The hardest-learned lesson

A couple came to see me recently, middle-class, hard working, two children, early middle age. It’s a time when marriages come under pressure. There’s probably significant borrowing (mortgage), long hours and extensive travel for work. Children are becoming demanding. No wonder people find the stresses too much, the temptations of some relief on the side too great. Our sympathy is better than our judgment; or help, better than both.

The couple were very open and seemingly honest. They didn’t quarrel. In fact, they rather agreed with each other. They saw themselves drifting apart, not receiving the love they expected in the relationship. I’m sad to say that this is quite common. The remedies for it are well know. Spend more time together, and with the kids. Don’t let work overwhelm your home life. Show respect but also affection to each other. All excellent recommendations, sometimes impractical, seldom applied.

Because the real problem is an inability to see what love each is giving to the other. They cannot see this because the love each gives is the love each knows and understands. It is usually different for both members of the partnership. Stereotype suggests that the woman is more romantic, perhaps more sentimental and the man more transactional. The stereotype is very wrong. Love, we are told, is a many-splendored thing. ‘I give you this, you give me that’ is sometimes about sex but more often it is not.

Instead of ‘many-splendored’ we might think of love as a ‘many-faceted’ thing. It can be shown in so many ways. People with pets often say they get unconditional love from them. It may or may not be true. Few people give or receive unconditional love but some undoubtedly do. They are fortunate. For most people love starts with attraction and a desire or willingness to indulge in sex and possibly have children. It usually turns to a less sex-oriented affair of giving and taking on many fronts.

At this stage what was an attractive quirk in a partner becomes an irritation requiring tolerance and forbearance by the other member of the team. Sharing the chores of living in a way that is felt to be reasonable by both partners is something they didn’t plan for. Usually one partner takes on more than the other although both may think they are being exploited. Calculative and transactional couples start to quarrel and the marriage is immediately at risk.

About half married couples then find an acceptable modus vivendi. The one who works harder at the marriage rationalises their role and the need for their extra effort. The one who contributes less has already done that. Life goes routinely on, possibly very (but usually tolerably) happily. For the most part they fail to learn that people have only their kind of love to give, not our kind, as the journalist Mignon McLaughlin pointed out.

How we show love and how another person can express it is almost always two different things.

For example, one member of the couple may show love in very practical, material ways. The other may want more affectionate display. The British middle class often think that when a couple hold hands the marriage is about to break up! Where they get that idea from beats me because I observe that those who hold hands are usually very content with their relationship. They have reconciled the differing kinds of love they have to give and accept that, however presented, love is truly valuable.

The couple understood this concept and agreed to think about it before making a decision. It will work if they pay attention to it even if, in the end, they decide to separate. I learnt a great lesson from seeing this particular couple too. The way employees and bosses express their loyalty to each other and the organisation for which they work suffers the same sort of dysfunction as married couples.

Employers’ attempts at making all employees the same are futile and destroy the creative potential of those who work for them. Moulding people is a poor concept. We should, instead, enable them. Not ‘empower’, please. They were empowered the day they were born. Their teachers’ roles are to enable the empowerment they already have.

There is a big call for diversity in organisations today. In practicing it let us remember that diversity is not about skin colour, class and gender but about approach to life, attitude and enthusiasm. If the world of work and the world of marriage can learn that what they have to give is priceless and what others have to give is invaluable there will be greater harmony and better resource use for all.

The hardest lesson to learn is that what others have to give is different from what we have to give.

But it is just as valuable.

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