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Relationships • Marriage
Twenty Ideas on Marriage
Our society typically devotes huge attention to the start of a marriage – and particularly to the actual wedding ceremony. We’re correct that a great deal of thought is needed somewhere. But it’s the continuation of marriage that is – of course – the real challenge and here we are too often left on our own. This essay is The School of Life’s guide to the rest of a life together, containing twenty central ideas on how to make a relationship work over decades beyond the wedding day. It is filled with suggestions on coping with the monumental challenges that any couple will face as they build a life together. Love is ultimately not just a feeling but a skill that has to be learnt. This is a small manual of sorts.
No one can ever disappoint and upset us as much as the person we marry – for of no one do we have higher hopes. The intensity of our frustrations reflects the scale of our expectations.
A solution to our agitation and the bedrock of every good marriage therefore lies in a curious area: with a philosophy of (lightly-worn) pessimism. It’s initially an odd thought. Pessimism sounds very unattractive. It’s associated with failure, it’s usually what gets in the way of better things. But when it comes to marriage, a touch of pessimism is one of the guarantors of success.
The only way to make a marriage work is – curiously – not to expect everything from it. Some of the happiest marriages have been between people who knew that they would, despite their best intentions, make each other a little bit miserable sometimes.
There are deep-seated reasons why happiness will not always be present. Each partner’s character and mind is hugely complex and convoluted. We all had childhoods that left us less than ideally equipped to communicate honestly, to confront our awkward thoughts, to remain calm and to avoid sulking. A marriage forces a partner to play an unfeasible number of roles in one’s life: they must be a best friend, sexual companion, household manager, chauffeur, cook, accountant, perhaps co-parent, travel-mate… No wonder if we inevitably all fail at a few of these.
Expecting that there might be problems is not to wish that there would be some, nor does it mean bringing problems into existence. It simply means taking a few sensible precautions. If we suffer around our spouse at points, it won’t be a sign that our lives have gone wrong; rather that our relationship is revealing to us the beautifully complicated nature of true and lasting love.
2. Why We Married who we Married
Part of making a marriage work involves understanding why we picked our particular partner. There could have been quite a few others, after all. The standard answer is that we picked them because they were exceptionally well-suited to making us happy. The more complicated, psychotherapeutic answer is that we picked them because they felt familiar.
All of us look to re-create, within our adult relationships, some of feelings we knew well in childhood. That means care and tenderness of course, but very often, the love we tasted was blended with a few trickier dynamics: perhaps a bad temper, constant busyness, gloom, fickleness…
It’s almost inevitable that we’ve married someone who carries echoes of some of the faults of the parent whose gender we’re attracted to. Fortunately, this doesn’t have to be a catastrophe. We simply have to direct our efforts to changing the way we characteristically deal with the difficulties we are attracted to. The way we tend to approach them is in the manner of the children we once were. For example: we over personalise issues, we don’t explain our distress, we panic, we retreat into silence. We go in for attention-seeking antics.
But there is an opportunity to move from a child to an adult pattern of response to our partner’s most challenging sides. There is a properly grown up – less agitated, less fragile – way of handling them that would solve the problem of having married (as we all do) a fascinatingly complicated person.
3. Being a Good Teacher
A good marriage depends on odd-sound skill: that of being a good teacher. There can be few less Romantic-sounding ideas than that you should teach your lover things. And yet, because all of us are so imperfect, being taught is a fundamental part of love.
However, very sadly, most of us are appalling teachers. We’re so panicked that our partner is flawed in certain ways and will never learn what we need them to know, we take to getting irritated with them and blaming them for not already understanding what we’ve probably been too furious to articulate adequately in the first place. We try to ‘teach’ at moments when we’re most upset, panicked by the background thought that we may have married the wrong person – and so ruined our lives.
Teaching is a skill. It requires patience, an ability to put oneself in the shoes of another and a certain good-humour around the resistance and ill-will of the person in the student role.
We should never feel ashamed of instructing or of needing instruction. The only fault is to reject the opportunity for education if it is offered – however clumsily. Love should be a nurturing attempt by two people to reach their full potential – never just a crucible in which to look for endorsement for all one’s present failings. Love can and should sometimes be a classroom.
4. Being a Good Student
We’re often encouraged to believe that someone who truly loves us should approve of everything about us, should love us (as we put it) for who we ‘really are’. This is folly. The only people who should be loved for who they really are are perfect people – who don’t exist.
