More than two years ago, I wrote here about a low point in our relationship. We had been through challenges that tested us beyond our limits—and contrary to the narrative arc I hoped for, we were neither kinder nor gentler nor more patient with each other. Instead we were cruel and petty and dysfunctional.
Arguments were so tempting to escalate because of our fears. For him, the fear was ultimately about whether I would leave him: every disagreement, from forgetting to do the dishes to how we related to our families, was a test of my love and commitment. For me, the fear was about whether I had sacrificed too much to be with him: my youth, my values, the future I had planned for myself when he wasn’t in the picture. For me, fighting about forgetting the dishes was about whether I had completely misjudged what my life with him would be like; whether I could raise children with a person who thought this way, whether I was a worse person with him. I was afraid of how stupid I would look to everyone if I had to admit that I had been wrong about this bold decision of mine.
So we attacked each other, shouting accusations and blame in fitful attempts to hold the fear at bay. To put the responsibility for that fear—and the actions and words we put into the world because of it—squarely on the other person. To avoid facing that our fears might come true. And that it might be our own fault as much as theirs. We pushed away this one pain, and instead opened ourselves to this other one—the brutal pain of hurting each other, over and over again, in a seemingly endless cycle.
The way fear drives us in this way is obsessive and irrational, like banging our heads into a wall, pushing us to say over and over and over: if you act like this, if you say these things, then you don’t really love me, you don’t understand me, you don’t care about what I want, you don’t respect me, you don’t want me to be who I am.
After I wrote my last post, things got worse before they got better. The triggers for fights had taken root in all kinds of seemingly innocuous topics and situations. Fights escalated to absurd, devastating heights—even if we had had them a dozen times before. I got to the point of seriously planning to leave twice: once at the height of all our external stressors and issues, and once about half a year after those concrete issues that caused most of our stress and conflict had disappeared. I told him so. Each time, we talked through it and I decided I wanted to stay.
In deciding to stay, I thought a lot about my fears, especially that second time. I realized I could handle quitting. I would be heartbroken, but I knew what my next steps would be and who I would lean on. I knew I could deal with the muttering and knowing looks.
The question of staying was the question of whether we could grow and heal together, after we had torn each other and ourselves to our very worst. I loved him to the core. I knew who he was. I knew how he was hurting. I knew his restlessness, his fierce commitment, his exhaustion, his giving up, his needing home, his needing so much that he didn’t know how to ask for. I decided to stay because I knew how good we could be. I chose to stay with eyes wide open, even knowing how low we had brought each other—and might well do again.
Slowly—oh so slowly—the resentment began to fade and we started to heal. Somewhere along the way, we stopped acting afraid. We started treating each other like we actually believed that the other person was a good human being, a human being who loved us and wanted the best for us.
And a funny thing happened to our disagreements. Arguments just… weren’t that interesting to pursue anymore. It’s not to say that we don’t still have disagreements. We do disagree, regularly and sometimes vehemently—over small things, and over big things. The small things I can laugh off, but the heavy stuff still makes my ears burn, makes me feel sick to my stomach, makes me burst into tears. But instead of letting it spin into a tornado of accusations and shouting, we can say, “I wish you hadn’t done that. It really hurt me.” Turns out, we’d let our fears pit us against each other for too long, as if winning an argument would give any satisfaction. There’s no comparing it to the safety, love, and loyalty I feel when we are gentle to one another even (or especially) when we’re both fuming. We finally came to our senses and realized: we’re in this together