‘The person who is best suited to us is not the person who shares our every taste (he or she does not exist), but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently – the person who is good at disagreement. Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate differences with generosity that is the true marker of the ‘’not overly wrong’’ person. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its pre-condition.’ (Botton)
Relationships are complicated and yet, at the beginning, can feel so simple and so intoxicating. Partners feel they ‘fit’ together. There is a powerful mutual attraction and there seems so much agreement. There is a delight in the similarities of shared values, interests, ambitions, outlook, or sense of humour.
The glow that emanates from feeling so understood and accepted helps establish a unique and intricate web of inter-connection. Each feels in safe hands and senses the relationship has now established a secure base which can be trusted. The couple dares to feel optimism and hope for the future. The decision to commit to one another, (get engaged, move in together, make their vows in a civil partnership or a wedding), is cause for celebration.
Yet it is a sad fact that, despite such early promise, many relationships end and 42% of marriages in the UK end in divorce.
Of course, couples are aware that life can be challenging and that the glossy romantic dream sold by celebrities, the movies and the media, is not the whole story.
It is also accepted that preparation for a big event can be of benefit and pre-empt misunderstanding. Many couples seek pre-marital counselling before the ‘big day’. Couples who are pregnant generally accept that attending ante-natal classes will be helpful in preparation for a birth.
However, classes that prepare for parenting over the next twenty years of a child’s life are less common. And, similarly, discussions that consider and explore our convictions and expectations of long-term relationships are rarely offered in school. We can be ill-prepared to deal with the complexity of a long relationship, for a life-time spent with a partner, and we can so often end up confused and disappointed.
There can be an assumption that we, ourselves, are quite easy to live with so, when things get difficult, it must be the other who needs to do something differently. However, if the partner is then resentful of the critical complaint and resists the demand for change, feelings of unease, distress and even panic can seep into the relationship.
We are confused: ‘Why did this happen?’
Their reaction was unexpected and bewildering: ‘Why did you think/say that?’
Something feels contradictory and not right: ‘How could you do that?’
They can feel unaccommodating and provocative: ‘Why can’t you listen to me/ just do as I ask?’
Suddenly the partner seems not as trustworthy and as reliable as had been first thought. They seem not as easy to live with after all. We are confronted by their differences and the bits that do not ‘fit’ with us. We want them to be ‘normal’ like us. Interactions can become conflicted and fractious. They have fallen from the pedestal and they are not as loveable. In fact they are infuriating!
However, De Botton writes that,
‘The good news is that it doesn’t matter if we find we have married the wrong person’.
There will always be things wrong. The concept of the perfect partner is, of course, a myth. No-one is normal. In fact, the only normal people in this world are the people you don’t know very well. (Adler)
When a couple does get to know each other very well, ‘we mustn’t abandon him or her, but abandon the founding romantic ideal upon which the Western idea of marriage has been based for the last 250 years: that a perfect being exists who can meet all our needs and satisfy our every yearning… Every human being will frustrate, anger, annoy, madden and disappoint us – and we will (without any malice) do the same to them.’ (De Botton)
But what to do when a couple becomes stuck and at breaking-point when faced with this dilemma? The choice to stay or leave can feel agonising.
There is an urgent need for bypassing the stalemate and allowing a different conversation, one that is challenging and creative, to begin. The question is whether this relationship has legs?
First, create three columns
- 1. Write a list of 50 positives about oneself (It is very important to start with oneself)
- 2. Write a list of 50 positives about the partner
- 3. Write a list of 50 positives about the the relationship
And I mean 50!
Now, with the intention of a softer interaction, create the time and space (with phones and screens switched off) to share the lists.
Circle where you find agreement.
Describe the items that leave you feeling most relaxed and satisfied?
Highlight items from the list to which you would like more attention paid.
On which items would you like more focus so they can flourish?
Which items have been neglected or not prioritised and, as a result, have left you feeling disconnected and anxious?
Which ones reassure you that you are loved?
What’s Love Got To Do With It? (Tina Turner)
It’s complex – so start the conversation!