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Relationships • Breaking Up & Heartbreak

The Fear of Not Being Able to Cope Practically Without a Partner

When it comes to relationships, our age has a firm belief in distributing practical tasks equally: both parties are meant to display comparable competence at, and enthusiasm for, earning money and managing household chores. There is nothing remotely acceptable about complaining that buying dishwasher tablets or spending the day in an office might ultimately not be ‘one’s thing’.

Nevertheless, beneath the radar, a lot of relationships show considerable variation from the official ideology. In private, there are a great many couples where someone is doing very little of the earning and/or very little of the ironing or dentist-appointment scheduling.

The problematic dimension to this has little to do with politics and everything to do with what may occur when the relationship starts to experience a serious breakdown in intimacy and connection, at which point it risks emerging as the single greatest contributor to a feeling of stuckness and entrapment. Honesty may force us to admit that at heart, and however humiliating this might sound, we are unable to leave a union not because we don’t know our own hearts or still have hope that communication might improve, but because we wouldn’t have the remotest clue how to pay a tax bill, call up a plumber or refill the car with windscreen-wiper fluid. We remain because we are terrified of laundry. 

Though the problem tends to manifest itself in the head of one party, it is really both members of the couple who are responsible for the creation of a romantically unbalanced union – and as ever, the past explains most of the dynamics. 

All children require, in their early years, two kinds of love, what we might call practical love on the one hand and emotional love on the other: they need to have their clothes changed, their shoelaces tied, their meals cooked, their homework interpreted and their hair combed; but they also need to be cuddled, held, heard, sung to, played with and cherished. 

Unfortunately, the rightful balance of practical and emotional loves is easy to lose. There are cases where a parent may find it a great deal easier to take care of the practical than the emotional dimensions of the relationship. They may love their child deeply, but not be in any position to convey their love freely in an emotional key. They may limit their role to ensuring that their child will always have new shoes for school and never develop a cavity. At an extreme, the parent may require the practical weakness or cluelessness of their child in order to bolster their own sense of worth. Sensing the parent’s limitations, the child may then unconsciously collude in giving the adult as much opportunity as possible to express their concern and aptitude. They will become helpless to ensure that an adult they love will have a role: they can’t do very much around the house, they lose all their school books (and the parent is wonderful at finding them again), they love the parent’s food but wouldn’t have the first clue how to fry an egg, they often fall ill and very much need someone to bring them medicines and tea. To reject any of the parent’s help would (the child instinctively grasps) be to deliver a cruel blow to their identity. It works – in a way – for both parties, though at considerable internal cost. 

The danger is that these exaggerated patterns are then repeated in adult love. Here too we may find a partner who shuns some of the rawness and exposure demanded of emotional love in favour of immense devotion to practical tasks. Almost without being asked, they may start buying their partner all their clothes or taking on any job that comes up around the house, they may monopolise every aspect of the finances or take over the entire management of the kitchen. This absorption of the practical realm may also feel compelling to their partner who, because of their own historic association between love and practical care, will gratefully acquiesce to ever more assistance, growing increasingly incompetent and dependent in the process until they genuinely believe themselves unable to put on a wool wash or earn a pay slip.

On both sides, a challenge is being avoided: for the helper, the challenge of betting that one can be loved by someone not because one has rearranged their sock drawer or paid for lunch, but because one is worthy of being honoured and appreciated for one’s own essential emotional self. And for the helpless dependent, the challenge of believing that one can enjoy a love not based on practical care but on fulfilling emotional and sexual connection with an equal.

In order to exit a stuck relationship (and prise ourselves free from the potential for repetition) we need to disentangle – and remake more accurately – the association that may have built up in our minds between practical and emotional love. We need to have the courage to stop manically looking after people in a material sense as an alternative to allowing ourselves to experience the vagaries, exposures and joys of a psychologically mutual relationship. And we need to stop colluding in our own infantilization and trust that we are as capable as the next person of emptying the rubbish and calling the dentist.

We may need to leave – or perhaps should try to stay. But we will never know which it is until we have purged the relationship of the unhealthy choreography of helpless child on the one hand and super-practical adult on the other. We’ll be in a position to assess our real options when we’ll have done the easy bit – figured out how to earn some money and clean the oven – and moved on to the real hurdle: allowing ourselves to need, to be vulnerable around and to trust an equal.

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