If you want to test a relationship for any small fractures or fissures, may I suggest you try cooking a Christmas turkey together? In fact, why not really up the stakes, and prepare a lavish festive banquet à deux. Any misapprehensions or doubts about your partner’s inadequacy as a life choice will soon come rushing into brilliant perspective.
Standing alongside my husband, scoring Brussels sprouts or bundling herbs in small bouquets of garni, I like to unleash my greatest charms. It begins when I observe, with a chirrupy Snow White-like intonation, how “interesting” it is that he should want to cut the carrots into rounds. By the time I’ve questioned the methodology of his onion slicing, clove sticking, turkey basting and potato roasting, his eyes are glittering with passion. Usually the kind that suggests that if I don’t shut up I will soon meet with the blade of a newly sharpened knife.
Knowing that even the smallest of combined tasks can quickly escalate from helpful to homicidal, we have now established an unspoken agreement that, while we may both undertake kitchen duties as an ensemble act over the festive period, our roles must be scrupulously pre-determined so as not to overlap, interfere or involve each other. Teamwork is fine, as long as we’re not actually on a team. All superfluous discussion is kept to a minimum via an ear-bleedingly loud soundtrack by Michael Bublé, and I try to muzzle any observations that may be considered “incredibly annoying” by anaesthetising myself with sherry.
At Christmas, even the kindest and most mutually supportive partnerships can quickly be catapulted into scenes resembling Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And for a relationship already strained, a long break of enforced jollity can be punishing. Lawyers refer to the first working Monday of January as “Divorce Day”, as couples rush to file for separations; and while even I don’t think “failure to allow the onions to reach sufficient translucency before adding the stock” would constitute grounds for unreasonable behaviour, it’s frequently the pettiest of irritants that can become the most catastrophic. “I can’t bear the way he laughs,” confides Mrs Macmillan of her prime minister husband Harold in the most recent series of The Crown. The revulsion in her tone would turn anyone’s blood to ice.
Christmas brings out my most horrible characteristics: the compulsion to micromanage, a tendency to sulk or become boorishly opinionated. It’s a miracle I’ve survived so many festive seasons without my entire family seeking a quick divorce, never mind my husband.
How serendipitous, then, that at precisely the point in the year when I like to push everyone over the edge, I’ve discovered an excellent therapist to help me.
I don’t mean I’m in therapy. Christ no. I would sooner undergo a minor amputation than discuss my emotional weaknesses with a stranger. No, my therapist is instead the Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel, author of the bestselling books Mating in Captivity and The State of Affairs and star of the podcast Where Should We Begin?, in which listeners are invited to perch on the couch alongside 10 anonymous couples who have found their marriages unstuck by adultery, lack of intimacy and general ennui. It’s totally gripping.
Perel is an untraditional practitioner of couples therapy. The 59-year-old claims an expertise in “how to preserve desire” in long-term relationships and regularly inflames her peers with her controversial attitudes towards extramarital affairs (she’s not altogether against them) and refusal to see anyone as a “wronged” party. Her advice is unexpected, often a bit harsh, and marvellously insightful.
Unsurprisingly, the podcast focuses on the more egregious forms of human betrayal — invariably the couples are struggling to reconcile after nasty bouts of infidelity — but her website tackles lots of other smaller grievances, like how not to be a pain in the ass.
“Stop bickering, it’s killing your relationship,” she exhorts in one especially pertinent essay. “If we criticise as a way of asking to be loved,” she counsels, “we will often produce precisely the opposite effect of what we seek: to be loved and to feel good about ourselves.” It sounds especially persuasive when imagined in her burbly Belgian accent, which somehow makes things more palatable than they would seem in clipped British tones.
Perel has been a revelation. Yes, listening to the podcast does at times feel a bit like emotional voyeurism, but I’ve learnt more about my own attitudes and behaviour in a few hours of audio than I have in a decade of marriage. Better still, it’s therapy without any personal disclosure. And it’s free.
Mostly though, it’s a seasonal reminder that there’s more to a relationship than how to cut a carrot. Or Sellotape a parcel. Sweat the big stuff and the rest is gravy. And when you can’t stand the heat: get out of the goddamn kitchen.
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