Once upon a time I worried that if I understood love, it would lose its magic. That attitude is ok if love is going well, but it doesn’t help solve problems. By the time I was writing Syafika and D’arby don’t save the world I’d changed my mind and thought about love a lot as I tried to understand it better (all kinds of love, not just romantic) because most of the characters had trouble with relationships – as do real people.
While looking for help, I noticed that most advice on love isn’t very deep. There are lots of lists – lists of ways to be more attractive (which leave people who aren’t young, powerful, fertile, rich or beautiful despairing) and lists of ways to improve relationships that are about as useful as telling someone who wants to lose weight that they should eat less and exercise more.
Love advice must get read though. My sister’s most popular blog post by far was one where she gave advice to someone who was worried her husband didn’t love her because he didn’t give her anything for Valentine’s Day. My sister’s advice centred on understanding that people show their love in different ways and maybe the husband didn’t do it by giving Valentine’s Day presents. It is hard to know if there was more to it, but what if the husband rarely showed love and it was only on Valentine’s Day that the wife stopped to think about it? She wouldn’t be the only person who felt ignored by their partner.
If we keep ourselves busy and distracted enough, we rarely have to stop and consider whether we are happy – with our partner, work, the way we treat ourselves, the way we treat our loved ones, how much we drink, etc. So even though I dislike the commercialism of Valentine’s Day, I see the value in thinking about love for one day of the year. I also see the value in talking about it with your partner and it worries me that people would look to the internet for answers instead of asking their partner why they didn’t get them a Valentine’s Day present. I’m definitely not an expert, but I worry that if you can’t ask your partner why they did something (gently and respectfully – without trying to cause more hurt) then there is more going on.
If you can’t talk about things with your partner without arguing, and the issue remains unresolved, I think there is something really wrong. This is where ideals collide with reality because, even though we all deserve (and crave) to feel heard and be treated with respect, we all come to relationships with our own problems. We will all have grown up around at least some dysfunctional people (just with different levels of dysfunction), so it is likely that some forms of bad treatment will feel normal (whether they are things that are done to us or done by us). So how are you supposed to tell whether the thing your partner does that upsets you is something serious or not? Is it reasonable for you to expect to be able to be yourself, despite your shortcomings or are your shortcomings so bad that nobody should have to put up with them? Imagine feeling unhappy in your relationship but not knowing whether you have any right to.
If there are reasons why you want to stay together no matter what (kids, money, beliefs about marriage, etc) then I can see why you’d prefer to avoid looking too deeply at your relationship (if you can’t leave, why bother convincing yourself that something is wrong when you’ll feel better if you believe you shouldn’t expect more?) and if your partner doesn’t have a growth mentality then I can see why you’d do that – if you suspect your partner won’t want to do anything to improve your relationship and you know you can’t leave, then what can you do but stay, and feel miserable?
If you do want to look more deeply, I think you should start by looking at what would happen if one of you told the other about something upsetting they’d done. Would the outcome be more like A, B or C?
A: One of you explains what happened and how they felt about it while the other listens. Then the accused person explains how things were from their point of view while the accuser listens. You both increase your understanding and one or both say sorry. Together you work out a way to stop that sort of thing from happening again, and you both actually do what you say you will – or try to, and keep trying until you do.
B. Similar to A except one or both of you never do what you say you will (promises are made to calm the immediate situation but they are not kept).
C. The accused denies the problem and blames the accuser. Instead of trying to solve the problem it becomes a competition about who is right and who is wrong. One or both of you never/rarely says sorry.
A is the obvious best outcome but I know a lot of people will think it is unrealistic. Why shouldn’t we at least aim for a truly happy relationships though? I think that if you are reasonably compatible, it is possible, as long as you’ve both grown up. If you don’t grow up you will be miserable and make everyone around you miserable too. It is necessary to grow up and take responsibility. That’s what makes life worth living. Imagine if you and your partner could grow together, both being yourselves while becoming the best versions of yourselves.