Starting a relationship is like learning to ski. The view from the top is steep and terrifying. But, once you have met someone, the someone that you cannot be without, there is no other way down the mountain. You set off. You have no idea what you’re doing. It’s fast. It’s too fast. You feel wobbly. You feel scared. But you can do this. Yes you can! It’s fast. You want to go even faster. It’s exhilarating. It’s beautiful. It’s the most wonderful feeling you’ve ever felt in your life. And then, somehow, you catch the tip of your ski and, the next thing you know, you’re face-down in a snowdrift.
At this point, my boyfriend would probably swoop up behind me with a spray of snow and say, “Isn’t this great?” He loves to learn. He loves to grow. When things go wrong and we argue, he thinks we are having a stimulating discussion about our lives, giving ourselves the opportunity for self-improvement and a better connection. He thinks we are strengthening and deepening our relationship. He is – though I hate to admit it – right. But it’s hard to see that with a face full of snow and what feels suspiciously like a broken leg (or heart).
I am misrepresenting my boyfriend a little. For a start, he doesn’t know how to ski. More to the point, he doesn’t enjoy arguing any more than I do but, unlike me, he sees both the inevitability and the necessity of it. It’s taken me a while to come around to his point of view. I was 38 when we met, almost exactly a year ago – we had our first date a few days before Valentine’s Day. Not long before I met him, I’d texted a close friend: “There is NO HOPE AND I WILL DIE ALONE.” A text I might have sent at almost any time over the previous 20 years. I’d dated a lot, but it had never gone anywhere. I would lie awake at night and go over the horrible evidence: no boyfriend had ever told me that he loved me; no boyfriend had ever introduced me to his family; and only one boyfriend had ever entrusted me with a key to his flat, and that with the instruction that I could only use it to let myself OUT, never IN. I was obviously doomed.
We both knew it was insanely fast and that the crazy-in-love feeling wouldn’t last, but we’d also been in enough bad situations to know a good one when we saw it
Then a friend who was supposed to go to the theatre with me passed on her ticket to him. In the bar afterwards, I was drawn to his wit, his warmth, his smart insights into the play and the scatterbrained way he’d managed to misplace both his bike lights and his hat. We met a couple more times socially and, by the time of our first real date two weeks later, I was already in love with him. Within a week of that, he’d told me that he loved me. Within two weeks, he’d introduced me to his parents. I don’t recall when he first handed over the keys to his flat but, eight months into the relationship, I was living there. We both knew it was insanely fast and that the crazy-in-love feeling wouldn’t last – we used to tease each other about being “on the cloud” – but we’d also been in enough bad situations to know a good one when we saw it. Most of all, I felt the rightness of it in my body – not as sexual chemistry, though we have that too, but as a deep, unshakeable feeling of calm, so different from the anxious butterflies I’d experienced so many times before.
A man loved me and wanted to share his life with me: mission accomplished! Or so I naively thought. Never having lived with anyone before, I didn’t know that’s when the hard work starts. Once you are cohabiting, there is nowhere to hide. (Unless you live in a gigantic stately home with secret passages only you know about. We live in a small flat where most of the doors are made of glass.) You can’t go home in a huff and then turn up again with a smile tomorrow. You see everything about him, and he sees everything about you. And then, because he sees everything about you, you also see everything about you, which may be the most uncomfortable thing of all.
When I was single, I worried a lot that I was unlovable. I needn’t have. Everyone is loveable. Even people who are objectively ghastly routinely attract lovers. Murderers get engaged on death row; reality TV stars get married once a season. Nobody really knows why. Of course, there’s evidence to show that we fall for people who remind us in some way of our parents or of other people we were close to in childhood, but it’s not as simple as that. Studies of identical twins show that they are incredibly alike not only in appearance but in intelligence, beliefs, behaviours and tastes – in all matters, in fact, except love. Twins do not fall for their fellow twin’s spouses; partners of twins cannot imagine being in love with the other twin.
This has led some scientists to speculate that love is just a glitch in the brain that throws people together by random chance. Only afterwards do you start figuring out whether or not you are compatible. If you were to ask me why I love my boyfriend, I might say it’s because he’s funny, caring, intelligent, but, actually, those are the reasons why I like him. Why I love him, and only him, in a way that nobody else does, I have absolutely no idea. Why he loves me is a mystery rivalling the pyramids. There is nothing particularly impressive about me that inspires his love, otherwise everybody would be in love with me and then we’d be in a Helen of Troy-type disaster. But unlovable I am not. What I am is flawed. And two flawed people in a relationship – or, to put it another way, two people in a relationship – are going to run into trouble.
