Why Some Couples Last — and Some Don’t
It can seem very confusing why certain long-term relationships survive and some don’t. It can — from afar — look as if it’s the most cruel and alarming sort of lottery. Trying to explain love to a child or a visitor from another planet promises to be a perplexing matter indeed: all couples on their wedding day are united in wanting to make things work. Then, for reasons beyond anyone’s comprehension, some of them simply seem to dissolve and others don’t.
To remove some of the terrifying element of apparent chance (and encourage us to work on the right aspects of our own couples), it may be helpful to become deliberately reductive about the real reasons why breakups occur.
We need — in this regard — first to discount certain causes that gain far too much airtime relative to their actual likelihoods. Of course, sometimes people break up because one party wants a younger partner. Or because they want better sex. Or because they are seeking a more exciting companion. Or because their hobbies or political views have drifted apart. Or because things have — somehow — grown ‘stale.’
But let’s quickly try to reduce the role we give to such explanatory factors: given the costs of break-ups, given the massive investments that people make in being together, given the chaos generated if there are children, one can assert with a high degree of confidence that almost no one ever splits up for such familiar reasons.
The real reason lies elsewhere; the real reason for break up lies in one or both spouse’s sense that they have not been heard, that something very important to them has been disregarded, that their point of view has not, at a fundamental level, been acknowledged and honoured. It doesn’t matter what the subject of this non-hearing happens to be: it could be that they haven’t been heard about their views on money, or on the way the children are being brought up, or on how their weekends should be managed, or on how intimacy occurs or doesn’t occur.
It’s feeling unheard for our differences that is unbearable; it’s never the presence of differences per se.
We don’t break up because a partner doesn’t agree with us. We could stand not getting what we want. We could stand a partner who votes another way than we do. Or who is no longer as young as they once were. Or who has annoying friends. Or different tastes in holidays. What we can’t stand is someone who blocks us when we try to articulate how troublesome we find these areas of divergence; when our unique way of looking at existence seems a matter of basic indifference, that is too lonely and enraging to bear. It’s better to be single than unseen; after all, the unseen are alone anyway, whatever their ostensible relationship status.
There is a big difference between a partner not doing what we want and a partner not hearing what we want. It’s entirely possible that one would remain with someone who doesn’t share most of our interests — so long as they happen to accept, and signal an understanding of, how much these interests matter to us. It would be possible for us to live with someone who doesn’t want the same sort of sex as we do (or wants no sex at all), so long as they can at points see matters from our position — and can give a modicum of empathy to our hopes and longings. We could be with someone whose needs for affection run in a different direction, so long as they have the courage to listen to how ours operate. We don’t need partners to agree with us on everything; we need them to give off signs that they can accept the scale and legitimacy of our vision. ‘I understand’ is the phrase that could single-handedly rescue more long-term relationships than any number of anniversary celebrations or therapy sessions; it deserves to known as the most romantic phrase in existence.
There is a lot of hope in this thesis. If we want to stay together, we don’t need to be exceptionally beautiful or rich. We don’t need to rely on chance. We don’t have to have brilliant sex or a friction free alignments of interests.
We just need to make sure that we are people who listen; who when the partner has something very important they need to get across to us, can bear to take things on board, can bear to acknowledge an opposite position, can bear to say: ‘I can see this matters a lot to you… and I will try my hardest to think about it and see what I can do about it.’ From here, it really doesn’t matter if things radically change or not; the vital work will have been done — and the relationship will have been assured.
People described as ‘defensive’ may have a thousand charms. But we should know that the most flawed open person is preferable to the most seemingly accomplished defensive one. The person we should settle down with isn’t the most attractive or the cleverest, it’s the one who feels no pride or compunction in readily saying: ‘I can hear what you are saying and how much this matters a lot to you… I get it…’ Or, ‘because I love you, this makes me curious, tell me more…’ This person will surely one day annoy or frustrate us mightily (everyone does). We’ll just be highly unlikely ever to want to break up with them.