Playing truant

One of the things I like about Adam Phillips’s writing is that it’s designed to return us to our own thoughts. So it was with not a small degree of interest that, on returning from my internet-less Upington trip, I picked up my latest London Review of Books (LRB) and read his piece, “In Praise of Difficult Children” (12 Feb 2009).

Here’s a taste:

… the adolescent is the person who needs to experiment with self-betrayal, to find out what it might be to betray oneself. Not what it means to break the rules; but what it means to break the rules that are of special, of essential value to oneself. …. So called delinquent behaviour is the unconscious attempt to find the rules that really matter to the delinquent individual. And this is a frightening quest. Betraying other people matters only if in doing so one has betrayed oneself.

Now I won’t claim to have been a very rebellioous child or a wild teenager but my brother did call me a “bolshy biscuit” and also “Bolshy the Bolshevik” as a result of my temper. I learned the hard way that losing my temper with my mother is generally not a good idea, and I turned that anger inwards and became a slightly depressed young man instead. But that’s not what this blog is about. It’s about breaking the rules, and following them, and how it’s good to do both. Isn’t that liberating, to be told that we need to have a truant mind in order to work out what’s really important?

I suppose I could apply that to my Upington trip in the following way. I’ll just come out and say it, to spare P and myself any further agony. I didn’t flirt with anyone in case that’s what you’re thinking but I did find myself wondering what it would be like to do so, for example with the young woman that runs the kitchen at the picturesque B&B we stayed at. She was quiet with a shy smile and a tentative flaunting of her prettiness. (Note to self: are you sure you want to write this? This has trouble written all over it.)

Now we didn’t exchange more than a handful of words: hello, good morning, how are you, are there any more eggs etc. but there was something about her that was intriguing. I put it down to loneliness on my part and being away from my girlfriend and tried not to think more about it.

But reading Phillips’s short article on playing truant, I’m remembering an earlier piece he wrote on flirting. That it can be helpful, important even (at least in imagination), to ‘flirt’ with other people to realise what is important about your relationship. This can also be applied at other levels as well – flirting with ideas, or with another job, in order to explore what’s frustrating you about your current situation.

Now the counter arguments to flirting are legion, and I’m well aware with quite a few of them. I know, for example, that it’s hurtful and rude to look for too long at another woman in my girlfriend’s presence. Experience tells me that a quick look, followed by a reassuring comment (if one is required) that the women in question is pretty “but not as pretty as you are” is the way to avoid trouble. I think the issue is not whether one notices an attractive person of the opposite sex (or even the same sex for that matter) but whether or not one makes your partner feel secure in the relationship. Of course it’s also not entirely up to you whether or not your partner feels secure – but the watchword here is probably sensitivity.

I’d be interested to hear any thoughts on this one.

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7 Responses to Playing truant

  1. Emily says:

    I think it is very unhealthy for a relationship for the people to pretend they are never attracted to other people. If you live in denial that you can be attracted to someone other than your partner, one day an attraction will blind-side you and you will assume it it “love” because you cannot acknowledge that people in a relationship could merely be attracted to others.

  2. I think it’s important to realize that noticing the attractiveness to people other than your partner is normal and harmless. That is a bit different than feeling an attraction (which might have nothing to do with someone’s looks or it might). That is a bit riskier. Because what starts out as an innocent flirtation can escalate and the feelings of attraction can intensify. There are things that happen to the brain when there is a strong attraction. Judgment gets short-circuited. Pleasure chemicals get released. The important thing to realize is that those feelings will pass too and they don’t need to be acted on. But there is an old expression, if you play with fire you’ll get burned. So my suggestion is don’t feel guilty about your feelings, not at all. And consider what you find attractive or what you’re missing from yourself or your relationship. Only you can know what is just a flirty comment or look–but don’t give or take any phone numbers or email addy’s!! 😉

  3. Make Tea Not War says:

    It’s natural to be attracted to other people, especially if you are in a long term monogamous relationship, but feeling attraction & perhaps engaging in some very minor flirtation, is not the same as acting on it & I don’t think it threatens the relationship if you keep your priorities and commitments clear to yourself and everyone else. But don’t bring it home- your partner really doesn’t need to hear all the trivial details about something that is basically meaningless which is not going to add to their life and explicit knowledge of which might make them feel a bit crap. You can safely assume that as a sexual being they have moments of flirtation and feeling attracted to other people too. Once you acknowledge that I think a “don’t ask, don’t tell policy” is just good manners.

