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Relationships • Compatibility

Why We ‘Split’ Our Partners

One of the stranger but more powerful discoveries of psychotherapy is that the average baby firmly believes it has two mothers. Mother 1 is kind; she comes when baby calls; she gives it milk as soon as it is needed; she’s sweet-natured, generous, and eminently deserving of love. But then there’s another mother: a far more challenging and terrifying proposition whom we can call Mother 2. Mother 2 sometimes doesn’t give baby milk exactly when it wants it; she occasionally fails to interpret its needs; she can misjudge the temperature of the water at bath time; she has friends who come around and distract her and a phone that calls her away; she gets it wrong. 

Photograph of a young woman reflected in a mirror.
Photo by Houcine Ncib on Unsplash

Babies are creatures of intense emotion. To Mother 1, the baby directs deep and boundless love. To Mother 2, it gives pure and unalloyed hate. It wants to scream, chew her up and put her in the bin forever and ever.

With time – and by now the baby might be a toddler – a shocking realisation is made. Despite evidence to the contrary, it emerges that Mothers 1 and 2 are in fact the very same person; the mother who can at one moment be completely delightful and gratifying is – it appears – the same mother who at another moment is profoundly enraging and enervating. This definitely isn’t common sense and it takes a good long while to digest such a sobering notion. Indeed, it’s such a wounding and complicated thought, psychotherapy tells us that many of us don’t manage to accept it properly until late on in adulthood, after we’ve caused ourselves and others a lot of pain.

For years, we can be inveterate dividers. Like babies, we also decide that good and bad, pleasing and frustrating, cannot exist within the heart of a single person. In the early days of a relationship, we are certain that we’ve met Lover 1: a delightful being who tells us kind things on our initial dates, someone with whom we go to Venice, who understands us completely, whom we want to marry and set up home with. But then, somewhere along the way, this person seems to give birth to a body double, someone with their exact height and width, with the same eyes and hairstyle, who occasionally sneaks into the room while we’re not looking and whom we might term Lover 2 – and this person is a much less enchanting soul. They leave their wet towel on the bathroom floor; they have three annoying friends; they don’t respect our hobbies; they say ‘really’ a bit too often.

For a while, just like an enraged baby, we decide that the best place for Lover 2 is at the bottom of the bin – which will mean letting go of their twin as well. But on the way to telling them it’s over, we may be struck by a more nuanced, ambivalent yet ultimately liveable idea: that Lovers 1 and 2 are, in spite of all the signs to the contrary, the same person under the influence of different moods and circumstances, that good and bad stand in a complex relationship within anyone and that – in violation of all our previous suppositions – perfect people do not exist.

It’s a sad thought in many ways, a tragic one even – and we may kick against it for an understandably long time, hopping from partner to partner while we do so. But eventually, we may learn to apply to other people the same degree of pessimistic generosity we give ourselves: we allow them to be – though we dearly wish they weren’t – sometimes as wicked, flawed, disappointing and silly as we know we are.

We can eventually recognise that there is something yet more important than finding a lover who never lets us down: a lover who exists; a lover who is real.

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