How this ancient Japanese art could help fix your love life
Who knew that art and pottery could save your relationship? On the surface, it may look like an exercise in simply fixing broken ceramics, but there’s a lot that the Japanese tradition of Kintsugi can teach us about love.
In Kintsugi, vases are mended using a gold-inflected lacquer and displayed as precious works of art – a way to emphasise the dignity and basic importance of the art of repair. It could be a metaphor for a healthy relationship.
So shouldn’t we do the same in our romantic lives? It is no doubt a fine thing to have a relationship without moments of rupture, but let’s face it, who doesn’t have those? It’s a finer achievement still to know how to patch things up repeatedly with those precious strands of emotional gold: self-acceptance, patience, humility and courage.
Is your relationship ruptured?
Tensions in relationships can be looked at through a concept much used in psychotherapy: the idea of ‘rupture’ and ‘repair’. For psychotherapists, every relationship is at risk of moments of frustration (or, as the term has it, of ‘rupture’) when we suffer a loss of trust in another person as someone we can safely deposit our love on, and who we believe can be understanding of our needs.
The ruptures are often quite small and say nothing in themselves about a relationship’s prospects of survival. There might be constant and grave ruptures and no breakup, or there might be one or two tense moments that see things head towards collapse.
What determines the difference is something that psychotherapists are especially keen to teach us about: the capacity for ‘repair’. Repair refers to the work needed for two people to regain each other’s trust and restore themselves in the other’s mind as someone who is essentially decent and sympathetic and can be a ‘good enough’ interpreter of their needs.
As psychotherapy points out, repair isn’t just one capacity among others – the ability to repair shows emotional maturity; it is what identifies us as true adults.
How to repair your relationship
Good repair relies on at least four separate skills:
- The ability to apologise
A ‘sorry’ may not be as easy as it sounds. It isn’t just a few warm words – the true cost is to our self-love. The call to own up – to being, say, foolish, emotionally unbalanced, controlling, hot-tempered or vain – can feel like a demand too far. We may avoid a ‘sorry’ not because we’re overly pleased with ourselves but because our unworthiness feels so painfully obvious already. It lends no faith to imagine that any apologies could arouse the kind of kindness we crave, and yet feel we don’t deserve.
- The ability to forgive
There can be equal difficulty around being able to accept an apology. To do so requires sympathy for why good people do bad things – not because they are ‘evil’ but because they are tired or sad, worried or weak. A forgiving outlook lends us energy to look around for the most generous reasons why fundamentally decent people can behave less than optimally.
When this kind of forgiveness feels impossible, therapists speak of a manoeuvre of the mind known as ‘splitting’, a tendency to declare some people to be entirely good and others entirely awful.
In dividing humanity like this, we protect ourselves from what can feel like the impossible dangers of disappointment or grown-up ambivalence. Either someone is pure and perfect and we can love them without reserve or – quite suddenly – they must be appalling and we can never ever forgive them. We cling to rupture because it confirms a story which, though deeply sad at one level, also feels very safe: that big emotional commitments are invariably too risky, that others can’t be trusted, that hope is an illusion – and that we are fundamentally alone.
- The ability to teach
Behind a rupture, there often lies a failed attempt by one person to teach something to another (and, on a non-romantic level, this is sure to strike a chord with stressed parents who have attempted to home school their children in recent months).
There was something they were trying to get across when they lost their temper or got into a sulk: the effort went wrong and they forgot all about the art of good teaching, which relies on a degree of pessimism – about the ability of another person to understand immediately what we want from them. Good teachers aren’t after miraculous outcomes.
They know how resistant the human mind can be to new ideas. They take down their expectations a great many notches in order to stay calm and in a good mood around the inevitable frustrations of relationships.
When they’re trying to get something across, they don’t push a point too hard. They give their listener time and know about defensiveness – and as a fallback, they accept that they may have to respect two different realities. They can tolerate the fact they will always be a bit misunderstood, even by someone who loves them very much.
- The ability to learn
It can feel so much easier to get offended with someone than to dare to imagine they might have something important to tell us. We may prefer to get hung up about the tone in which they informed us of an idea rather than address the substance of what they’re trying to convey.
It isn’t easy to have to imagine that we are still beginners in a range of areas. The good repairer is ultimately a good learner: they have a lively and non-humiliating sense of how much they still have left to take on board. They can accept with good grace how flawed they remain.
It isn’t a surprise or a cause for alarm that someone might level a criticism at them. It’s merely a sign that a kindly soul is invested enough in their development to notice areas of immaturity and, in the safety of a relationship, to offer them something almost no one otherwise ever bothers with: feedback.
This is an edited extract from ‘What They Forgot To Teach You At School’ by The School of Life, price £15 hardback. Check out the School of Life shop here.