Once you are cohabiting, there is nowhere to hide. (Unless you live in a gigantic stately home with secret passages only you know about. We live in a small flat where most of the doors are made of glass)
Contrary to what The Beatles falsely informed us – thanks, guys – love is not all you need. Love is a good start. But, when things get difficult, you’re going to need kindness, patience, empathy. And honesty. That was where I always fell down before now. I didn’t tell what I thought of as “bad” lies – I wasn’t unfaithful, or pretending to have terminal cancer in order to con men out of their life savings. I told “nice” lies. My way of dealing with trouble was to pretend to be happy when I wasn’t. I’d say everything was OK when I was furious. I lied to keep things running smoothly, to make my boyfriend feel good, to make life easy and pleasant. Most of all, I lied to myself – it was easier to believe I was fine than to face up to my feelings and risk rocking the boat. And then I was amazed when men would leave me because they never felt close to me. Why would he go when I’d sacrificed so much of myself to make us happy?
This time, things are different. My boyfriend knows me too well and loves me too much for me to get away with putting on my glad face and hoping things will go away. Plus, when you’re housemates as well as lovers, it’s simply too unpleasant to let anything fester, whether it’s resentment or the dirty dishes. I hadn’t only been single for years, I’d also been living by myself, and I’d got used to doing everything my own way. Now, my choices were to do everything his way or to compromise. (Getting him to do everything my way was, alas, not an option.)
The first few arguments we had were all the same: an issue would come up, from socks on the floor to how we interacted with our friends. I’d agree with whatever he said, he’d get frustrated with me for not standing up for myself, I would say that I didn’t want to stand up for myself, and then we’d fight about that. The irony was lost on neither of us. After a while, though, I realised that, by hiding my needs, what I was doing was denying him access to me. The real me. Not the me I thought that he’d like better.
Since then, I do stand up for myself and these arguments are much better because they actually go somewhere – we both state our true position and then duke it out until we understand each other and reach a real, workable compromise, even if it takes days. We don’t argue often, and I still hate it, but afterwards we always end up closer than before. There’s a strength that comes from a willingness to face conflict together, to endure the discomfort of disagreement so that, rather than ignoring the obstacles in our way, we overcome them and find out what awaits us on the other side. It helps that we don’t fight mean. No shouting, no insults, no accusations. Even when we disagree deeply, knowing we’ll never be cruel to each other gives me the safety I need to be able to open up and tell him how I really feel, even when I know he won’t like it.
A good relationship is harder than a bad one, because the work you have to do to be truthful and present and vulnerable with someone is so much more profound than putting on a good show for them
I used to think that I’d know when I was with the right man, because everything would be easy. But a good relationship is harder than a bad one, because the work you have to do to be truthful and present and vulnerable with someone is so much more profound than putting on a good show for them but remaining fundamentally alone. Like all hard work, though, the rewards are far greater, too. Real love is deep knowledge of the other, and the deeper you go, the more you find pain, sometimes pain that has lain hidden, undisturbed, for decades. How many times have I got upset with him, only to realise that I’m really upset about something that happened with an ex, or even with my parents or my siblings growing up, or the kids who were nasty to me at school? I’d been putting my happy face on for longer than I realised.
With knowledge comes understanding, and the more you understand each other, the more you can help that pain to heal. More and more when difficult things come up, it isn’t even about us any more, but about the other things we need to figure out in order to live well: our work, the city that we live in, our relationships with the people around us. Stuff that we don’t always agree on, but that we need to work on together, as allies. Though there are still some wrinkles for us to iron out between us. I should probably not keep him up late every night by refusing to stop reading, and then complain when his alarm clock goes off in the morning. He should probably not tell me that my hairstyle makes me look like “the weird woman who came from the woods”.
I have never been happier than since I have been with my boyfriend. But I have also never had so many other feelings, too – of sadness, anger, hurt, fear. Not caused by him, but allowed to be set free, because I trust him, which means that I can finally trust myself.
So I put on my skis, I look at the slope. I see the bumps, the icy patches and the hard turns. But I also see the view, the peaks, the trees and the sky. I set off. I feel wobbly. I feel scared. But I can do this. It’s exhilarating. It’s beautiful. It’s the most wonderful feeling I’ve ever felt in my life. And, when I fall – and I will fall – there is somebody there to catch me.