On love and extremes

I’m convinced that one of the most damaging things children hear is “…and they lived happily ever after.” Sure, it’s hard to make “and after a delicious honeymoon period, they spent years fighting over the fair distribution of emotional work and nearly split up several times” sound as pithy as the traditional fairytale ending, but maybe someone should have a go. Because while the notion that “relationships take work” is often deployed to keep people – usually women – stuck miserably in bad relationships, to grow up hearing that marrying the “right” person will lead to a lifetime of uncomplicated happiness wreaks untold damage on our individual and collective psyches. 

I will admit to being a Heather Havrilesky superfan; Ask Polly (now on Substack, formerly on The Cut) has done as much for me as my own therapist, and possibly more. So when Twitter reacted in typically frothing fashion to the recent publication of an extract from her forthcoming book under the headline ‘Marriage Requires Amnesia’, the desire to defend one of my writing heroes was somewhat predictable. But it was also more than that – relationships are one of my favourite things to write about, because of what, if we’re being honest, they demand of us. If you’re doing it properly, falling in love and deciding to stay there (and it does require deciding, sometimes on a daily basis) will require courage, leaps of vulnerability, commitment, tolerance, patience, and forgiveness – oh, endless, endless forgiveness. It makes you face your whole self. You’ll catch glimpses of yourself through your partner’s eyes, never quite seeing the entirety of what they see, and you’ll come up against yourself whenever you clash with the person you’ve chosen. Fights with someone you love always involve some degree of fighting with yourself. 

Despite having always chosen to be in monogamous relationships, recently I’ve realised I don’t actually have much faith in monogamy. The lights are out in that particular chamber of my heart; I don’t really believe that love can last a lifetime. I grew up knowing love is unreliable, inconsistent: my biological father has never been around, and my mother and stepfather spent years addressing their problems by shouting at each other. Marriage does not automatically create a pleasant, secure home environment. Committing to one person does not necessarily lead to happiness. More often than not, someone is losing out. That said, while they may have spent a good chunk of my teenage years telling me they were likely to separate my mum and stepdad remain married, and their relationship seems to have mellowed into something far more comfortable than what it used to be. But what I overheard – and was sometimes drawn into – during those impressionable teen years, still haunts me. 

During ‘the shouting years’, I think my mother probably did, fleetingly, hate her husband and children. Exhausted, anxious people who’ve decided to soothe their rattling nerves by trying to control everything get angry when the people around them don’t fall in with their plans. Mum was cabin crew, flying long-haul throughout our childhoods. I can’t begin to imagine the tiredness of a woman doing that job then coming home to parent three children. While her temper and our frequent clashes have moulded me in ways that are less than positive, I finally understand a little of what was driving her, and she has my empathy, and indeed my undying admiration, for continuing to pursue a career that’s not especially conducive to smooth, settled family life. It was rare all five of us were in the house at the same time. It was rare our parents made it to school plays and hockey matches. And it was easy, as a child, to throw this at them – “I looked for you, and you WEREN’T THERE!” I grew up knowing that family means conflict, that no one was ever going to have all their needs met in one house. I’ll defend to the death anyone’s right to feel ambivalent about marriage. 

Because sharing your life with someone is harder than questions like “shall we move in together?” and “will you marry me?” make it sound. It is hard to share living space, bed space, sofa space, bathroom shelf space. (Especially after three delicious years of living alone – trust me, sharing is as hard as it’s ever been.) You are pretty much duty-bound to reveal eating habits, social habits, sexual habits, and for how long – forever? Madness. It’s amazing we find the will to commit at all. You have to quite literally lay yourself bare in order to live with someone – of course something gets lost, or compromised, its vividness turned down. Living with someone requires a softening of edges, a biting of one’s tongue from time to time, a recalibration of desires and instincts. Just because most of us do it at least once in our lives doesn’t mean it’s easy or not worth examining. 

What’s more, marriage and long-term monogamous relationships are still more limiting for women than they are for men. I’ve said it before but I’ll keep saying it: we do not raise men to be partners and fathers in the same way we raise women to be partners and mothers. If you’re a woman in a heterosexual relationship, it doesn’t matter how feminist your partner is, you will still occasionally find yourself wondering why you seem to be the only person who is aware of how many chores and how much admin needs to be fitted around your respective day jobs. A couple of generations of enlightened men can’t undo centuries of subjugation; we still raise and socialise women to do the lion’s share of caretaking and homemaking. The bar for a woman to be called “selfish” is far, far lower than it is for a man; we expect women to give up more of themselves, and to do that willingly. If a woman can’t call bullshit on that idea in 2022, then when will she be allowed to?

Back to Havrilesky, then. I suspect part of the reason so many people disliked the piece is simply that it was about extremes, and a lot of us are unwilling to confront our own extremes. This is where writers and other creatives have a bit of a headstart: it is literally our job to be as self-aware as we can. Our work can only ever be as emotionally intelligent as we are. How can you hope to say anything insightful about humanity in general if you haven’t got the full measure of your own humanity? It’s also likely a lot of happily married people were spooked and made defensive by the idea that their partner might occasionally, silently hate them. Just for half-second here and there. I find nothing more fascinating than the things we choose to keep from the people we profess to love, and this kind of piece exposes some of what goes unsaid. And crucially, if your own self-awareness is in short supply, being confronted with other people’s extremes is liable to make you panic.

Because the shift that takes place once you do some work on your self-awareness is huge. When you know and accept yourself, you get a whole lot more accepting of other people. You don’t have to be ashamed of your anxieties and desires – which means you become less afraid of other people’s anxieties and desires, and less inclined to take them as a verdict on who you are. It’s a tremendous sigh of relief to finally realise that a couple is not in fact its own single magical entity, but instead comprises two averagely-flawed, averagely-pleasant human beings with their own specific needs, neuroses and triggers.

And what greater self-awareness also does is provide you with the knowledge that your own feelings are usually temporary. Anger, sadness, grief, frustration – all these things pass. They may take days, weeks, or months, but invariably you will not feel tomorrow the way you feel today. This gives you time to sort through those hot, fevered emotions, and decide which ones you’ll give credence to, and which you’ll let smoulder themselves to nothing. Take it from someone with a hair-trigger temper: after years of upsetting those closest to me and, later, therapy, I’m finally learning to pause before rage gets the upper hand. To take a breath, and ask myself: am I angry with the person across from me in this situation, or am I just anxious that I can’t control the situation? Very often, anger is just panic scared to speak its own name. (A secondary useful question to ask oneself in times of fury is: am I hungry and/or tired? We neglect our animal needs at our peril.)

So let women be honest, and don’t immediately assume a defensive stance when they are. Let women briefly hate their husbands, then love them madly in the next minute. That is the nature of being fully self-aware and unafraid of your own darkness. That is the nature of mapping your own emotional terrain and not being scared of the wildernesses there. 

Because if there is uproar every time a woman is honest about her ambivalence towards marriage, we will never grow up. We will never be able to make marriage a more equal institution, nor talk calmly and rationally about infidelity and non-monogamy, while we’re stuck on the fairytale. We think “happily ever after” is the resolution, when really, it’s simply the start of another story. One we need to hear, whether we’re ready for it or not.

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