As you’ll have gathered from the title of this blogpost, it’s not about writing. What is it about then? Recently, I’ve found myself re-visiting a topic I’ve been interested in for a long time. It’s about how, in all relationships, there are rules about what is and isn’t acceptable. Some of these are explicit in that they are laid out formally via contracts (at work, for example) and codes of conduct, and some of them are implicit. It’s the latter category which interests me and, whilst the form they take might vary, I cannot think of an example of any kind of relationship where there aren’t ‘deals’ made about what will and will not happen. What intrigues me about these deals is how they are communicated and entered into, and what consequences arise if transgressions occur. I also find it interesting when the explicit rules and implicit ones are at odds. Perhaps a few examples might help.
When I was growing up the unspoken rule at home was ‘No-one must upset your mother’. By the time I was aware that this was the rule, I’d left home and I am still unsure about how my mother got so many people in the family to sign up to it. Twenty years later I discovered that one of her sisters was aware of this rule and had been going along with it since they were children. Her other sister and her own mother also realised what was going on, and chose to go along with it although they weren’t always honest about this. And this is another thing: where there are rules, and particularly if they are ones with winners and losers, there is usually collusion and denial, and a lot at stake.
When I was teaching I remember a lot of talk at one school about learning being a priority. Policies and guidelines were issued on the subject, backed up by training sessions on things that were thought to promote learning. But whilst this was the message that the school wanted to be seen to promote, ultimately, what they actually wanted was for teachers to use methods which would guarantee good exam results for them and the students. But isn’t that okay, you might wonder? Sometimes good exam results can be achieved without real learning taking place, and without many skills being developed except how to rote learn and answer exam questions. For me, being a teacher was never about teaching kids to pass exams: I wanted them to learn and understand, and I wanted to foster intellectual curiosity and passion for their subjects and for life. So why was the school pretending to care about learning when it actually cared more about exam results? Simple: because its success depended on good exam results.
I’ve noticed these rules in romantic relationships and friendships too. With partners there are usually understandings about certain things: we will both be faithful; you will be faithful but I won’t; we will do some things together and some separately; you won’t leave your stinky socks on the floor and I’ll remove my hair from the plughole. Sometimes they are reciprocal. Sometimes they are one-sided: you will always defer to me or I’m the knowledgeable one.
I’m going to ask you a question. It’s okay, you don’t have to tell me the answer. But tell yourself: how honest are you with your partner? About how you feel, and what you do and don’t want. One key area where there are almost always rules is honesty. Sometimes it’s: I don’t want you to be honest with me because I am scared of what you might tell me. Or: let’s both be selective about the truth. Rarely is it: let’s both be 100% open and honest with each other. This saddens me. Why is that? Telling the truth in all situations is a risky endeavour. No, I don’t want to have sex. Yes, you’re your bum does look big in that. No, I don’t fancy him, I was just being friendly. I do still love you. No, I’m not going off you. Yes, I do want to go on holiday to that place. Do partners enter into their relationship ‘contract’ consciously? Does it depend on whether they agree on what’s in the contract? Technically, I would say ‘no’ to both questions. Are two people going to stand in front of each other and admit that they both want the other to not be honest? Isn’t this sort of thing hinted at ever so subtly, and communicated in covert, roundabout terms? Why is this? It’s because the consequences and implications of not sticking to the deal are unthinkable. For example, if I acknowledge you’ve lied to me, I am going to have to take action so I’ll pretend I don’t know. That sound familiar? Sometimes the deal is about roles, and in turn these are usually about power and control. It amazes me how many people give up power in relationships via deals that put them one down.
With acquaintances and strangers there are rules too: some of these are cultural, for example, the British thing of when someone asks how you are, you say ‘Fine thank you, and you?’ But what if you aren’t fine? Why should you say that you are fine when you’re not? I’ve never understood this. Sometimes this is mutually acceptable. Desirable even. We’ll just make polite conversation, keep things superficial, and not risk getting close because I don’t like you and you don’t really like me. Or because I’m envious of you. Or because you irritate me. Because it’s all a bit messy to actually say how you really feel. If this farce works for both parties, that’s fine. But if one person wants to be honest and have a more authentic interaction, the relationship – whatever it is – is on stony ground. Have you ever told people that you’re struggling with something, or with life in general? How have they responded? Or if you’ve been on the receiving end of someone telling you that they’re struggling, has your response been one of empathy, a desire to understand and help … or one of irritation? Exposing vulnerability to another human being can be a tricky business. If that person wants you to be strong, and ‘not complain’, they might want a deal along those lines. Sometimes it’s because that person doesn’t feel strong themselves, because they lack empathy or quite simply because they are selfish. On many occasions I’ve seen people say that they’re struggling, only to be greeted with “We’ve all got problems, you just have to get on with it” or – worse – rejection, because the deal is “I will only be friends with you if you always say you’re fine”. Usually, warnings are given, little tugs at the lead. They send a ripple, communicating the message, “Hey, be careful, that’s not the deal, remember?” Often this is enough to persuade the person to start towing the line again. But sometimes they don’t want to. And then, so often, the relationship flounders.
