It wouldn’t be odd to admit one’s own very substantial imperfections: it would be (on the contrary) ridiculous and suspicious to pretend we might not have any.
The idea that one is in many ways an extremely difficult person to be in a relationship with may sound rather improbable and even at points offensive. Yet fully understanding and readily and graciously admitting to this possibility might be the surest way of making sure one is an endurable proposition over the long-term. There are few people more deeply insufferable than those who don’t, at regular intervals, suspect they might be so.
We are, all of us, invariably, hugely tricky propositions. We don’t need to know anyone in particular to know this about everyone. We have all – in some way or another – been inadequately parented, we have a panoply of unfortunate psychological traits, we are beset by bad habits, we are anxious, jealous, ill-tempered and vain. We are bringing an awesome amount of trouble into someone else’s life by agreeing to be their partner.
We tend to be shielded from this unwelcome news prior to a big relationship through a mixture of sentimentality and neglect. Our parents loved us too much to tell us; our friends don’t want to get bogged down in detailed critiques of our personalities; a pleasant occasional meal is all they want from us. And our exes were too keen to escape from us to offer up a helpfully detailed critique of our personalities. They simply told us they needed a little more space – or needed to take a long trip to India.
Furthermore, when we’re on our own, we just don’t notice how annoying we might well be in the eyes of others. Perhaps we were in a sulk for the whole of a Sunday, but no-one was there to be driven crazy by our self-pity and our passive fury. We may have tendencies to use our work as an escape from intimacy, but so long as we are not permanently with someone, we can pass off our eccentric hours without comment. Our peculiar eating habits won’t be real until there is another person across the table to register our challenging chewing sounds and ingredient combinations.
Eventually, a partner will call us out on these traits. It feels like a horrible personal attack which a nicer person would not put us through. But it is no such thing. It is an inevitable response to our failings – which anyone would need eventually to bring up.
Our partner is not really doing anything odd. They are merely holding up a mirror. Everyone, seen close up, has an appalling amount wrong with their character. It’s not us – it’s the human condition. The specifics vary hugely, of course; people are nightmarish in different ways. But the basic point is share. Whatever we think or feel about ourselves, we will be revealed as sorely defective upon close-up, prolonged inspection. Sadly, it’s not that our partner is being too critical or unusually demanding. They are the bearer of an inevitable news: that we are a nightmare.
This view of human nature can seem shocking. But that’s only because we’re unprepared for it – and therefore tend to assume that it must be a prelude to a constantly fractious relationship. It is nothing of the sort. It is the only reliable basis upon which harmony can be established – and good-will and kindness embedded in two people’s exchanges.
Traditionally, the notion of Original Sin was the starting point for thinking about ourselves as essentially messed up creatures. The idea emerged at the end of the Roman Empire in the West. As the Empire collapsed in anarchic violence, the major thinker of the era, St Augustine, started to look around for an explanation of the miserable condition of human society. His key suggestion was that human nature is essentially flawed and misguided. He identified this failing as ‘original’ – that is as part of the basic inheritance of being born human.
Although Original Sin was developed in theological terms, its implication is really psychological: as individuals we have to accept from the outset that there will reliably be quite a lot that’s intimately very wrong with us. This shouldn’t be seen as a shocking, awkward admission – but as a necessary truth that applies to everyone and must be accepted with humility. It wouldn’t be odd to admit one’s own very substantial imperfections: it would be (on the contrary) ridiculous and suspicious to pretend we might not have any.
Augustine’s point remains valid, even though we don’t now think it is explained by the story of the original mother of humanity, Eve, eating a forbidden apple in a place called the Garden of Eden. Our failings – our wayward impulses, our unreasonable stubbornness, our tendency to procrastinate; our moodiness, rash decisions, flashes of misdirected anger and arrogance; our zones of coldness, our panicked responses, our bad habits, sterile fussiness, greediness and prickly defensiveness (to get the list going) – have natural and pretty much unavoidable origins. We were born immensely vulnerable; we were haphazardly parented; our brains are not well adapted for self-knowledge; our instincts evolved for a life of hunting and gathering rather than to help us with the demands of modernity; and the culture that surrounds us is frequently alarmist, status driven and can be very cruel in demanding success and yet ensuring that we will almost always feel like failures. So for entirely different reasons we can embrace the same conclusion as St. Augustine: no-one has any chance of emerging as an adult without a significant share of serious failings.
The point of all this background is to drive home the idea that acknowledging one’s flaws isn’t a request to admit something very strange. What would be strange (in fact) would be to think that one was without major defects. Of course we have some delightful qualities as well. But it does mean that we are unavoidably going to be very hard for another person to live around. Asking someone to marry you is – in a sense – a rather cruel thing to do to someone you care about.
The point of getting clear and honest about our failings is to recognise that we will contribute substantially to the difficulties we are bound to encounter in a relationship. It encourages us to resist the otherwise very tempting thesis that we are with an idiot or a brute. It will help us to smile and say sorry when the other person stands in the kitchen shouting at us, as they will, after another display of our foolishness. With a strong sense of our failings in mind, we’ll be more aware of the generosity our partner is displaying in their willingness to take us on. We need, therefore, to ask ourselves – in as candid a manner as we can manage – what specifically might be slightly crazy or desperate or undeveloped in ourselves.