re­la­tion­ships

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

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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.”

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