Who screwed up, you or your ex? Who’s screwing up in your current partnership, you or your partner?
There’s a realistic alternative often overlooked. Modern romance is to blame.
Partnership used to be practical, then it got hyper-romantic and then we opened it up, dreaming that we could have it all, the practical benefits of an honest friendship and a mutual admiration society, a straight-shooting buddy and a devoted bunny all rolled into one.
We dream that with the right partner we’d be free to be ourselves warts and all, and still be reliably adored.
That’s a tall order, not that some don’t succeed in pulling it off. But fewer than the romantic ideal promises. Most couples have to settle for compromise – less romance, more tact, a tireless effort to find what poet Philip Larkin calls “words at once true and kind or not untrue and not unkind”.
Partnership is an ever-simmering crucible that often feels too close for comfort with no respite in sight. You can’t afford to lie to each other. If you’re caught, you may never live it down. And you can’t afford to be totally honest either. Too blunt and you may never live it down.
The stakes go way up. What you dreamed would be an oasis haven from scrutiny can become the hardest environment you occupy.
You come home from a hard day and want to let it all hang out but you can’t. You and your partner are hyper-vigilant. Am I still safe? Am I still free? You might find yourself reveling in your free time away from it all, even wishing to shed the partnership shackles.
Not that breakups are any picnic. Unshackled, you might start dreaming of a perfect union again with someone better or just better-suited. You’ll want another crack at the ideal, as though the problems in your last partnership were caused by your partner or just a bad match, not by the internal inconsistencies of the romantic ideal itself. Like gamblers who don’t get that the deck is stacked against them, singles often dream that they’ll be dealt a good hand next time, not like the last, a full house of freedom and safety, love and honesty, being yourself and being appreciated.
This may sound like a pretty dark interpretation of partnership. It’s meant to be kind and optimistic. If we can sober up on how drunk we get on romance we no longer have to convert our mutual admiration society partnerships into mutual accusation societies when they go sour.
Were you at fault? Was your partner? Was it bad chemistry? Maybe, but above all, the problem may just be that we expect more from partnership than it can deliver.
Sobering up about the drunkenness of romance frees partners to escape the threat of romantic blackmail: “If this doesn’t work, I’m going to hold you responsible for the failure. If you don’t love me right, you’re a narcissistic pig.”
Many couples ease their way into romantic sobriety over time. Often they’re the couples that partnered early and sustained it such that, 30-plus years in, they’re at ease with each other, warts and all (warts do accumulate with age).
Sure, they fell in love as God and Goddess. Nice to have had that temporary delusion fueled by the hormonal certainty of youth. Nice state to visit, but they know that one can’t live there, so they no longer try. They are buddies to each other and it works just fine.
Some of us take romantic drunkenness as real, and seek it through endless dating, unable to sustain the high, the endless quest to find a super-human partner, disappointed again and again by only finding people who are also looking for a super-human partner. And you don’t qualify.
And some make it work through simplicity. They don’t expect much. They partner because people partner.
For the kind of people who read Psychology Today, the best partnerships might be an honest merging of ambivalences, two people who admit they each want conflicting things, a bunny and a buddy, brutal honesty and tactful kindness, and can laugh together about the predicament of trying to get that from one person for life.
A partner of this kind laughs at you.
And vice versa.
Which requires two people who can each laugh at themselves and the predicaments they find themselves compelled to enter, for example, romantic partnership.
People often make partnership a whole lot harder than it has to be by imagining that it will be a whole lot easier than it can be.