We all do it, disapprove of each other that is.
My husband is convinced that I disapprove of him. He is right. I do wish that he wouldn’t sit up late watching The West Wing and emailing his colleague in London. I do wish that he wouldn’t drink wine every night. I do wish that he didn’t take naps during the day. I do wish that he would do more than half the washing up before disappearing from the kitchen. And I do wish that he’d leave his jacket behind when it’s hot.
My near grown up son has reasons of his own to disapprove of me. He wishes that I wasn’t house proud, and that I didn’t mind his leaving two bicycles propped in the hall. He wishes that I didn’t wear my hair quite so short. And he’d really like for me not to talk to just about anyone when I’m out with him.
And my daughter? Up until last Tuesday I’d always wriggled out of camping with her. Until last Tuesday when I changed my mind. Now that she too is growing up – she can do a parallel park – I realised that I may not get many more chances to camp with her. Besides I had no real reason to say no. It was the middle of the school holidays, my husband and son were both away, and the weather was fine.
As soon as I said yes my daughter swung into camping mode. She was up in her room sorting out gear while I was in the kitchen below cutting chunks of cheese and packing muesli. When we arrived at the campsite, almost by the by, Emma offered me her old blue fleece jumper, suggesting with a look that my denim jacket was out of place in a camping ground. Without thinking I turned her down. Patiently, as we were taking the tent bag out of the car, she offered me her old fleece jumper again. This time I took the fleece without a word and swapped it for my jacket. As if by magic Emma relaxed, and the rest of our camping trip went well.
Why do we disapprove of the people we love? Is it because, lacking control over everyone else, we seek to control those we’re closest to? Is it that we need our choices confirmed, our invisible codes of conduct upheld, given that few of us believe in divine judgment in the world hereafter?
This disapproval of each other, especially within a family, is a giveaway. It’s proof that we really do get under each other’s skin. Sadly I know that I’ll never be so mature as to be immune to the slings and arrows of my family, whose unfavourable opinions of me feel as debilitating as their admiration was once uplifting.
* * *
Years ago, when I lay on a couch four times a week and referred in passing to Freud’s model of the mind, it became clear to me that the superego had a lot to answer for when it came to making little problems into big ones. The ‘I know better than you’ part of myself caused a lot of trouble in my life, and it took years for me to find ways of getting on with it. Although I never made friends with what I’m calling my superego, by the time I’d done with lying on the couch we were on pretty good terms. And this made all the difference.
The biggest let down of maturity, for me, has been realising that wisdom doesn’t necessarily follow from getting older. Despite my so called higher degree, I don’t feel any more supported by a fount of knowledge that protects me from the buffetings of ordinary life than I did when I was a teenager. However the one thing I do have, and this has increased with age, is a determination to look within and to see what is really there, to work out what I really feel as opposed to what I – and my superego – happen to think.
* * *
Since my husband left for overseas, a few weeks ago now, something magical has happened. We have stopped disapproving of each other. Distance has released us from thinking that we know best how each other should conduct ourselves. Instead we send encouraging emails at times of the day when we feel genuinely encouraging, rather than affect-loaded swipes in six-word phrases late at night when all things being equal we should be asleep.
Having this time apart has made it clear that what my husband and I want more than anything from each other, at least as much as love, is approval. We want to know that we are doing an okay job at this funny thing we call life. We want encouragement.
Sadly it seems unlikely that my husband and I will refrain from disapproval once he returns. I’ll still want him to take his jacket off when it’s hot, just as he’ll still want me to cook more generously at supper. Our superegos will always want the last word, the upper hand – will always think they know better. After all – as if I care – they are right!
Instead I have a different thought, a different fantasy. Which is that any couple that has been together for longer than three months deserves enormous sympathy for weathering what we know – from our own experience – is an ongoing internal tussle, projected on to the other, over right and wrong and the Best Way to do things.
Instead of Sorting Things Out, in some Marie Kondo way, my idea is this. It’s that every couple might sit down – in the spirit of an arms embargo – and write down a private list of what drives them barmy in their partner. Before, without peaking at their partner’s list, symbolically burning it. Many relationships would be saved, legal fees would dive, we would all laugh a lot more, putting up with each other might develop into an art form, and some of us might even be the wiser.