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Relationships • Conflicts • Perfectionism, Expectations & Messing up

The Secret Lives of Other Couples

Despite all our recording devices, and all the ways we have of sharing information about ourselves, one of the things that remains as hard as ever is to know what it is like, really like, for other people in relationships.

Photo of a man staring out of his window, taken from a suburban garden.
Larry Sultan, Pictures from Home

Chiefly, we are left wondering: ‘Can it be this hard for others too?’ We have so few signs to lead us: abstract statistics around divorce, the odd passing remark that X or Ys partner is ‘a nightmare’ or more plainly ‘a dick’, the occasional break into sobs of a colleague at the next desk. But what we lack are properly tangible details that what is going on for us is also at play with others. What we would crave to know are answers to some of the following: Does anyone else – while making love to their partner – actively fantasise about somebody else? Does anyone else both nominally love their partner and daydream that they might die so as to leave them a shot at another kind of life? Does anyone else, in moments of despair, use the worst sort of language, telling their partner that they are ‘the most useless …. that ever lived’? Does anyone else have such a vivid contrast between the public face and the public reality? Does anyone else rue their cowardice for settling for this? Does anyone else have so little sex? Does anyone else get impotent and fake orgasms? Does anyone else use the internet in subversive ways and have things on their phone that their partner might get inconsolably upset about? Does anyone else sometimes acutely regret the day they ever met their partner? Does anyone else deep down feel they’ll never really understand this ‘love business’, because they are somehow – incomprehensibly – too messed up, and are in essence just going through the motions? Does anyone else wonder why they ever had children and worry that they’ve spent most of their life bringing up a creature who will simply suffer and be unfulfilled all over again as they themselves have been? Does anyone else think they have been cursed at this impossible love game from the start?

We want to know – with some of the desperation of a castaway on a proverbial island – if we are really, really this alone. And the answer, beautiful, lonely, plaintive, consoling, is a firm, resounding, eternal: No. And, at a higher pitch: of course not. Because – given how many of us there are on the planet and how similar our constitutions are – we can take it as axiomatic that if we feel it in ourselves, whether it’s ever spoken about or not, however vile or strange or sad it might be, it’s going to be in them – a lot of them – too. We should never have to add either shame or loneliness to the tensions and quiet tragedies of love.

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