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Relationships • Conflicts

Why Good Manners Matter in Relationships

We probably think rather badly of ‘good manners’: all those pleases and thank yous and how are yous that were painfully drilled into us in childhood to civilise us, but that have so little to do with who we actually are.

Yet while we may grudgingly accept a certain logic for manners in a few areas, at the office or at a party for example, the area where the concept truly seems to have no place is love. Nothing sounds quite as unromantic as two lovers who daily strive to be ‘polite’ with one another: honest, lively, sweet, authentic of course, but polite? We look to relationships for untrammelled authenticity: here – at last – we will be able to say what we truly think, here – at last – we will no longer need to hedge and walk on egg shells. A loving partner will witness us in our unfiltered reality and endorse us.

But while the longing is understandable, the reality is far from fertile – let alone kind. To be entirely ‘ourselves’ around someone is a complicated treat we should probably spare anyone we remotely care about, for what this will in reality entail is an uncompromising and bracing encounter with plentiful reserves of ill-temper, selfishness, confusion, infidelity, vindictiveness, foul odours and rage. To be as we genuinely are entails blaming a partner for things they’ve never done, passing on disappointments that don’t belong to them, expressing the full force of verdicts in a way that might pulverise their esteem, pointing out flaws without any care for balance and burping at will. We should – where love is the goal – very much want people not to be who they really are.

Drawing of Walter Raleigh laying down his cloak for the Queen to walk on.

Indeed, we might want them to sign up to a basic charter of good conduct, an agreed set of four cast-iron rules for how to behave so as to give love a chance:

1. Accuracy

It’s in the nature of many moods of distress that their exact causes elude us. Something bad has happened today, but unable to put our finger on exactly what, we may point to the nearest significant (and importantly, also, safe) object in view: our partner, perhaps at that moment innocently moving around the kitchen, unaware of what is about to befall them, trying to get through the turmoils of their own brief existence as best as they can. It might have been our boss or a worry about financial solidity or a glimpse in the mirror or a rivalry with a sibling that has triggered our distemper, but these are hard elements to get clear about, let alone resolve, and so it’s only natural to focus in on the one person in the vicinity who is forebearing, the one person whom we know has strength to bear our injustice – and start to tell them that their friends are superficial or that they should probably try to lose weight, thereby acting with some of the poise of a three year old who, struck by a burst of jealousy at a friend with a better toy, screams cathartically: ‘I hate mummy.’

2. Kindness

We can be so convinced that kindness is a natural consequence of love that we forget that it might be its artificial precondition: that we might – in order to remain in a relationship – need to make certain entirely synthetic and contrived efforts to try to locate gentle and understandable words for our most important truths. There could of course be other, more direct ways to say what has leapt into our minds: we could use terms like shithead and fuckwit if we liked, we could tell the partner that they’re brutish and daft, and these appellations would undoubtedly carry some of the sense of letdown and hopelessness that has afflicted us, but if continuing in a couple is the desired outcome, then we would be wise to go into another room for a time and bite our hand. Manners aren’t just a worthless rigmarole, they’re founded on the insight that our need for respect is – after food and water – probably our most urgent and non-negotiable requirement. 

3. Keep it Personal

The temptation, in anger, is to universalise our judgements, so as to convey how deeply they strike us. That’s why we end up telling the partner that they are, not just in our view, but in and of themselves, in their essence, in a way that a court of law or a divine judge would think, cold, selfish, stupid, needy or hypocritical… It feels so deeply true, but if we’re interested in retaining the ear of a person we may want to be thinking of on our death bed, we’d be better off trying for something more local and conditional: I feel you might… Perhaps I get a sense that… Maybe I’ve sometimes had the impression that… Love thrives on an absence of categoricals. 

4. Feeling Heard

The law here is brutal: we will not hear until we feel heard. We won’t be able to acknowledge the feelings of those who have denied our own. And so, though everything in us is certain that justice is on our side, we must do everything, before we launch forth on any rebuttal, to categorically show that we have listened to our lover’s point – by repeating it back to them as faithfully as we can using slightly different words. ‘I’m hearing that you don’t feel I am doing enough around the house and that’s making you wonder whether things are fair in this relationship…’ We don’t need to do anything practically more complicated, though emotionally tortuous and restrictive, than paraphrase: ‘I hear that you’re feeling very let down by me because of the way I behaved around your friend and that is reminding you of being belittled last summer when, at your aunt’s cabin by the lake, you got the feeling that…’ We know so much about what we want to say; it’ll go entirely unheard until we can rehearse what we’ve just been told.

Manners are undoubtedly agony. Our hatred of them is in no way unfounded. And yet – tragically – it seems that only by limiting our right to free expression, only by restricting liberty, only by disallowing ourselves from being ‘who we really are’, can we get any closer to what we want: a partner who feels good enough about themselves to be able to acknowledge what matters most to us. Authentic, kind and true relationships may require us to be – far more often than we’d like – substantially affected, stilted and unnatural.

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