The Real Reason why Couples Break Up
When people try to account for why couples break up, the emphasis typically falls on the idea of difference: a disorganised creative type was up against a highly managerial ordered one; one of them liked hill walking, the other hated the outdoors. Someone was gregarious, someone else loathed parties. No wonder – it seems – they had to split.
This method of explanation is underpinned by an implicit and hugely dominant theory of love which goes as follows: the reason why couples function is similarity; what tears them apart is difference. We get an inkling of just how widespread this theory might be when we consider the operations of modern dating sites. In their wish to help us find what they term the ‘right’ person, they scour their databases in order to try to match us with a creature who will most exactly share the greatest number of our tastes, interests and attitudes. The smaller the differences – so the theory goes – the more likely the relationship is to work.
However plausible this might sound, it skirts a fundamental truth about love which we ignore at enormous cost: no couple ever breaks up because of the differences between them. They break up because one of them is fed up of not being heard. A couple might disagree on a thousand things – from the optimal frequency of sex to what kind of social life to lead – and still stay together, while another might be similar in almost every area, but be torn apart by a vicious sense that their competing realities were not being recognised.
What ultimately counts for the success of love is not whether or not there are differences, but how whatever differences there happen to be are handled; whether with curiosity, a willingness to change, mutual forgiveness and modesty – or whether (in the doomed cases) with defensiveness, rigidity and entrenchment.
We know that compatibility can’t be the basis of lasting love because, by its logic, it invariably ends up escalating absurdly. Two people who like reading, crosswords, northern Italian cooking, ice hockey and the music of Joni Mitchell might at first fall passionately in love, but gradually grow cross with one another as they learn that one is sympathetic to ballroom dancing while the other has an occasional wish to think about archaeology. Or one is interested in ragu, while the other favours casseroles and pies. The temptation is to resolve such frictions by abandoning all divergent partners and refining our search criteria ever more tightly. But this only forces us to seek out implausible degrees of alignment. We may end up searching for a partner who is keen on fly-fishing and the novels of John le Carrè but doesn’t like salted butter and is good at shutting cupboard doors, or someone who loves going camping in North Cornwall in September but who is interested in the Liberal Party (yet is also an enthusiast of tactical voting). However, of course, two such well-matched people could easily come to blows over the colour of the bedroom curtains, children’s names, the use of napkins, or the ethics of fracking.
Pre-existing compatibility can only ever get us so far. At some point, inevitably, even the best matched partner will in some way emerge as unlike us in some way. What then matters is how the mismatch is handled. One kind of response is deeply romantic, and almost aphrodisiacal in quality; the other, deeply disappointing and over time plain insufferable.
This is what we need to hear above all when a conflicting perspective rears its head: I hear you; I understand what you’re saying, I am going to think about that, perhaps I will need to change. In other words, we need to feel that our point of difference has been witnessed and, to a degree, respected. The partner may not accept our position or observation entirely, but they can see where we are coming from and are committed to examining our stance – because they know that it matters to us, and they fundamentally respect our existence. They don’t rush to take every uncomfortable issue off the table. In relation to gently worded complaints or criticisms, they do not immediately deny our remarks and grow enraged. They don’t turn around and tell us that a problem lies entirely with us, that we’re being deliberately mean, that we’re the odd one out not them – and why are we complaining anyway when they’ve had such a hard day and this is the last straw. They strive not to take immediate offence, get stern or fall apart. They are at moments alive to the idea that they may need to change or evolve. They don’t expect to be loved exactly for who they are right now; and they respect that – of all the people in the world – their partner probably has a fairly accurate grasp of key aspects of their psychology that they might need to focus on.
On the other hand, what gradually destroys love in the long-term, even in the case of the most apparently well-matched couples, is the opposite of the above: an attitude of defensive pride, a shutting of the ears, a refusal to countenance that the partner may be trying to say something of desperate importance and has the right to be heard with a certain good will and tolerance.
It’s not the frustration that kills, it’s how it’s heard – or not. One could imagine a couple with a highly dysfunctional sex life, but one which was nevertheless handled with such skill by both parties that it would never be the cause of a break up. This couple might have made love only once in the last five years and yet be so committed to exploring why, to explaining their feelings and taking the other’s view on board that the apparently grave mismatch would have no power whatever to shake the foundations of their union.
The single greatest explanation for all divorces is, in the end, defensiveness, the inability to listen with grace to what another person is telling us without resorting to stubborn pride and denial. There are no sexual problems too grave that they ever make it too hard to stay; there are no differences in social attitudes or interior design tastes too severe to doom a love affair. There are only ever terrible ways for our frustrations to be heard. The lover we desperately need isn’t the person who shares our every taste and interest; it’s the kindly soul who has learnt to negotiate differences in taste without defensiveness or impatience.