Have you ever sulked? Given someone the silent treatment? Waited angrily for someone to figure out how exactly they had injured you without giving them any hints, becoming steadily more angry the longer it took them to a) realize you were mad and b) understand what, exactly, you were mad about? Maybe you’ve been on the receiving end of a sulk. It’s probably equally maddening. Just tell me what this is about so we can solve it!
Welcome to every relationship I’ve ever had. I think my attraction to sulking stemmed from the paradigm I mentioned in my last entry – I wanted to be loved but with little work toward loving. I desperately needed my partners to understand me on a deep, molecular level without me having to articulate my emotions and thoughts. And I was easily wounded, to boot. Super sensitive. Took almost everything personally. Why can’t people tread lightly around me? Don’t they see that I’m an emotional basketcase?
Well, those days are long gone, thankfully for me and everyone in my life.
I realized that my partners are just as human as I am, and they have their own crap going on. A relationship is a perfect storm of two people’s disparate crap and it can get ugly sometimes without mindfulness.
This realization enabled me to stop taking everything personally. Most of the time, we’re so caught up in our own human dramas, the injuries we inflict on others are inadvertent, and as much as I fantasize about a world in which we’re all super thoughtful about how our action or inaction affects our loved ones, it’s just not realistic. So I forgive, easily and freely. Not always. But most of the time.
I also realized that no person, not even our significant others, will ever fully get inside our heads enough that we’ll be forever freed from articulating thoughts and emotions. We’re all sort of weird in our own ways, and the sooner we can learn to recognize our own crazy and explain it to our partners in moments of crazy, the happier our relationships will be.
I mean, I seriously used to get mad when I got upset over something related to my own brand of crazy, something my partners couldn’t possibly understand coming from their own cocooned selfhood, and I really wanted them to read my mind. I wanted them to read my mind as some kind of badge of trust that would prove they understood me. It was like a weird test in which no one knew the rules except me, so failure was pretty much guaranteed, which led to further resentment.
You can see why things tended to fall apart.
Here’s Alain de Botton again, on sulking, what it might mean, and how we can respond:
At the heart of a sulk lies a confusing mixture of intense anger and an equally intense desire not to communicate what one is angry about. The sulker both desperately needs the other person to understand and yet remains utterly committed to doing nothing to help them do so. The very need to explain forms the kernel of the insult: if the partner requires an explanation, he or she is clearly not worthy of one. We should add: it is a privilege to be the recipient of a sulk; it means the other person respects and trusts us enough to think we should understand their unspoken hurt. It is one of the odder gifts of love.
Sulking pays homage to a beautiful, dangerous ideal that can be traced back to our earliest childhoods: the promise of wordless understanding. In the womb, we never had to explain. Our every requirement was catered to. The right sort of comfort simply happened. Some of this idyll continued in our first years. We didn’t have to make our every requirement known: large, kind people guessed for us. They saw past our tears, our inarticulacy, our confusions: they found the explanations for discomforts which we lacked the ability to verbalize.
That may be why, in relationships, even the most eloquent among us may instinctively prefer not to spell things out when our partners are at risk of failing to read us properly. Only wordless and accurate mind reading can feel like a true sign that our partner is someone to be trusted; only when we don’t have to explain can we feel certain that we are genuinely understood.
We would ideally remain able to laugh, in the gentlest way, when we are made the special target of a sulker’s fury. We would recognize the touching paradox. The sulker may be six foot one and holding down adult employment, but the real message is poignantly retrogressive: “Deep inside, I remain an infant, and right now I need you to be my parent. I need you correctly to guess what is truly ailing me, as people did when I was a baby, when my ideas of love were first formed.”
We do our sulking lovers the greatest possible favor when we are able to regard their tantrums as we would those of an infant. We are so alive to the idea that it’s patronizing to be thought of as younger than we are; we forget that it is also, at times, the greatest privilege for someone to look beyond our adult self in order to engage with — and forgive — the disappointed, furious, inarticulate child within.
You can hear de Botton talk about all kinds of funny things we do in relationships in his interview with Debbie Millman on the Design Matters podcast. Krista Tippett also interviews him for On Being. I highly recommend both.