Having survived innumerable liaisons, many a tragic affair, several lifelong romances, five marriages and a very long evening with a female Romanian architect, I think I may be said to have an average experience of relationships. And the golden truth I have learnt about relationships, whether they are with the opposite sex, the same sex, or a pet or even a house plant, is that they do not come to grief on the big things like love, money, ambition and sex so often as on the small things like personal habits, attitudes, prejudices and sex.
This is because people rush blindly into relationships without doing adequate research. Oh yes, they establish that they’re in love; that they enjoy each other’s company; that they have the same attitude to life, television and Woody Allen; that they think this is a wonderful relationship which is going to last forever and ever. Well, that’s the basic requirement, the very least you need. What they haven’t found out is what the other person thinks about party games, puddings, bending paperbacks back as you read them and throwing old newspaper away. The really crucial things, in fact.
Many a wonderful relationship has been ruined because two otherwise well-suited people were totally incompatible in the little matter of, say, temperature. I know one couple whose marriage, has, against all the odds, survived the fact that he likes a sheet and a blanket at night and she likes four blankets, a duvet and socks. It has survived long enough for their children to be now starting university. At last they can break loose and do some travelling. The only trouble is – and it looks likely to wreck the marriage – he can only go north and she has to go to the tropics.
So if you are thinking of combining with someone in the near future and expect them to say those magic words: “Would you care to initiate a relationship with me?” for heaven’s sake make sure you are compatible first. Make them fill in a questionnaire; hold an informal audition; talk to their parents; but find out first.
To help you, I have mapped out the areas in which most relationships are later found floating upside down, without a crew and with all the lifeboats gone.
1. Listening to music. Most people don’t listen to music completely without reaction, except music critics. They tap feet, click fingers or nod in time with the music. Or, of course, hum along, just audibly. A few people sit motionless for up to fifteen minutes, then say loudly: “Yea-eah!” I myself have an appalling habit of clicking my teeth in complicated rhythms. It’s quite inaudible when there’s music playing, but when I’m remembering a favourite record, all people can hear is tuneless grinding of molars, unaware that I’m really bashing out the most exotic rhythmic patterns. I’m thinking of making the big switch to electric dentures.
Anyway, remember that where you now watch your loved one enthralled by a record and think how wonderful it is to see someone so enraptured, you will one day say to yourself: “If he doesn’t stop swaying backwards and forwards with his eyes shut, I shall scream till the neighbours come.” Ask him to stop now.
2. The world is divided into people who like party games, and those who would rather die than get involved. One from the first camp should not live with one from the second camp. The same is roughly true of community singing, wearing fancy dress and putting your hand up when volunteers from the audience are asked for.
3. Money. The world is also divided into people who feel sick if they get into debt, and people who don’t know what it’s like to be without an overdraft. If you are one of each, you could still make it, but for God’s sake have separate bank accounts.
4. Nightwear. Some people always put it on, some never. I don’t think it’s anything to do with sensuality; it’s another facet of the hot v. cold problem. But you’ve both got to decide to do the same thing. If one person sleeps with nothing on, the other person is going to feel perpetually overdressed, which is something we shouldn’t have to worry about after we’ve got undressed. A friend of mine once had a brief liaison with a girl with very poor circulation who wore a dressing gown in bed. ‘ Nothing wrong with that,’ he said, ‘except that every time she turned over things fell out of her pockets. I hurt myself badly on a hairbrush one night.’ I personally think girls in pyjamas are rather attractive, but that’s my problem.
5. Throwing things away. Some do, some don’t. If the two types live together, you sooner or later find one partner routinely going through the waste paper baskets and dustbins to find out what the other is trying to get rid of. If you feel now a flash of irritation when your partner says:’ You never know when it might come in useful’, your relationship is already doomed.
6. Arguments. An argument should ideally take place in order to get at the truth, but unfortunately a lot of people (mostly men, I’m afraid) argue to win and will go on backing a half-baked idea until the other person burst into tears or throws something. Unfortunately, in the early stages of relationships, when the sun is shining, there aren’t any arguments and it’s hard to know how things will turn out. Better provoke an argument early on, just to see how it goes.
7. Does he like the countryside? Do you hate it? Or vice versa? Then call it off now.
8. Some people skip starters in order to leave room for the pudding. Others order every course except the pudding. Put one of each kind together, and most of your meals will be spent with one partner staring into space. Unless, of course, you compromise by both having every course, in which case laying the foundations for a very overweight middle-aged couple.
9. Sex. Not as important as eating, but still quite important. A New Yorker once told me: ‘A good sex life takes up less than five per cent of your time; a rotten sex life takes up all your time.’ I can’t better that. She then added reflectively: ‘My mother told me that.’
10. Funny stories. Why is it that so many partnerships sort themselves out sooner or later into a double act, consisting of one person telling stories badly and the other correcting them the whole time? Because they didn’t get it sorted out right at the beginning. It’s one of the facts of life that we find ourselves telling stories more often than we have a stock of stories for; therefore we start telling the same anecdotes over and over again. The other person must understand this, and at least hope that the anecdotes improve with age. Don’t interrupt. Realise humbly that you don’t do it any better either.
There is one exception to all this; the person who believes that stories are funnier if you say everything three times, like this: ‘it was a lovely day, blue sky, not a cloud to be seen. And this man, just an ordinary bloke, some fellow or other, was strolling along, just walking down the street, minding his own business when suddenly, out of the blue, from nowhere…’ Or, if it’s personal reminiscence: ‘I remember one time we were staying in this hotel in Brussels, ordinary Belgian hotel, usual continental pension…’
People like that should not have a relationship with anyone.