Chapter 3.Relationships: Conflicts


How Are You Difficult to Live with?

The idea that one is in many ways an extremely difficult person to be in a relationship with may sound rather improbable and even at points offensive. Yet fully understanding and readily and graciously admitting to this possibility might be the surest way of making sure one is an endurable proposition over the long-term. There are few people more deeply insufferable than those who don’t, at regular intervals, suspect they might be so.

We are, all of us, invariably, hugely tricky propositions. We don’t need to know anyone in particular to know this about everyone. We have all – in some way or another – been inadequately parented, we have a panoply of unfortunate psychological traits, we are beset by bad habits, we are anxious, jealous, ill-tempered and vain. We are bringing an awesome amount of trouble into someone else’s life by agreeing to be their partner.

We tend to be shielded from this unwelcome news prior to a big relationship through a mixture of sentimentality and neglect. Our parents loved us too much to tell us; our friends don’t want to get bogged down in detailed critiques of our personalities; a pleasant occasional meal is all they want from us. And our exes were too keen to escape from us to offer up a helpfully detailed critique of our personalities. They simply told us they needed a little more space – or needed to take a long trip to India.

Furthermore, when we’re on our own, we just don’t notice how annoying we might well be in the eyes of others. Perhaps we were in a sulk for the whole of a Sunday, but no-one was there to be driven crazy by our self-pity and our passive fury. We may have tendencies to use our work as an escape from intimacy, but so long as we are not permanently with someone, we can pass off our eccentric hours without comment. Our peculiar eating habits won’t be real until there is another person across the table to register our challenging chewing sounds and ingredient combinations.

Eventually, a partner will call us out on these traits. It feels like a horrible personal attack which a nicer person would not put us through. But it is no such thing. It is an inevitable response to our failings – which anyone would need eventually to bring up.

Our partner is not really doing anything odd. They are merely holding up a mirror. Everyone, seen close up, has an appalling amount wrong with their character. It’s not us – it’s the human condition. The specifics vary hugely, of course; people are nightmarish in different ways. But the basic point is to share. Whatever we think or feel about ourselves, we will be revealed as sorely defective upon close-up, prolonged inspection. Sadly, it’s not that our partner is being too critical or unusually demanding. They are the bearer of an inevitable news: that we are a nightmare.

This view of human nature can seem shocking. But that’s only because we’re unprepared for it – and therefore tend to assume that it must be a prelude to a constantly fractious relationship. It is nothing of the sort. It is the only reliable basis upon which harmony can be established – and good-will and kindness embedded in two people’s exchanges.

Traditionally, the notion of Original Sin was the starting point for thinking about ourselves as essentially messed up creatures. The idea emerged at the end of the Roman Empire in the West. As the Empire collapsed in anarchic violence, the major thinker of the era, St Augustine, started to look around for an explanation of the miserable condition of human society. His key suggestion was that human nature is essentially flawed and misguided. He identified this failing as ‘original’ – that is as part of the basic inheritance of being born human.

Although Original Sin was developed in theological terms, its implication is really psychological: as individuals we have to accept from the outset that there will reliably be quite a lot that’s intimately very wrong with us. This shouldn’t be seen as a shocking, awkward admission – but as a necessary truth that applies to everyone and must be accepted with humility. It wouldn’t be odd to admit one’s own very substantial imperfections: it would be (on the contrary) ridiculous and suspicious to pretend we might not have any.

Augustine’s point remains valid, even though we don’t now think it is explained by the story of the original mother of humanity, Eve, eating a forbidden apple in a place called the Garden of Eden. Our failings – our wayward impulses, our unreasonable stubbornness, our tendency to procrastinate; our moodiness, rash decisions, flashes of misdirected anger and arrogance; our zones of coldness, our panicked responses, our bad habits, sterile fussiness, greediness and prickly defensiveness (to get the list going) – have natural and pretty much unavoidable origins. We were born immensely vulnerable; we were haphazardly parented; our brains are not well adapted for self-knowledge; our instincts evolved for a life of hunting and gathering rather than to help us with the demands of modernity; and the culture that surrounds us is frequently alarmist, status driven and can be very cruel in demanding success and yet ensuring that we will almost always feel like failures. So for entirely different reasons we can embrace the same conclusion as St. Augustine: no-one has any chance of emerging as an adult without a significant share of serious failings.

The point of all this background is to drive home the idea that acknowledging one’s flaws isn’t a request to admit something very strange. What would be strange (in fact) would be to think that one was without major defects. Of course we have some delightful qualities as well. But it does mean that we are unavoidably going to be very hard for another person to live around. Asking someone to marry you is – in a sense – a rather cruel thing to do to someone you care about.

The point of getting clear and honest about our failings is to recognise that we will contribute substantially to the difficulties we are bound to encounter in a relationship. It encourages us to resist the otherwise very tempting thesis that we are with an idiot or a brute. It will help us to smile and say sorry when the other person stands in the kitchen shouting at us, as they will, after another display of our foolishness. With a strong sense of our failings in mind, we’ll be more aware of the generosity our partner is displaying in their willingness to take us on.

