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Untangling Normal People, Love & Relationship Intelligence

Faraway Love by Agnes Martin, 1999, via Tate

The three are connected, but not in the way we might initially think.

If you haven’t read the book or watched the HULU series, Normal People is about a teenage couple, Marianne and Connell. They begin their first sexual relationship together and fall in love. Due to an overwhelming inability to honestly communicate with one another and understand how their upbringing influences their internal feelings about themselves, they fall out of each other’s lives. And then back in. And then back out. And then back in. And out again. You get the idea.

It’s a well-written book. Sally Rooney, the author, was just far enough away from her teenage years when she wrote it to reflect with perception and self-awareness. But that doesn’t change what the book is about — two teenagers exploring sex for the first time, figuring life out and coming up against multiple perceived barriers to why their love ‘can’t be’.

The Problem With Normal People

I have a few friends in their thirties who have been obsessed with the book and the subsequent series, swooning and being generally melodramatic about how ‘realistic’ it is. How they wish they could find their own ‘Connell’ or worse yet, how it’s led them back to some ‘one that got away’ from their past, they’ve felt the burning desire to try and reconnect with.

Normal People plays into the age-old narrative we’ve been sold about ‘real love’ being this unattainable ‘thing’. We have to hunt it down, or it can only be experienced once with one person — the quintessential notion of a ‘soul mate’. The book is filtered with sentences to this sentiment:

“Most people go through their whole lives, without ever really feeling that close with anyone.”

Most media depictions of ‘real’ love involve some pain point: a process of push and pull. Because if love is easy — it’s not real love. These are the subliminal messages about relationships that have been pushed out to us for decades. Our obsession with this narrative is highlighted by the incredible success of franchises like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey (to name only a couple). We love the idea that we can’t have what we want, at least not without a fight, and if there isn’t a fight or struggle, emotional or otherwise, then it isn’t ‘real’ love.’

As in Normal People, these conflicts are usually manufactured, the star-crossed lovers kept apart by artificial barriers. If only our lovers would just talk to each other, a single mature conversation could solve their made-up problem.

We Always Want What We Can’t Have

Creating barriers to the object of our affections and the push-pull of our love desire is a pretty common pursuit within relationships. The depiction of love in Normal People is a classic example of Cognitive Dissonance within a relationship context.

Cognitive dissonance is a concept put forward by Leon Festinger in 1957. It’s the discomfort and tension we feel when we hold two contradictory ideas at the same time. When we experience cognitive dissonance, it’s difficult to focus on anything else except the cause and how we might reduce it.

Within relationships, we experience dissonance when we try to reconcile the mixed signals of behaviour that indicates a person likes us versus behaviour they don’t. In Normal People, Connell and Marianne sleep together and have a good time doing it, but in public at school (yes, they’re still at school when their love story begins), they both act aloof and distant. Connell even asks out another girl in front of Marianne. Yet — they keep sleeping together.

When presented with conflicting behaviours and beliefs in this way, our minds will try and resolve the tension in one of three ways:

  1. Change internal beliefs: Decide once and for all this person doesn’t like you and move on.

  2. Obtain new information: Continue engaging in the relationship, seeking further information to confirm your belief one way or another.

  3. Reduce the importance of the relationship: Choosing to not dwell on the relationship and instead focus on more important areas of life that bring you value.

Marianne and Connell do all three throughout the book. The result? They work themselves into a loop of constantly dissecting their encounters and projecting what they want onto each other and the other people they date, without much care or thought.

Cognitive dissonance becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and, again, this is depicted in Normal People. While trying to reduce the tension of the dissonance felt, we seek evidence in any way possible that the other person does (or doesn’t) love us. We become invested over a period of time, entrenched in the push-pull fantasy of whether they do or don’t love us, any little look, a brush of skin, or drunk message, signifying the ‘truth’ one way or another. The more we invest, the more we have to rationalise our investment. Many people — Marianne and Connell no exception — will do this by determining that our efforts indicate immense feelings of love and devotion for this other person.

Marianne and Connell suffer for so long (years in the book) because of their inability to face their situation directly. Their internal fears of rejection, created by their upbringings, means they’re unable to face the potential rejection of one another.

They’ve both built up the narrative that their push-pull love is unique (as teenagers have a tendency to do) and the way they’re both approaching their relationship dynamic is living proof of their undying love for each other.

Even when the couple do reach a point of being ‘together’ in a more tangible sense, what happens? Another ‘barrier’ presents itself. This couple has built a relationship on barriers, longing and not ‘getting what they want’ - it's unlikely their 'love' would survive without it.

