February 2008

Falling in love is perhaps the most dangerous and exciting game any of us ever play.  Caught between security and a desire for the one person in the world who will love us completely and forever, it is a tentative, thrilling time of trial and test.   Can I really trust this person?  Do they really love me?  Will they take care of me?   Each wants the other but is unwilling to give up their autonomy without being sure.  So they try to have it both ways; they express an interest while keeping control and feigning disinterest,  hoping the other will read the signs and prove their love.  The games lovers play are part of dance of courtship;  forward and back, give and take, reveal and conceal.  They are like the party games we all played as children;  not just the obvious teases, such as Postman’s Knock and Blind Man’s Buff, but also Hide and Seek,  Charades, Consequences and Pass the Parcel.    

Hide and Seek is the most popular game that lovers play.  One partner hides, they withdraw, become distant, so enticing the other to affirm their desire by seeking them out.  This game is also known as Playing Hard to Get.   It is similar to Charades,  in which one partner pretends to be cool about the relationship, or too busy, or pretends to be interested in somebody else just to make the other work to prove they love them.  Of course, both partners can take it in turns to play this game, but as in Blink, one usually holds their nerve better than the other and the game morphs into another, the quest to discover who is ‘The Weakest Link’.  The winner is the one who can deprive the other, create the anxiety and still retain their unconditional adoration, the person who claims the throne in the last round of Musical Chairs.   But control is only gained at the expense of the insecurity of their partner, who may ultimately seek out a relationship that gives them more affirmation.   Even the winner is dissatisfied.  Having a partner one can control is boring, it’s no fun, and they may seek out the challenge of another person they can control. 

A weak partner, however, has games of their own.  A very effective one is ‘Cry Wolf’.   In Cry Wolf,  one partner makes the most of their vulnerability to elicit the care and compassion of the stronger partner.  They put on an act of being upset, unable to cope; they may even became ill and use the illness to appeal to the others compassion.  That way they can regain the control and the proof that they are truly loved. 

Love between insecure and self-centred partners is not all milk chocolate and roses.  In many of the games that lovers play,  the goal is to feel good at the expense of the other.  ‘Pass the Parcel’ as lovers play it, is not a game in which each person tries to hold on to the prize.  Instead, the parcel is like a hot potato; they try to offload their bad feelings as quickly as they can.  They blame each other, criticise each other’s attitudes, accuse each other of selfishness.  Pass the parcel is a vicious game that can alter its form according to what is in the parcel.   So when your lover says after staying the night instead of visiting her mum in hospital, ‘I feel dreadful and it’s all your fault’, or when your husband tries to excuse his infidelity by saying  ‘I wouldn’t have done it if you had been nicer to me’, they are trying to shift the burden of their own guilt on to you.   And when your partner is annoyed with you for being late and makes excuses to miss their next rendezvous, they are passing on their anger. ‘I’ll show you what that feels like’.   People who make assumptions about their partner’s behaviour,  ‘You never listen to me’  have often written the script because that is the way they behave.  People who complain about how awful their situation is, but refuse your help are passing on their sense of anxiety and helplessness.   And those who complain,  ‘You are never there for me.  You only think of yourself’, are seeking to offload their selfish needs.   Pass the parcel can also be played in bed.  Sexual anxiety and lack of desire in women takes the form of dryness and soreness, but their vagina acts out the accusation that their partner cannot satisfy them.  Exposed to such a fundamental criticism of his manhood, an insecure partner fails to achieve an erection and so comes to bear the responsibility for their lack of sexual satisfaction.  

And the killer;  when insecure lovers question whether their partner really loves them, they are seeking to pass on their own ambivalence and with it the responsibility for ending the relationship.  How much better it is if we can prove that our erstwhile partner never loved us anyway.  This makes a hero, a martyr out of us as the wronged person and avoids the guilt.  ‘Pass the Parcel’ often shatters a relationship, but some couples may achieve a sense of  togetherness by passing the parcel onto a third party; mother-in-law, boss, the government or even the unexplained illness that afflicts one of them.

Lover’s party games need to be recognised for what they are, the enactment of a fear of  dependency,  an unconscious desire to maintain control of oneself and the adoration of a loving partner.  In successful relationships, couples soon develop the trust to end the children’s games and create conditions for the grown up love game of Happy Families.  But in unstable relationships between insecure partners or in love affairs, it can last much, much longer.  Some couples appear to thrive on the intrigue and excitement.  For them, the pain of love makes them feel alive. 

