Perhaps it is crystal clear in reading what I write here, and it is certainly not news to anyone who knows me – I am a Type A personality. I like to be in control. I like to know what is coming next, so that I can plan for it and anticipate it and prepare myself emotionally for it. Often this desire to be in control is somewhat to my detriment, because it is regularly coupled with my failure to communicate clearly about specifically what I want and why. Last year when I was dating one of the most intelligent people I have ever met, it became overtly apparent that I was not always clear in the way I communicated my wants and needs. He was a good-natured fellow, but not infrequently he found me beyond frustrating because his was a problem-solving brain and there was no clear path to follow in trying to anticipate what I might want or need. He would laugh and say things like, swing and a miss! when he would invariably get it wrong, whatever “it” may have been, but I can only imagine how maddening it must have been to never know how to anticipate what your partner wants or needs.
I like to believe that I am not dictated by emotion, and this is another form of control. I like to believe that I am in control of my emotions, not that they are in control of me. So when, like a toddler, I inexplicably can’t tolerate something that was fine yesterday, or suddenly want things to be a certain way that I have never desired before, it is a slap-in-the-face realization that I careen wildly out of control at times… like every other human being. And I am a lot more subject to emotion than I might like to think. The relationship with the super smart guy ended in part because I realized that I wanted things very different from what I had originally thought when we entered into the relationship.
That dynamic was instrumental in highlighting for me what I do and do not want out of this life, and in helping me understand how crucial it is to be straightforward about what I want. That’s what differentiates us as adults from the tantrum-throwing children we once were: the ability to articulate what is bothering us and work through it. The thing is, though, it’s really hard, even as an adult, or perhaps especially as an adult. When you’re a grown-up, you’re supposed to be in tune with your feelings and you’re supposed to be able to talk openly and candidly about what you’re wrestling, and then you can healthily work through it and everything is sunshine and rainbows.
Except don’t you ever just feel like being an ass for no real reason? Don’t you ever struggle with feeling resentful or vindictive or sad or miserable or hateful or judgmental, despite every rational cell of your being jumping up and down and telling you to cut it out? The truth is, I try to be very clear and honest with what I am feeling, but sometimes I don’t know. Sometimes, I just spill out emotion in every direction and I simply cannot get a hold of it, cannot get a hold of myself. Like ping pong balls, my feelings bounce into corners and under furniture and by the time I round up a handful, another handful has gone off in another direction.
This is not a great way to conduct relationships, it is not a great way to survive in the adult world where we are supposed to be in complete control of ourselves. Our bad moods should be checked at the door. We are not allowed to be inexplicably grouchy. It is unacceptable to inordinately sob because you drop something or smash your finger or the car won’t start. Except that’s what we all feel like doing. And as I continue to get older and garner more experience and learn about myself and life and the world, I am coming to realize that most of the battle is won in simply admitting that you feel like being an ass today, or acknowledging that you might wail inconsolably over some seemingly small infraction on the part of the Universe. Knowing where you’re at and being willing to meet yourself where you’re at and ask that the people who love you do the same is a huge step toward honest communication. I can’t imagine that any human being of any age can immediately identify the exact feeling they are experiencing, why it has surfaced, and how to swiftly and resolutely deal with it.
I think about relationships and families a lot, probably more than the average bear. Relationships are a mystery to me, a complex problem to which there is no formulaic answer, and I circle back to trying to understand them for this reason. The notion of a marriage lasting for decades is fascinating to me, it is something for which I hunger and also something I view with fearful wonder. Sometimes I am embittered by the fact that I am unmarried, that I feel “behind” many of my peers. I am afraid that I have irretrievably lost so much time. But my reality is that if I had married any younger than I am now, it is possible that the marriage would not have been able to sustain my emotional immaturity. Living alone and being in a dating relationship wherein you can retreat to your own space so that you can kick your feet and throw a tantrum if you so choose is entirely different from living with another person.
