A few weeks before our anniversary, I found myself frightened at the prospect of being alone for an extended length of time, say an afternoon, with my husband. It filled me with dread. I found myself thinking of ways to weasel out of our date, or to lessen the intensity. Maybe we could go book shopping. Or to a gig. Less face to face time. I knew it had nothing to do with how I experience him- we share a similar dark sense of humour and have loads to talk about in terms of intellectual interests and shared life experience and we’ve got great chemistry. He is a pleasure to spend time with. And anyone with small kids knows what a treat it is to have some child-free time to just hang out together. So. Why was I feeling such reluctance about our uninterrupted hours together?
‘I always think of other people as the avoidant ones, not me,’ I said in a therapy session recently. My therapist responded with some exclamation of amusement. In my memory it was an incredulous snort or chortle. ‘I guess I can be quite avoidant,’ I admitted. I like to think of myself as mostly moving through the world securely now. Earned security: open hearted, seeing the best in people, generous, vulnerable, connected to myself and others emotionally. But every once in a while I find myself in this dark cave of dread and I become the old Diana who wants to flee the scene of relationship. But why?
I talked around this for a while. Weeks maybe. Just lots of labyrinthine getting lost and cul-de-sacs.
Finally, weeks later, ‘Maybe you’re afraid of the silence between you.’
Fucking hell. He was right. Maybe I couldn’t see it because I thought I’d sorted this shit out. After all these years, of marriage and therapy, I thought I was good at communicating. I thought I had healthy communication nailed. All those conversations about money and kids and let’s talk about how childcare is going to work and learning how to inhabit vulnerability in arguments by uttering the ‘when you, I feel’ statements, all the speaking from ‘I’ that I’m soooooo proud of. Yet there is sometimes silence between us because I’m still placing an omertà on expressing my feelings.
This unconscious shit goes fucking deep. Somewhere in the deep dark recesses of my mind, I think men are fragile, so easily wounded and offended that they can’t cope with me telling them my preferences, desires or communicating boundaries because they will take it personally. My dad often reacted this way, and having to nurse my chronically ill, depressed mother probably cemented my belief that my raison d’etre was to absorb everyone’s else’s reality at the expense of my own growth. I thought that was how to be in relationship. One person does the existing, the talking, the suffering, the other one mutely supports. The only way to keep people close is to dial down Diana FM and tune into them.
The solution maybe, which I’ve recently started trying, is do a little reality testing: ‘Hey is this my nightmarish ‘internal working model’ coming to bite me in the arse, or are you a fragile man with a chip on your shoulder who needs a bottomless ego massage from me to feel good about yourself?’ Reality testing means owning my own history and trying really hard to bracket it off so I can see who my husband actually is emotionally, not how I’m afraid he’s feeling. It sounds crazy, but knowing I can freely express my desires/boundaries/ preferences without risking a big drama is one of the most exhilarating feelings I’ve ever felt. I found the centre of the Labyrinth.
I’ve told my husband I’m not crazy about the beard. That didn’t destroy him. I’ve told him what I really think about Jordan Peterson, an author he is really into at the moment. I’ve told him so many things that I thought would make him turn away from me in a sulk, and they haven’t. I’ve been frank with him about when I have capacity to listen to him and when I need to be alone. I’d never have been able to ‘I AM’ like that with my parents growing up, particularly my dad. I feel so free.
My husband listened to my words and decided what to do with this info. He thinks it through, he doesn’t just react and defend himself. He is so fucking sane. I admire his emotional intelligence so much. I would totally have missed out on seeing him for who he is if I’d stayed cocooned in my paranoid delusions. Just being heard and understood by him is enough to dispel the dread. Generosity towards me was not what I thought would happen. I expected withdrawal, sulking and stonewalling. My pathogenic belief about intimacy is that in order to be in relationship I have to cut out my tongue and rip out my heart, because their truth will wound the other. No preferences, no boundaries, no expression of personal desire, and no selfhood. Intimacy then, is a Faustian pact of handing over my soul.
In my darker moments, this logic has manifested as a nightmare. I’ve dreamed of being cannibalised. A living death of gradual dismemberment. One limb at a time, kept in a basement till some part of me is needed, like in the film, The Road. I have no doubt this is an implicit memory, an emotional reality I experienced long ago with my parents. They bred me to make themselves feel loved and then they harvested me for parts as and when they needed those bits of me to bulk out their own fragile egos. I remained largely neglected and invisible until it was time to drag me up the steps to saw off a choice bit of my flesh: perhaps quote TS Elliott or recite Biblical Greek or do some caretaking. This is the dark legacy of narcissistic wounding.
That my fears and fantasies have kept me from easy intimacy- because it is easy to be with someone when I’m not worried that expressing my preferences and feelings and boundaries will wound them- is a bit tragic. And I feel so sad that I kept myself in the cannibal basement needlessly for so long. But I’m free to enjoy emotional intimacy now that I don’t have to cut out my own heart and tongue to stay connected.
Copyright 2018 Diana Smith
I’m grateful to my deeply private husband for allowing me to write about our marriage and for loving this crazy bitch for six years
I’m deeply indebted to Esther Perel’s characterisation of attachment styles in her book ‘Mating in Captivity’
I’m also grateful to psychoanalyst Michael Bader for his writing on pathogenic beliefs in his book ‘Arousal: the secret logic of sexual fantasy’ His blog post on this topic is a succinct summary of the idea.