Thursday, 20 August 2015

Object lesson

I think couples are often objectified in the same way as women are objectified. People make judgments on the basis of what the couple looks like, with little or no knowledge of what actually goes on "inside" the relationship.

A relationship dismissed as sterile, or unbalanced, or destructive, by casual observers might actually be a very happy and fulfilling relationship, but only the couple themselves know that, while the naysayers have got it entirely wrong.

But people do love to judge other people's relationships, seemingly quite oblivious that they're almost certainly misreading them and simply making an arse of themselves.

Celebrity couples in particular seem to attract this vacuous opinionising, but couples everywhere have been subjected to it at one time or another. I'm sure we all know couples whose friends or relatives have said "That'll never work. They'll have split up in six months", and then lo and behold, ten years later they're still going strong.

Apart from anything else, how people behave in public can be very different from how they behave in private, in the seclusion of their own household, where they can be completely natural and uninhibited. In public they may change their behaviour dramatically, putting on a show of politeness or generosity or open-mindedness (or for that matter naked aggression) that's totally false.

In which case making impassioned judgments on the basis of what couples are choosing to show you is not only superficial but gullible.

Even the smartest guesses can never plumb the infinite mystery of human pairings.


  1. No, we never know what goes on behind closed doors. But I can't help judging couples who bicker constantly in public. After years, you start to realize they enjoy it, but it still makes those who have to witness it quite miserable.

  2. Bijoux: Public bickering just amuses me. I listen with fascination to these bizarre quarrels, which quite often seem to focus on something totally trivial. And I think you're right, they probably secretly enjoy all the quarreling, it makes them feel more alive or more assertive or something.

  3. I used to think that the public bickerers had drink taken...but over the years have changed my mind...they just enjoy it.
    And then there's the way we regard couples..'he's O.K. but I can't stand her' or vice versa...and the way we wonder how one of them can stand living with the other, in a way living vicariously through what we perceive of their relationship...says more about us than them.

  4. Then there's the comment that poor Andy goes up to the land every day to get away from me. Sometimes all you can do is laugh. :D

  5. Helen: "Living vicariously through what we perceive of their relationship". Exactly. The idea that someone is unliveable-with is the observer's personal judgment. The reality may be entirely different.

    Jean: People do get the oddest ideas about other people's relationships! I've been following that little squabble with a mixture of despair and amusement.

  6. Other people's relationships can certainly seem odd at times, especially when they're arguing, but mostly it's a judgement based on a tiny snapshot.
    I suspect the only relationship most of us understand is our own, and that's all that matters really. Of course if you can derive some entertainment from observing how another couple interact, then no harm done.
    With a wife 11 years older than me, I daresay we occasionally cause others to wonder what we're about.

  7. Dave: As you say, usually a judgment based on a tiny snapshot and not the whole picture. I think that's right, the only relationship we can really figure out is our own. I'm ten years older than Jenny, so I think some people raise their eyebrows about us as well. Though neither of us look our age so people usually don't realise the age difference unless we tell them.

  8. Instead of focussing on negative "judgement", Nick, try this one: My husband and I were perceived as the ideal couple, a match made in heaven. You name it, in the eyes of others we were perfection. When we split (amicably) people (friends, family) went into shock first, mourning second. Couldn't get their head round it. Took my mother years to get over "losing" her favourite son-in-law, a gentleman in everyone's book. Others said "if you two couldn't hack what hope is there for us?" Sweet, don't you think?

    In my book, and yes I am judgmental in that respect, whenever I observe a couple (mostly those of fairly advanced years) who have nothing but nothing to say to each other I do despair - on their behalf. Other than that I share your amusement at those who bicker (usually in aisle 23) - but also cannot understand how anyone can live like that. There should be a law that when people go shopping they do so alone. Mind you, it appears that a joined-to-your-ear mobile (in aisle 23) also serves to lead to discord either end.

    But yes, as you say and I don't know who said it first, possibly Oscar Wilde: "Each union has its own secret." And outsiders are not privy to what that secret is.


  9. Ursula: I think that's very common, people fantasising that a match is perfect and then being flabbergasted when it falls apart. Probably because the couple smile their way through social events and keep all their quarrels strictly private.

    Yes, I've heard quite a few squabbles in aisle 23. And usually they don't care less who hears, because the other customers are total strangers. So quite often they go at it hammer-and-tongs.

    "Each union has its own secret." I've never heard that one. I like it - succinct and true.

  10. i am obviously a talker.
    luckily i married a man who didn't mind it.
    but then i was 18 when we got together... so he practically finished raising me. some things he probably just gave up on. LOL.

    always after seeing a good movie ... we would go have coffee somewhere in a cosy place and discuss it and other things for hours.
    it was wonderful. some of my favorite times with him.
    he had such a great sense of humour and charm... i never tired of him.
    today is his birthday. or ... would have been his birthday.

    so i have always rather smugly 'felt sorry' for a couple one sees eating together at a restaurant table... and not even exchanging two words during the entire meal.
    nowadays though maybe seeing through more mature lenses...
    i'm beginning to think... how wonderful that they're so comfortable with each other they don't even feel the need to talk!
    the truth probably lies somewhere in between.

  11. Tammy, probably not that much of a coincidence because there are only 364 days in the year: But, as I remarked to someone earlier, today is a significant day in my calendar too. If my wonderful grandfather had lived longer he'd be 118 today. I know that's a bit much to expect of anyone. Still. I miss him.

    I also got married the first time on a 21st August. When my grandfather was still alive. He gave the bride and groom a nest. A real bird's nest. A lovely gesture from a lovely man. Just as I gather your husband was.


