Sunday, March 24, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 346: Biomythography - Note 88, Painful Relationships, Part II

Painful Relationships, Part II

How do you tell you're the relatively clueless one in the relationship?

When I was twenty-four, I started dating a woman who, in retrospect, arranged our circumstances so we could become a couple. For a few months, I'd hung out with her and her friends. Twice, maybe three times (it's hard to tell what was going on, especially in retrospect), she stopped her girlfriends from hooking up with me. This included bursting through doors into rooms where I was cuddling. At the time, I figured I had developed a bad reputation and she was simply protecting relatively innocent young women.

One day, she invited me to her place to hang out. Her boyfriend was gone for a few days and she was bored. Despite telling me repeatedly she was lonely, though, she didn't seem to want to socialize with her friends. She kept me in her bedroom instead and confided in me about her problems. They were interesting to hear about, especially her difficulties in college, but as it got later at night and I figured I'd better leave, she grabbed my wrist to stop me at her door.

"You're not tired," she said.

"Not so much." The conversation had gotten sexual and I'd grown uncomfortable. I felt the opposite of tired. Her innuendos had me wired up. I liked her boyfriend, despite her problems with him, and if she was worried about our reputations it couldn't do any good to have me spend the night.
"I've done all the talking." She gently released my wrist.

"I don't mind." I felt flattered she wanted to talk to me so much. She wasn't being selfish. "Really, I like it.

"Well, why don't you tell me about your problems for a minute?"

"Eh, mine are just failed affairs with women."

"Tell me about the one who came down to see you from New York."

After a while, I sat back down to conduct my self-analysis. The young woman made jokes about my love life. She teased me about the former girlfriend who had visited weeks before and another, too, from a couple months before that. After a while, she started touching me. After long enough, I lay down on her floor, in the center of her rug, partly to relax from the tension between us. It was a good place to talk more and listen to her thoughts. Past midnight, she lay down next to me. As we talked, she snuggled up. Her touches grew more sexually direct.

We spent a long few hours, both of us, enduring sexual teasing and tension. Finally, she set up camp on the floor and told me to go to sleep. It took a while, but I managed.

The next day, she fed me before I left her place. At noon, while I was doing chores in my apartment, I got a phone call. It was her. She announced she was breaking up with her boyfriend. She asked me to pick her up from her place and take us out to a restaurant to talk about it.


How can you know when a relationship gets too painful?

I think when nurses attach a ECG to you for a week at a time, when you're put on a hospital diet you didn't want, when you have 'heart blocks' induced by your experimental medicine, when you run out of veins to give blood tests, when the nurses start jabbing up and down your limbs, bruising the back of your arm, bruising the back of your hand, and they rip away patches of skin as they remove ECG pads from your chest, then at last you have a baseline for comparison. When everyone around you is groggy from lack of sleep, when your nurses are crabby with you, when your temporary friends feel glum, and you look around and wonder what's wrong with you, that's how you know.

When being an experimental subject feels light and carefree compared to the rest of your life, that's an important clue. I looked around at my smelly roommates, my medical surroundings, my tubes dripping into red bags, my swathes of tape, my nurses in blue smocks, and I felt good. 

In a situation like this, you want to know why you're happy. Why are you relaxed and joyous when everyone else is concentrating on their imprisonment and torture? It doesn't take long. It just doesn't take much thinking to figure out how the unhappiness is missing. After I considered the problem for a minute, I couldn't escape the conclusion. I dreaded going back to my girlfriend.

At this point, we had been living together for years. She had moved with me from Massachusetts to Maryland. We paid rent on an apartment together. We raised cats.

Before her, though, for two decades or more, my friendships had been the most important aspect of my life. That was a problem, now. My woman couldn't stand for me to visit my friends, even though I tried to include her in every event. She couldn't stop resenting the time I spent writing, either. In fact, any moment I spent not focusing on her was becoming the subject of her ire. The situation had gotten exhausting for me in a way I hadn't been able to recognize until the experiment.

“Can you skip the party this time?" she said, on several occasions. "I’m not feeling well.” 

At other times, it was, “Can we do something else? My foot is sore.”

