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Chapter 3: relationships: Conflicts

Why You Are So Annoyed By What You Once Admired

One of the things that makes us fall in love with people is realising they can do something we can’t. We get attracted to people who seem capable and at ease with parts of life in which we struggle. Perhaps they are very administratively capable, and we are inept; or they are creative, and we are more procedural. They might be highly sensitive, whereas we find our own feelings hard to deal with.

The hope, if only at an unconscious level, is that by getting together with this person, we will learn and develop. Their virtues will change us. We’ll grow more confident or wittier, better at paperwork or readier to analyse our inner lives. Love offers us a vision of growth.

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But something nasty tends to happen to this promise of development along the years. A person’s so-called strengths have an unfortunate habit of turning, in the beholder’s eyes, into something excessive and dispiriting. Charming ‘self-restraint’ can edge into simple ‘coldness’. ‘Creativity’ can come to resemble ‘mania’. ‘Traditional values’ may appear like ‘narrow-minded provincialism.’ ‘Administrative competence’ starts, over a decade, to seem like ‘obsessive compulsive ordering.’

The couple can fall victim to the phenomenon of polarisation, whereby the pro in a given area gets ever stronger and more resentful of the other’s weakness, and the amateur gets ever weaker and more humiliated by, and dismissive of, the other’s strength. The partner who is a pro loses any interest in teaching the other how to acquire their quality and, instead, merely gets irritated with their relative incompetence. Meanwhile, the amateur takes early retirement from the virtue in question, practises it less and looks at the pro with increasing suspicion and disdain.

Take the familiar problem of administrative competence. Imagine a couple where one person is stronger, the other weaker in this area. In the early days, one party much admired the other for being able to handle this side of things well. Yet over time, the tasks have somehow all gravitated in the direction of the competent one – generating conflict and resentment. The administrative pro believes they have to be on top of everything because the other seems ever more hopeless. At times they feel cursed that they have (by some fateful error) joined their life to a bureaucratic shirker. Whereas the amateur one (who had once felt this competence to be attractive) feels, with great disappointment, that their partner is becoming horribly rigid and authoritarian.

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Or it could be that a couple has split painfully into ‘the creative one’ and ‘the practical one’. To the creative one, their partner is always finding the downside of any plan; they never speculate or daydream, they can’t take anything seriously if it doesn’t involve profit projections. Meanwhile the supposedly more practical comes to feel that their partner is often deluded, volatile and untrustworthy.

Under pressure, these polarised positions become explosive: the instinctive response is to feel that one has somehow ended up with the wrong partner. Yet the truth is, we have this conflict precisely because we are with the right kind of person. It’s just we’re handling the differences in the wrong way. We’ve forgotten to teach one another the virtues we were, at the outset, attracted by – and admired for.

The task of reducing the tension – and of lessening the damage each person is doing to the other – lies with the pro. They are in the position of strength (one is always the relative pro in some areas and the relative amateur in others). The pro needs to recognise that their hypercompetence in a given area, far from helping the situation, is in fact centrally responsible for creating it. It is unwittingly fostering and reinforcing the incompetence of the other.

The issue comes down to how best to teach. The pro implicitly believes that the best kind of teaching involves berating the student for their incompetence (for being ‘anal’ or ‘cold’ or ‘mad’ or ‘a social climber’ or a ‘mouse’). But of course, this only creates fear and withdrawal.

If you are teaching a child to do a maths problem, they won’t improve if one rushes in and gives the answer. And the more irate you become, the more confused and desperate they will feel. We know this in maths, and adopt different strategies. A key one is: we pretend we don’t know. We hold back from showing our abilities. We play at being a bit weaker than we are, to aid them to get stronger.

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But we tend not to adopt such a benign – and constructive – attitude in romantic life. We don’t see the partner as a ‘beginner’ in a legitimate subject area (like, perhaps, being punctual or cuddling), who needs carefully calibrated assistance. That’s because we are not in the habit of recognising that it really is an ability to process anxieties about an appointment to a degree where they don’t make us late, or to reduce our fears around intimacy enough to give someone a hug.

To change the dynamics of polarisation, the pro needs to back off from what comes a little too easily to them. They should see that their hypercompetence is actually discouraging the weaker party. They should – on purpose, for a time – get a bit worse in an area than they are: they should, out of kindness, play at becoming a bit shyer, messier, less creative… and thereby gently encourage the other person to take up the slack to restore the overall balance of a virtue within the relationship. They might have to tolerate things going a little wrong for a while in certain areas: the finances might get a bit muddled. They might miss a couple of parties. Dust could accumulate under the bed…

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The pro needs to understand that their own ability and ease in an area cannot be ordered. It has to be taught in the gentlest way. But they can feel reassured that the other party does deep down want to learn: that’s what the initial attraction was based on. One was attracted by difference and hoped to grow more complete. It’s just that no one ever learns when feeling humiliated.

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