Have you ever been in a situation where you feel like you’ve changed and the rules that used to work don’t anymore? This can occur when people change and the ‘old’ rules no longer feel comfortable. It can be a gradual thing as in when one member of a couple changes, creating tension around the rules of the relationship. Or it can be as a result of a person growing up and developing new hobbies and interests, and not wanting to do certain things anymore. Accepting change in another person can often be hard, particularly if it reminds us that we haven’t changed at all (and secretly we’re annoyed with ourselves for it and are envious that the other person has).
I find it interesting to analyse these situations using Transactional Analysis. This suggests that there are three main modes of relating: Parent, Adult, Child. All interactions and communication between people are called ‘transactions’. Transactions work best when both people are ‘in’ Adult mode. If one person, or both people are in Parent (the negative aspects of which can be critical and persecuting) or Child (wilful or disempowered), communication is likely to be unsuccessful. It strikes me that most of the deals that we sign up to are about control: who has it and who doesn’t.
Something else that intrigues me about the deals that people make is that often people agree to things that they aren’t actually happy with, and even when it results in pain – for themselves and others. Why? Usually to avoid acknowledging and confronting their own human feelings. Whilst I don’t agree with all of Freud’s ideas, I do believe that we so often reject in others what we cannot come to terms with somewhere in our own psyche. Or we reject the person because they bring up in us feelings which we find unpleasant. I’m a big fan of operant conditioning: behaviours which are reinforced positively or negatively are repeated (learned). The key question here is: what’s the pay off? Negative reinforcement is where something unpleasant is avoided, for example, people and things which we can’t (or don’t want to) cope with. Positive reinforcement is a straightforward reward. This brings me back to my mother, why did people collude with her? Because the consequences of not doing so were unbearable. In this kind of family situation, if everyone has signed up to a rule, the consequences of transgression can be devastating. My need for honesty and authenticity has always caused problems in my family. How many people are made the family scapegoat for breaking the rules? It is something which has always struck me as incredibly cruel: families can gang up on individual members and ostracise them because they refuse to keep quiet about something that everyone else has signed up to. And it’s often done in a very clever way: you are made to feel that you are the one in the wrong. You are the black sheep.
The final aspect of rules which makes me very sad, is how much self-delusion is often involved. I’m not making any judgements here, I’m as guilty of it all as the next person. Except honesty. I have a thing about honesty, and have avoided and left many relationships (and been left) from a need to be honest. I explore the above issues in terms of my own relationships and life (and those of the characters in my books, ha, sneaked a bit of writing in!). Many years ago I had a long relationship with a man who said from the outset that he ‘didn’t do emotions’. This statement should have made me walk away but I didn’t because I was already in love with him by then. I agreed to a deal which made me unhappy. I needed to know how he felt about me but had signed away my right to ask. Ultimately my need to know the truth broke us up. Many years later he told me that he’d been in love with me the whole time, something which, at some level, I think I’d known but couldn’t trust. So, what he’d meant was that he couldn’t – or wouldn’t – talk about his emotions, not that he didn’t have them.
So, how to conclude this post? Sadly, I don’t have any answers. All I know is that life is messy. Relationships are messy. Being human is a tricky business. We are all a mass of contradictions. We all experience wormy feelings such as anger, envy and resentment. We all fall madly in love, and experience joy, excitement and beauty in life. Some people struggle more than others, or struggle with aspects of life in particular. We can sit on the sidelines or roll up our sleeves and trousers and wade in. And we can be honest about who we are and what we want. Most importantly, perhaps, we can be kind to those around us who are struggling, and not presume to know what they’re struggling with if we haven’t actually listened, and not judge whether or not we think they should be struggling with that thing. These days I am much more careful about the deals I enter into with people. And when I sense that I’m being silenced, or left with crappy feelings to deal with, I have a greater capacity to walk away.
Vicky Newham © 2014