The rest of us should accept that a partner may legitimately want to teach us how to become a better version of ourselves. Unfortunately, many of us, at the first sign that the other is adopting a pedagogical tone (maybe pointing out something that we said rather too loudly at dinner, or mentioning a habit that is cropping up again at work), tend to assume that we are being ‘attacked’ and betrayed – and therefore close our ears to instruction, reacting with sarcasm and aggression to the teacher.
We should stop judging these attempts at instruction so harshly. Rather than reading every lesson as an assault on our whole being, as a sign we are about to be abandoned or humiliated, we should take it for what it is: an indication that someone cares about us – even if they aren’t yet breaking the news perfectly (our friends are less critical not because they’re nicer, but because they don’t need to bother: they get to leave us behind after spending a few hours in a restaurant with us).
In love, we are liable to be, by instinct, ferocious sulkers. It’s not a terribly nice thing to own up to but the impulse is quasi-universal. Behind the sulk lies a deeply interesting, problematic and almost touching conviction. The sulker is gripped by the idea that being properly loved means being perfectly understood by someone else.
Sulking builds on some occasional deeply wonderful moments of childhood – typically repeated in the opening days of love – when we have the astonishing experience of being intuitively grasped by someone else in small and large areas. When we sulk, we’re silently referring to this beautiful notion and insisting that our partners live up to it. They naturally cannot. We wanted to tell them about our day, but they went on about the plumber. They went out and bought the wrong kind of ironing board without asking us – and it cost too much; they were deep
in conversation when we were ready to leave the party… All these errors we may punish with vibrant and extensive sulks.
Ungracious though a sulk can seem, it is in fact a hopeful expression of love because when we sulk, we are assuming that the other person has an almost magical insight into our minds. This is sweet but – in the long-term – very dangerous. We should never hold it against our partners that they need to have our intentions and feelings explained to them very patiently and without aggression. The real sign of love is not magical insight; it is the willingness to explain and to listen calmly.
6. Sex in Marriage
Sex is meant to be wonderful, of course. It might have been for a while a driving force in the relationship. Furthermore, our culture is endlessly promoting the idea that great sex is the primary sign of closeness. ‘They haven’t had sex for a while’ is taken to be the leading sign of the death of love.
Yet a more accurate account of human sexuality would normalise the sorrows that almost inevitably attach themselves to sex in marriage. It is almost impossible to be married and, in the long-term, enjoy an extraordinary sex life. There are deep-seated reasons for this. Relationships naturally become very complex arenas of compromise and negotiation; we have to be circumspect, and careful, we have to measure our words and reign in our feelings. However, sex ideally demands the opposite: an uncensored, carefree version of ourselves. It’s hard to submit to being harshly taken by the person you’ve just been disagreeing with about a utility bill. It’s awkward to revel in calling one’s partner rude words when you’ve recently been rather prickly that they didn’t display enough sympathy around your mother’s broken ankle.
The very forces that keep a good enough relationship going – patience, kindness, compromise, biting one’s tongue – work systematically against the raw drama of sex. The waning of sex is – far more than we collectively admit – a sign that a marriage is stabilising, not failing. If we more publically admitted this, we’d be less panicked, less ashamed and a little less resentful when the sex got less intense and less frequent. And we’d be less haunted by an unreal, secret tantalising idea: that is could all be so different with someone else. It wouldn’t be. The fault isn’t us or our partner: our condition is mostly the strange, necessary price of genuinely sharing a life.
It can be a deeply private and very thrilling experience. We’re married and caught up in the routines of daily life – when we start to focus on someone else who strikes us as properly extraordinary. They might be someone near our office; or who goes to the same tennis club or who moved into the house opposite. We may hardly have met them but something about them – their smile, their clothes, they way they flick their hair – speaks deeply to our imagination. Our minds elaborate: it would be so wonderful, if only we could be with them; they wouldn’t nag or get shouty; we’d be so happy together. We’re in the grip of a crush.
We tend to secretly compare our partner very unfavourably to our crush and might get snappy at home as a result: but what really separates our partner from the object of our crush is simple: knowledge. We simply know our partners very much better. Any person, who we get to know across the full range of their being will emerge as terribly flawed. The biggest single asset of the person we have a crush on is our extremely limited grasp of what they are really like. We’re encountering a stringently edited version: the rest we are elaborating from our imaginations.