  12. oh u!
    i've never heard of that before... the real bird's nest.
    though i think not everyone would appreciate it. how lovely. and from a man. that is always pleasing. that kind of sensibility.

    bob would be 80 years old today. i can hardly believe it. and at 80 i cannot even picture him. i still picture him at 43... when i lost him.
    being 10 years older seemed strange. how it fluctuated.
    at first there was a pretty vast difference 18 and 28. cradle robber.
    then at 25 and 35 ... not so noticable ... now i don't know how it would feel. although some days i FEEL 80 already! so it probably wouldn't even be perceptible! LOLOL.

  13. Tammy: It's hard to tell, isn't it, whether a noticeably silent couple are just enjoying a loving silence together, or whether they're so mindless and unimaginative they have absolutely nothing to say to each other. Judging by their morose expressions, I would say it's usually the latter.

  14. Ursula: A real bird's nest as a wedding gift? That's certainly original! And did it have real birds in it?

    Tammy: As you say, a big age difference seems less strange as you grow older. I'm 68 and Jenny's 58 but nowadays the difference doesn't seem in any way significant, as we're both mentally and physically fit and fully engaged with life. I guess people found it a little strange when we first got together, but it soon became unremarkable.

  15. Nick,
    "I've been following that little squabble with a mixture of despair and amusement."

    Squabble? It takes two to squabble. I'm afraid you weren't paying attention to what was going on.

  16. Jean: I wasn't following it that closely, I must admit, as bitter sniping of that sort just turns me off. I daresay it was others picking a fight you had no interest in.

  17. People make assumptions about others across the board - individuals, couples, families, sets of friends. Very human and quite often very much in error. I don't think all bickering couples "enjoy" it. Some do, some are miserable but don't go their separate ways for whatever reason.

    I was married to a man almost ten years older than me and when we split up, I vowed never to date anyone that much older again. Two years, tops. Most of the men I've dated since have been my age or younger. My fiancé is four years younger. I like that we share a culture in terms of when we were in school.

  18. Agent: Indeed, people make assumptions about everything. I was just interested in the way couples are "objectified" just as women often are. I agree that most bickering couples aren't enjoying it in the least, and it's a pretty strong sign the relationship is cracking up.

    So why exactly did the ten year age-gap not work? Was his general outlook behind the times? Did he see himself as superior to you because you were much younger?

  19. In accordance with Secret Agent, and within her profession no secret, the ideal gap is said to be three years (the man being the older).Bingo (in my case). On the other hand, quite a few of my aunts and my mother are older than their husbands.

    Coming from a large family on my mother's side and with three siblings in tow I have seen it all. Wives being mistaken for mothers of their husbands, my two sisters hooking up with men twelve and seventeen years older respectively, you name it. There are no hard and fast rules. I can't imagine being with a much older man. But that's largely - so I believe - because my father was barely out of his nappies when I was born. Our age difference is (to me)ludicrously narrow.

    To put a dampener on the twelve and seventeen year older men scenario: Both my sisters (one of them a brute, the other pragmatic) recently broke those men's hearts. Kids more or less grown up they both flew the coop. No comment.


  20. I do make a study of human nature. And of couples exhibiting theirs. I love absorbing the energy around them, sometimes it's toxic, sometimes it is so harmonious and respectful it takes my breath away. Other times it's in between - a kind of indifference which I find the worst of all. I would choose the squabblers anyday.

    Indifference is its own kind of hell on earth.


  21. Ursula: A shame about your sisters both abandoning their older partners. Any particular reason that you know of?

    I've seen wives being mistaken for mothers - and vice versa! So many people just don't look their age nowadays (either looking much older or much younger) that those mistakes are easily made.

  22. www: I agree, indifference is the real killer. Couples who neither love nor hate their partner, but just couldn't give a toss about them any more. The domestic atmosphere must be glacial.

  23. I have now been sans partner for six years plus but can recollect our forty years together as a couple. I can't remember being something different behind closed doors to our public persona. Neither of us needed to pu on any show for anybody's benefit and we had good family and friends in our life who made natural living quite possible. But I do know some couples, particularly since the last decade or so, who have different lives in private and public and I can only feel sad that they have to be like that.

  24. Ramana: That's good that neither of you felt the need to put on a show for other people's sake. Yes, it's sad when couples feel they have to keep things to themselves because others won't understand or sympathise. But I can see why they do that, if they have very strait-laced relatives and just don't want big arguments every time they meet.

  25. He was a good guy and we remain friends, but there was a definite difference in our view of the world and what we liked to do. He just seemed "older" the older we got.

    I know of no research or professional consensus about an ideal gap. I've read surveys of what people prefer, but I don't know that there is any data to support a 3-4 year gap with the man older making for happier or longer-lasting marriages. In my clinical experiences, big age differences often lead to power imbalances. For younger couples, there is some sense to a man being a little older because he's more likely to be stable in a career at a time when a woman has to put effort and time into having babies. For older couples, it makes more sense for the woman to be older because women peak sexually much later than men. Often just as a woman is hitting her stride in her forties, the man is starting to see a drop in sex drive or have sexual issues starting to develop. Plus, women typically outlive men, so it helps to have the age difference in that direction to offset that a bit.

  26. Agent: When I was young, the common cliché was that the man should be two years older than the woman, but I've never seen any evidence for this apparently arbitrary belief.

    I would assume that a much older partner could easily be dominating, though not necessarily. I certainly don't dominate Jenny, she holds her own very effectively! Interesting point about the gender difference in sexual potency.

  27. Yes, even people you know well can surprise you!

  28. Jenny: Indeed they can. Most of us have things we prefer to keep hidden for one reason or another. Our public personas can conceal as much as they reveal....