Chapter 3.Relationships: Conflicts


When Our Partners Are Being Excessively Logical

It seems odd at first to imagine that we might get angry, even maddened, by a partner because they were, in the course of a discussion, proving to be too reasonable and too logical. We are used to thinking highly of reason and logic. We are not normally enemies of evidence and rationality. How then could these ingredients become problematic in the course of love? But from close up, considered with sufficient imagination, our suspicion can make a lot of sense.

When we are in difficulties what we may primarily be seeking from our partners is a sense that they understand what we are going through. We are not looking for answers (the problems may be too large for there to be any obvious ones) so much as comfort, reassurance and fellow-feeling. In the circumstances, the deployment of an overly logical stance may come across not as an act of kindness, but as a species of disguised impatience.

Let’s imagine someone who comes to their partner complaining of vertigo. The fear of heights is usually manifestly unreasonable: the balcony obviously isn’t about to collapse, there’s a strong iron balustrade between us and the abyss, the building has been repeatedly tested by experts. We may know all this intellectually, but it does nothing to reduce our sickening anxiety in practice. If a partner were to patiently begin to explain the laws of physics to us, we wouldn’t be grateful: we would simply feel they were misunderstanding us.

©Flickr/Hernán Piñera

Much that troubles us has a structure akin to vertigo; our worry isn’t exactly reasonable but we’re unsettled all the same. We can, for example, continue to feel guilty about letting down our parents, no matter how nice to them we’ve actually been. Or we can feel very worried about money even if we’re objectively economically quite safe. We can feel horrified by our own appearance even though no one else judges our face or body harshly. Or we can be certain that we’re failures who’ve messed up everything we’ve ever done – even if, in objective terms, we seem to be doing pretty well. We can obsess that we’ve forgotten to pack something even though we’ve taken a lot of care and can, in any case, buy almost everything at the other end. Or we may feel that our life will fall apart if we have to make a short speech even though thousands of people make quite bad speeches every day and their lives continue as normal.

When we recount our worries to our partner, we may receive a set of precisely delivered, unimpassioned logical answers – we have been good to our parents, we have packed enough toothpaste etc. – answers that are both entirely true and yet unhelpful as well, and so in their own way enraging. It feels as if the excessive logic of the other has led them to look down on our concerns. Because, reasonably speaking, we shouldn’t have our fears or worries, the implication is that no sane person would have them; our partners make us feel a bit mad.

The one putting forward the ‘logical’ point of view shouldn’t be surprised by the angry response they receive. They are forgetting how weird and beyond the ordinary rules of reason all human minds can be, their own included. The logic they are applying is really a species of brute common-sense that refuses the insights of psychology. Of course our minds are prey to fantasms, illusions, projections and neurotic terrors. Of course we’re afraid of many things that don’t exist in the so-called real world. But such phenomena are not so much ‘illogical’ as deserving of the application of a deeper logic based on a sympathy for the complexities of emotional life. Our sense of whether we’re attractive or not isn’t about what we actually look like, it follows a so-called logic that goes back to childhood and how loved we were made to feel by those we depended on. The fear of public speaking is bound up with long-buried and tortuous emotions of shame and a fear around competing and dealing with another’s envy.

©Flickr/Steve C

An excessively logical approach to fears discounts their origins and concentrates instead on why we shouldn’t have them: which is maddening when we are in pain. It’s not that we actually want our partner to stop being reasonable; we want them to apply their intelligence to the task of reassurance. We want them to enter into the weirder bits of our own experience by remembering their own. We want to be understood for being the mad animals we all are, and then comforted and consoled that it will (probably) all be OK anyway.

Then again, it could be that the application of excessive logic isn’t an accident or form of stupidity. It may just be an act of revenge. Perhaps the partner is giving brief logical answers to our worries because their efforts to be more sympathetic towards us in the past have gone nowhere. Perhaps we have neglected their needs. If two people were being properly ‘logical’ in the deepest sense of the word – that is, truly alive to all the complexities of emotional functioning – rather than squabbling around the question of ‘Why are you being so rational when I’m in pain?’, the person on the receiving end of superficial logic should gently change the subject and ask: ‘Is it possible I’ve hurt or been neglecting you?’ That would be real logic.

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