The truth about the crush is, of course, that they’d drive us crazy too; we just haven’t as yet discovered in what deep ways they would irk, annoy and upset us if we actually did try to share our life with them. As we got to know them, their ideal nature would fade to be replaced by a stark, honest, unflattering portrait. They wouldn’t be appalling, but not wonderful either. Just human. And therefore we should consign crushes to their proper place – the hidden recesses of our fantasy life – rather than deploy them as a deeply unfair point of comparison to our real-world marriage.
8. In Praise of Compromise
The word compromise sounds deeply miserable; the ideal is to be with someone we don’t need to compromise with at all. There’s a special scorn for couples who stay together not because of great and powerful love for one another but for unromantic, pragmatic reasons: for the sake of the children, because they’ve realised there’s no-one better out there; or because they don’t feel they could cope very well on their own.
This sounds bad only when set against a soaring vision of what a marriage might be: a union of souls, an ever more perfect emotional symbiotic tie. Yet such marriages are desperately rare. So it’s not really a fair benchmark. We don’t compromise because we’ve given up on love, but because we’ve got a more accurate idea of what relationships can realistically be in the long term.
A wiser option sees marriage as rightly and honourably having a practical dimension: it is an economic alliance, an arrangement for bringing up a family, a domestic management team, a social partnership, an insurance policy for old age. These are deeply serious and dignified human projects. It isn’t our duty to sacrifice them because the flame of mutual delight has died down.
The dignity of compromise, and the burden of maturity, is built around the idea that in order to do certain important things we have to give up others: not everything nice is simultaneously available. Of course we always know this is true, but we push it out of our minds around marriage. Couples who compromise are not the enemies of love: they may be at the vanguard of understanding what lasting relationships truly demand and what they are for. They deserve admiration, not condemnation.
9. The Ironing and the Bins
We know – of course – that we have to pay the bills, clean up, manage the laundry, make the bed, cook some meals, keep the fridge stocked and take out the rubbish. These issues take up a lot of our attention and time but they are rarely at the core of what we think marriage is about. We’re supposed to be with our soul-mate, our ideal other-half.
The notion that practical matters have no legitimate place in love makes our lives harder than they need to be. We get irritated around what seem like maddeningly minor details: is it wasteful to take the shirts to the dry cleaner? Should there be a roster for taking out the bins? But not only are we annoyed. We’re annoyed that we have ended up so annoyed about something so utterly petty.
Frustration doesn’t just stem from things being difficult – only from them being unexpected and difficult. Nobody complains that it’s quite hard to climb Mount Everest. But our culture has for decades encouraged the idea that domestic matters are beneath the dignity of the sophisticated individual: we should be out working or having fun. We under-budget for domestic issues and feel they shouldn’t be things we have to take our spouse up on again and again. When we understand that an issue is important and complex, we take it for granted there will disagreements that will take time to clear up, that there will need to be a lot of explanation, negotiation and debate.
The small, bounded, repetitive tasks of domestic life in fact play a great part in the essential task of living well. The great themes come into focus in them.
We should accept the fundamental dignity of the ironing board and the bin roster.
10. Reading Side-by-Side in Bed
For once we’ve taken an early night. Even if it’s just for a little while, we’re side by side, each absorbed in a different world. One of us might be in a submarine beneath the arctic ice floe, the other is flitting through the salons of 18th century Paris, but our toes touch every so often, we stretch a hand back to briefly massage the nape of our partner’s neck before turning a page.
It’s very nice – modest, comfortable and rather sweet. We’re not in the midst of a heart to heart conversation, we’re not engaged in passionate sex, we’re not celebrating each other’s triumphs or heading to the airport for an exciting mini-break. But reading in bed together represents a major achievement. There’s not really anyone else we could do it with.
When we think of what marriage is for we don’t often think of the small pleasures like this: buying a cheap old vase at a market and a few flowers on the way home; sitting on the floor together and sorting the socks after the wash; watching a TV drama together episode by episode; rinsing and drying the glasses when the friends who came round to dinner have left; assembling a flat pack bookcase and realising you’ve both got the instructions wrong and that it doesn’t matter.
A marriage will inevitably contain serious problems – because two complicated, independent people can’t join their lives without friction. We tend to be more aware of the troubles than of the pleasures. Not because the pleasures aren’t there but because we don’t always see what an impressive and important element they really are. We take them for granted, we don’t properly appreciate their uniqueness. It may lack glamour, but being able to read in bed together is a major feat; and a sign of deep love. We may be doing better than we think.
