Thursday, November 21, 2013
Iris Murdoch On Relationships
Conventional wisdom has it that taking a loved one for granted leads to loss. Instead, we are taught to constantly "work" at relationships lest they wither before our eyes. This is why Dame Iris's pronouncement, "There is no substitute for the comfort supplied by the utterly-taken-for-granted relationship," seems shocking. But I think she's right.
In an utterly-taken-for-granted relationship, you can stop constantly scrutinizing the other for signs of approval or displeasure, take a deep breath and return to your center. You can be yourself, and relax into what my mother used to call the "blessed trust" of a committed partnership. You can stop arranging dates, making fancy desserts and buying flowers in hopes of keeping the love from expiring. You can even forget the occasional birthday or anniversary without fatal consequences.
Over a lifetime, that saves a lot of energy.
Iris doesn't say that such relationships bring happiness, let alone fulfillment or ecstasy--the things that we have been taught to expect from love. Instead, she settles for humble "comfort"--which does not, however, exclude happiness--because that is the more feasible goal. She knew that nothing guarantees misery like an impossible goal.
Iris herself was married for forty-three years, until her death from Alzheimer's, to John Bayley*, and produced over 25 novels plus a stack of plays and philosophical works. She couldn't have managed all that if she had squandered her energies trying to come up with tricks to keep their relationship "alive."
This taking utterly for granted is not a good idea in the early stages, when the partners are building the foundation of their relationship. And it is not to say that the occasional unexpected trinket or treat, when the effort is extended out of generosity of spirit rather than anxiety or propitiation, can't be put to excellent effect.
But in a mature relationship, once the roof and walls are firmly in place, it is good to move in, take off your shoes, and make yourself at home.
*After Iris's death, Bayley wrote Elegy for Iris, a memoir of the last years of her life. It was made into Iris, with Judi Dench and Kate Winslett, one of the most affecting movies I've ever seen.