There is a particular kind of romantic pilgrim whose love life attracts a high degree of sympathy. Despite their best intentions and apparently ceaseless efforts, they seem fated to move from one unsatisfying candidate to another without ever being able to settle. One lover turned out to be secretly married to someone else, another – after an initial period of enthusiasm – never called back, a third turned out to be alcoholic and violent… We can only express sympathy for what seems like a run of exceptional bad luck.
And yet if one examines the problem at closer range, we’re liable to find that bad luck can only explain so much – and that there has in addition been a process of careful curation at work. The unfortunate lover has not simply stumbled upon a succession of frustrating or mean-minded partners, they have actively sought these out and invited them in while simultaneously ensuring that no kinder candidate could ever gain a foothold. They still deserve a lot of sympathy, but not for the problem they have ostensibly complained about.
It is logical to imagine that what we naturally want in love is someone who will treat us with respect and tenderness, with loyalty and thoughtfulness. But however much these may sound desirable in theory, in reality, such qualities are in some liable to provoke huge anxieties and – on occasion – feelings of revulsion.
It might seem uncomplicatedly beautiful if someone makes us breakfast in bed, gives us endearing nicknames, tells us how much they miss us, cries a little when we go away on a long trip and offers us a thoughtful-looking teddy bear to pack in our case. There could surely be nothing nicer, except that is, if we are in any way in doubt as to our own value.
For the self-hating ones among us, such attentions are likely to trigger acute discomfort and anxiety: why does our lover seem to think so much better of us than we think of ourselves? Why do they hold us in such high esteem when we, for our part, cannot bear our reflection? How have we come to be so heroic in their eyes when we are so despicable in our own? Why do they call us beautiful and kind, intelligent and thoughtful when we feel as if we are none of these things? Their attentions end up having to be met with all the disdain we accord to false flatterers. We are sickened to receive gifts that we are deep down sure we do not deserve.
It’s as an escape from this form of nausea that we may run into the arms of people who can be relied upon to be satisfactorily cruel to us. They aren’t delighted when we walk into a room, they have no interest in our childhoods or what happened to us today, they show no particular enthusiasm for sleeping with us, they flirt with others and give us no guarantee that the relationship will survive until tomorrow. It sounds appalling and in a sense it is, but it may feel a lot less appalling than to be showered by a kindness we are certain in our bones that we have never earnt. At least the meanness on display accords perfectly with our assessment of ourselves.
Whatever we may claim, there are almost always a host of potential romantic partners ready to treat us very nicely; it is just that – without any awareness of the process – we have probably become experts at dismissing them at the first opportunity, tossing them aside with terms like ‘boring’ or ‘uninspiring’ – by which we really mean: uninclined to think as badly of us as we think of ourselves or unlikely to make us suffer in the way we need to suffer in order to feel we are receiving the sort of attention that befits us.
In truth, these kind people are generally very far from dull or stupid. They have cleverly spotted something about us that we have not yet taken on board: that we are not appalling and that beneath our defences, we remain kind, sweet and worthy. These observers just frighten us because with their kindness, they challenge a fundamental pillar of our psychology, the idea that we are owed punishment. We will learn to see many such kind lovers waiting for us in the wings, and will be far readier to let them into our affections, the moment we can accept that, for all our many (yet utterly normal) flaws, we don’t deserve to be humiliated and frustrated for the rest of our lives.