Being in a long term relationship isn’t easy, even for the well-adjusted. Being in a long term relationship when you’re chronically maladjusted, however, often feels like an exercise in futility. Not only are you fighting against a myriad of insecurities that have nothing to do with your partner, but you are constantly grappling with a feeling of impending doom — one that only seems to get worse the longer you’re together and the happier you become, because the bottom always falls out.
It’s especially challenging because I have no idea what “normal” or “functional” look like. All of the adult relationships I observed growing up had fundamental character flaws stemming from one or both parties being batshit crazy. Little Me saw a lot of “this is what not to do” and very little positive role modelling. Such is life. The thing that sucks, though, is that I somehow managed to marry a guy whose childhood was pleasant, and whose parents were involved and positive and not under the influence.Try as I might, I just don’t know how to interface with people who have that cavalier “the world is not about to end” sort of mentality. Though it’s gotten better in the last few years (read: recently, there have been no major personal disasters), I simply cannot cultivate that sort of serenity in myself. But William is an anti-anxiety force field. He is the null element. He makes Zen gardening look frenzied. And often times, in my efforts to make my outsides match my insides, I will subconsciously inject turbulence into an otherwise average scenario, thus making my surroundings more familiar.
The man puts up with a lot of my mania and overreacting, is what I’m trying to say.
Like that time that I called him, frantic, in the middle of the day to check on the baby. My shitty Android phone was freezing up on me and I was a little frustrated:
Him: Hey babe, what’s up?
Him: Say that again?
Me: (channeling Glenn Close, ala Fatal Attraction): I need. A new phone. Right. Now.
Him: We talked about this. We have to wait until we pay the old ones off, and then have enough money in hand for the new ones.
Me: (angry panting)
Him: Seriously. Just wait until after St. Patrick’s Day and we can afford it.
And then I hang up the phone before remembering to ask him about the baby, the original reason for my call.
While his indefatigable nonchalance can be an asset in times like those, it also means that my manic get-up-and-go-ness often clashes with his why-do-today-what-I-can-do-next-week-ness. I love my husband, but God-damn if I don’t want to bash his head in after he leaves the dishes in the sink for a week. His Honey-Do list never seems to get any shorter, as he frequently spends his free-time getting lost on the internet, rather than finishing a single project. This is a never-ending source of friction for us: me pulling, him resisting, until I blow up and he gives in. He ends up disappointed in himself for disappointing me, and I end up with an increasingly matted ball of feelings that becomes harder and harder to pull apart and resolve. I’m mad because he let me down, I’m guilty because I’m mad, I’m ashamed for losing my temper, I’m depressed that we’re fighting, and on and on.
Adult Children of Alcoholics, or ACOAs, struggle with an understanding of what is normal. That’s one of the reasons it is likely to find an ACOA in a relationship with an alcoholic or an addict: we’re hardwired to seek out those relationships that fit into the pattern we are already familiar with. That being said, my husband is not an alcoholic, but I do see certain similarities between my home environment now and my home environment growing up: I often don’t know what to expect, I am often disappointed in the outcome, I am often put in the position of trying to salvage a situation that I did not cause, I often feel like I cannot trust those around me. The real question for me, though, is how much of this is my reaction to external factors and how much of this is my applying a familiar pattern to an unfamiliar situation? William is caring, hard-working, attentive, and non-abusive, if also sometimes forgetful and short-sighted. Certainly, those meager transgressions do not warrant my distrust. But here I am, struggling to believe him when he says that he’ll get the dishes done in the morning.
All relationships have problems, even the good ones. Ours is no different. I think that I have long since made peace with the fact that the things that have been upsetting to me for the past eight years (the single-minded focus, the general forgetfulness, or his occasional inconsiderateness) are the things that will still upset me for the next 50 years. And the things that bother him, (my low self-esteem, tendency toward self-harm, my shifting moods, my temper) aren’t going to change much either. What rejuvenates and strengthens my resolve, though, is that 1. these “problems” are blessedly minor in the grand scheme of things, and 2. we are masters of the perfect antidote: open, honest, and sometimes overwhelming communication. For all of our “issues”, we aren’t scared of scary conversations. As my good friend Nicole recently said (I’m paraphrasing here), “The key to a successful relationship is both parties knowing that they are safe — you can put anything out there on the table, be perfectly honest, and there’s no fear of reprisal.”
I’ll admit, though, that I have at one time or another heard something or said something that gave me pause: “Can a relationship really survive that much honesty?” But again, I think my ACOA hard-wiring is to blame. Lying, even when it is just as easy to tell the truth, is a hallmark of alcoholic family systems — you lie to defer, to cover-up, to disguise, and to dissuade. I’m guessing again, but I think that truth-telling in a relationship is probably a lot more normal and a lot less scary to people that don’t grow up in alcoholic/addict homes. I consider it no small triumph, then, that we’ve got this going for us. Go team!
So, in the end, I don’t know “normal” from “abnormal”, and I am often distrustful without reason, and sometimes with good reason, and shit gets a little complicated. I spend an inordinate amount of time questioning the root causes of my emotions and trying to pull apart the snarled hairball of emotion in my mind, so I can figure out if I have justification to feel what I do (that’s a another post altogether). All of that takes a lot of energy, and makes me a real space cadet, and a pretty difficult person to live with, especially when minor things which I have no control over go wrong and turn me into a crazy person who barks at inanimate objects like phones.
But I have a partner-in-crime, someone to bring me back down to Earth. Someone who finds delightful and surprising ways to make me really believe again.
That, my friends, is a phone made out of cardstock, an anniversary gift from my long-suffering husband who not only wants to stop receiving calls in the middle of the day about non-functioning electronics, but more importantly, wants to grant me whatever measure of serenity a replacement could provide. There was a card, too:
“At my best, at my worst, at my side… loving me always. I’m so lucky to be married to you.”
“I’m glad that
Thank you for everything you do. You are a caring wife and a loving mother, and I am blessed and lucky to be married to you. You put up with so much to be with me — I know I can disappoint you — have done so. I hope I can do better, give you more in the future. In the now. This card wasn’t planned, a bit like us. For all our imperfections, our fights, recurring problems — I’d do it all again. (Though I’d like to think I’d do a better job of it the second time around.)”
Now, that is something worth writing about.
So, there you go, Babe, I told ya I’d put it on my blog. Probably not what you were expecting, but it’s hard to argue: I’m definitely bragging about you. I love you because you have given me the world — that, and the paper-craft promise of an iPhone — and I would absolutely do it all again.