Tuesday 10 December 2019

Katie Byrne: it takes two…

Do we ever really see the inside of other people's relationships?

Features writer Katie Byrne
Features writer Katie Byrne
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

I've been reading about the Adam Johnson trial with a curiosity that borders on prurience. Should your newsfeed sensibilities be more sophisticated than my own, Johnson is the ex-Sunderland player who (at the time of writing) allegedly had sexual encounters with a 15-year-old schoolgirl.

It was the promise of WhatsApp messages that piqued my interest. It's hard not to click on a news story that mentions WhatsApp messages - 834 of them! Hold on there now 'til I put the kettle on...

Unfortunately I could only find 31 of the messages that were purportedly sent between the footballer and the alleged victim, and the one that intrigued me most came not from the teen but from his girlfriend and mother of his child, Stacey Flounders. "Hey, I'm going to try and not be negative with you and believe you more," it reads. "But if you are doing stupid stuff then you need to stop and think about us. It would be a shame to spoilt (sic) it now. I really want us to work because we are a family and we now have Ayla."

Here we have the many faces of a romantic relationship. There's the united front that we play when we're in company and there are the rows that occur behind closed doors.

There is the part that others don't see, just as there is the part your significant other doesn't know. The unexplainable disappointments. The irrational frustrations. The disgust you feel when they dance like an idiot. These doubts are locked away in a secret diary that even the author doesn't read.

Gabriel García Márquez wrote about all human beings having three lives: "Public, private, and secret." Flounders' words convey all three aspects in one text message.

Is it because we only see the public side of other people's relationships that we all have opinions on what it is that defines a healthy one? We spout off statements like "I wouldn't take that" and "he should stand up for himself" and "she could do better". Yet we made these judgements without ever really thinking about the expectations and dispensations that make our own relationships unique.

I've butted into one or two relationships in my time. Experience has since taught me that besides having no right, I had no rationale. None of us are relationship experts. Even relationship experts aren't relationship experts.

Besides, people don't want to listen. Any shortcomings that you raise have already been justified, validated, adjusted, compensated and pardoned. And it's just too much work to have to go through all that again. Anyway, they'll tell you that you don't understand. And they're right. You don't.

When we judge other people's relationships, we only look at one side. We never examine the lock-and-key mechanism of the dynamic. We pinpoint shortcomings and cite them as a reason for them to part ways without ever thinking this might be the very reason they got together.

These days, I always consider the other side when I hear of someone's horrid other half. The troglodyte husband who demands his dinner? I'm mindful that his "oppressed" wife may be an unerring perfectionist who feels the need to be needed. The whipped lost comrade? I always suggest he might be sucking on the thumb that he is supposedly cowering under while gurgling "mama".

Relationship dynamics are very diverse and very private. Some couples are acutely co-dependent; some couples are so independent they are essentially living separate lives in the same house.

Some couples can conquer incompatibilities because they have transcendent sex; some couples are compatible because they have low sex drives. This, I hasten to add, is before we even consider the spectrum of sexual partialities and peculiarities.

While we're on the subject, I once butted into a relationship because I had reason to believe one of them was being unfaithful. Well, I've got news for you - she already knew. It transpired they were in an open relationship... and I was a closed-minded curtain-twitcher.

It's the same for the power couples who share a grand vision of achievement and acquirement. I no longer question their lack of passion because I recognise they might be titillated by Machiavellian pillow talk and 6am workouts.

Likewise, I used to find the level of self-disclosure in 'best friend' relationships slightly terrifying. Nowadays I realise these couples would be equally appalled by my suggestion that romantic relationships require separate bathrooms (and homes if the budget allows).

Some couples are team players who are more about motivational mantras than love letters. Some couples are socialisers who can go a lifetime without realising that alcohol has kept the machine of their relationship well-oiled. Some couples wear Crocs. At the same time.

Other people's relationships are an unchartered land. We don't know the language, culture or customs, so it's best not to broach the territory.

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