‘If it is true that there as many minds as there are heads,
Then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts’
(Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina)
The recent controversy in Birmingham schools over sex and relationship education has exposed the belief, held by some, that there exists such a thing as a ‘normal’ relationship. In this case it relates to a group of parents preferring their children are taught that heterosexuality is the ‘normal’ sexual orientation. They object to their children being ‘exposed’, in particular, to knowledge of LGBTQ relationships and to an understanding of the concepts of diversity and difference.
Pleased that the government had introduced relationship education into the national curriculum, I now feel saddened that it has become associated with disagreement and division.
As a couple therapist I have found that the idea of ‘normal’ is often problematic and can cause stress and strain in a relationship when it relates to one person’s expectations of their partner. Difficulties can arise when a behaviour is judged inappropriate, or seems incomprehensible, or creates feelings of insecurity, and is ‘not normal’.
I take time to inquire what ‘normal’ means to each individual and explore the origins of these beliefs. How were they learned? Are some concepts considered universals and what are the shared and agreed assumptions of ‘normal’? I encourage the couple to agree on what is their understanding of normal for the two of them.
For some couples monogamy is essential, while others are polyamorous. While some couples live apart, others need close proximity. Some couples choose to try to start a family, while others choose to remain childless.
There can be differences within the relationship itself – with some couples reassured by close shared interests and interactions, and others accepting the place of different preoccupations or friendship groups.
However, more than such explicit normalities, what feels core to a healthy relationship is an acknowledged implicit normality: a shared understanding of the meaning of what makes for a good life together This must involve an acceptance and tolerance of each other’s similarities and differences. In his book, ’The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work’, American therapist John Gottman says, ‘a culture can be created by just two people who have agreed to share their lives. In essence, each couple creates its own microculture. And like other cultures, these small units have their own customs, rituals and myths… Developing a culture doesn’t mean a couple sees eye to eye on every aspect of their life’s philosophy. Instead there is a meshing which is flexible enough to change as they age, grow, and develop… Conflict is then less intense and less likely to lead to gridlock.’
This is not about being ‘average’ but revelling in the richness that can come from a combination of each ‘otherness’. In medieval times alchemists experimented with mixing different metals in the hope of creating gold. Similarly, there is something powerful in a synergy – where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts – that can occur from two people in a relationship.
However, for a relationship to flourish and survive life’s vicissitudes, the couple must treat the relationship itself as a third – as a separate, living, breathing organism that needs tender care and concern. The special requirements of their own unique partnership will need to be identified and agreed – for without this attention it will shrivel and die.
Stan Tatkin, in his new book on pre-marital preparation, ‘We Do: Saying Yes to a Relationship of Depth, True Connection, and Enduring love’ explains that the seeds of building a ‘secure-functioning partnership’ should be part of a conversation from the start. The fine detail of what is involved when beginning on a life of ‘we do’, instead of ‘I do’, needs careful consideration and it’s important to talk.
Unfortunately, nearly half of marriages do end in divorce. But Chrisanna Northrup, in ‘The Normal Bar’, a book based on a survey of more than 70,000 people about their relationship satisfaction, identified five ‘high-five’ common behaviours that correlated with greater satisfaction. Good communication was the one that was valued the most. Understanding one another fully can lessen disappointment and soften judgemental criticism.
Gottman’s view is that we have to consider that certain differences will probably never be reconciled, and many conflicts will never be resolved, but an atmosphere of acceptance and tolerance allows a couple to live well and thrive.
‘Cause all of me
Loves all of you
Loves your curves and your edges
All your perfect imperfections’
John Legend ‘All Of Me’