The Stranger You Live With
There is no more common response, after we have been living alongside a partner for a few years, than a feeling of intense (though normally very privately-held) boredom. However intriguing they might have been at the start, and however accomplished they remain in theory, we tend to end up in the unfortunate position of knowing most of their anecdotes, of being able to predict their responses, of having seen them from every angle and of being left to smile wanly at their now awkwardly familiar set of jokes. Without meaning to be disloyal, our eyes develop a tendency to drift; we can fall powerfully for faces we glimpse only momentarily on the subway or in the grocery store, and which seem to harbour all the charm and depths of the unknown. Haunted by an impression of mesmerising but unattainable mystery, we become irritable and ungrateful towards the one person who has opted to spend their life in our company.
It is understandable enough that we should seek novelty in love; our characteristic error is to believe that this must mean seeking out a new partner. Restless, we miss out on a critically redemptive idea: that the person we have been with for so long, perhaps for many years, is in fact a stranger. And, paradoxically, they are a stranger precisely because our physical proximity and familiar joint routines have lulled us into assuming that we know them thoroughly already, which is what dissuades us from continuing to bring to bear on them the kind of searching intelligence we would naturally apply to someone we had only just met. It is our assumption of knowledge that deals our curiosity a fatal blow – and encourages us to feel listless and dissatisfied where we should more fairly remain inquisitive and enchanted.
We are helped, in the early days, by the obviousness of our ignorance. We have no option but to understand that we need to get to know the basics: the structure of their family, their educational and career trajectories, their friendships and travels, their cultural tastes and domestic habits. But at a certain point, astonishingly, we stop. We believe we have done enough, we trust that it might be possible to understand someone in the course of around a 150 hours or so of chat. And then we shift to practicalities, to reflections on the news, the latest things at work and when someone might be coming to check the boiler. We no longer expect big disclosures and cease to prepare or hunt for them. Our partial knowledge functions as a dispiriting reason not to ask for more. We fail to extend to them the basic insight we all know from within: that we are never quite done with understanding the mind, that only a tiny portion of its endless canyons is ever illuminated by reason (and therefore available to oneself let alone another person) and that we can orbit consciousness for years without ever grasping more than a fraction of its content. We confuse seeing our lover every day with understanding their soul.
Our neglect of the complexities of our partner only mirrors our jaded attitude to the world around us more generally. We are no less lacking in curiosity about our country, our city or our own home. In these cases too we look around and see only banality and the mundane – and are prone to long for the obviously exotic and foreign instead. One counter to this settled ingratitude lies in certain works of art, which contain coded pleas for us to start noticing the intricacy and beauty of overlooked aspects of the everyday. Artists of genius have over the centuries used their talents to say what amounts to, in effect, ‘Notice the astonishing sunlight as it hits the top of the trees, the delicacy of the water rippling by the shore, the solemnity of the fog hugging the landscape at dusk…’ They challenge us to notice afresh what we jadedly think we have already seen.
We can think in this context of the work of Edouard Manet, who in 1880, looked afresh at a bunch of asparagus – that is, looked at a spring vegetable with the appreciative sensitivity of a martian or a young child newly landed on the planet. Where we might have been prepared to recognise only dull white stalks, the artist observed and then reproduced vigour, colour and individuality, recasting this humble foodstuff as a sacramental object through which we might recover faith in life more broadly.
Edouard Manet, Bunch of Asparagus, 1880.
In the spirit of Manet, we might turn to consider our partner as if they too were an alien wondrous object worthy of sustained appreciation and study. We might begin by inviting them out on a date – and talk to them as if we knew almost nothing about them, which – in fact – it turns out we don’t. We could with newfound modesty consider all the topics that we had skated over far too fast at the start and then never bothered to return to. What was their relationship with their father like? What did their parents fail to understand about them? In what ways were they misunderstood as a child? We might – over the main course – turn to their careers: what gives their work purpose? In what areas do they lack confidence? Where do they see their essential strengths? We could then move on to their aspirations: what remains exciting for them? What would they be sad if they never achieved? What are their hopes for the future? What, in their eyes, is the meaning of their life?
Later in the evening, in a similar vein, we could remember that we know next to nothing about them sexually, even if we have made love to them hundreds of times and slept many thousands of nights with them (especially and particularly then): where do they most like to be touched? What turns them on? What are their most intense fantasies? We could put aside the veil of partial knowledge which has prevented us from seeing them and unclothe them properly as if for the very first time. And we might do this not once, but as a regular exercise to remind us of the ongoing mystery of someone we could only ever think of as familiar by error and hubris.
With such techniques in mind, we stand to recognise something at once alarming and deeply relieving; that we don’t necessarily need to go out and find a new lover in order to recover a sense of excitement. We don’t need to learn to look at new people with jaded eyes, we need new eyes to look afresh at the familiar world around us – and in particular, the total stranger in the bed beside us.