Relationship Work

Before I began dating James, my longest relationship had been about… one year. Maybe two. I felt like something was wrong with me, because of that. When I used OkCupid, some people’s profiles would say things like: “If you haven’t yet been in a relationship for longer than 2 years, don’t bother messaging me.” (Way harsh, Tai.)

Also, before I began dating James, I hadn’t had any practice – or had any good role models – in healthy communication and confrontation. I’d previously avoided difficult conversations and confrontation altogether. I rationalised away annoyances until they vanished. I bottled up resentment and frustrations, which sometimes led to inevitable mini-splosions, surprising anyone involved. Or, in some cases, I shut down and ran away. I mean, for the most part, I was lovely and had lovely friendships… but if anything got tough – work, romantic relationships, or a friendship gone sour – I dealt with it badly.

Our relationship had a rocky start. We dated for a month, then broke up, then gradually became good friends over the next year. And then… our friendship felt like it was evolving into something else, which made me feel very uncomfortable. I didn’t want to go through all that again. I didn’t have the fortitude. I explained this to him, and the next day, he asked me out, and asked me to give it another go. I said yes.

Because of our history, I was insecure. My soul was feeling very self-protective and wary, and sometimes my insecurity would manifest in a biting way. I’d think I was being funny by gently mocking him in front of someone else, but it would actually hurt him. On a couple of occasions, he brought this up with me. “It doesn’t make me feel good when you do this.” It was incredibly embarrassing to be told off and to feel like I’d done something wrong, so I reacted quite badly to that – until he added that he loved me, and that he knew I didn’t intend to hurt him – which reduced my embarrassment and sense of being chastised.

We had our first more-than-a-weekend holiday in Byron Bay, for about a week. For a few days, we did everything together, enjoying each other’s company, enjoying waking up late and going to a cafe for breakfast and taking it sloowwwwww. Then a day came when I felt like I wanted to do something different – I felt like, maybe, riding to the shops, getting some cereal, having it back in the hut while doing some writing, then going to the shops and looking for gifts for friends & family, then heading to the beach for some quiet time in the sun. James wanted to eat at a cafe, though, so we rode to a cafe… and then, I thought, I could do those other things I wanted. But after breakfast, he said, “Let’s ride back to the car, then drive to this beach over the mountain; it’s a bit more out of the way.” I was reluctant. That wasn’t my plan; that was his. But most of the time I try to go with the flow and say yes, because otherwise you might always do what you’ve always done… and not try something new and interesting. I reluctantly followed him back to the car, but when we got there, I was resentful – although I couldn’t yet express why. In retrospect, I know it’s because I had these back-of-the-mind plans for the day and they were being dashed to shreds, but at the time I wasn’t articulately aware of the reason for my mood change. I just knew I didn’t want to go in the car.

James was happy with his plan and excited to get to the other beach – he was also going to find and buy a cheap boogie board, and play in the waves. I thought, “Well, this other beach might be really cool.” I went along. But as we arrived, and as I found a spot on the beach, and as I saw the waves crashing in and thought, “I don’t like going in waves like that… so I guess I’m stuck here, on the beach, with not much to do…” my resentment built up, until, of course, we had an argument. And still, I couldn’t really express why I was upset. In James’s mind, we’d gone for a nice breakfast, then gone to the beach, then alluvasudden I’d been really sullen and unhappy with him.

We were cold and quiet that evening. The next day, I began understanding what might have happened. I began thinking, “I think I wanted to do different things that day.” Isn’t it weird how sometimes we don’t really know what we want – we’re not really in touch with it? I think, especially, when you’ve been alone and independent for a long time, and then you’re in a sweet relationship and you feel like you should do everything together (mostly, because it’s fun and enjoyable to do that), you haven’t been exercising this muscle: being in touch with what you want, even when other people’s needs are in play. So you have a problem.

I explained my theory to James – that I had secretly harboured different plans for the previous day, and that I’d been frustrated when I couldn’t follow through on them. In turn, he explained that it had been incredibly hurtful when I had become sullen and upset for no apparent reason, and that I’d been cold and incommunicative for the rest of the day, and that he had gone to bed so sad, so very sad. I apologised and my heart was sore for my behaviour. And he said, “We need to communicate better. I wouldn’t have cared if you had said you wanted to do those things. We can’t continue experiencing this problem… it will be too hurtful. It won’t work.” I apologised again, and said that I hadn’t been in touch enough with what I wanted, so I hadn’t been able to communicate it. But I knew this was important. I had to find ways to listen to myself more, and know what I wanted, instead of being happy-to-go-along or always-trying-to-say-yes-to-new-experiences.

We have, since, had this problem again. And discussed it again. Sometimes, we have new problems. And we discuss them. Each time, I hate the discussion – it’s so awkward, and stilted, and difficult, and sometimes I have to admit that I’ve behaved badly, or even if I haven’t, I still feel like I’m being told off or that I’ve done something wrong… but James doesn’t shy away from difficult conversations. White-faced, looking very unhappy indeed, he will address the problem. It doesn’t always resolve perfectly. A couple of times, we’ve had to acknowledge that we’re both unhappy about something, and we don’t have a solution, but that we want to feel like we’re on the same team – we don’t want to hurt each other. I’ve had relationship talks for the first time in my life. I’ve been busted, respectfully, for behaving badly. I’ve learned that once you push through difficult conversations and confrontation to the next day, the next week, that your relationship is far better off for having been through that awfulness. I’ve learned about some things that I need to change, for a healthier relationship – like being aware and able to articulate my own wants and needs. And hopefully, I’ve learned how to initiate and manage healthy confrontation myself. Hopefully.

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