What If I Just Repeat the Same Mistakes Next Time?
On our way out of a relationship, we might be stopped by a highly unfamiliar and deeply perturbing thought: what if we were – somehow – a bit to blame as well? Naturally, ‘they’ are chiefly always at fault; it’s really the only way to sleep. But a primordial honesty may force us to wonder whether blame can invariably be so neatly apportioned in love. What if there was something we were doing to make our relationships harder than they needed to be? What if we were somehow psychologically troublesome? And what if we left at tremendous cost, but ignorant of ourselves, and then ended up in exactly the same sort of place with somebody else in a few months or years?
It’s hard to speak in favour of uneasy doubts but these may be about the most fruitful worries we can ever hope to have. Indeed, we really shouldn’t be deemed safe candidates for any relationship until we’ve started to wonder in depth about how dangerous we might be to be around. It should be standard practice to walk out on a dinner date with any candidate who isn’t able to come up with a sincere and considered answer to the question of what in particular might be mad and difficult about them. This shouldn’t be deemed an insult, just a very understandable check up on someone’s levels of self-awareness. Emotional maturity doesn’t begin until we are able to square up to a lot of what is desperate, broken and immature inside us.
The true tragedy of relationships isn’t that they go wrong but that we learn so little from them when they do. In a better future society, ending relationships should be rendered utterly simple at the practical level; marriages should be concluded without any of the current costs and bureaucratic delays. But only on one condition: that both parties would be able to show an advanced understanding of why their relationship had failed, what it was about them individually and as a couple that made their union so hard. One would need to pass an Exit Exam – and for a very simple and humane reason: that only when two people, who will presumably soon be dating again, have grasped why they might be difficult for someone else emotionally will the rest of the public be adequately protected from the huge risks posed by ongoing self-ignorance. The Exit Exam wouldn’t be a punitive measure, just a basic instrument of public health.
The most essential truth about relationships is that the way we love as adults has a history. The candidates we choose and our characteristic way of dealing with them and conceiving of their motives mirrors expectations formed around our earliest care-givers. We cannot understand the fate of any single relationship without threading it into the dynamics we knew at the beginning of our lives. We don’t as grownups so much find love as embark on a quest to refind it, striving with varied degrees of self-awareness to recreate with our partners many of the patterns and emotions we first experienced around parental figures.
If our adult love lives tend then to be so difficult, it is that the love we tasted in childhood will, in a great many cases, not have been entirely straightforward. There might have been affection and kindness, but these are likely to have come wrapped up with more troubling and painful emotions: a feeling of never quite being good enough, a sense that we needed to protect someone from certain truths about ourselves, a fear of abandonment or a rage we had to appease… We find ourselves gravitating towards people not first and foremost on the basis that they are good or kind to us, but because they feel familiar. With them, we re-experience affection and gentleness, but also at times, an impression of not measuring up to expectations or of being shut out or ignored. It may not be fun; yet it feels right. We may reject healthier candidates not because we don’t on paper recognise their virtues, but because (as we can’t ever quite admit) we sense that they won’t make us suffer in the ways we have to suffer in order to feel that we are properly in love.
More tragically still, not only do we sometimes refind unhealthy partners, we have a propensity to imagine we have done so even when we haven’t. Someone with a difficult past may permanently suspect – even of quite innocent candidates – that they are about to treat them like the damaging figures who let them down in childhood. Though this may be quite false, they will at every turn feel as if they are re-encountering the mother who humiliated them or the father who ignored them – and will as a result behave with a degree of instinctive defensiveness or untrusting aggression that is wholly unwarranted and may in the end exhaust the patience of the most initially willing partner.
All this a functioning Exit Exam would ideally start to tease out – and prepare us for. Here would be some of the key questions a candidate would face:
1. What was unsatisfactory or painful in your relationship with your parent of the gender you’re attracted to?
2. How have the difficulties above tended to show up in your adult relationships? Do you notice repetitions?
3. Alternatively, have you been so keen to get away from childhood dynamics that you have denied yourself some of the good qualities that existed, alongside the troubling ones, in your original caregivers?
Do you keep running into difficulties because you can only be attracted to people who are in no way (for example) intelligent or punctual, successful or sweet- natured – because these qualities evoke something too painful you are in flight from in your earlier life?
4. What awful or painful thing do you suspect a partner may do to you?
And what, in your fear that they may hurt you, do you do to or around them that is less than productive?
How fair is the fear?
5. What did you learn about communication in childhood? How good are you at getting across the more wounded, sad or emotionally vulnerable bits of you?
6. Complete the sentence: When I am hurt, I tend to…
Complete the sentence: Rather than explain clearly and calmly what is wrong, I…
Complete the sentence: I jump to conclusions around…
7. In so far as you have a tendency to pick partners who mirror past problems, to save time, on future dates, what is the earliest possible sign that would indicate that you had found someone who would end you up in a familiar frustrating place?
Knowing what you know now, what would have been the first warning signs that your soon-to-be-ex was going to prove challenging?
What do you vow to look out for and run away from more successfully next time?
8. We may not always have the option to change our types, but we have the option of changing how we characteristically respond to these types. Currently we often do so according to a script from early childhood. We behave with great immaturity: we sulk, we nag, we get defensive or furious.
But there is always a chance of responding in a more mature way (by explaining, not blaming ourselves excessively, avoiding rage etc.), which may be enough to transform the fate of a relationship.
How could you behave in more obviously adult ways in relation to the difficulties that arise with the kinds of people you are drawn to?
9. If you were able to pick a different sort of partner next time, what would they be like?
How could you be sure that they were not the same thing beneath a surface difference?
10. You may have spent a long time not leaving this relationship, despite gradually knowing it was wrong. What in your past can explain this propensity to get stuck?
What might you tell yourself to be more decisive and less compliant next time?
A relationship may be over; there is failure of sorts in that brute fact. But the end need not prove disastrous to either party in the long-term so long as sufficient insight can be pulled from the ashes. The least we can do to atone for the hurt we experience and cause in unhappy love stories is to make sure that we can – at a minimum – point to one or two things we have learnt through the pain that will make us a bit less dangerous and a little more grown up next time.