Most machines of any degree of complexity are offered to us with an instruction manual, a guide to how an unfamiliar technology works, what we can expect from it, how to get the best out of it and how to interpret its signals – the assumption being that it will be so much easier and less enraging to deal with the machine when we have taken some time systematically and patiently to learn how it operates.
Yet one area where we tend not to have manuals to read is when it comes to other people and their functioning.
This causes us immense troubles. We go into relationships without any real sense of where the other’s peculiarities will lie – and vice versa. We unwittingly proceed as if operating another person might be an intuitive skill we’ll pick up along the way. It can take decade or more to work out the very basics.
Mostly human machines function in extremely odd ways: for example, they don’t calmly lay out that certain incidents in childhood have given them a disposition to shout at airports, to be suspicious of authority or to be shifty in owning up to debts. We must work backwards from outward behaviour to possible causes without any help from the machine itself.
Sometimes the signals are completely confusing: ‘Fuck off, I really don’t want to see you,’ turns out to mean: ‘I’m so worried you don’t want me and am getting in early with my revenge.’ ‘Please tidy away your clothes and put away the dishes’ might mean ‘I’m trying to control you procedurally because I feel out of touch with you emotionally.’
We would save so much time if we knew how to give one another manuals early on, if we could explain: ‘When I am hurt, I go cold’ or ‘I’m especially prone to be subservient and then resentful’. Or ‘I get brutal when I’m at my most vulnerable’. Or ‘I feel a need to talk about other possible lovers, because I feel so unattractive to you deep down’.
Instead, the weaknesses of machines are usually discovered in the heat of arguments: in contexts where they will have wounded the other, and therefore where we are denied the goodwill that an explanation might have earned us. Many of the difficult patterns of behaviour of human machines have very sympathetic points of origin, but once they have caused the partner humiliation, they are unlikely to be looked upon charitably.
We don’t need people to be perfect. We only need them to be able to see their faults, to teach us about them when we are unthreatened – and to apologise for the difficulties they cause us in good time. In other words, the greatest, most loving and luxurious gift any partner could ever give another is an instruction manual to their own rather tortured, odd but ultimately always rather lovable soul.