It is late February, the fag-end of the year.  The moors are dark, embalmed in mist.  Grey  skeletons of heather bushes hug the blackened earth.  The bracken lies dark brown, flattened by last months snows.  Treacherous sedge fills my boots with icy water.   A collection of blanched bones in a circle of fragments of wool and skin are all that remains of the sheep that stank there in November.   The silence of death is broken only by the mocking cackle of a grouse that has so far survived the season.        

Then, on a morning, seemingly no different from any other, a liquid note, not unlike the swoop of a virtuoso violin announces the arrival of spring.  Flying in overnight  from Morecambe Bay, a flock of Lapwings have transformed the fields on the edge of the moors into their own private concert platform.   Flapping on broad soughing wings, they rotate and tumble, a full forward pike with twist, squealing in ecstacy, their wings brushing the ground before flapping away to repeat the performance.  But for the Lapwings, this is not mere entertainment, it is serious.   There is no time to lose.  There are prime nest sites to claim and mates to attract.  So the male tumbles and sings.  This is Come Dancing, Strictly for the Birds! 

A few days later, while the Lapwings are still locked in competitions over real estate, the moor echoes to another note, the double piping cry of the Curlew.  They have come further, from Galway Bay on the west coast of Ireland.  They take longer to get going but by early March,  they too are enacting their own unique choreographed aerial displays, not on the fields but higher up amid the heather and bracken.   The male takes off standing and flaps vigorously upwards to a height of about thirty feet, piping urgently and then he changes tune to an eerie bubbling as he glides back down to earth and lands with wings held high to collect the applause. 

Soon, others join in the morning chorus.  Redshanks fly over dead bracken on whirring wings, their repetitive notes reminiscent of a squeaky bicycle wheel, before landing on a post to show off their white armpits and bright red legs.  Skylarks spiral clockwise up aerial towers, their call an urgent chatter, but at the top of the ascent, the note changes to a more minor key and breaks up into whistles as they return anticlockwise to earth.  Meadow Pipits, by contrast, parachute to earth on repetitive squeaks. 

But, perhaps the strangest of all, on a morning with hardly a breath of wind, a gentle throbbing, more like vibration than sound but descending in scale.  It is the flight display of a Snipe.  And there it is, just a speck in the air, but through the glasses a tiny bird with wildly flapping wings and a disproportionately long bill.  Up it flaps and then it dives to earth, the flow of air vibrating its two outermost tail feathers that it extends at right angles.  Then it flattens out and repeats the performance flying in a wide arc around its intended who sits on the ground squeaking enthusiastically.  

Each bird’s flight display is choreographed to its call.  They cry out, ‘Look at me, look at me, see how good my dance is.  Come on, have a closer look.  If you like the show, maybe you’d like to see the nest I’ve mapped out.’  Within a few weeks, they will be at it,  climbing, gliding, drumming, diving, freewheeling and tumbling over the moors, an ecstatic celebration of the new year and new possibilities, a reaffirmation of life. 

I look forward to the arrival of the birds.  For the last ten years, they have arrived between 24th and 26th February.  This year, they are two weeks early.  This is unsettling.  If they lay their eggs too early, there will be less food, less cover and less to sing about.   

Kathyrn was in love.  She had finally met the ‘one’; strong, handsome dependable, fun, the most perfect man, the love of her life, the one she had craved for.  Alex was kind, caring, thoughtful, attentive, always remembered anniversaries, bought her presents, the sex was just wonderful – like nothing she’d ever experienced and – he adored her.  She floated on a cloud.  She knew it would last for ever.  Within a month Alex asked Kathryn to marry him and just three months later, she was walking up the aisle of the most picturesque church.  It was a fairy tale wedding, she wore a full length cream wedding gown trimmed in lace.  It cost a fortune.  Her bridesmaids and pages were dressed in a delicate shade of purple.  The marquee, the speeches – everything was wonderful.

