How one couple stopped living their past and learned to fight for their future…and how you can, too.
The soundtrack of the movie My Girl plays as I dive deep into my subconscious, coloring my memories prettier than they might have been. “Hold me closer tiny dancer.” “Doctor my eyes have seen the years...” “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day.” This is the music of my early childhood, accompanied by Black Sabbath and Linda Ronstadt, the latter driving my father into an unabashed crush and my mother to trill her soprano rendition.
I wonder, would it have been easier if there were no good memories? Before the cleft in my dad’s personality carried him away into the makings of a perverse being I no longer know, we did have great ones. Blueberry picking while dodging imaginary bears, roller skating down the neighborhood driveways, the reassuring shush, shush of the wheels as we went; relays and hopscotching on sidewalks before my father morphed into a selfish, fragile shell of a man who would crumble as dust does. I know I wield the power to keep him whole and living in his current, contrived, sick reality with my Phoenix light and lion heart, I have healed so much. I am Atlas compared to his epidemic weakness. So I stay far, far away where monsters aren’t allowed to play. For his benefit.
I’ll condense the whole crappy story: he left, my mother was out of our home more working, my older sister went to find herself and my baby sister with the plumpest cheeks and heartbreak in her eyes, a kind of longing sparkle, was shuffled around, too...never really knowing him. And eventually...we would all agree that was a blessing.
His departure, a death in my teenage heart, a shadowy misunderstanding and silent, consuming blame fucked me up for a long time. The person I became, I hated, so full of rage and mistrust, I was a caricature from a glitzy soap opera, the drama followed me. Made me feel secure. If you are a survivor, the same might be true of you. I couldn’t have possibly created it — I told myself. I was fathomless. A million miles of entombed hurt, no one could read me or understand, and I had erected an invisible wall, so stealthy, even I could no longer detect the bricks I had laid.
My relationships were a cyclical Category Five. Two marriages left a lot of matrimonial hangover. The trauma I put my children through — self forgiveness may never reach it, because when your emotions are a shipwreck of tragedy you fly blindly. I guided them with love and a whole lotta mistakes. But thank GOD, mostly love. Truckfuls. I hope they have never questioned it.
My sisters grew up, married and the older one I studied with a curious eye; she had broken the cycle and reached 15, 16, then 20 years of marriage. I asked her what her secret was as my first marriage hit the skids after eight years...after the old familiar “it’s time to end it, shit’s getting real” compulsion washed over me, endlessly lapping and eroding my heart until all I wanted to do was push away. My sister replied she had been scared for five years of their union, and then it had all dissipated and in fear’s place she’d found trust.
I couldn’t figure it out. One relationship had lasted over eight years. Why hadn’t I hit that trust plateau?
Ten plus years of therapy taught me how to defend my right to receive healthy treatment. I hadn’t heard much in the way of steps I could put into action. I became a master at the “I” phrase...”I feel hurt, I feel unlistened to, invalidated...” These sessions did not instruct me in how to listen, did not teach me that a long-term relationship meant making a choice every day, that it was imperative to share feelings regardless of the emotional fallout.
Therapy did not teach me how vital it was to see and accept our own feet of clay, as well as that of our partners. We are fallible together. A pairing of perfect imperfection.
Therapy did not impart that sometimes individual sleeping or job patterns won’t mesh as a couple, that some arguments aren’t worth having, that you shouldn’t want to change people into yourself. That differences are okay, and the person you are with is going to push you to do things you might resist because they love you.
One day...this was it. My flame and I had the same old argument we’d been having for years. . .but this go-round was different. We said and shared all our nasty terror, we admitted and we apologized even if we didn’t understand. We fought and screamed until, exhausted and sunk back into the couches — we faced each other, and smiled tiredly. “Well,” we asked, almost at once, “is there anything else?”
What changed was that while my issues as a kid were more obvious, he brought his own past into the picture, too. I couldn’t and shouldn’t have minimized his history. Ever. What changed is that we both recognized we were living our pasts instead of collaborating our future.
I had to stop telling him to go before he could leave me...but before I could control myself from saying it — and more importantly, the reason I hadn’t been able to control myself was that I hadn’t finished mourning what I had lost so I could accept the tragedy of my youth. When my father took off, our remaining family had no cohesion, so in a sense, I had lost my whole family. It had infuriated me for years; worse, it had made me regard myself as sub-par. Someone who could expect rotten things because I had drawn that straw in life. Once the grieving was over, then I had to believe my partner would stay because to leave me would hurt him.
It was the hardest truth I’d ever swallowed because doing so meant opening myself up to the poignant, sharp blade that had nearly killed me when I was thirteen. The good news is, I wanted it and I saw the truth illuminated as it had never been: I needed willpower. I needed to find my strong heart.
Once you have accepted that you want your partner to stay, that you desire to believe you are lovable, you need to repeat it in your head in as many ways and for as many times necessary until you absorb it. Until you also believe your partner would be devastated without you. It can’t be said enough. Believe that you would be missed, that your life has value.
When you don’t believe your partner, the depth of their love, that they find you alluring and they choose you, you wound them. Did you know that? You call into question their sensibilities in love, you reject the gifts they keep trying to give you. You work to be your own saboteur.
Do it often enough and you will end up alone.
Four methods to get healing:
1. Stop saying what you don’t mean. “Just leave then!” I have shrieked this phrase more times than I can remember, my heart clutching in my chest. I’ve hollered it through heaving breaths and hot tears. I never wanted anyone to leave, I just wanted to be safe. It became near-instinct to respond with this threat and I knew it was a huge problem, but I had no idea how to fix it. I don’t say this anymore, but I needed a phrase to substitute, so today, if the ire starts to rise, I mutter, “I don’t want to go there, but I’m close. Please help me reach my goal.” Commit to substituting a reply, and use it.
2. Never cover up what you need. For years, I did this, with finances, imbalances I perceived in our couplehood. I was such a peacekeeper and I wanted and would do anything to have a peaceful life...without fighting, or leaving. But it was a lie and I felt it twisting my stomach, making my heart cold. And then the resentment began to build. It all exploded out at once because naturally that’s what happens when you tamp dynamite. Be honest no matter what.
3. Listen, even if you have to bite your inner lip or dig your fingernails into the palms of your hands. If you don’t you will not validate your partner and this will rightly frustrate and sadden them. Don’t listen to reply, listen to HEAR. Listen because you CARE. You are interested. This is a healthy habit to repeat and model. Drop your defenses and be open to listening about what you can work on. No one is perfect. No relationship is perfect. We all have to work hard to sustain our relationships. Listening is a meaningful action that demonstrates your love.
4. Hard work is needed and totally natural. Growing up with fairytales and unrealistic romantic expectations made for dreamy anticipation...all of which sets us up for disappointment. We can ask couples who have been married for decades what their secret is, but we can’t really derive that secret and apply it to our lives in the time it takes to read a three minute article. It is normal to feel annoyance, to want time for yourself to work on hobbies that mean something to you, to hang with the girls, to resentfully clean up after your partner–they feel the same about your idiosyncrasies by the way. And it also helps to understand the one you adore the most will be the one who might hurt you deeply, by accident, or intentionally. But these incidental pains are not enough to pull the plug unless you are being physically or emotionally abused. That’s why they are incidental, they occur as a chance, as a blip in the course of the lifetime of your relationship.
If you read this, thinking to yourself, I want to be there, but I’m not. I keep screwing up. I keep dreading being alone so I pick someone, anyone, your intentions are good enough. They are a first step in the right direction to finding sustainable love. This is how lasting change occurs, with the awareness we want to get better.
Originally appeared at The Good Men Project.