Some people only realize the true nature of a relationship when it ends; what has long been obvious to skeptical friends now becomes apparent to the pair who were formerly spellbound. When two people realize there is nothing further to be gained by pretending to be devoted to one another they frequently unleash a great gush of vindictive selfishness. Can nice manners modify emotional wreckage? Or are men and women doomed in their love affairs to be on their worst behavior?
Given the brevity of most relationships, it makes sense that we never commit ourselves utterly to anything or anyone, no matter how much we may say we are utterly committed. We cannot impose stasis upon that which is dynamic – it is the folly of human history that so many men have thought otherwise. Instead of taking marriage vows that pledge undying devotion and then making a mockery of them, it would be better to enter a personal relationship with an acute sense of the provisional. Promising to do more than we are ever likely to fulfill only makes failure a certainty.
People would behave much more decently towards one another at the end of a relationship if they expected less to begin with. So one of the ways in which we can improve our manners in sexual relationship is by examining, and demythologizing, the process known as love.
Most books on manners, and all books on morals, prescribe ‘Thou Shalts’ and proscribe ‘Thou Shalt Nots’ as if edicts alone could alter behavior. My contribution to this debate is based on trying to understand why people behave so badly and trying to devise strategies that either modify barbaric impulses at their source, or else, through defensive manners, afford some protection against the rudenesses of others.
If, instead of expecting love to endure for ever and ending up being outraged and devastated when it doesn’t, we begin by expecting a relationship to be of limited duration (based on its agreeability and usefulness), we could then be pleasantly surprised by how long it lasts. If indeed it survives several years, a decade, or longer, it will do so because it keeps changing, corresponding to the changes in ourselves, and because it is self-corrective in areas that are problematic. In short: we must be willing to accept that even the dearest of friends and lovers are simply guests, free to leave at any time.
Given such an attitude towards others – you could call it ‘love with a light touch’ – we would never be tempted to speak ill of someone who has departed for greener mirages. When a former friend or lover is intent on becoming ‘Ex-rated’, instead of staging an hysterical scene, trying to bar his or her exit, one should whip out a scarf (preferably silk) and flap goodbye. The world is full of nuts and one is nearly bound to find someone else to leave slimy rings around the bathtub, burn holes in the carpet, scratch the records, dogear the books, leave crumbs all over the kitchen, and ruin one’s peace of mind.
In tomorrow’s world hellos and goodbyes will come at an even faster rate than they do today, so one may as well be prepared for a series of sunderings. Some people will react to this quickening of life’s pulse by reaffirming traditional values such as the ‘lifelong relationship’ which only worked when the lifespan was short and temptations to wander were few. Others will declare the whole business of ‘relationships’ to be too difficult and instead embark on a series of callous affairs. As usual I occupy the middle ground: we should give to our dearest friends all that we can (which is almost certain to be more than they deserve), short of giving away our self-respect, in the cheerful knowledge that they are not likely to be with us for long. Every human transaction, however brief, should represent the best of which we are capable, so that we may say (when alone, for it is never to be boasted in the presence of others) that we did all that we could for whoever it was who needed us at that moment. It is a greater achievement to treat those closest to us with courtesy than it is to love them: few acts of violence are the result of etiquette but many are the crimes of passion.
Photo by Sára Saudková: The Swing (2004)