When we look for a mate we seek a best friend, an exciting sexual partner, maybe a co-parent, someone to share the cost of living, the cooking and the cleaning. It sounds fair enough – but is it realistic? Angela Barnett examines the dangers of romantic p
It was quite the bombshell. Eight friends were sitting around some prosecco when one confessed how much she admired another woman’s relationship. “You’re such good friends; he listens to you.” Everyone agreed she had the perfect partner. Then the woman with the perfect partner confessed that, while he listened to her, he wasn’t exciting sexually or even awake in that department. Verbal ping pong followed while each friend confessed what they desired in each other’s partners. Yours understands you! Yours challenges you! Yours makes you laugh! Yours cleans the loo! Yours stimulates your brain!
Then one woman announced she’d left her partner. He was funny, he cleaned the loo, he’d been her best friend for 15 years. “Nobody’s responsible for your happiness,” she said. Silence followed.
We should have dropped perfectionism in relationships back in 1995 when Princess Di admitted that Charles, her prince, had been in love with another woman throughout the entire fairytale. But we haven’t. We expect our partners to be our salvation in every way – our erotic lover, our shrink, our best friend, co-parent, the source of our happiness. And the fact that, almost inevitably, our partners fall short in at least one of these areas causes great unhappiness and probably a lot of separations too.
Just being married doesn’t make me an expert so I talked, and listened, to people who know more about long-term relationships than me about expectations, and that elusive goal of happiness.
Philosopher and School of Life founder Alain de Botton wrote a book on marriage, The Course of Love, that’s a New York Times best seller. It’s about “a couple who fall deeply in love, marry, frequently worry about money, have two children, one has an affair, there are passages of boredom, they sometimes want to murder each other and on a few occasions kill themselves”. He describes it as a real love story. Last year he spoke to a packed Sydney audience and said: “We don’t need people to be perfect in relationships, but to have a handle on their imperfections.” He says achieving compatibility – with anyone – is a “massive achievement”.
Relationship therapist Steven Dromgool, from Relate Counselling in Auckland, says that being happy all of the time in a relationship is not a marker for success; it’s a miracle. “It’s like thinking you have children to be happy. I love kids – but they are hard work! No one is happy all the time with their kids or with their relationship.” He says the people who are prepared to work hard at their relationship and care for their partner in effective ways will find some happiness. “And the rest are not happy and not talking about it because they’re embarrassed.”
Dromgool thinks arranged marriages often work better because people approach them without the same sense of entitlement. “People think, ‘Oh my God, I have to spend my life with a stranger.’ So they approach them with curiosity, kindness and build a friendship.”
The record scratched when Dromgool said that. Arranged marriages – what every Jane Austen character rebelled against – are better? Having sex with somebody you might not even like is better than thwarted expectations?
Feeling somewhat depressed by this, I spoke to Mary Hodson from Sex Therapy NZ and asked whether we’re all doomed, chasing the impossible.
Hodson takes a more romantic view. She believes the current wisdom that you should find a partner you get along with in a practical sense is mistaken, because it’s not enough. You need the sexual chemistry too.
“I see a lot of disappointed people who are friends more than lovers and I think it’s incredibly hard to turn a friendship into a romantic and sexual relationship,” she says. She also sees couples losing that romantic spark because of the pressures of life. “We’re all terribly busy so people forget to spend time together and if that fire dies out you can bet your bottom dollar one or both will be missing that feeling.”
But when times are tough it’s the romantic love, Hodson believes, that’s the glue and “marrying somebody you just get along with is not the whole truth and neither is finding someone you only have romantic love with. You need to find someone you have emotional and sexual attraction to.”
“It’s like thinking you have children to be happy… No one is happy all the time with their kids or with their relationship.”
Well sure, that’s the holy grail. And it’s also the modern day expectation – that there’s a soulmate out there who will fulfil our sexual and emotional needs, not to mention financial, physical, comedic, cleaning, and co-parenting needs. The problem is that standard of expectation leaves so many disappointed, unsatisfied, divorced maybe, or permanently single.