11. Marriage Therapy
Marriage therapy looks like something we could only be interested in when a relationship is failing; in fact, it is the single greatest tool that can help to prevent it from doing so.
Marriage therapy works its magic because it is a safe forum in which to discuss issues that, when handled by the couple alone, can too easily spin into ill-temper and recrimination. The feeling that we haven’t been heard in too long is what prevents us from listening. But in a consulting room, a good therapist becomes the wise broker, allowing each person to have their say, sympathising with both parties, while taking neither of their sides. Therapy becomes a safe diplomatic back channel, away from the conflictual atmosphere of domestic life. The therapist can help the couple to see that behind one person’s rage is pain and a history of despair in childhood. Or they might make someone aware of what it feels like to be on the receiving end of hostile silence or controlling inquisitions. They can hold both parties back from one another’s throats for just long enough that they may start to understand what their previously caricatured opponent is going through.
One of the key tasks of the therapist is to expose us often enough to a more sane, respectful, reasonable and realistic outlook than our own. The therapist’s kindly, wise voice should become our own. We begin to intuit what they would have said in a given situation, and when they are no longer there, at moments of crisis and loneliness, can learn to say some of the important, calming and kind things to ourselves.
Far from a self-indulgence, undergoing therapy is one of the most generous things we could ever do for all those who have to live around us. Those who have spent time in therapy are ever so slightly less dangerous to be around: a little better able to warn those who depend on them of how frustrating and peculiar they might sometimes be. We owe it to ourselves, and just as importantly, those who love us, to take our courage in our hands – and to go and ‘see someone’ forthwith.
12. Date Night
We’ve co-ordinated our diaries, maybe got in a baby sitter, found a restaurant we both like. Perhaps it doesn’t happen so often these days. It’s an important moment. But then we can end up being rather silent or talking about how nice the mozzarella salad is or what a colleague said in a meeting that morning. We’ve got the opportunity to really talk, for once, but then can’t quite rise to the occasion.
It is no insult to a relationship – or to our intellects – to realise that it may be hard to summon up the questions that are truly going to reopen the channels of feeling between ourselves and our partners. We may require a level of artificiality to get to the sort of conversation we could most profitably have.
Here then are some of the more intimate, frustration-releasing questions that we might systematically ask one another as we work our way through the courses:
– In what ways have I hurt you?
– When do I satisfy you?
– Where do you feel underappreciated?
– What would you like me to apologise for?
– How have I let you down?
– What do you need from me?
Such conversations, handled without recrimination or defensiveness, can save love. They can also help sex to go better, given how often a desire not to be touched is – at heart – the legacy of pent-up irritation and hurt.
For a couple of centuries our culture has been feeding us a very alluring, Romantic vision of what a good marriage is meant to be like: we’ll understand one another deeply and intuitively; we’ll have great, loving sex and neither of us will want to go to bed with other people; we’ll be busy of course, but there will be plenty of time for us just to be together, happy in each other’s company; we’ll be soul mates; we’ll love each other just as we are.
This story is particularly powerful because, early on, a relationship really can be a bit like this. But, over time, every marriage seems to change: there are running disagreements, points of deep tension, sex is patchy, we wonder if our partner might be flirting too much with someone else, there are things we definitely wish we could change about each other, we nag and criticise, we seem to just grunt and sulk instead of having deep conversations. We start to resent each other. This isn’t what a good marriage was meant to be like, we feel, and we secretly (and at times openly) blame our partners for having let us down.
We get angry, but in the background is a less readily acknowledged truth. The ideal was never actually a real possibility for the long term – and not just for us but for pretty much anybody. We should be sad, but not angry or bitter. We must blame our partner and ourselves a little less. It’s not our fault or theirs. We’ve been judging our relationship by the exaggerated standards of fiction, rather than by the more more modest, and much fairer, benchmark of reality.
14. Other People’s Marriages
Our sense of whether of our own marriage is going well or badly is subtly but powerfully dependent on our mental picture of what marriages in general tend to be like. We’re naturally very given to comparisons. (Whether we feel well off or rather poor always depends on how much money we think other people have).
Unfortunately, there’s a fearsome asymmetry at work which makes us judge ourselves harshly. We know our own marriage from the inside – while we generally have only a heavily edited, limited and sanitised picture of the marriages of other people. Mostly we see others in social situations – where a degree of politeness is the norm. But we’re intently aware of our own sorrows: the cold silences, harsh criticisms, furious outbursts, episodes of door slamming, bitter late night denunciations, simmering sexual disappointments and the times of aching loneliness in the bedroom. Very understandably, we come to the conclusion that our own marriage is uniquely cursed and much darker and more painful than is usual. In times of distress, we might even fling an accusation at our spouse: ‘no-one else has to put up with this.’
