Chapter 3.Relationships: Conflicts


When Your Partner Tries to Stop You Growing

One of the great pleasures of relationships is the sense that another person knows us deeply. While we are either ignored or misrepresented by most of the world, in our unions, we thrive from the gratifying sense that our our identity has been accurately tracked, drawn and committed to memory; they know our favourite foods, our childhood traumas, our quirks around travel, our morning habits and our ambivalent feelings about certain friends.

But it is the extent and overall accuracy of this knowledge that can provoke sudden moments of claustrophobic irritation when our partners use their privileged overview of our characters to level a claim about who we are that seems to reduce, caricature or limit us unduly and is blind to our evolutions and aspirations for change.

‘Don’t be silly, you’re not someone who ever enjoys holidays’, they might assert with the confidence and authority of someone who has shared our bed for close to a decade. Or: ‘That’s far too late for you, you’re always asleep by ten’. Or, ‘You’ve never liked dancing…’ Or, with real surprise when we come back from the library: ‘But you don’t even like books about politics…’ Or, to the attendant at the deli counter: ‘No, no, they don’t like pickles…’

The comments and the sure manner of their delivery reflect an experience of us built up over time through the patient work of love. But they can also prove wholly enraging. It feels as if the authority that the lover possesses has malignly been deployed to fix us into a role that no longer feels quite true. They are telling us who we are (the nicest thing in theory) but getting it rather wrong (about the worst thing in practice). Though a particular trait might admittedly have existed for many years, we may beneath the surface quietly be attempting to change. We are tentatively evolving. We no longer want to remain who we once were in every detail. We have original aspirations, we want to shed skins, we’re trying to open ourselves up to different experiences. We want to give pickles a go.

And yet the partner has set themselves up as the jealous guardian of a self we no longer quite identify with. They insist that who we are now claiming to be must be false, pretentious, mean-spirited or an attempt to hoodwink others, all because it isn’t who we have traditionally been.

It is clear that alongside physical development, we are engaged in a life-long process of psychological evolution, which is far harder to spot, to discuss, and to give room for in others. Because we look more or less the same from the outside, those around us naturally assume that we must remain more or less the same on the inside too. Yet we are continually on the way to discovering new sides of ourselves, we’re shedding allegiances, stretching ourselves in unfamiliar directions and clearing out irrelevant positions and enthusiasms. Perhaps we’re gaining a new zone of confidence at work or we’re getting more cautious and circumspect where we were once rather reckless; we might be discovering the beginnings of a new kind of passion for the arts where we used to be quite judgmental or perhaps we’re firming up certain opinions around money or politics. We may be trying to relax more into our body or to outgrow an earlier prudish stance.

These changes may not yet be very clear even to us. There are no birthdays to mark them or public occasions to lend them weight: we can’t easily explain them to our partner and may not be too sure how to make them sound plausible. We may also be slightly embarrassed because they seem to contradict previously well-defined attitudes which we know our partner was fond of or reassured by.

And yet the changes matter to us hugely, they are – in a way – the most important things going on in our inner lives right now and we are therefore acutely sensitive to anyone who might sweep away, or with a mocking laugh destroy, the tentative foundations of our future selves.

Children show us most clearly the passions unleashed when another person holds us too tightly to an earlier version of ourselves. At a party, a parent might explain of her child, ‘Oh, he’s five…’ – only to find the child approaching them a moment later and protesting in an intense, angry whisper: ‘That’s not true at all, I’m five and three quarters next Tuesday.’ Giving due weight to our evolutions, be they bodily or emotional, can matter an awful lot.

That is why we can find ourselves in such intense arguments when a partner makes a remark that would have interested the person we used to be back in the spring; or they make a criticism which could have been very true of our outlook at Christmas or buys a jacket we would have loved three summers ago. What rankles is the static picture of who we are that’s implied in what our partner has done – and that offends the part of us that associates intimacy with being given the space to evolve. Despite their love, our partner hasn’t kept pace with our growth, they have failed to be sympathetic to the impulse for change; they are fixing us too tightly to a portrait that, though it was once satisfying, is truly no longer accurate.

The partner isn’t being mean. Change is frightening, because the one evolution we are all terrified of is the kind that will take our beloveds away from us. The reason we get stubborn about a new love of pickles is that it stands as an awful harbinger of what might be a new love for another person.

The ideal solution would be to develop a view of the essential normality and unthreatening nature of growth. We will all, over a long-term relationship, be growing in a range of ways which will undermine any settled claim by one person to ‘know’ another. What we grasp of our partner can only ever be partial and temporary – and we should not grow jealous or angry on that score alone. We are not like books, written once and shelved in a static library, we are like continuously updated, edited and expanded online texts, where a core set of themes is daily enriched and nuanced live before our eyes.

True love requires us to allow our partner to become someone rather different than they were when we met them – and to welcome their evolutions rather than the use the portrait we painted of them at the start as the fixed reference point from which any deviation has to be considered a disloyalty. The creature who emerges from the chrysalis is as likely to love us more intelligently and deeply as they are to want to fly away to someone new. We should use the phrase ‘I don’t understand you anymore’ not as a despairing exclamation but as a hopeful call to renew our sources of intimate insight.

It’s common to accuse long-term relationships of being boring but our tendency to evolve offers us a way out of the limitations of monogamy. We are – if we are correctly attuned to the phenomenon – only ever with the same person for a very short time. In truth, we cohabit with a constantly shifting array of people who just happen to have the same name and inhabit more or less the same body and lie next to us in similar ways in bed. Yet, beyond these common points, such are their differences, they may really just as well be wholly new people. We can, in one relationship, without drama, enjoy an array of new lovers, embracing all the different versions of the one person we are with.

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