Taking the Pressure off Love
It can feel very weird, and a bit threatening, to talk about taking the pressure off a relationship. Our collective, inherited Romantic culture likes to imagine functioning couples doing more or less everything together and being the centre of each other’s lives. The good couple is, we are told, one in which two people mean more or less everything to one another.
In a sound relationship, we are supposed to meet each other’s needs in every area of existence – from sex to intellectual stimulation, cooking styles to bedroom habits. We’re supposed to lead our social life in tandem, be the primary sounding board for one another’s problems and complete each other in spirit and in matter. If they’re involved in a sport, we should at once join in or at least come and support them every weekend; if we want to visit a particular country, they are supposed to trot along enthusiastically with us; our friends are meant to be their friends…
It sounds sweet but it is – over the long term – a recipe for disaster. No two people can ever match each other across all areas of existence; and the attempt to do so inevitably ushers in bitterness and rage. We have, at the collective level, given ourselves a hugely unhelpful picture of how love should go. Any independent move is read like a sign that we can’t actually love one another: it is taken to be a sign of imminent danger if we visit other countries on our own or sleep apart. So we end up badgering each other to do things that we don’t really like (we force each other to endure tedious hobbies or see each other’s peculiar old friends), not even because we inherently want to do so but because any other arrangement has come to seem like evidence of betrayal.
A more realistic and in the proper sense Romantic view of couples would suggest that there have to be a few strong areas where we can meet each others needs, but that there should also be plenty of others where we are clearly better off pursuing our goals on our own.
Consider the following list of independent activities and give them stars (from one to five) if they strike you as relevant:
I’d like to …
– Travel without my partner
– Have dinner one to one with a friend
– Be able to go to a party without my partner, and not have them feel left out
– Visit my parents alone
– Have my own financial adviser
– Go for long walks on my own
– Have a separate bathroom
– Go shopping with a friend rather than with my partner
Look at each other’s stars and list. Is there anything that you feel you could accommodate?
We should recognise that a degree of independence isn’t an attack on a partner: it’s a guarantee of the solidity of the underlying commitment one has made. Truly stable couples aren’t those that do everything together, it’s those that have managed to interpret their differences in non-dramatic, non-disloyal terms.
Ultimately, a reduction of dependence doesn’t mean a relationship is unraveling: it means that we have learnt to focus more clearly and intently on what the other person can actually bring us and have stopped blaming them for not being someone they never were. We no longer need to be upset that their ideal holiday destination strikes us as unappealing, or that their friends seem boring. We have learnt, instead, to value them for the areas where we truly see eye to eye.
To enjoy a harmonious union with someone, we should ensure that we have plenty of sources of excitement, reassurance and stimulation outside of them. When we hit problems, we should be able to lean on other supports. The demand that another person compensate us for all that’s alarming, wearing or deficient in our lives is a mechanism for systematically destroying any relationship. Our conflicts and disappointments will at once feel more manageable when we stop asking our partner to function as our long lost other half. The more we can survive without a relationship, the greater will be its chances of survival and fulfillment. We will truly give love a chance when we stop believing it can single-handedly save us.