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Relationships • Compatibility

Picking Partners Who Won’t Understand Us

To pick a partner who might not understand us seems – on the surface – a most peculiar thing to do. Surely we all want, more than anything, to be understood; to enjoy the pleasures of reciprocation; not only to see but – as crucially – to be seen.

But, when it comes to what we get up to in love, we should on the whole pay much less attention to common sense and surface intentions and much more to unconscious patterns – and more particularly, to the devilish matter of ‘repetition compulsion,’ our urge to repeat relationship dynamics that we have known in childhood, not because they were ‘nice’ but because they are familiar, they are what we know, they are what we grew used to expecting and formed our personalities to know how to cope with.

Stanley Cursiter, The Tea Room, 1913

And this is where, below the surface, we may be much more strongly devoted to not being understood than we realise. Perhaps, and we may get an inkling of this when we close our eyes and put the question to the depths of our natures, there is something in us that recoils from the thrill but also the terror of someone properly ‘seeing’ us. We are, where it counts, ashamed of ourselves, embarrassed of who we are, awkward about being under the spotlight. It feels odd, or we might say ‘weird’ or even ‘freakish’, if someone asks us too many questions, if we sense them trying to engage with us profoundly, if they listen very closely to what we are saying, if they appear to be very concerned with our welfare and our ideas. Nothing quite as lovely – but also, far more importantly, quite as strange – has ever happened to us in our lives. And something within us may not like it in any way.

We may be much more at home with the attention being elsewhere. We would much prefer being the ones that do the loving and the listening. We’d much rather give than be given to. We are almost certainly people with a problem around receiving gifts.

And that is why, if we take a sober audit of what we actually do in love, we may have a history of some of the following:

— Falling for hugely self-preoccupied people whom we help a lot (financially perhaps or by listening to them or ministering to their crises) and do not, amidst their maelstroms, get that much help or attention from.

— Falling in love with people who are sunk in some form of deep sadness and reserve; which excites our longings and our profound sympathy and which makes us walk the perimeter of their castle walls for what might be years or decades, hoping against hope (or not quite) that the drawbridge might be let down.

— Falling in love with people who are below us in terms of emotional intelligence; people who rarely read books and blithely say they don’t have too much time for psychological things – even if this is what matters to us hugely (a disregard we shrug our shoulders at and might define as charming or incidental, as opposed to centrally significant and a crying shame [as well as unconsciously an enormous relief]).

— Falling in love with people who might be much younger than we are, so that their experience and psychological equipment renders them safely unable to connect and comprehend much of who we are, however ostensibly loving and keen they might be.

We should add: these people may give us a lot of grief and we may complain a lot that they don’t love us as they should. But what we overlook is that we picked them, we spend a good deal of our life around them and there would – despite our almost protests to the contrary – have been plenty of other candidates available, if only we could have tolerated them.

Our minds are much cleverer than we are. They size up people in an instant; we may still be catching up with their choices a few millennia later. They know long before we do that the person sitting opposite us at the party or whom we’ve met on the dating app seems rather ‘dangerous’ in that they are asking us a few too many questions, they seem a bit too well-read, they are a bit too psychologically astute, a bit too kind and thoughtful and are keeping track of too much of what we say. Just as we may, on another occasion, feel infinitely ‘safer’ and more at ease with someone whom we recognise will not come hunting for us, who lets us ask all the questions and offer all the help – and whom we know will let us remain safely isolated.

The best we can do is to keep a basic question in mind when we next consider a candidate for a relationship: is this someone who has what it takes to understand us? Could they do more than just ‘like’ us; could they engage with us profoundly? Are they are our equal? And if they are, can we remain calm enough to notice our fear of such capacities in them. Having sized up the fear and appreciated its roots in our pasts, could we be able (at last) to do the adult part of us justice, steady our nerves and take the risk of allowing this capable soul to know and nurture us as no one has known and nurtured us before? Could we dare, this time around, to be understood?

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