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What makes a ‘good’ (and ‘bad’) relationship?

Me and ‘him indoors’ celebrated our wedding anniversary last week. This gave me a chance to share photos on social media of our wedding day; me looking pretty, him looking young; both of us looking considerably less knackered than we do now. 

On a slightly less shallow note, it also got me thinking about relationships; what makes a ‘good’ one and what makes a ‘bad’ one. 

Because I spend most of my life talking with clients in therapy about relationships. And in my former life as a family lawyer I spent a lot of time talking with people about those relationships that had gone sour, the ‘bad’ ones. 

Black and white 

But is the distinction between good and bad really that clear cut? 

I think not. As a society, we seem much too quick to assume that it is, to categorise, to pass judgment and to label. Who is the ‘good guy’ and who is the ‘bad guy’? Who is the ‘cheater’ and who is the ‘cheated’? Who is the ‘addict’ and who is the ‘victim’? 

And we’re supported in that attitude by the system. It is changing but, at the moment, divorce in this country still generally requires proof of fault. So, in most divorce petitions one spouse gets to list the other person’s most significant imperfections and use them as evidence of ‘unreasonable behaviour’ in the marriage. 

I used to tell clients all the time that this was just a (slightly meaningless) hurdle to jump over and that it wouldn’t have any practical impact on the outcome of the divorce. But all of that means little to someone who’s having to fill in an official form which has a very clear message: unreasonable behaviour by one person = bad relationship = divorce. 

Adding to the absurdity of it all was the fact that I knew I could probably think of 4 or 5 examples of my husband’s ‘unreasonable behaviour’ off the top of my head. And I had no doubt he could do the same for me. Yet I considered us to have a ‘good’ relationship.

Because actually we know that everyone behaves unreasonably in relationships. Particularly when you add in life stuff to the mix; money worries, stresses with children, cramped living spaces, problems with building work, losing your job, bereavement etc.

Add a pandemic and living together in lockdown and it becomes ridiculous to expect people to behave reasonably at all times. Our (understandable) anxiety at the state of the world is inevitably going to come out sideways, whether it’s at our spouse, our kids or the person on the end of the call centre phoneline (I speak from experience).

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

But how do we know when a relationship is ‘bad’ enough to justify ending it? There often comes a tipping point; a moment where a person starts to wonder whether the negative characteristics or behaviour of the other person have started to outweigh the good. 

The tricky thing is that, once we start to turn the spotlight on the negative, it’s very hard to turn that spotlight off again. It reminds me of a two-sided mirror I have on my dressing table. On the one side, you see yourself as you are, your reflection the size it is. On the other side, everything is magnified; those eye bags, open pores and other imperfections are suddenly revealed and staring back at you in their full glory. 

When our relationships hit bumps in the road we flip over that mirror to extra magnification. All the imperfections that have been there all the time are now seen in high resolution and they become all we can think about. And as our attention fixates on the wrongdoing of the other person, our own shortcomings start to fade into the background of our minds. 

What do we expect?

Our view of our own relationships is inevitably affected by our expectations of relationships in general. Without realising it, we all go through life with some sort of template in mind for how a relationship should be. And some of us have higher expectations than others. That can make us more likely to be reactive when arguments arise, because the relationship is not fitting the ideal we had in mind. Whereas someone with lower expectations and standards might think that that same relationship is relatively OK, just with the usual ups and downs.   

So it’s fairly common to see two people in the same relationship where one sees their problems as insurmountable and the other as mere challenges to overcome. 

Words are weapons

The agony aunt and broadcaster Mariella Frostrup published a response recently to a letter from a husband who was shocked at discovering that his wife was planning to divorce him. He was devastated that she had referred to him in an email to her solicitor as ‘abusing’ her during the relationship. He said that there had not been any abuse, although there had of course been disagreements. 

Clearly, abuse goes on in many relationships; it is horrific and the victims should be protected and the perpetrators punished. 

But the exchange that Frostrup had with this man reminded me of another group of relationships. These are ones which are tempestuous and argumentative (on both sides). When they break down and lawyers become involved, terms like ‘abuse’ may start to get used. This can happen partly because when one becomes embroiled in a formal legal process, there can be a desire to formalise and put a name or label to behaviour. But in some cases terms like ‘abuse’ are used cynically (sometimes by both sides) to try to denigrate the other person and thereby gain an advantage in proceedings.

Words are weapons in the legal process. Using terms like ‘abuse’ or other labels that sometimes get bandied about such as ‘bipolar’ or ‘narcissistic’ helps no one, if it’s done without sufficient justification or evidence. When stresses arise we can all be argumentative or withdrawn or withholding. It doesn’t mean we are abusive, or narcissistic or bipolar; it means we are human. 

So what is a ‘good’ relationship?

One family lawyer I know has a standard question he put to clients who were on the fence about whether to divorce or not. The simple question was ‘are you happy in the relationship or not?’. 

That’s a nice and simple approach but unfortunately, I don’t think people and relationships are simple and they’re often not nice. Personally, my answer to that particular question on any given day could vary wildly, depending on how much sleep I’ve had, what else might be going on in my life and the general state of things between me and my fella at that time. 

The question also presupposes that we are consistently happy in our relationships. I don’t think that’s realistic. Every relationship has its phases, some of contentment, others where it’s difficult and you feel disconnected from or irked by each other. How could it be otherwise? I don’t think that’s necessarily the marker of a ‘bad’ relationship.  

Increasingly my definition of a ‘good’ relationship is whether you have two people who are both willing to look at their ‘stuff’. 

Are you both willing to keep turning that mirror over, shining it on the relationship, not only looking at the other person’s shortcomings but also looking at yourself, how you relate to the other person, your character traits and your flaws? And are you willing to keep working on them? 

It’s a process that’s definitely not quite as pretty and shiny as the photos from our wedding day but it is a bit more real.