Getting a much more accurate idea of what other people’s marriages are really like isn’t prying or cruel, it’s a priority in love because it reveals the true nature of the task we’re undertaking. It’s not that we as a couple are strangely awful or damned: it’s that marriage itself is an essentially and inescapably difficult project. If we could properly see – via tenderly accurate films and novels and honest chats with older honest couples – the reality of pretty much any marriage we might arrive at a surprising and rather heartening conclusion: that our own marriage is – in fact – really quite OK and certainly very normal.
15. For The Darkest Days
There will be times when we feel very bleak about our marriage. Those moments won’t necessarily last long but they are bound to arise – and we need to be a little prepared.
Here, therefore, are some bits of stiff, kindly consolation for the periods of agony.
Why did you marry this person? How did you get it so wrong?
In short: it’s not your fault. Everyone when known properly turns out to be unbearable in some central ways. There is no-one you could be married to that would not – at times – leave you feeling desperate. You too are tricky, we should remember.
Many people suffer in similar ways now, have done so in the past, and will do so again in the future. It’s miserable, but you are participating in the common experience of humanity. Maybe they don’t talk about it much – but millions would sympathise deeply with what you’re going through. You feel completely alone; yet you are in a vast (shy) majority.
A thoughtful, well-read surgeon screamed at his partner through the bathroom door late last night and woke the children. Right now, a level headed, nicely dressed IT consultant lives in dread of her partner finding out she’s been having an affair online.
The feeling that you wouldn’t mind if your partner were to die swiftly and painlessly leaving you to start again doesn’t make you a monster: it’s very normal. It doesn’t mean you wish them harm. It will pass.
No-one really understands anyone else. That your spouse doesn’t grasp you in central ways is entirely unavoidable.
Yes, you would like to have an affair. It’s so reasonable and natural to want to. It would be wonderful to be wanted, to be held and loved and properly appreciated in bed. But an affair wouldn’t solve the underlying issues.
Your anguish is very real at this moment. But later it won’t seem quite so bad. We get used to things. We can cope better than we think.
A marriage should be a place where people offer each other comfort. But an intention doesn’t always automatically translate into a ready capacity for true assistance. Two people can long to be supportive and generous to one another and yet lack all the skills to deliver on their good intentions – and therefore end up feeling isolated, resentful and unloved.
We cause ourselves trouble because we are too slow to recognise an odd, largely unmentioned phenomenon: how varied and particular our notions of help can be. We take our own preferred style of being soothed as the natural starting point for how to soothe others – but we may be very wrong. An urgent task is to try to understand the particular way in which we, and our partner, need love to be delivered in order to feel that it feel real.
We might be types who, when we are sad or in difficulties, need first and foremost to be listened to silently. Then again, love might not seem genuine unless it is accompanied by precise and concrete solutions. Or we might need to be held or a large dose of optimism or consolingly gloomy pronouncements.
The misfortune lies in how easily we can irritated with the wrong offer of love – and in turn, how quickly we may be offended when our efforts go unappreciated. Recognising that there are different styles of help alerts us to the severe risks of misunderstanding. Instead of getting annoyed at our lover’s sometimes widely misdirected effort, we can grasp – perhaps for the first time – the basic truth that these blundering companions are in fact attempting to be nice.
17. The Partner-as-Child
It can seem like an insult to think of one’s partner as being in certain ways like a child. They’ve got a job and a credit card and can drive a car. But there’s a powerful motive for adopting this strange-sounding stance.
We’re noticeably patient and forgiving around children. They might tip the pasta we’ve nicely prepared on the floor, but we don’t shout. They say it’s our fault when the blades snap off their toy helicopter – and we tease them kindly for their condemnation. They have a tantrum because it’s bedtime, but we don’t get too worried because we understand they’re tired or teething or frazzled after an emotionally taxing morning at kindergarten. We soothe, we distract, we calmly try another tactic. Our ego stays intact.
How different to what typically happens when our partners frustrate us. Here, in a heartbeat, we shout, suspect, complain. If we were to regard our partner as a young child however, the mood might soften. This isn’t condescending. We’re tapping into a constructive way of interpreting the less lovely elements of someone’s character and conduct. We’re seeing them not simply as rational, sophisticated adults who – from sheer malice and selfishness – are behaving badly. Instead we’re recognising how vulnerable they are to hunger, tiredness and their own griefs, anxieties and regrets.
