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Chapter 3: relationships: Conflicts

Teaching and Love

One of the most delightful and thrilling aspects of the early days of a love affair is the sense that our lover likes us not only for our obvious qualities – perhaps our looks, or our professional accomplishments – but also, and far more touchingly, for our less impressive sides: our vulnerabilities, our hesitations, our flaws. Perhaps they are particularly taken by the gap between our two front teeth which, while it wouldn’t impress an orthodontist, charms them distinctly. Or perhaps they are taken by our shyness at busy parties or are powerfully drawn to that old pair of pyjamas with the bear prints which we put on on cold winter nights and which would win no fashion award.

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This creates a beguiling prospect of what love might be – but one which also sets up a catastrophic and unfair expectation: the belief that really loving someone must mean endorsing every aspect of them, their good sides, but also, more particularly, their weaknesses too.

This pleasant vision may last a few months into a relationship but eventually, something is likely to disturb it. We will notice something about the lover which is both a flaw and not especially charming. Perhaps it’s their rather bovine way of eating cereal, their habit of not hanging up towels or their maddening tendency to withhold crucial bits of bad news from us.

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But because of the belief that love means complete endorsement, there is likely to be an incensed hurt response from a partner. What is feedback doing in the hallowed realm of love? ‘If you loved me, you wouldn’t criticise me’ can be love’s all too common wounded rallying cry. 

This protest against teaching from a lover is so ubiquitous that we forget to notice its strangeness. It represents a very particular approach to love and not necessarily the wisest. For a more helpful take, we might look back to the Ancient Greeks, who had a strikingly different philosophy of feedback within love.

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For the Greeks, love is not meant to be an emotion centred on just anything at all about the partner. Rightly understood, it is a very specific feeling that targets what happens to be accomplished, perfect, virtuous and intelligent. Around the other less impressive things, one must be tolerant and understanding of course – but one isn’t expected to love. The word love is restricted to a particular sort of admiration for perfection. 

Connected to this for the Greeks is a sense that the point of a relationship is to be a forum in which two people can help each other to increase the number of admirable characteristics they each possess: it is to help them become the best version of themselves. The Greeks held to a fundamentally pedagogical view of love; they understood that a relationship gives us a ringside seat on one another’s flaws and potential – and therefore believed that both partners should take it in turns to act in the role of teacher and student – attempting to educate the other to become a finer person within the safe and encouraging confines of love’s classroom.

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All this is likely to sound incredibly strange to modern ears. The notion that the point of love is to help to teach the lover to become a better version of themselves, and therefore that one might legitimately deliver lengthy lectures to one’s partner on how their character might be improved sounds like a freakish, dictatorial betrayal of the true nature of love.

Yet, in truth, there is a lot of wisdom in the Greek position – for we can interpret many of the struggles people have in relationships as being, in essence, failed teaching moments; moments when one or the other party attempt to get something across, possibly a very well-founded point, but see their lessons rejected in bitter and hurt tones.

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The reason why the lessons we try to impart in love’s classroom tend to go so wrong is that we are respectively very bad teachers and very bad pupils. And part of the reason is that we don’t – in the role of teachers – have any real sense that we are even allowed to teach, which makes us panicky and defensive. Furthermore, what helps someone to be a good teacher is a relaxed sense that it doesn’t in the end matter so much if the lesson is learnt or not. A good maths teacher wants to get the basics of trigonometry across to the class, but if they are being obtuse, they can be calm; there’ll be another student cohort along next year.

But love’s classroom finds us in a far more agitated state – because at the back of our minds as we try to teach a point is an utterly panic-inducing thought: that we may have committed ourselves to an idiot who will continue in a range of erroneous ways for the rest of our days.

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It’s on this basis that we start to swear, belittle and insult our lover. Which is understandable but very unfortunate, for it seems that sadly no one has ever learnt anything under conditions of humiliation. By the time one has made the partner feel like a fool, the lesson is over.

It seems that a good relationship should be a forum in which we teach each other many things and gracefully learn in turn. If we understand ourselves properly, we will know that there are so many sides of us that need improvement. For that reason, we should learn to see love a little as the Ancient Greeks did: as a safe arena in which two people can gently teach and learn how to grow into better versions of themselves. Teaching and learning doesn’t symbolise an abandonment of love; it’s the very basis upon which we can develop into better lovers and, more broadly, better people.

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