Love is not a victory march

I could feel the imaptience rising in my throat. We had been for a lovely long cycle ride after being cooped up in the flat all week. There is a quiet trail by the river we could take and R has just learned how to ride a bike. I thought it might relieve some of our claustrophobia. R loves his new bike but he is still learning how to look after it. We had stopped for a rest on a bench in the sunshine and he let it drop into the path just as someone was walking past. ‘I can’t let you do that,’ I said, calmly, picking up the bike and setting it next to him. This is the usual respectful parent style-limit setting, and I am comfortable in my role as adult-in-the-relationship who makes him feel safe, shows him where the edge is, stops him doing harm. He dropped it into the path again, just as someone was walking past. I picked up the bike again but I was fuming. Since social distancing and his school closing we had been talking allot about ‘being considerate’ of others. There are so many new routines and new rules and he has been doing his job of testing those limits beautifully. He wants to know the edges of his new world, where the cliffs and fences are, where there is room to wiggle under and how to walk the strange new bridges. This is all new territory and he learns by pushing. I know all of this. It does not change the fact that I was livid. All of my usual release valves are gone. I don’t have work to give me space to myself, to remember my not-mum identities. I can’t re-charge with my friends, giggling and sipping a glass of wine in the pub. I barely have time to read, I feel lucky when I can carve out a bit of time to do yoga and meditate in the mornings. My own world has totally collapsed in the last two weeks and my pantry of patience and generosity and goodwill are running low. I am finding it hard to self-regulate as quickly as I am sometimes able to.

I hate being frozen out. Of all the ways someone can show me they are angry at me, the silent treatment and stonewalling are the most painful for me. This kind treatment was a feature of my own childhood and in therapy I have come to recognise the interpersonal harm it does. I think shutting out a child, going cold on them and ignoring them does enormous harm. As kids we are reliant on our parents to ‘keep us mind’ as child psychoanalyst Winnicott would say, and going slack-jawed and flat-faced, we, as kids, can feel erased, dropped, confused, disorientated. It is agony not being able to read a parent’s psyche, not being able to access them, it is a kind of imprisonment. I know for myself the effect was that I became focused on trying to ‘reach’ them: through humour, talking, entreating, being ‘good,’ at the expense of my own emotional growth. You can’t focus on getting to know your internal world if you are focused on trying to get the attention of your caretakers.

The moment when he dropped the bike onto the ground for the second time I sensed a choice. I felt myself closing down, wanting to get on my bike and ride home in punishing silence. I was consumed with anger and fear-for him, for the safety of passers by- and I was not able to down-regulate back into neutral. My other option was to share, simply, my feelings with him. I do not do this very often, but sometimes, when I feel like he is in control enough of his behaviour to actually choose (i.e., if he is not acting impulsively) and I am in the throes of a big feeling, rather than leave him guessing I think it is useful to tell him how I feel and tell him what I need from him. I am a big fan of Non Violent Communication and I use the technique often in my own marriage. We are so used to thinking about feleings as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and using them to hold power over others that sharing a ‘negative’ emotion can sometimes feel like a risk. When we ‘view our feelings from a place of safety,’ as attachment researcher Peter Fongay says, we are free to see all emotion as part of human experience. Anger, regret, sadness all become something we can experience, own, and share with another human being, especially if we learn how to share them in a way which respects the other person’s autonomy and isn’t a ploy to manipulate them. It is vulnerable because it is owning our own feelings and speaking from ‘I’ rather than an accusative ‘you.’ It is telling the other person what you need from them, open handed and open heartedly asking if they can offer that to you. It honours our inter-dependance and acknowledges both our separateness and our intimacy. There is a possibility of connecting when we share these parts of ourselves in a boundaried, respectful way.

We were, by now, standing together, about to mount our bikes and go. He had been trying to chat to me and I was too preoccupied to respond. I dropped to my knees so I was on his level and faced him, ‘I am angry with you,’ I said, looking into his eyes. His face fell and he started crying. Sobbing. I continued, stating my need: ‘You dropped your bike into the path. I want to go for cycle rides with you but if we are going to cycle together I need to know I can trust you to be responsible for your own bicycle. I need to know you can take responsibility for your bike so we can be safe.’

He stopped crying and my anger fizzled out, which I think is what happens when a feeling is owned, whether it is shared or not. He said simply, ‘I am ready.’ We cycled home together, a little more tenderly. I felt close to him and I’m pretty sure he felt closer to me. It is difficult right now. Everything is slippery. We are trying to work out how to be together, how to share psychic space as well as physical space. How do we negociate cycling together and how do we respectfully, not violently, balance everyone’s needs for space and autonomy and safety in our family right now? How do we make space for all of our subjective expereinces, our own truths, our own psychic lives and needs. The process is kind of sloppy and imperfect and there are collisions. I keep thinking of Leonard Cohen’s hallelujah . Human connection is not easy, intimacy is laboured and skilled and takes practice especially when I am comitted to respectful, non violent ways of being in the world. So often when it goes right, I don’t feel triumphant, I don’t feel I can fly my ‘flag on the marble arch,’ I feel sore and tender, a little tear stained and softer, pedaling home slowly in the sunshine, trying to dig deep for more kindness and courage to face one another.

Copyright Diana Smith 2020

Janet Lansbury has taught me how to practice respectful parenting

Marshall Rosenberg is the author of Non Violent Communication

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