RICHARD HARVEY asks whether buying or building a dream home and settling in southern Spain really helps to strengthen a relationship. Or do the demons merely resurface when the dust settles?
IT must surely be one of the great ironies of life that we take a life time of hard-earned money and move over to Spain to buy our dream house, only to have it all fall through later when marriage or relationship breaks up. Local papers are full of adverts from estate agencies and property developers showing that people are obsessed with where they live. Buying a house and spending hundreds of thousands of euros on the purchase, buildings and improvements is really a symbol of course. And as a symbol – like the virgin birth or MacDonald’s leaflet on nutrition – it should not be taken too literally. But in what way is a house a dream and what is the dream house a symbol of? Well, ask about. For some it is Shangri-La and the ideal life style is apparently available here in Andalucía. For others it is a chance to be a little more daring, take risks and do something uncharacteristic with their lives. For people who are more family oriented, it is a more natural and safe environment for the kids and a more relaxed life style for the parents.
Of course the reality is that the conditions people try to escape from by settling in a foreign country come over with them as a kind of internal baggage. The difficulties and drawbacks of life are rarely solved by a change of scene, however beautiful that new scene may be. It is all too common to meet a wide-eyed couple who have sold up in their native country and moved into their dream home here. And it is just as common to meet them a year or two later and find that their dream home is on the market because their relationship has broken down.
People are attracted to intensity, especially when their lives have been humdrum, unchallenging and stiflingly routine and there is a disconcerting contrast between striving and having nothing to strive for. The adjustment can highlight what people have been running away from in their obsession with externals. It’s rather like those action films in which the hero who was originally irritated by, or positively disliked, the leading lady is thrown together with her in an onslaught of unbelievable action and heroism and ends the whole ordeal predictably falling in love with her and shacking up together. When the closing credits roll we may wonder how the new couple will manage with the lack of action, with the nitty-gritty of life’s routine and with the contrasting boredom when they have nothing to strive for anymore.
In a similar way people move to Andalucía and begin the initiation into bureaucratic hold ups, being let down by delivery men, workers and tradesman, being unable to get the goods they really want and getting frustrated for a multitude of reasons. When the challenges are over they sit on their newly-built veranda with a glass of wine in hand and have to face each other without complaints or frustrations. The dust has settled and the inner things of life rise up to fill their vacant enthusiasm. The complaints and frustrations become focused on each other. The old dissatisfactions and compromises may reappear and give rise to a gnawing discontent. It is typically human then for one or the other to initiate the break up by blaming the other partner for their unhappiness. Then, amidst the bitterness and resentment another hope of love is buried in the over populated graveyard of dead relationships and the divorce figures are increased by one.
The dream home then is unlikely to be enough to make us happy. What makes us happy is somewhat less definable, but people we are in relationship with, affection, and richness of heart could go some way towards pointing towards it. You wouldn’t spend a huge amount of money on you car’s bodywork only to find the car engine has packed up. In the same way it would be short sighted to ensconce yourself in a dream home only to find that the people in it are fundamentally unhappy with each other.
Relationships take time, care and hard work to maintain. The first one, time, is often lacking. It seems more important to entertain and be entertained, to achieve, to learn, to add to our accomplishments, to read the paper or sleepwalk through the day. You can mount a diploma on your wall or build a beautiful casita but people don’t get much recognition for a successful relationship.
The second one, care, is needed both mutually and for oneself. Selfishness had become a dirty word for many people, but unless you are clear about what you want and go about getting it what shape are you in for looking after someone else? Even if selflessness is your goal, the best you will accomplish is a pair of folks who are endlessly frustrated and needy.
The third one, hard work (another dirty word?), takes the understanding that there are only two kinds of relationship essentially – the growing ones and the dead ones. To maintain a growing relationship we have to be willing to grow with the other person, to share matters that are close to our hearts and grow in intimacy, to spend time together and to care for one another.
Dreams, though they may inspire us, are not reality and a dream home is not a real one unless you are fundamentally happy in it. Those couples who move here in a solid relationship based on love and mutual caring may well find their dream here. But the estate agents continue to be restocked by the misery of those couples whose relationships are not well-grounded and who do not discover it until their dream house proves to be an illusion.
Richard Harvey is a therapist and author. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org