I have just had an aha moment!
Realisation one – I am not a relationship fuck up, I’ve just been telling myself the wrong story.
I was driving into school, listening to yet more Esther Perel and thinking about my own relationship trajectory.
I am divorced and I come from a long line of divorcees. My parents and both sets of grandparents and I remember the shame of being the only child in a class whose father didn’t live in the same house. I remember a neighbour saying to her daughter; ‘We may be poor, but at least we’re not divorced’ in front of me when I was about 13. I realised today, I have carried that shame with me.
I have carried a story of failure. That there must be something wrong with me or I would have been able to ‘find the one’ and ‘settle down’ and not be the serial monogamist I have turned out to be.
But I have just realised, that actually the story isn’t true and I can change it and when you change the story everything changes.
Firstly, I see that I have held onto an old model of relationships that is no longer the case. There used to be one person for life, but that was when, for women, marriage was an economic necessity when we were the homemakers and could not work and when we couldn’t control our reproductivity. But life is different now. We have choices. I can work and be a mum, I can look after myself alone. My friendships networks are robust and strong.
Furthermore, the model of one person for life was when we lived in one place with one job for life. Times have changed and we think nothing of leaving home and moving away, we know that we will probably have more than one career, let alone more than one job in our life. And yet we still hold onto the ‘one-person forever story’. Maybe when we died at 46 and many women died in childbirth that was more possible. But seriously, one person for life when our generation’s life expectancy is into our 80s?
And the shame I have been carrying and thinking my kids would feel, because I felt it, is not the case, my kids inhabit a different place. Many of their classmates have parents who divorced. Some have never married. The shame is gone. I was talking to the boys about one of the podcasts I’ve been listening to about affairs and divorce and their attitude was almost blasé, there was no shame, there was just a sense of; ‘This is how life is, get on with it’
They can see what I have been missing because I’ve got stuck in a fantasy. They see that this is how life is, people get together, and split up and it is sad, but life carries on. Meanwhile I have been too busy trying to live up to some romantic dream and I always fail.
So now I see that actually, the expectation of one person for life is not how life is any more and this is not the failure of the couples, it is a change in society and I am just part of that. The pill only became available in 1963, we were born into a generation where things were starting to change, but we had no map for how that would be. We are the 80s teenagers who believed we could have it all and survive on Thatcher’s 4 hours sleep and we have learned the hard way we were wrong.
Maybe because I reflect and consider and question, I was never going to be able to live with something or someone who no longer fits because I had a choice that previous generations didn’t have.
In so many ways I have broken rules about how to live. I live a polyamorous work life and have done always, even before the kids were born. I have always had a side project going on; MAs, voluntary work, different contracts; last year it was yoga, this year its horse riding. I have accepted that I don’t want a just one job for life, that it would bore me.
Perel says that most of us will have 3 or 4 committed relationships in our life and some of us will have them with the same person. This is how it has been for me in work. I have been in one core job for 20 years, but every couple of years I have renegotiated what that looks like. I love all the work I do and they all feed into each other. Work for me is alive, and vibrant, interesting and engaging. People say I am ‘lucky’ but I have taken risks and made choices that not everyone would.
So I have the skills to live in this more complex world; our jobs change, so our child care changes, so money changes and we need to be able to renegotiate and discuss and re-contract. We need skills that allow us to do that.
Realisation two – Relationship skills can be learned
And this is realisation two, that I have learned so many things I did not know in my childhood. My sister and I have both learned emotional literacy. I have woven a way of parenting that suits me without apologising. I remember the tension of not being a mother in the way that my mum was or a worker in the way that my dad was…but I have found a way of weaving the best of both and making something which suits me.
I have done the same with work and study and I have never thought of myself as a ‘fuck up’ in those areas and yet I have with my relationships, like there is something pathologically wrong with me; my attachment pattern, my insecurities, in spite of long and healthy friendships and successful work relationships. It turns out, I am just adapting to the how the world is, rather than how it should be.
So how did I do it? How did I become more emotionally intelligent, a better parent, a portfolio worker?
I learned. Then took risks and changed. I sought out knowledge in books and I asked questions of people who I thought might be ahead of me and I became obsessed with things until something shifted, like it has with Perel and me today. I hung out with cousins and friends with families and took things about their style I liked and copied it to integrate it into the kind of parent I wanted to be. It did loads of therapy and learned emotional vocabulary. I learned about grief the hard way and then worked in hospices to understand it more so I could find a way to help others with it. I got out of an abusive relationship and then learned about narcissism and co-dependency. I learned! I’m good at learning.
I have previously fallen fowl of the myth that relationships should come naturally…but why should they? Sex may be biological, but desire is relational. Getting pregnant is biological but raising children is relational.
I now see that a better way to think about things is that I haven’t always had the relational skills I have needed to ask for what I need, to set boundaries, to express desire and loneliness and worry. And I am learning so much from Perel. She is giving me ways of thinking and language I can actually use to articulate the things that I have not had words to say.
Language is so important because in this new world, where all the old stabilities of the church, the job for life, the being born and dying on the same street have gone. We need to be able to communicate and discuss and work with complexity and mutability if we are to have any chance at all of staying connected. And Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability is part of that, finding language to speak to the one closest to us about the things we don’t know how to say, to take risks and share our vulnerabilities and shame, for this is how we connect.
Realisation three – Not one commitment but 4 questions
The final bit of the jigsaw (for the moment at least) is that relationally, there need to be two people willing to learn. Two people who are up for developing their own skills and understanding. For it seems to me that there are 4 things we need to learn about in relationships.
- Who am I right now? What is going on for me? What matters? What do I want? What can I give? How do I want to live?
- Who are you right now and what is going on for you? What matters? What do you want? What can you give? How do you want to live?
- Who are we right now and what is going for us? What matters to us? What do we want? What can we give? How do we want to live?
- What skills do we need to discuss and connect and find intimacy and do we have them? If not, are we willing to explore and learn and admit?
If we remain stuck in our stories of ‘we should desire’, ‘we should just know’ there is no movement. We ossify and the relationship becomes stuck in a rut which no longer fits and where we can no longer grow. We don’t have role models in our parents for they didn’t have the choices we do. We have to acknowledge that relationships have changed no matter what they think we ‘should’ do.
Perel says when we commit to curiosity about our self and our partner (or friend, relation or colleague) then we can learn about them and our self and each time we do that we change the relationship and bring it back to life, and this she says, is how could can have several marriages to the same person.
So maybe the most important commitment to each other is; ‘Are you willing to learn about me and you and us and develop and learn skills of communication and relating?’ Because, as someone whose 35-year marriage I deeply admire says ‘Forever is a lie. Either one of us could leave at any time’. But they chose not to. They chose to keep learning and growing together not because they are stuck, or believing some ‘forever’ dream, but because they are interested in each other and because they want to.