We are so alive to the idea that it’s patronising to be thought of as younger than we are; we forget that it is also, at times, the greatest privilege for someone to look beyond our adult self in order to engage with – and forgive – the disappointed, furious, inarticulate or wounded child within.
We should take care to pin to the fridge door a picture of our partner at the age of three or four, looking especially endearing, and glance over at it at moments of crisis.
18. The Weakness of Strength
We get drawn to people because of their good qualities: we’re attracted by their warm sympathy or intelligence; their brisk efficiency around money or their relaxed, unhurried style.
But as a relationship progresses, we often find that it is our partner’s shortcomings that most occupy our attention. We realise that they’re too bossy or regularly shirk responsibility; they’re always picking us up on little details or have a cynical, world-weary attitude. We wonder how we could have made such a big mistake.
Yet, behind their negative behaviour, there is a powerful logic at work. Every strength a person has is also – in other situations – a frustrating and possibly irritating weakness. Someone may be often very kind and tender – but the same gentleness will sometime means they don’t assert themselves or show much initiative. The determined capacity to stay on top of money and domestic administration can be an enormous advantage, but it will mean that a person will also tend to nip our wilder dreams in the bud.
We should always strive to see people’s weaknesses as the inevitable downside of certain merits that drew us to them, and from which we will benefit at other points (even if none of these benefits are apparent right now). What we’re seeing are not their faults, pure and simple, but rather the shadow side of things that are genuinely good about them.
Our minds tend to hive off strengths and see these as essential, while deeming the weaknesses as a freakish add-on, but in truth, the weaknesses are part and parcel of the strengths.
This theory usefully undermines the unhelpful idea that – if only we looked a bit harder – we would find someone who was always perfect to be around. If strengths are invariably connected to failings, there won’t be anyone who is remotely flawless. We may well find people with different strengths, but they will also have a new litany of weaknesses. It’s always calming to take a moment to remind ourselves that perfect people simply don’t exist.
An odd feature of relationships – which we have to be ready for in ourselves and our partners – is how difficult it can be to ask for closeness. We often want reassurance but feel so anxious that we may be unwanted, we disguise our need behind a facade of indifference. At the precise moment where we would love a cuddle or a warm touch, we say we’re busy, we pretend our thoughts are elsewhere, we get sarcastic and dry.
Or else, anxious about being rejected, we may get controlling and bossy. We feel our partners are escaping us emotionally, but rather than admitting to our sense of loss, we respond by trying to pin them down administratively. We nag them about the state of the kitchen. We upbraid them for being six minutes late.
We should have sympathy for ourselves. Admitting to need is inherently frightening. It’s not surprising we should badger or behave coldly rather than simply own up to our fragility.
Yet we should create room for regular moments, perhaps as often as every few hours, when we can feel unembarrassed and legitimate about asking for confirmation. ‘I really need you; do you still want me?’ should be the most normal of enquiries.
We should uncouple the admission of need from any associations with the unfortunate and punitively macho term, ‘neediness’. We must get better at seeing the love and longing that lurk shyly behind some of our own and our partner’s most frosty, distant or managerial moments.
We know by instinct that humour is pretty important in relationships. But the reasons are often left a little vague. It isn’t that we crudely want entertainment. We don’t just seek relaxation. We want to find a way to be annoyed with, and criticise, one another’s most maddening sides without eliciting a drama, with a special kind of diplomatic immunity that is the gift of comedy. We need our partner, whom we love and yet find extremely difficult to live with, to understand what is so disturbing about their characters – and perhaps to want to amend them. That is what it means to get the joke.
Spending time closely around someone inevitably exposes us to departures from normality or balance. Our partners are always a little crazy in areas – as we, naturally, are too. We need to say something, but doing so directly and in a serious voice can be painfully counter-productive. Too often, the partner just swiftly feels attacked and refuses the insight.
This is where a certain kind of humour comes in. Exaggerating the exaggeration is a tool for criticising another person without arousing their irritation or self-righteousness. And the laughter we elicit isn’t just a sign they have been entertained; it’s proof that they have acknowledged an attempt to reform them.
George Bernard Shaw understood this very well. ‘If you want to tell people the truth,’ he remarked, ‘make them laugh, otherwise they will kill you.’