I am a nightmare to live with, lockdown has taught me. I knew already, at least theoretically, that I was. I had laughed at Alain de Botton’s talk on marriage when he said if you think you are easy to live with you’re deluding yourself because no one is and I recognised the truth in what he said. But there was a part of me that could plausibly deny the relational chafing I inflict. Self deception runs deep especially if you pride yourself on being fearlessly self-examining. Did I not read endless marital and childcare self-help books and follow their guidance, using the, ‘when you…I feel,’ frames and hadn’t I done crazy amounts of therapy in order to better love, and didn’t I ask for things non-violently and with an open heart and hand? I asked for date nights. I organised date nights. I practice respectful parenting. I made cards and didn’t avoid conflict, I listened consciously and didn’t utter defences.
‘Surely no one would want to be your friend if you were like that,’ my therapist suggested, gesturing to how hollow and ‘neat’ that relational way-of-being is, his face receding into a flat, painterly sketch over Zoom. And my husband gave me an image that made me laugh and also wince in recognition when he described my stress-response: ‘You are like a regional manager at Tesco: Cleanup on aisle seven.’ I joked about the polyester trousers and no-nonsense manner, my pettifogging practicality. Lockdown has been incredibly stressful and it has been an (unwelcome) invitation to witness the way I deal with psychic distress and an (unwelcome) opportunity to have it reflected back at me. I sort of knew already that I could get a bit ‘older-sister-messiah-captain-of-the-ship,’ but I didn’t fully own how much of my relational DNA are coded with that way-of-being. I see the code now.
It is funny how something so basic, so structural can be so invisible. It was hard to see the ways in which I am responsible for deadening connection because on the surface I was doing everything ‘right.’ I had dogma. I could dish out advice. I knew what to do.
I didn’t understand that it is that very quality of taking-over and running the show, keeping the world on its axis, having my hand up and the right answer on the tip of my tongue that makes real relating impossible. I guess the blindness of the self-righteous is…apocryphal. It is really hard to perceive. My therapist playfully recommended I slam more doors and try being, ‘petty and self-pitying,’ as I have accused others of being from my god-like position of enlightenment.
I am emerging from lockdown a little more sad and humble. Maybe even human. If I started lockdown on a high horse, on the moral highground, maybe I’ve dismounted and come down the Mountain of Smug. I don’t feel qualified to dish out marriage advice now. I do not know the answers. I have a few skills and tools which are useful but which do not lift me out of the messy business of relating. They are flares and maps but I still have to muddle around finding the path. And relating, if I am doing it properly, if I am attuning to the other person and entering into the heat of the moment properly, is messy. Sometimes it involves saying the wrong thing in the heat of the moment and bearing the regret and anxiety that comes from being wrong. It is agony. It requires a bit of good faith that if I put my foot wrong the other person will forgive. It requires all the trust I can muster and it turns out I do not have much of that. (There is a reason I am the nightmare I am. I survived because I learned how to make my own food, kill black widow spiders in the laundry bins and be a zit-faced know-it-all. There was zero cavalry and other people are never to be leaned on) I feel closer to my son and husband now but it is not a closeness that has been engineered by me. I do not entirely know how we got here. I could not replicate these results or tell anyone else what to do- there are no neat words or memes or formulas, only the willingness, on my part, to bear my relational misteps and to keep nosing my way toward the people I love.
Copyright Diana Smith 2020
References: Allain De Botton has many fabulous articles and videos on the subject of marriage which I highly recommend especially if you think you are easy to live with