We often operate in romantic life
under the mistaken view –
unconsciously imported from
law courts and school debating traditions –
that the person who is “right” or has the stronger case
should, legitimately, “win” any argument.
But this is fundamentally to misunderstand
what the point of relationships might be.
It is not to defeat an opponent
(there are no prizes for “winning”
other than self-satisfied loneliness)
the point is more to try to help each other
to evolve into the best versions of ourselves.
There’s a kind of argument
into the problems of their partner.
With a stern, masterful and almost gleeful tone,
“you’ve been drinking too much”;
or “you hogged the conversation at the party”;
or “you’re always boasting”;
or “you don’t take enough responsibility”;
or “you waste far too much time online”;
or “you never take enough exercise”.
The insight is maybe not wrong;
that is what is so tricky.
The critic is correct but they are unable to “win”
because there are no prizes in love
for correctly discerning the flaws of our partners.
by attacking a partner with clinical energy,
we reduce our chances
of ever reaching the real goal:
the evolution of the person we have to live with.
When we’re on the receiving end of a difficult insight into our failings,
what makes us bristle and deny everything
isn’t generally the accusation itself
(we know our flaws all too well),
it’s the surrounding atmosphere.
We know the other person is right,
we just can’t bear to take their criticism on board,
given how severely it has been delivered.
We start to deny everything,
not because the accusations are wrong,
but because we are terrified:
the light of truth is shining too brightly.
The fear is that if we admitted our failings,
we would be crushed, shown up as worthless,
required to attempt an arduous, miserable process
of change without requisite sympathy
and that unless and until we reform ourselves
– we would have no claim on the affections or forgiveness of the other.
That’s why we insist that
we do actually do enough exercise,
that we have been working very hard
and that we have never wasted time
on any embarrassing websites.
We feel so burdened with shame and guilt already,
a lover’s further upbraiding feels impossible to listen to.
There’s too much pre-existing fragility in our psyches
for us to admit to another difficult insight
into what’s wrong with us.
The irony of the defensive argument
is that it’s the overly-confrontational pursuit of truth
that will make the truth impossible to reach.
In the philosophy of lying
there’s a central historical example
of what is termed the “just lie”
outlined by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato.
If a crazed person comes to us
and asks “where’s the axe?”
we are entitled to lie and say we don’t know
because we understand that were we to tell them the truth,
they would probably use the tool
to do something horrendous to us.
That is, we can reasonably tell a lie
when our life is in danger.
In a couple,
our partner may not literally be searching for an axe
when they ask us an inquisitorial question,
this is precisely how we might experience them
which makes it at least a little understandable
if we say we simply don’t know what they are talking about.
It may feel unfair to ask an accuser to
take responsibility for our vulnerability.
But if they want to help their relationship,
they will need to make it abundantly clear
that they won’t ever use the truth
(if it is acknowledged)
as a weapon.
What is so sad
is how easily we (as the accused) might,
if only the circumstances were more sympathetic,
confess to everything.
We would in fact love to unburden ourselves
and admit to all that’s broken and wounded in us.
The answer is to try and create a situation
where both partners accept
that they are flawed but not – on this basis
– ever beyond a need for love and kindness,
where the mutual need for evolution is taken as a given
– and where every well-considered criticism
is handled as both correct
and yet needing to be wrapped up
in extraordinary layers of reassurance.
There should be a recognition
that people don’t change
when they are told what’s wrong with them;
they change when they feel sufficiently supported
to undertake the change
they (almost always) already know is due.
It isn’t enough to be sometimes right in relationships,
we need to be generous enough in our love
in order that our partner can admit
when they are in the wrong.
Love is a skill that we can learn.
Our relationships book calmly guides us with calm and charm
through the key issues of relationships.
To ensure that success in love need not be a matter of luck.
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