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Relationships are hard, aren’t they?
Not just ‘significant other’-type relationships, but all relationships – friends, colleagues, family…
The more I think about it, the more I see a mental image of people bringing enormous suitcases of personal histories, experiences and injuries to every meeting; dressed in camouflage or odd disguises; toting a dictionary of exclusive definitions (no two dictionaries are alike… “I’m fine” ranging in meaning from “I’m absolutely ok,” to “I’m utterly unable to address my myriad problems and I don’t think you’d understand anyway,”) and covered from head to foot in plasters, under which cuts and bruises fester in varying degrees of severity.
Given that many of us don’t even realise that we carry all this stuff around with us every day, it’s not surprising that sometimes it’s damn hard to get out of bed of a morning – our limbs feel heavy, our brains thick and slow like a computer struggling to process too many background programmes, and our spirits raw and painful to the touch.
It’s frustrating and inexplicable when we try to interact with our loved ones and each word seems to take us further and further away from the intended outcome, until what started as an insignificant comment turns into a screaming match of devastating proportions.
How does that happen? How do two people who have chosen to be together, think of each other all the time when apart, and want to grow old together end up reinforcing such destructive behaviour time after time?
I can only speak for myself, but I have gradually realised over the years, that I often view the present through a filter – a filter of ALL the memories I have ever retained; a filter of all the people I’ve ever met and known; a filter of both positive and negative interactions with the world out there.
For example, I remember my father used to be notoriously unreliable in his time-keeping. He would tell my mother that he’d be back at 7pm. She’d cook dinner, lay the table, make sure I’d had a bath and was all clean and scrubbed in my pyjamas…and then we’d wait, and wait…and wait. And wait some more.
I recall one particular occasion when he was so late that the dinner was ruined. I’d been sitting patiently at the dining table for over an hour, watching my mother’s face sag and blanch; warding off a fizzing, uncomfortable sting of anxiety, and wanting desperately to make it better but not knowing how. The sight of my dad’s empty seat and clean, untouched dinner plate would always cause a sensation of butterflies and internal pressure.
Eventually my mother dished up – after all, I was only little and needed my bed. As I started to eat (though I wasn’t hungry any more) my mother caught sight of my father’s car rounding the bend and heading towards the house. An odd expression crossed her face – a glint of frustration and fury, disguised as a tight smile.
She scooped me out of my seat and said, “Quick! Let’s play a trick on Daddy. Let’s pretend we’ve been abducted by aliens!”
I was a little bemused by this uncharacteristic ‘playfulness’, but willingly ran upstairs with her, and we dived into her bedroom cupboard and pulled the door closed.
Ensconced among dresses and ironed shirts, I heard the muffled sound of the front door opening and closing, and Dad called out, “I’m home.”
Instantly, every fibre in my being wanted to run downstairs, but my mother had a firm grip on my arm, and shushed me.
I could hear my father walking from room to room, calling our names, and the strain of not answering him turned into downright distress. I didn’t like this game, and I wasn’t sure what my role was, and whether I should be playing it.
Eventually, we heard his slow, measured tread up the stairs and into the bedroom, and suddenly the cupboard door was pulled open, the yellow light from the ceiling lamp flooding my eyes. He pretended to look surprised and amused by his discovery, but I looked between the faces of my parents…and the tension in my body just grew and grew.
I KNEW that my mother had slaved away to get dinner on the table. I KNEW she’d been expecting him at 7, and that it was now 8.30pm. I KNEW he did this almost every time. I also knew that he’d probably finished work hours ago, and had been drinking in the pub with his colleagues – I could smell alcohol and cigarette smoke on his suit jacket.
But as soon as my mother started her recriminations, my heart just broke in two. I couldn’t stand to see his guilty, sheepish face. I didn’t want to listen to the gradual crescendo of her voice, or the naked desperation revealed behind the shrewish words.
“You made your own 5 year old daughter wait for nearly two hours for her dinner because she wanted to eat with you!” my mother cried, the air between them spiky with unhappiness.
At this, I remember bursting into tears and jumping into my dad’s arms, repeating over and over, “But it’s ok Daddy, I don’t mind! I don’t mind.”
I even remember seeing the shocked, betrayed expression on my mother’s face… and thinking with a cold, little adult’s voice, “But he needs me more than she does.”
An intolerable situation for a child to be in really. And with hindsight, not so surprising that I developed into a woman who used to lose the plot if Hubby ever came home late – even if it was only a few minutes past the expected time. It was one of my ‘flashpoints’. I would fly off the handle, without any real idea why I was overreacting so badly.
It takes A LOT of mindfulness to stay in the moment – to NOT bring all your sh*t with you to the table – to treat people as themselves, not ghosts of people from your past.
Whenever I turned into the Ice Queen because Hubby was 15 minutes late getting home, all he could see was an unreasonably sulky response to a pretty mild misdemeanour. What he couldn’t hear was the 5 year old child inside me, crying, “But I married you because you’re RELIABLE! I married you because you don’t drink and prioritise the wrong things. I married YOU, and I need you to be that safe, conscientious person so that I never have to feel abandoned and insignificant again.”
I don’t believe that there’s a single person alive who doesn’t see the world through the filter of their history, but I DO believe that we can be helped. Knowing the source of our pain, understanding the deeply buried motivations behind our actions, and acknowledging and validating our responses… these are the first few steps to being able to let go of the past, enabling a change in our behaviour.
It’s not about blame. I’m not looking for a patsy upon whom I can pin my bitterness or moan, “Look what you did to meeeeee!” As a ‘grown up’, I hope I can at least begin to take responsibility for my own actions and words, and bring a more grounded personality to my interactions with my loved ones.
One day, I may even be able to say these words during an argument:
“It’s not you. It’s me.”