It took me until fairly recently to understand that there is a place for politeness in a relationship, even a cohabiting one. My dysfunctional view of romantic relationships led me to believe that being in one meant being your whole self, even those very ugly parts of yourself, and if your partner wasn’t totally pumped about every single part of you, then the relationship was doomed to fail. About a decade ago, I lived with a boy for the first time in my life. I was young and dramatic and entirely ill-equipped. My belief was that every single fight, even a tiny squabble, was a death sentence for the relationship. The dynamic would walk the plank every time we disagreed on anything, no matter how small. Sometimes we inexplicably grew frustrated with each other, as is typical of a cohabiting couple and especially so when the couple is of very low socioeconomic status, as we were. In those times, I would be beside myself, certain he was going to leave me, or convinced I should leave him. It was a strenuous dynamic, one that didn’t end well, and one in which I often carried myself with very little grace.
Tumultuous though it was, I look to that relationship sometimes as an illustration of what not to do, how not to carry oneself, but also with great sympathy for that poor girl who was consumed by feelings she did not understand and could not name and for which she had no tools. Every time I resolve a conflict maturely, or have a sincere conversation about what is bothering me, I think about that nineteen year old girl chain smoking cigarettes sitting on the windowsill in the kitchen of an apartment on a busy corner in Davenport. With no medication, no therapist, no close friends to speak of, no family nearby, somehow she did not totally implode and that is in itself a miracle of sorts. Even at almost thirty years old, still I have to fight back the knot in my gut that yanks on a rope that is attached to my lungs and throat, that knot that closes off my ability to breathe and chokes me on my own emotions. Still today, I am sometimes overcome with that completely irrational notion that the relationship will surely burst like a balloon if I am honest about how I feel.
Sometimes I still have no idea what I am feeling, only that I am feeling something and that it is not rational and I cannot help myself but to try and put it on my partner somehow. Or, worse, I try desperately to harbor it quietly and, like a frightened animal, I dart around in fear and bite at the very people who love me the most. I was raised to believe – albeit inadvertently – that when difficulty arises in relationships, the only conclusion is that the relationship will end. My natural lust for control and this erroneous line of thinking combined forces to make me a self-saboteur for most of my dating life. I followed my mother’s implicit advice to get “them” before they get you, I took to heart the lesson she unwittingly taught us that men don’t have real feelings. I ended one relationship after another, so certain was I that it was going to inevitably crash and burn anyway and it was probably better not to get hurt. This was before I understood consciously that the person ending the relationship can and usually does hurt just as deeply as the other party.
This year has been a lesson in relaxation, in letting go of control whether I want to or not. My approach to life and relationships has often been scientific, which is why I was a fan of online dating. It makes sense: there are parameters, you match a certain number of variables, and the logic is that the feelings will ultimately follow suit because the formula says they will. If you have 85% of life goals and desires, fears, hopes, likes, dislikes, and plans in common, you are bound to come easily to love. I always kept online dating in my back pocket as a sure thing, a silver bullet for when I was ready to settle down and didn’t want to mess with the complication of dating. Even as someone who wants children, the formula makes perfect sense, and to my silly brain it seemed reasonable to essentially enter into a partnership with someone and trust that we would love each other naturally as an extension of our like and respect for each other.
I have learned that while I can definitely survive in that sort of dynamic, I want more. I want to love in a way that my heart is in a precarious state, not locked away in a velvet-lined chest, safe from the perils of damage and loss. I want love to be sloppy and illogical and riddled with more emotion than can be contained or understood by two mortal souls, but that can be felt so profoundly between those two souls that no words in any language can begin to characterize it. I want it to be a love that burns hot enough that even in the times of frozen hibernation, there is no question of whether it will last. I want it to be passionate and understanding enough that the bad moods, the spilled food, the rushed mornings, the too-short evenings, the sick pets and children, the electronics and vehicles that fail, the parents who die, the siblings who fight with us, the tantrums we throw for no real reason… I want love to be big enough that all those things melt into it and it soothes the soul as a salve unmatched in this earthly existence. I do not want control. I want to be in a place where I feel safer than I have ever felt in my life by being completely out of control.