Some issues are ‘life-dividers’ – no compromise will ever work
Sheets and blankets: I have loved them always. The now ubiquitous duvet, current winner in the affections of sleepers, is to me the enemy. There is so much against it: its habit of preferring the other sleeper, and twisting over to his side. The draughts that sneak in from all directions. The inability to be either hot enough or cool enough, thus ensuring broken, bad-tempered nights. Sixty years ago a duvet was only found in a chalet hotel in Austria. The novelty was possibly enjoyed for a week. For us bedding traditionalists there is no enjoyment in duvets. They can never compare with the bliss of laundered sheets, and a choice of blankets, with which to perfect the night. I could never sleep with a man who insisted on a duvet.
Duvets are some of the greatest contemporary life-dividers. Life-dividers? The description was introduced to me by my first husband, Quentin Crewe. He was of the opinion that there are certain deeply entrenched elements of life with which people disagree so profoundly that they cannot be abandoned without disastrous results. Even for love they cannot be changed. Indeed, attempting change can result in seething, damaging resentment. Quentin’s sensible belief was that two people contemplating life together should examine carefully the life-dividers that could afflict them. Some can be negotiated without too much damage. Some definitely can’t. Best to discover all this before setting up under the same roof, he said.
High on the list of perilous life-dividers is punctuality. The punctual who brave living with the unpunctual do not know how dementing that can be unless they’ve tried it. Attempts to make such a union work are hopeless. Chivvying is fatal, as is the warning of roadworks, missing the planned train or annoying the fretting host. None of these remotely stirs the conscience of those who not only like being late, but see as a challenge exactly how late they can be before the demented partner combusts. To the habitually late, the punctual among us are, naturally, acutely annoying. We put clocks forwards, sit tapping a foot and looking so grumpy the event in store is spoilt before it begins. The pleasure for the punctual people is that they can rely absolutely on each other. They know they will never be kept waiting. But then I suppose the unpunctual positively enjoy waiting for each other, and their happiness lies in the fact that neither will chide the other about the dreary half-hour they’ve been rereading the menu. The most annoying thing about those careless of time, and I speak as one afflicted with super-punctuality, is that if it’s really important, they can be punctual. An invitation to lunch with the Queen, and you can bet the well-known late arriver will be there on the dot.
Everywhere you look, a life-divider, among the dozens that exist, can be spotted. House hunting: town or country? Townsfolk can be vitriolic about rural life, and vice versa. Compromise is often a disaster: houses in two places, which few can afford, or one of the couple ‘agreeing’ to live where he most does not want to be, which sparks inner raging. I lived for 30 years in Oxford, pining for the country, pining for sky, so scarce in cities you hardly see it. Now we are in Warwickshire where huge skies seem to have drifted from Norfolk. I never want to leave.
Which means problems about travel, another major life-divider. There are those with an admirable sense of adventure and desire to see the world, and those who are happy to stay at home. Quentin’s joy was to explore, usually in extremely uncomfortable conditions, South America, South Africa, the Empty Quarter. My husband James aims for the opposite direction: Iran, Israel, Bulgaria. I stay at home, happy to be left, and enjoy the vicarious experience when at the end of the journey it’s evocatively described. (Both husbands were/are terrific at describing.)
Life-dividers are often most lethal in domestic life. Take animals. A dog lover has little hope of a tranquil life with one who loathes the canine race. Animal lovers should try to fall in love with one of like mind. As for children: the mega problem with them is obviously education — the huge, raw divide between public and private. To protect the child, a solution has to be found, and if this is impossible it’s probably wise to forget plans of parenthood. When in the Eighties I could not find an Oxford state school that was prepared to teach reading and writing to children of five, I stormed at my husband, then a Labour councillor, to let our daughter go private. To my amazement he resigned from the Labour party (though they tried to persuade him to stay) and when the daughter was given a place at a fee-paying school of some renown, no one could have been more pleased than he. Education is a life-divider that needs a sturdy bridge to cross, but it can sometimes be accomplished.
On a more trivial level, Staying In and Going Out is a life-divider that has its problems, though they probably wane with age. For those who enjoy quiet evenings at home, the restless trying of restaurants is not a pleasure. I have a friend, a marvellous cook, who lived in New York with his American wife. One evening he realised they had gone out to dinner 29 nights running, and suggested they stay in and he would cook. The wife was outraged. They carried on eating out right up to their divorce.
A perilous domestic life-divider is of course tidiness. It’s almost impossible for the chronically untidy to live with the person whose vision is of immaculate interiors. ‘Why should I go round tidying up after you?’ is a well known question. ‘Why does it matter if things are piled on the floor?’ is the equally familiar answer. ‘There are more important things in life.’ From the tidy person’s point of view, there aren’t that many, considering the pain given by carelessly thrown things. Oddly, some of the untidiest people at home are amazingly orderly at work. What feeds this strange division of behaviour in their minds? The vital point is that neither the tidy nor the untidy are likely to change their ways. (To live with one who was both unpunctual and untidy would be a hell not worth considering.)
Most crucial of all life-dividers is money: those who have it, those who don’t. It’s imperative to realise that as everyone has an idea of how money should be spent, it’s vital to check on the other’s view before any sort of commitment. Joint account? (Terrible idea.) Who’s to pay what bills? Rather than finances dividing life for years, it’s wise to check up absolutely what the plan should be rather than just assuming all will be well.
Luckily, not long after setting up with someone, a life-divider becomes apparent. So you make your choice: to suffer your differences, or to quit. In any serious plan for the future, for two people of opposing views, there’s a lot of weighing up to be done.