One of the weird joys of my marriage is that both my husband and I share a very dark sense of humour. On our 5th wedding anniversary we cooked up a little joke together: wouldn’t it be hilarious to create a Book of Grudges where we could list all of our petty grievances against one another in florid prose? Our book of grudges lives on the mantelpiece- it is a heavy tome and there is a column for vengeance, at my husband’s insistence. With melodramatic aplomb, I write ‘may god have mercy on his soul,’ in the column while he breezily informs me he will fill it retrospectively, as and when divine vengeance is levied on me in punishment for whatever atrocity I have committed. (Leaving a post-dinner party mountain of dishes is one of my peccadillos) Living with another human being, as gorgeous as they are and as much as we passionately love one another, is in turns as infuriating as it is nourishing. Living with another human being, blazing gloriously in all of their difference and idiosyncrasies is hard work no matter how well suited to one another we are, how skilled we are at all the intimacy stuff, how emotionally intelligent we are. Rupture is inevitable and so are the taboo feelings we aren’t supposed to feel when we love someone: hatred, rage, frustration, aggression, fear. The more human I become, the more my heart melts and the more tenderness I feel, the more capacity I have for feeling the good, the bad and the ugly. And I don’t want to get rid of those feelings. They’re part of my humanity, they’re my soul, they’re my guts, they tell me who I am in the world.
This is an odd thing to feel proud of but I’m grateful we’ve made room for ambivalence and even hatred between us. I know no one would dream of telling newlyweds, ‘the key to a happy marriage is making space for hatred,’ but weirdly I think that is true. We’ve found a playful way of digesting some rambunctious feelings that perhaps might otherwise need to be expressed passively aggressively, or feelings that I’d have to spend allot of time and emotional energy batting away. Weirdly, allocating space for hatred clips its wingspan and takes up far less internal space than obsessively holding a grievence would. This sounds strange, but it makes fighting fun. Fighting, my marriage has shown me, doesn’t have to be earnest or disconnected or tearful. It can be banter. Finding a way to play through a difficult feeling allows for some objectivity to peep through- I am not mired in my own woundedness. Play takes the sting out, it makes the feeling into an object we can throw back and forth, it makes it possible to turn it over in our hands and look at it together. Contrary to what many of us were taught as kids, our emotions are not in themselves destructive, even the most abject, such as hatred. And by turning the feeling into a toy, we refuse to weaponise it. It is there, it is allowed to exist and even be charged with meaning- and arguably, as authors like Susan David or Clarissa Pinkola Estes point out, our feelings like anger ARE ‘data’ for us and its incredibly useful for us to mine our emotions for meaning- but feeling a feeling is different from hurting the other. As far as possible, these feelings will never be weaponised, deployed to hurt or control the other. Allowing for them means we can hold them quite lightly, we are not cowering in fear from them, worried they will control us.
And there are some obvious caveats. It wouldn’t be a game if one of us wasn’t playing- that would just be bullying. It’s something we schemed together. I think like all play the primary purpose has to be play for its own sake, and its fun because there is an element of profanity-things you’re not supposed to say to each other on your fith wedding anniversary – it was primarily some banter between us, not a po-faced attempt to metabolise negative affect in our marriage. That would be deadly dull and rip the rug right out from underneath our dark little game. The fun is the conspiracy, the slightly taboo hilarity of it all. Obviously neither of us are easily bruised or fragile or take personally the others grudges- it kind of only works because we have both gotten a little more skilled over the years at owning our own projections. Sometimes we remember not to blame the other person for our delusions and fears. When we see our suitcase coming round and round and round on the carousel, we reach for it ourselves, we don’t let the other partner pick up our baggage. I know that it is not objectively a sin to leave three rashers of bacon in a packet in the fridge instead of cooking the whole pack, that is 100% my shit, it speaks to my issues and pettiness and says nothing about my husband’s character or motives. And lastly, it requires some emotional intelligence and intimacy- I know what I would never write, the the buttons I wouldn’t push, the thing that would be crossing the line. And probably the most obvious thing of all- it works because I respect him deeply and make it clear to him in myriad ways daily that I am passionate about him. Our Book of Grudges has taught me allot – one of the main lessons is that paradoxically, creating a release valve to let loose our hatred frees up more space for love.
Copyright Diana Smith 2018
Susan A David is author of ‘Emotional Agility’ and has a fabulous TED talk on the subject
Jungian analyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes has taught me much about the importance of paying attention to my anger rather than denying it or in her book ‘Women who run with wolves.’
And thanks to my deeply private husband for letting me write about our marriage