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Pearls of wisdom from the Lurve Industry

August 30, 2018

Is there such a thing as narcissism a deux? As in when a couple write a self-help book on how to make your relationship last, and pose hand-in-hand with what look to me like expressions of ineffable self-satisfaction? As in Posh and Becks, and as in every Facebook post showing a couple gazing blissfully into the camera on some beach or restaurant? It’s all about us, right? We are the exemplars. Envy us.

That was my immediate reaction when I read an article in last week’s London Times featuring a large photo of Suzann Pileggi Palweski and her husband James Palewski, who have written a book called Happy Together.

Anna Maxted, who interviewed the authors, entertains us now and again with revelations about her own marriage. This time she gives her poor husband a break and turns her attention to the Palewskis, who are apparently experts in something called Positive Psychology, which sounds a bit like a cult to me. Naturally, they try to practice the faith in their own relationship. And so, as you do, they’ve written a best-seller.

Maxted asks whether “‘positive psychology’ is just too smug for British relationships”. The trouble is, she doesn’t provide an answer. Therefore I will attempt to do so.

Positive psychology seems to be based on the notion of “accentuate the positive”. If you want to know more about it, I suggest you go to Google, as we all do when we want to understand the mysteries of life. Oh, and first read the lyrics of the song by that title. It might take less time.

Anyway, in between snorts of laughter and snarls of envy at yet another best-selling book eagerly devoured by desperate readers who want to improve themselves – envy because I don’t have the wit to write such a masterpiece – I sensed an opportunity. If this self-admiring couple, who have been married for a mere eight years, can enrich themselves by telling us all how to stay together, what pearls of marketable wisdom can a battle-scarred survivor of thirty-five years of blissful matrimony bestow upon the masses?

Not many, I’m sad to say. But here are some helpful suggestions that the Palewskis apparently believe will prevent one partner from going for the other with a carving knife. And I’m happy to share – for free – my own thoughts on each scenario, which tend to be a tad more robust, on the basis that some relationships don’t deserve to survive anyway:

“Instead of I think you’ve had enough (alcohol at the party)
Say Darling, this water/virgin mojito will make you feel better in the morning.”

I say: if your partner is beyond the tipping point, they will greet your polite suggestion with scathing contempt. Far better to politely request from your host the loan of a plastic bin bag, which you, as the designated driver, can strategically place on the front seat of the car next to your inebriated loved one. That way at least your car will survive the worst effects of the journey home. If you want to really make the point, make the request within earshot of your partner. But if you do this, you might think about wearing a stab-proof vest. And what the hell is a virgin mojito anyway?

Instead of The house is a pit
Say How about we drop what we’re doing and spend ten minutes tidying up?”

I say: that’s fine if your partner isn’t doing something important, like watching InfoWars videos or harassing the neighbours. But often enough it’s better to move the offending mess to a specific room in the house. When that’s filled up, start on the next room. Sooner or later, depending on available space, you won’t be able to move, and will be forced to take emergency action, including calling the skip hire company. In the process you will discover that the stuff you tidied up is completely irrelevant to your life anyway. If you have kids, especially adult offspring who use your house as a repository, you will reach that point much faster. When they’re teenagers, of course, you operate a policy of containment in one room similar to that employed by the authorities at the Fukushima nuclear plant.

“Instead of Your snoring is driving me nuts
Say Does your snoring wake you as well? Have you tried those nasal strips that are supposed to help?”

I say: anyone who is so mutton-headed as not to notice that their partner is wearing a nasal strip is insultingly unobservant. So a stupid question. It would be much more sensible to accuse your partner of snoring like a pig, and then getting into an intense discussion over whether in fact pigs snore. And when your partner has the temerity to suggest that you also snore, thus triggering another heated conversation, you can suggest that you sleep in separate beds. Or get a divorce.

“Instead of How many times have I asked you not to leave wet towels on the bed?!
Say What would help you not to leave wet towels on the bed?”

I say: I can think of many things that would help the lazy miscreant to mend their ways. For example, try carefully laying the wet towel flat underneath the duvet on their side of the bed, leaving them to discover that they will either have to sleep the night in a damp bed or take refuge on the couch.

“Instead of Do we have to have lunch with your mother again?
Say What can we discuss over lunch with your mum to maximise our chances of having a good time?”