We need, therefore, to ask ourselves – in as candid a manner as we can manage – what specifically might be slightly crazy or desperate or undeveloped in ourselves.

Maturity involves having a quite detailed answer to the question: how are you difficult to live with? No one should make vows to another person until they have some proper responses to this primordial enquiry. A presumption of one’s own innocence is at the heart of self-righteousness and cruelty.

Because our minds may go blank at this point and remember only our tender and beautiful sides, we can lean on a set of prompts – and attempt to answer as candidly as we can:

1. When I’m annoyed, I have a tendency to…

It’s hard not to lose one’s temper, everyone does sometimes; but the way we do it might be confusing (to put it gently) to some else. For instance we might have tendency wildly to exaggerate in moments of rage – we know we’re blustering wildly and don’t truly mean what we say (or shout). Or maybe we simmer below the surface and pretend all is well when we desperately want the other to realise (without our having to tell them) that all is very far from fine.

2. When I feel  hurt I….

One’s bruised self-regard can be manifest in what, to one’s partner, are hard-to-read ways. Perhaps one withdraws: it looks like cold indifference, it’s really self-protection. Or one gets  fanatically industrious and demanding or snide or morose or boastful (as a way of trying to counteract a feeling of vulnerability). The other doesn’t know the roots of our behaviour: they’re just exposed to the outward performance.

3. When I’m tired I….

Tiredness is – in principle – a totally innocuous problem, nothing is deeply wrong, one just needs a good night’s sleep. But the way we behave when tired may seem to tell a very different story. Maybe we get snappy or weepy or gloomy or a touch manic. Any of which might worry our partner – who doesn’t automatically know it’s just exhaustion we’re suffering from.

4. My friends could be a bit of a problem – in so far as…

These are people we’ve known perhaps since long before we met our partner; they may bring out sides of our character that are not very much to the fore in our relationship or marriage; they may even not much like our partner. But it’s not readily obvious to us that this can be a problem: we like our friends and we like our partner, and we imagine – without thinking about it very much – that we can all just get along fine. Which perhaps we can’t.

5. Around money, I can be a bit difficult because…

Money inevitably brings out stranger aspects in us – though because they are so familiar to us we might not get round to noticing just how odd and troubling they could look to someone close to us who shares our economic life. Perhaps we are exceedingly cautious and conservative, a crisis seems always around the corner, we’re terrified of even a small extra expenditure; or maybe (for very deep, intimate reasons) we can’t bear to pay much attention to our finances; or we’re always looking to the next scheme, or maybe we’re extremely hopeful about our future earnings (perhaps with little evidence). Such attitudes feel natural to us but won’t necessarily make much sense to someone else who, of course, comes to the issue via their own equally strange and obscure path.

6. I guess I worry really quite a lot about…

We’re so used to fretting about various things like people’s perception of our social status or whether a pimple on our stomach is a sign of cancer or if others think our nose is a bit fat…  We’ve lived for so long with these worries that they feel second nature to us. But to our partner they may be very far from being obvious things to get anxious about. It might (even after quite a long time together) seem very strange to them that we get so agitated about a mispronounced word or routine medical check up. They don’t know the underlying worries – and what it is that’s driving our worries – unless we get clear about them in our own heads and, with all the calm eloquence we can muster,  explain them.

7. I’m unusually obsessed by…

Our own obsessions strike us as hugely reasonable and proper. For instance, we might take the view that of course it matters immensely that the chairs are arranged symmetrically in a room; to us it’s obvious that all the kitchen utensils have to match; clearly, we feel, no intelligent person could think you need to use a chopping board just to cut a loaf of bread; it’s natural – we think – to visit eight art-galleries on holiday. We’re typically blind to our own obsessions – they don’t feel obsessive. They have profound origins in our past and our character, but they aren’t at all obvious to our partner – who has lived an entirely different life from us up to now. It’s hard – but crucial – to try to get some perspective on the ways in which we might be bringing a very personal and (to be frank) rather odd set of expectations into our shared life.

8. I’ve got some routines which I guess can be difficult…

Maybe I have to file my toenails, do several stretching exercise, floss my teeth for three minutes and apply anti-wrinkling cream to my forehead before I can think of getting into bed – though my partner may interpret this as sheer reluctance to join them; maybe I find it necessary to wash up as much as I can before having dinner, though my partner is eager to eat as soon as the meal is ready; perhaps over the years I’ve honed a travel routine – least possible baggage, packed while the taxi is waiting, arrive just before check-in closes. We don’t intuitively grasp how off-putting or maddening our own routines might be for a partner; they hardly even strike us as routines, they’re just what seems natural and right. And that is, of course, the problem: insufficient attention to our basic strangeness.

The point of prompting greater awareness of our own questionable patterns of behaviour isn’t to feel guilty or ashamed about them – but just to see how easily they could be confusing, disturbing and annoying to another person. We need, before we commit ourselves to a relationship, get fully acquainted with all the ways in which we are going to be a serious challenge to be around.

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