alice Guérin, 1889

We ultimately lack knowledge of what we feel around our partners for a poignant reason: because their power to upset us is so great. Everything they do – or don’t do – matters to our state of mind. Our sensitivity threatens to strip us of our independence and reduce us to an intolerable vassal status. Whereas in most areas of grown up life, we can strive for strength and equanimity, our relationships demand something quite different: that we place ourselves at the mercy of another who can profoundly knock our composure by not smiling broadly enough at one of our minor jokes, someone who can ruin our day by saying ‘that’s so interesting’ in a distracted way, someone who can make us wonder whether we’re leading the right life because they fail to hold our hand when we reach out to them in the night. 

No wonder if we frequently simply discount the evidence of our hurts and admit only to a more composed, narrow and imperturbable range of emotions. How natural if we might suffer a blow to our esteem and then maintain – with outward sincerity – that we are entirely fine. But might prefer some time alone.

An upset that hasn’t been acknowledged isn’t – unfortunately – any less real for that. It continues to reverberate in us and to demand that its presence be known, showing up in garbled forms as coldness, irritability, illness, addiction to news or pornography, disinterest in sex or openness to affairs. All this because our minds cannot bear to confront the awkward but entirely serious truth that we are weeping inside because four days ago, our partner forgot to buy us some cherries or talked about a person at work who makes us jealous or didn’t notice our new haircut.

We should make it easier to understand ourselves by collectively adjusting our sense of what it might be normal to be susceptible to in relationships. We should – at a societal level – alter our impression of our vulnerability to so-called ‘small things.’ Of course we get upset by everything pretty much all the time. Of course we care infinitely; of course we surrender the keys to our happiness to the person we love. We should give up the childish notion that adults in relationships can only be expected to respond to one another in robust and reasonable-sounding ways. We should have the insight – and courage – of our true sensitivity.

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