And, “Aren’t you done yet? Let’s do something together, I'm bored.” 

Every time, she steered me to what she wanted. Also every time, it made perfect sense. If I wanted to go out and do something she didn’t like, she would let me make the arrangement. Then, at the last moment, she would get sick and ask me not to go. Her injuries and ailments were real. I don’t think she was faking anything. In some way, it made her feel bad to have me leave for a few hours.

She genuinely developed medical problems or she felt them more when the time came to see my friends.

“I would like it if you take care of me. Stay for a while.”

“Don’t leave me when I’m feeling feverish.” 

By the end of a couple of years, I had lost day-to-day contact with all of my friends except her. I no longer knew when they were available. They no longer expected me to call.

She was a good person, too. By then, I knew she was being manipulative. She couldn’t stop and she couldn’t really hide it. But she was still good. A lot of people would have liked all her attention.

Here was a thing I was discovering about myself, though. I couldn’t really live without my friends. I couldn’t stay in one place and not leave the house except for my job. I couldn’t live closely with someone who resented my time writing or exercising or dancing. I needed to dance and sing a little. I wanted to exercise more. I yearned to write or, at least to feel the afterglow of having written something.

I no longer wanted to live without the possibility of having children, either. That decision was my betrayal of our relationship. She had said from the beginning she wasn’t interested in having children. On that issue, it was me who changed.

My desire to have a family would, by itself, have signaled the end. I had gone from being slightly interested in parenting to, somehow, feeling sure I could be a decent father. Maybe books were to blame. By that point in my life, I had read Mario Puzo's The Godfather three times and I had solidified my ideas about family.

There is no good compromise over the issue of children. In every other aspect of my life, like everyone else, I was accustomed to making compromises. But there is no raising half a child. There are no part-time parenting jobs. And I wasn’t going to feel right without the sense I was trying to grow a bit more goodness into the world.

Even though she was a manipulator, even though my friends called her out for it and resented her control of me, she would have been a very good match for someone else right then, just as she was.


How can you ignore what everyone is telling you? 

For a couple years, my friends had been indicating I was too much in the sway of my woman - that I had stopped doing things that made me happy because of her. Some of my friends didn't use gentle words. But I ignored them. And when I realized, a couple years later, how unhappy I was and decided I had to end the relationship to preserve myself, a lot of the same friends circled back to tell me again.

The result of the decision, though, was a slow, multi-month breakup. 

Not all of our friends were happy with it. Some of them asked us if we would get back together or if we were even really sure about breaking up. 

When they inspired doubts, I remembered the euphoria I had felt in the midst of the medical torture. When everyone else had felt down about our living conditions, I had experienced sublime joy. Yes, she was my life partner and I was happy with her presence. I did my best to look after her and she looked after me. She improved me, day to day. Yet somehow, over a longer stretch of time, the direction of my life made me miserable. 

Over the course of the relationship, I had become more aware of being manipulated. I had considered it a bonus, sometimes, that I was being forced to defend myself more and more. Why not? I could handle it. I figured I could handle pretty much anything. But the revelation was: I was handling it and nonetheless was miserable. 

All it took was a moment of relative freedom for me to understand how off track my life had gotten, how unhappy I was to be stagnant and bereft of small joys. It seemed I would rather be woken up every night to be stabbed with needles than to keep on with the way I was living.

I should have done better. I should have fixed it from the start, somehow. I should have stopped the patterns of manipulation. But I didn't. Couldn't, maybe. And finally I had some awareness of the results.

A year after our breakup, we were still friends. When I visited on an autumn day, she told me she was having hallucinations. They happened often enough she decided to go to the doctor about them. She started taking medicine to control them. 

"I don't like the pills," she admitted. "But I think they help."

She turned her life in a different direction. Knowing about it felt good. Of course, I should have done better myself, earlier. I should have suspected a medical problem. I should have figured it out. But she was and is very smart and good at getting her way. I don't know that better understanding on my part would have helped. It might have set things back a bit if she perceived me pressing her into a decision she didn't trust. 

She made the choice. Although she had been determined to avoid it, when she needed to make the decision, she did. 

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