Fast forward three years.  Alex is still the same.  He tells Kathryn he loves her ten times a day, prepares little surprises, he is kind, they never argue, but ……but she’s not happy.  There’s something not quite right.  She realises with a shock that she is just that incy-bit bored.  Heaven forbid; this can’t be.  She blames herself.  There must be something wrong with her.  After all, her friends are all dead jealous she’s ended up with such a catch.  But it’s worse, she’s begun seeing another man. It’s all very innocent at the moment, just the occasional lunch, though he has suggested that he might book a room for the afternoon – and well, why not?  It’s just a bit of fun; nothing serious. 

Kathryn feels awful.  She can’t carry on like this.  She decides to end the relationship and confess to her husband.  She can’t live with the tension and guilt any longer.  Alex is shocked but sad and loving.  Kathryn is very upset.  Alex puts his arm around her, but then admits that he too has been having an affair with one of her friends for the last year.  Suddenly her mood changes.  She feels faint, sick, then furious.  She attacks him, throw his tea over him, scratches his face. She runs upstairs, opens the bedroom window and start throwing all his clothes outside.  She shouts at him,  ‘Go back to your whore and don’t let me ever see you again.’  And then when he has gone, she  collapses on the sofa and cries her eyes out.  

 Relationships between romantic couples work by projection.  In the first intoxicating magic stage of attraction – falling in love – we imbue our partners with all the qualities we most crave.  They become our idealized selves – a projection of our  deepest desires.  They may be suitable ‘vehicles’ for projection in that they possess  qualities that match up with the ideal, but like other special ‘objects’ we own  – our Porsche, our Bang and Olufson sound system, our state of the art kitchen –  they are invested with meaning,  our meaning, and they become extensions of our personality. Since we created them, they can never let us down.  We feel good about them and thus we feel good about ourselves.  

In most relationships, the romantic stage does not last very long.  Bit by bit couples come to realize that that the prince of their desires is a bit of a frog after all.  The progress of any long term relationship is marked by a thousand deaths.  It has to be so.       

Relationships develop and grow, not by continuous desire and adoration, but by disillusion.  Disappointments build up and coalesce into the resignation that our partner is actually not the one we craved – that person doesn’t exist in reality –  they are their own person – quite separate – nothing much like us in fact, and at times they irritate the hell out of us.  But we get used to them, we can communicate, work together, they are there for us.  Such people grow together. A new study by Kira Birdett from Michigan University’s Institute for Social Research shows that the longer a couple stays together, the more irritating and demanding they find each other, yet the closer and more comfortable they were are each other.  Maybe familiarity doesn’t so much breed contempt and give us permission to ‘project’ – express what it is about ourselves that we find irritating in our partners.    

But for those vulnerable souls who desperately need to have their illusions reinforced, this accommodation may come as a shock, and may cause them either to redouble their efforts to maintain the romance or act out their ideal in affairs.          

Alex and Kathryn managed to maintain their wonderful confection for three years, but underneath behind the decoration, the hearts and roses, their cake was beginning to go stale.  Eventually, unable to sustain the accretion of make believe, it collapsed.  In her shock,  Kathryn could not understand what she ever saw in Alex; he was the most treacherous, deceptive, despicable person, she had ever known.  Overnight he became the repository for all of her negative projections.  Everything she hated about herself was dumped on Alex in a frenzy of self justification.   The fact that she also was also having an affair was just dismissed as natural justice.  Alex was mortified and in shock.    For them, there had to be a separation – a major death – before they could move on.  Kathryn refused to have any contact with Alex and it was nearly a year before her anger abated and she could begin to miss him and feel sad.  Alex felt too guilty to be angry and took medication for depression.  They both realized that their affair partners meant nothing to them.  For both it was a way of escaping the cloying romanticism of their marriage.   

There was a happy ending.  This, after all, is a Valentine story.  A year after they parted,  Kathryn contacted Alex.  They met, apologised to each other and with the help of Relate, agreed to try again.  They came to understand their romanticism as a way of protecting themselves again their innermost fears of control and abandonment.  They allowed themselves to be much more open and honest to each other, dared to express their fears and reveal the aspects of character that they were most ashamed of.  To their surprise, these were remarkably similar.  As they understood each other, their confidence grew and they dared to express their irritation and so, like many other couples, they developed a more realistic sense of love; a stronger attachment.  Kathryn still misses the romance, but now this is more a treat they plan for themselves than a need born out of desperation.  Later that year, Kathryn became pregnant.