I say: suggest that your partner’s mother is a malevolent shrew, and that nothing you could discuss can’t be turned into a passive-aggressive criticism of you. Accept the inevitable, and suggest that he/she go on their own while you draw the short straw of looking after the children (or tidying the house of you don’t have kids). And recognise that your partner’s idea of having a good time is to spend long hours over a bottle of prosecco moaning about you. Given the above, your presence is definitely not conducive to a good time, and your partner will eagerly accept the offer.

At one point, Suzann describes how she suggested to her co-author James that he needed to lose weight. It seems that the correct positive psychology response is for James to thank his spouse for her gift of constructive criticism. I’m not sure that would have been the response of a friend of mine, whose wife, in front of his mother, told him “you don’t need any more food – you’re a fat pig already!”. In fact “thank you for the gift” sounds rather like one of those formulaic utterances from The Handmaid’s Tale, as in “blessed be the fruit”.

While we’re on the subject of toxic exchanges, I have my own little scenario to add to the list. When your partner calls out your behaviour by asking “why do you…..”, don’t go into a Freudian analysis to explain your failure to put the loo seat down after use or clean the barbecue. Just say “because I’m stupid”. That tends to stop the argument right there.

I haven’t read the book itself, so I must apologise to the Palewskis if my gut reaction to Maxted’s article about their philosophy is somewhat jaundiced. But on the evidence of the interactions above, they seem to come from a world in which people believe that all problems in relationships can be solved if the protagonists behave like HR managers.

In real life, unfortunately, for every impeccably polite and tactful couple, there are others who give a passable imitation of Martha and George, the conflict-addicted characters in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. And the Palewskis don’t seem to have answers for those whose other halves fail to get the message about their unacceptable personal habits. What’s Plan B? Poison or the kitchen knife?

But then I’m also perhaps failing to take into account the fact that they are writing primarily for readers in the USA, where almost every home has an AR 15 rifle that can be used as the ultimate sanction. Conflict in America can have consequences well beyond broken crockery.

I suspect that most recipients of their wisdom will read the book and try out the techniques once or twice. When the approach fails (and they narrowly escape with their sanity after hopeless appeals to the better nature of their loved ones) they will revert to type, and the book will join all the other self-help tomes in the charity shop.

You will guess from this comment that I’m not a fan of the self-help industry, though that’s probably because as a grumpy old cynic I consider myself beyond redemption.

I’ve always thought that those who write such books first get (or invent) a few letters to put after their names, come up with one blockbusting idea and recycle it in endless variants on the theme and lucrative speaking tours. Clever bastards.

The trouble with the gospel of relentless positivity is that it comes in an age of pervasive negativity. There’s not much point in wasting energy avoiding rows at home if you spend much of your leisure time trolling Hillary Clinton, or if you wind yourself up like a tightly coiled spring at work because of the behaviour of other less enlightened beings. Even worse if you end up being the mute recipient of someone else’s bullying because if you speak up you are liable to lose your job. There are times when for your own sanity you need to put your foot down and say “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more”. Without a modicum of venting, no amount of desperate positivity is going to save you, because you end up internalising your frustrations. And if you’re not very stable in the first place, ahead of you lies the path of the mass shooter or the suicide.

Speaking as someone whose innumerable flaws rarely pass unnoticed, and yet who is still married after thirty-five years, I can testify that for several reasons a good row keeps a marriage alive.

First, it gives you or your partner the opportunity to occupy the moral high ground, which is important for self-esteem. Second it gives the offending partner the opportunity to point out the other person’s flaws, since in the heat of the battle anything goes. Third, an essential element in a long marriage is the ability to forgive, and God knows, I for one have plenty to be forgiven for. And lastly, the occasional confrontation is evidence that the couple care about their relationship – provided that it doesn’t end with the one bludgeoning the other to death, that is.

My wife and I have both learned over our years of marriage that there are ways to say things and ways not to. Occasionally neither of us can resist the latter. But we didn’t need a self-help book to avoid saying the wrong things. Perhaps we were lucky in our choice of partner. But marriage, in common with much else in life, is a matter of trial and error, upon which the bedrock of love solidifies or fractures.

Much as I sometimes think otherwise, having a quiet, conflict-free life is having no life. Having a laugh helps as well, which is why I dedicate this post to my long-suffering wife, whose sense of humour remains mercifully intact.

From → Books, Social, UK, USA

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