As the economy collapses, the Government vacillates and the grim data on Covid-19 deaths continues rolling in, we have all been heartened by stories of people looking out for each other. In communities pared down to their essentials under lockdown, something of real value has been unlocked.
But behind closed doors, where we might expect to find the lion’s share of our support, things may not be quite so benevolent. At least that’s the reality in my house. At different times, everyone is stressed, on edge, often critical and impatient. We’re lucky - there’s no violence, domestic or otherwise - but tempers are easily frayed, and although we come together on Thursday evenings to thank the NHS there’s precious little rousing applause for each other.
As a psychotherapist, I’m now working with my patients on zoom, while in another room my partner flits between paperwork at his desk and endless pre-recorded episodes of “University Challenge,” his favourite TV show since he was at school. I can hear him shouting out the answers, sighing, and singing along to Joni Mitchell (whose voice I can’t bear) - and talking to the dog. Simple things like the sound of the kettle clicking off and the toilet flushing have become irritations, and with no clear end in sight even the strongest relationships are being tested.
Underlying fears about our own mortality are reinforced by every news bulletin, and naturally we cast around for someone close to us to blame. To no good purpose, we ignite the domestic tinder, and try to site all the difficulties and frustrations securely outside ourselves.
So this is a good time to ask: why is it often easier to be kind to strangers than to manage the rivalry and stand-offs in our own relationships? What’s going on, and what can we do to change this situation for the better if the lockdown carries on?
Long-term relationships are complicated. We’re liable to show our worst faces to those we love the most. Our partners see us lose control; they know the secret, darker sides of ourselves, the parts that first make us feel small, and then terrified that we might have done irreparable damage to our own standing in their eyes. Whether real or imagined - and often it’s the latter - we internalise the rejection we fear most. And from then on, we’ll be looking for it.
Paradoxically, our fear of losing approval often drives us towards more of this kind of difficult and angry behaviour, albeit unconsciously. If our partners still love us despite our provocations, then ‘we can relax.’ If they don’t, then at least we’re proven ‘right.’ But whatever the result, the shame stays with us. It eats away at our self-worth, and going forward, it distorts what we think we see in their eyes.
By comparison, the simple kindnesses we sometimes extend to strangers - and the positive responses we often receive in return - are uncomplicated and uplifting. ‘Thanks so much for the shopping, really kind of you.’ No unforgiven humiliations or unresolved tensions are hanging in the air.
Instead, for all its surface nature, extending kindness to strangers offers a welcome respite from the silent reproaches of an intimate relationship. Outside our closest attachments, we tend to show our more attractive faces, not our worst. We assume the best of the other person, while they in return affirm our efforts and reinforce our fragile self-image.
In reality, such gestures of kindness aren’t wholly selfless, but they do speak profoundly to our own disappointment with our behaviour at home. In receipt of gratitude from a stranger, we are offered the chance to escape our own worst fears about ourselves. Their response reminds us of the person we’d really like to be - a better, idealised version of ourselves.
The powerful idea of being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is something we internalise in childhood. It’s the stuff of fairy tales, and its hold on us dates to a time in our lives when we literally depended on a parent’s approval for our survival. Perhaps that’s why this myth is still so important to us. In our adult relationships, we’re continuously trying to ‘refresh’ our self-esteem and be reassured of our own worth, while simultaneously regressing as we relive that early fear of abandonment.
By contrast, in our interactions with people we know less well, the maintenance of ‘appropriate’ adult boundaries is everything. We tread delicately, always careful not to overstep the mark. Our behaviour is characterised by politeness, respect and caution, in an attempt to protect both parties from intrusion and misplaced expectations. These considerations matter, not least because we all like ourselves more when we are in control. That’s when we feel at our most grown-up. Modest expectations can, for the most part, be met.
But whereas we might get valuable ‘top-ups’ from the approval of strangers, lasting self-esteem comes not from how we behave outside the home but from how we behave inside it. If our kindness to strangers reflects the childhood yearning for approval, then it also confirms how difficult it is to hold onto and internalise the approval we do get closer to home.
By contrast, our doubts about ourselves are far more tenacious. We remember early failures and embarrassments all our lives, and often take criticisms in the present as confirmation of those doubts. We bat away compliments and downplay our triumphs.
The approval and respect of our partners over time - not the short-lived appreciation of strangers - is by far the most reliable indicator of how much faith we have in our own ‘goodness.’ It’s not what someone does, it’s who they are in the eyes of the people who really know them that matters most.
The real question is this: can we introduce some of the same easy kindnesses we reserve for strangers into our own intimate relationships? What would that look like?
In truth, it’s hard to admit how bad we are at doing this. Just this morning, I consciously approached my partner as if he were a stranger, and asked him how he was feeling - and whether there was anything he needed. To my shame, he looked genuinely surprised. It was a far cry from my usual busy shorthand which carelessly assumes that he would tell me if he wasn’t ok. But he beamed, and said ‘actually, I’d really like help with some shredding.’
It might feel decidedly odd to approach the person you know best with the politeness we usually reserve for people we don’t know at all, but politeness isn’t only about respecting another person’s feelings. It also demonstrates the kind of person you are.
Following the same rules in your closest relationships shouldn’t be confused with introducing an emotional distance. Rather, you’re simply remembering to give your partner the same benefit of the doubt that you might give a stranger. Perhaps we need to recognise that our partners may also need uncomplicated help and support, particularly in a pandemic, and that sometimes those needs exist independently of any ups and downs in our relationships.
Surrendering the usual battle lines and offering simple kindness has never been more important. The people we love could benefit enormously, and by behaving well, our own self-esteem improves - the very best measure of how ‘good’ we feel’ inside.
Deep down, the happier we feel about ourselves, the easier it will be to show the same kindness to strangers and to people we love, and to do so consistently. In return, we may well find the personal validation we need so badly much closer to home, or discover that, in reality, it never went away.
I got a hug after sharing paper-shredding duties with my partner, and noticed that this morning, Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case of You’ was playing - at an unusually considerate volume.