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Relationships • Conflicts
When We Tell Our Partners That We Are Normal and They Are Strange
Being in a relationship, even a very good one, constantly requires us to defend our preferences and points of view against the possibility of a partner’s objections. We can find ourselves having to argue about what time to go to bed, where to put the sofa, how often to have sex, what to do in a foreign city or what the best colour for a new car might be. In previous eras, the sort of justifications we wielded were far simpler. The person with more power would simply assert with haughty indifference: Because I say so… or Because I want it this way… But we live in a more civilised age of discussion where only well-founded reasons are expected to sway the verdict.
Because we live in a democratic age as well one of the tools to which warring couples most often have resort when attempting to justify their choices is an appeal to majority opinion. That is, in the heat of a fight, we remind our opponent with all the legitimacy bestowed by the weight of numbers, that what we want to do, think or feel is normal. We suggest that they agree with us, not only or primarily because of what we happen to say, but because they’ll find – once they stop to consider the matter with appropriate humility – that all right-thinking people agree with us too. Our position (on travel plans, sexual routines or car colours) isn’t mere idiosyncrasy. It is synonymous with that lodestar of contemporary ethics: ‘normality’.
As we fight, we bolster our personal and therefore fragile opinion with the supposed impregnable voice of the entire community: it is not simply that I – one solitary easily-overlooked person – finds your attitude very displeasing: all reasonable people, in fact an electoral majority of the world, are presently with me in condemning your ideas. You are – in your opinion on how to cook pasta, when to call your sister or the merit of the prize-winning novel – utterly alone.
In a pure sense, what is normal shouldn’t matter very much at all. What is widespread in our community is often wrong and what is currently considered odd might actually be quite wise. But however much we know this intellectually, we are profoundly social creatures; millions of years of evolution have shaped our brains so as naturally to give a great deal of weight to the opinions of those around us. In reality, it almost always feels emotionally crucial to try to retain the broad goodwill and acceptance of the community in which we live. So the claim to ‘normality’ (however approximately and unfairly it is made) touches on a sensitive spot in our minds – which is precisely why our partner invokes it so deftly.
Nevertheless, we should hold on to the counter-arguments. When it comes to personal life, we have no sound idea of what is normal, because we have no easy access to the intimate truths of others. We don’t know what a normal amount of sex really is, or how normal it is to cry, sleep in a different bed to our partner or dislike a partner’s best friend. There are no reliable polls or witnesses. We are far more likely to build up an accurate picture of what is ‘normal’ by studying our own couple than by taking our cues from information derived from mendacious or sentimental TV discussion shows and magazine articles.
Secondly, and more importantly, we should cease cynically lauding the idea of the normal when it suits us by acknowledging that almost everything that is beautiful and worth appreciating in our relationship is deeply un-normal. It’s very un-normal that someone should find us attractive, should have agreed to go out with us, should put up with our antics, should have come up with such an endearing nickname for us that alludes to our favourite animal from childhood, should have bothered to spend some of their weekend sewing on buttons for us – and should bother to listen to our anxieties late into the night. We are the beneficiaries of some extremely rare eventualities and it is the height of ingratitude to claim to be a friend of the normal when most of what is good in our lives is the result of awesomely minuscule odds. We should stop badgering our partners with phoney democratic arguments and admit to something far truer and possibly more effective in its honest vulnerability: that we would love for something to happen because, and only because, it would make us very happy if it did – and very upset if it didn’t.