  4. Litlove says:

    I’ve read that Philips chapter on flirtation too. He starts by arguing that if we flirt with death and flirt with danger, flirting isn’t as innocent as it sounds. The other thing I recall is the line that says flirting is about asking ourselves how many lives we want to lead. I’m also intrigued that you start out talking about adolescence – is it your adolescent who wants to break the rules, then, and play with fire? Whilst an adult voice suggests that kind of game play might be better left in the past? Flirting means nothing at all, I think, in relation to the person you’re flirting with. But it may mean something to do with the feeling of limitation, restrain or constraint you’ve left behind, the life that may look like it’s not enough and could be backed up with a second or third. And that in turn might have nothing whatsoever to say about the person you’re with, but may instead be the echo of a much older argument against the confinements of the past that you are not entirely sure you have won.

    Well, just thought I’d put the alternative argument, seeing the other commenters have said so many sensible things already!

  5. This particular topic has always intrigued me, in that I believe I may be the only man on planet Earth who genuinely doesn’t ever notice other women if I’m in a committed relationship. The closest I ever get is an acknowledgment of aesthetic pleasure, the same sort of feeling I’d get if I saw a good work of art, or even a beautiful animal. But there is never any concomitant desire for frisson-based interaction with the woman in question.

    So I have to wonder — what do people get out of flirting? Is it the illusion of freedom? The novelty? The thrill of temptation averted? I honest to goodness don’t understand it at all, and the fact that I don’t understand it really makes me wonder in what respect my basic wiring is different from most people’s.

    One of my best friends — who is a married woman — is a shameless flirt whose every relationship has a romantic/erotic undertone. She’s cheerfully told me that she has a crush on me. Her husband knows that she does, and he’s fine with it — he and I are very fond of one another. In a weird way, I almost feel like the safety valve in their marriage; I love my friend like a sister, and if she is flirting with me, I don’t perceive it, so I don’t return it. Her husband can see that I don’t perceive and return it, so he feels secure in my relationship with his wife. I can see that he knows I’m safe, which leaves me free to enjoy his company as much as I enjoy hers. It’s a curious little triangle that wouldn’t exist if I were normal. 🙂

  6. doctordi says:

    Hmmm, interesting post, Pete (welcome back! missed you!), and interesting comments to follow it… I have mixed, contradictory feelings about flirtation, but I tend to think contradiction plays a part in any human interaction, so it’s not contradiction that bothers me. My own feeling is that everyone knows – and not very deep down – their own statute of limitations, that moment when it slips from something harmless to something potentially harmful. I think plenty of people fib about this, to themselves and their partner, but it doesn’t change the fact that they DO KNOW when it’s no longer an innocent Clash of the Tingly Pheromones. I think everyone’s line in the sand is slightly different, and partners need to recognise that about each other as best they can, but everyone’s kind of universally agreed on the fundamental rule of thumb, which is that cheating on someone is wrong. Flirting is not cheating, but some flirting is dangerous, and we all know it even when we SWEAR it doesn’t mean anything. Flirting always means something, even if it’s just that you think the person you’re talking to is a bit of all right, but how much it means is something every individual must daily decide for themselves. I find being honest with myself allows me to be honest with Llew. I battle sometimes to make peace with his swerving head, but I try very hard, because it’s a natural and healthy instinct of his to appreciate the female form, and he couldn’t stop even if he wanted to (which, let’s face it, he doesn’t).

  7. Pete says:

    Emily, Lilian, Make Tea, Litlove, David, Di – Thank you all very much for the considered comments. I’m sure you won’t mind that I’ve linked you together in my reply. Your comments help me a lot and articulate a lot of what I’m also wrestling with. I feel lucky to have such thoughtful readers.

    So, in short, I liked Lilian’s idea of flirting being an indication of what might be missing from a relationship (or from myself). And this links up with Litlove’s comment about constraints and wanting more. When I’m struggling in a relationship (which let’s face it is more often than I’d care to admit), it’s helpful to consider what is it that I’m wanting more of. And of course this links up with older arguments (or previous, formative relationships). I agree with you, Make Tea, about it just being good manners not to tell your partner about the gorgeous person you might have noticed that day! And as for Baron David, I think you’re lucky to have that differece. What a nice ability to react to the warmth of a friendship without reacting to any flirtatious overtones. And Di, I liked your comments about everyone’s line in the sand and also acknowledging our contradictory feelings. So much more to discuss here but perhaps I’ll call a break for now.

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