Distance Equals Desire

A US and Israeli study found that a chase or distance within a relationship increases our desirability for the other person, but also their ‘value’ within a relationship. People who are more difficult to obtain are perceived as being more valuable and sexually desirable because we have to make more effort to obtain them.

This is heavily connected to what psychologists refer to as the Dopamine Chase. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter released by your brain that makes you feel good. It’s the body’s pursuit of pleasure, emotional or physical, and dopamine rewards drive us to experience them repeatedly. Dopamine chase is when we keep seeking the same hit of pleasure, it can become addictive and explains why we quickly become infatuated in the early part of relationships. Not only for the physical pleasure but also for the intense feeling that someone likes us, wants to be around us and enjoys us without any of our perceived faults.

Professor Robert Sapolsky is one of the forefront researchers into dopamine and has discovered two interesting findings:

  1. Dopamine levels rise in anticipation of a reward, not just receiving the reward.

  2. Dopamine levels are highest when uncertainty is highest.

Point two is highly revealing, especially for those engaged in a fully or semi unrequited relationship, much like Marianne and Connell. The anticipation of reward, whether that be seeing someone, kissing them, having sex with them, creates the highest amount of dopamine — higher even than receiving the reward.

This may be connected to the age-old notion that reality can never meet expectations. When we anticipate something, we fantasise about it, and our fantasies are constantly in our very best favour. Everything works out wonderfully, and we get what we want. In reality, this might not always be the case.

For Marianne and Connell, they're trapped by the dopamine chase of their early sexual experiences and revealing of their inner selves to each other. They both, unconsciously or otherwise, fail to let future lovers in, in the same way or choose unsuitable lovers. Instead, they fixate on the one 'true' connection they've experienced - each other.

Why Any of this Matters

When my friends swoon away about Normal People, I like to remind them that it isn’t about adults. We’re talking about a relationship between, essentially, two children. Yes, I can see the appeal of their emerging love, and yes, I remember what that felt like for me. But would I want to revisit that experience?

Absolutely not.

All of my early relationships were failures because of the reasons stated above. I never knew where I stood; I was constantly justifying my investment in the relationship, communication was barely existent, and in a few cases, I was definitely all about the dopamine chase. While I learned a lot from those experiences, I wouldn’t want to go back to those feelings of not knowing where I stand - that was a torturous place to exist.

The miscommunication between Marianne and Connell feels believable and authentically tragic because many of us have experienced the same thing. These are two people who like and understand each other but don’t have the emotional development or maturity to grasp why and how they’re keeping themselves apart. They don’t have the maturity to see how damaging this will be for future relationships, either with each other or with other people, unless they resolve once and for all what they are. This is the reminder I like to pinpoint for my friends - neither of these characters have the lived experience and maturity to understand why their inner world has created this infatuation with one another. Until they do, they'll never be happy and they'll never be able to move on.

Is that really a place we want to exist for our romantic selves?

The truth is, if Marianne and Connell got over their need for barriers and were fully committed to a relationship together, they wouldn’t last. Without acknowledging their internal struggles and inabilities to communicate effectively, they’ll both be left feeling wanting, unseen and unvalued. Predictability will seep in; they’ll look for highs elsewhere. Arguments will ensue.

Without a heavy investment in healing themselves and building a foundation of relationship emotional intelligence, this relationship would fail. Perhaps Rooney ends their story when she does, knowing with her own maturity the real route this love story would take.

That’s why Normal People, and all the relationship tropes like it, need to be untangled from our collective ideas or love and emotional intelligence within a relationship. It is a realistic depiction of an early relationship — but it’s not a healthy one.

These aren’t the type of relationships we should be encouraging anyone to pursue, especially not as we get older and hopefully wiser to what a meaningful, emotional intelligent relationship entails. My friends that swoon over Normal People are the same ones that complain when a guy they’re dating doesn’t message back or ‘open up’ in the ways they need as a mature adult who has a better understanding of their life path.

It’s funny because Rooney does put a lot of reflection and self-awareness into her work, with the characters acknowledging their youth and naivety (even if it is heavily romanticised):

“It’s funny the decisions you make because you like someone, he says, and then your whole life is different. I think we’re at that weird age where life can change a lot from small decisions.”

Exploring the challenges of these depictions and why we feel connected to them is a great way to learn more about ourselves — and make the right changes to pursue and invite the relationships that will be genuinely fulfilling into our lives.


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