Falling into the togetherness trap?

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iol life oct 5 carter burton AP Another married couple who live in separate houses a la Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton, on the suggestion of the wife, who believed their union would be happier if each retained 'me space'.

Half way up the mountain, the rain was starting to patter. The patter became a monsoon. I would have liked nothing more than to be curled up by a fire, with a glass of the stuff that cheers and a good book.

Instead I was traipsing in the wake of the man I thought I loved, in an attempt to show my empathy by joining him in his favourite pursuit; mountain climbing. But instead of this show of togetherness bringing us closer, I began to hate him more and more.

Why is it that today, Western romantic mores encourage, if not compel, men and women to be mutually dependent - from celebrities snapped in passionate clinches, to couples enthusiastically sharing their free time?

I know from experience that nothing kills romance like living on top of one another. A while ago I came out of a relationship after sharing a one-bedroom-flat with a man who was at home for much of the time, as he had decided to opt for early retirement. Nearly every day he hovered over my shoulder. It was not only claustrophobic but enraging.

My generation has been cajoled and brainwashed into living symbiotically. Films, TV chat shows and glossy magazines tell us we should experience boundless joy at the thought of the pronoun “me” being subsumed by “we”.

And we buy into the idea. Take that now ex-boyfriend who liked to climb mountains in Austria. Instead of happily waving him off to pursue my own, more sedentary interests, I pursued his, despite the fact I was growing blisters upon my blisters.

He insisted continually that a couple who spent time apart was a couple in trouble. Whenever I mentioned seeing mutual friends alone or catching a film that was not to his taste, he objected vociferously, saying his parents had “done everything together”. I later discovered that, while they had never separated, his mother had actually been miserable in her marriage.

Enforced togetherness can also be a panic reflex, a fear that your partner’s independence would threaten your relationship. This often indicates insecurity and a refusal to admit that perhaps you were not, after all, a match made in Heaven.

Friends of both sexes have similar tales of engaging in activities they actively disliked in order to “be together”.

A girlfriend who is both near-sighted and dislikes the country took up shooting so she could be with her new husband, who spends every Saturday, for four months of the year, on the grouse moors. Both became frustrated. She, because she would have preferred to shop, and he because he felt obliged to help his wife, to the detriment of his own enjoyment.

Yet we fall into this trap time and again, and togetherness ends up becoming a chore that leads to disillusionment and discord. Why?

Relationship counsellor Andrew Bonner says: “In the past ten years, I’ve seen an increase in couples who don’t actually hate each other, they just don’t love each other - because they feel suffocated. Ninety per cent of these marriages could be saved if they realised that dependence can be damaging.”

One of the reasons for this could be that by compelling our other halves to do things they don’t enjoy - and would not naturally choose to do - we actually see them at their worst.

One of my favourite hobbies is singing; whenever a boyfriend has heard me sing in public (I occasionally perform jazz standards at parties and nightclubs) I am at my best. Ordered to climb mountains, I turned into a monster of choler and sarcasm, hurling hurtful barbs at my ex.

Why should our partners see us at our worst? Why must we share our pastimes and dislikes, or relinquish pleasures peculiar to ourselves? If one partner smokes, it is pointless and aggravating for the other nag and carp. Make space for them elsewhere, whether it’s physical in the form of a spare room or an acceptance of their sitting outside the local pub in all weathers enjoying a puff.

A straightforward ban on a cherished habit, as was imposed on me by one non-smoking ex, is not only annoying but leads to deception. At night, once he fell asleep, I would sneak out of the flat to smoke on the terrace of a nearby bar.

On one occasion, when my partner woke to find me missing, I was accused of infidelity. His response to my reply that I was smoking prompted the remark: “That’s almost as bad.”

The failure to give a partner space to do as they wish, and to flourish as an individual on their own piece of soil, leads to a resentful boredom that is invidious in its consequences. The desire for excitement is very deep-seated in all of us, women as much as men. We sit around at home, having quiet evenings of togetherness with our partner, secretly wishing they were dead or in Timbuktu.

Boredom is part of the human lot but, with the internet, mobile phones, cheap travel and reading of the allegedly glamorous lives and sexual pursuits of the famous, we are losing our capacity to endure it.

After the first flush of passion, seeing too much of a partner can be unendurable. Out of frustration and a growing intolerance we cease to hold our tongues and let rip at every perceived fault.

Relationship counsellors tell us to talk and to foster greater togetherness or dependency. But this is about the worst advice they can give.

The most enduring form of affection should encourage a sense of adventure. It should be robust, rather than timid and dependent, desiring excellence on the part of its object, and the fulfilment of potential.

Just as the over-protective mother smothers her children in a blanket of security, the partner who discourages their loved one from pushing boundaries becomes an obstacle to an interesting life.

The best type of love is reciprocally life-giving; each receives affection with joy and gives it without effort, and each finds the world more interesting as a consequence. The clever person does not cling to their lover, but uses a long leash.

A friend of mine who is passionate about archaeology, an interest not shared by her husband, nonetheless went on numerous digs in the Middle East with his blessing. So, far their marriage has lasted for 20 years.

Another married couple I know live in separate houses a la Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton, on the suggestion of the wife, who believed their union would be happier if each retained “me space”.

The wife, a high-powered figure in the media, embarked on two short, emotionless affairs (of which her husband knew nothing) and clearly realised that the grass was not, in fact, greener. Last month she sold her flat to move back in with him. In December, they are to renew their marriage vows.

Of course, each individual has their own threshold for turning a blind eye, and not everyone would be prepared to stretch their tolerance in quite the same way as one long-suffering wife I know.

As the consort of a highly-sexed former politician, she was all too aware of her husband’s errant ways. As a result, she offered him the choice of separate summer holidays and, after one August chasing girls in Italy, he returned to London, exhausted, impoverished and more in love with his wife than ever. He never strayed again.

Most of us might not be emotionally capable of this sort of relationship, but as infidelity can be a way of expressing anger, or regaining a feeling of empowerment, we can do much to prevent it by making togetherness a treat, rather than something to be endured like eating one’s greens.

Not only will the conversation be more lively - as being apart from time to time gives us more to tell, and less to whine about - but so will the sex.

Psychologist Jennifer Ames adds: “To signal to one’s partner that they are individuals, allowing them to realise both their ambitions and their capacity for happiness, is the best way I know of ensuring our own contentment in a relationship, both in or out of the bedroom.”

In essence, giving a loved one their independence not only neutralises resentment and anger, but sends them running back into your arms. This may sound like a paradox, but it is nonetheless true. - Daily Mail

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ME, wrote

IOL Comments
01:38pm on 5 October 2011
IOL Comments

Quite an interesting viewpoint - well-written & good to see this perspective on relationships.

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