The fact that many couples stay together without a sexual bond is increasingly coming to light. Newsweek claimed that as many as 15-20 per cent of marriages were sexless. These couples stay together for other reasons: children, finances, friendship. Divorce is expensive. In our current economy, many struggle to run one household, let alone two. And sex simply isn’t a top priority for everyone.
In fact, De Botton blames “Romanticism” for the high levels of disappointment in long-term relationships. We’ve been in the Romantic Period since the late 18th century and, De Botton says, “[it’s] been a catastrophe for our capacity to have good long-term relationships”. He stresses how dangerous the romantic notion is that there’s one person out there who will complete us. “If you think you’re quite perfect and that your partner is quite perfect, that’s trouble (anyway) and if you start a relationship, you’ll soon start hitting on things that will lead you to think that maybe they’re not perfect and what do you do with that feeling? It’s far better to insist that all of us are, in various ways, deeply crazy. None of us get through the gauntlet of early childhood with our sanity entirely intact.”
And to succeed in love, he says, we “have to be disloyal to many of the romantic emotions that got us into relationships in the first place”.
Acolleague, who wished to remain nameless, had an emotional affair – no sex – with somebody who matched her emotional intelligence at the time, and she questioned why she should feel guilty. “I didn’t want to leave my marriage because it works, and that was a different kind of connection. It was beautiful and open and ran its natural course and then it ended. I can’t get everything I need from one person and it’s selfish of me to expect it. Especially after 12 years.”
Affairs don’t traditionally lead to harmony but it’s helpful to acknowledge that one person can’t be everything to another. It’s difficult to be the erotic lover, exciting best friend, stimulating masseuse, partner-in-crime, domestic goddess/god, wonderful parent, dancing partner and fellow gnome collector. There are only so many hats one head can bear.
The other problem with Romanticism, says De Botton, is that it never talks about the practical side of life. “Nobody ever mentions laundry.”
We spend our formative years swiping right or left in a frantic quest trying to find the right person, only to discover it’s not all roses. Once kids and mortgages are involved, often it’s pruned-back bushes, trying to survive the seasons, and never-ending piles of dirty socks.
Madam Bovary was devastated to discover marriage was not riding on horseback through the mist but figuring out who was going to muck the horse stables, and order in the cheese. Unfortunately, we get our ideas of what marriage or long-term relationships should look like from fairy tales, books, glossy magazines, social media and popular culture.
Looking over a wedding magazine, I searched for a page that advised couples how to survive long-term; to drop perfectionism; to negotiate; to compromise over edam vs colby. But every page, drenched in white, was about getting the perfect photo, hair-do, location and perfect little name holders on perfect little table coverings, for the perfect celebration to the perfect person all on one utterly perfect day.
Now on social media, pages are filled with images that only show the happy clappy times. You never see a post from a couple fighting over who’s going to clean the loo. But I’d like to. It might make the rest of us, who have had strong words over recycling yoghurt pottles, feel more normal. It might allow us to relax, and not expect our partners to be cracking us up, listening to our woes, surprising us with lap dances, and always remembering to put out the rubbish.
Society supports long-term relationships, yet when we discover we’re not great at them, or our partners are not entirely who we expected, we treat getting help as failure. De Botton says we view couple therapy as a sign of disaster, yet: “There’s no surer sign a couple’s on safe ground than when they’re doing therapy – looking for tools to make it work. Love is not just something you feel, it’s a skill that needs to be learned.”
Dromgool’s not actually advocating for arranged marriages but says we need more relationship education. And that involves dropping the perfectionism.
My son asked me recently why the Twits (in the Roald Dahl story) got married when they want to kill each other. I wanted to say that marriage can sometimes be outright combat, but I didn’t. I told him that nobody is perfect, and marriage is like his relationship with his sister: sometimes you don’t like each other, occasionally you feel like killing each other, but mostly you spend your time figuring out how to get along. And deep down you love each other and that’s all that matters. To which he replied: “Yuck.”