There were several reasons I assumed my first love and I would be together forever: he called me ironically long pet names (funny), spun me around in the air the moment I arrived anywhere (romantic), kissed my nose and my forehead (literal matrimony). If someone told me that what I was experiencing were the very basics of young infatuation, I would have scoffed. I was certain our connection was unique and possibly unfounded in the history of humankind.
Plus — and this was important — we never fought. Ever.
I wore this detail like a badge of honor. I’m sure it was included in the list of “100 Reasons I Love You” that I gifted him our first Christmas together, the prematurity of which may or may not have contributed to his breaking up with me the following month. His stated reason for ending it was simple: He was scared by how much he loved me. I believed him, as one does at the age of 19. Why else would a couple who never argued choose to part ways?
A decade later, I feel more equipped to answer that question: a shit ton of reasons.
For most of my life, I was proud of the fact that none of my close relationships involved much fighting. I never talked back to my parents, I never bickered with my friends, I never yelled at my boyfriends. I was not passive, I reasoned, just above it. My fights were discussions. My anger was processed. My relationships were…what? Stronger for it? Closer? I’m not so sure.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to recognize myself as pretty intensely conflict averse. It took me a while to come around to this idea, because I’ve never had a problem expressing my inner thoughts nor engaging in serious conversation — all things I assumed made me equipped for confrontation. But anyone who’s already cleared this hurdle is probably shaking her head: Sharing your feelings after they’ve been intellectualized is not the same as true emotional vulnerability. I’m only just beginning to understand the difference.
While the specific flavor of my conflict aversion is mine to own, it’s easy to track where it started: My family is not the fighting kind. We do not address our frustrations with each other head on, but rather engage in a complicated dance of guessing each other’s emotions and doing our best not to annoy each other. Although we occasionally have capital-T Talks, they often come after a long period of suppressed frustration or emotional self-policing, and by then there is usually a tinge of betrayal that it wasn’t raised sooner, and a sense of stifling as everyone does their best to shape their feelings into language that is understanding, empathetic and productive.
It’s not perfect, but I’ve long considered this to be the evolved approach. And yet, the more I consider the extent to which I’ve applied this sense of “decorum” to my social and romantic relationships, the more it has started to resemble something else: fear of genuinely letting loose. Not with each other, but at each other. And it’s hard not to draw a line between my hesitance to weather conflict and certain parts of my friendship complex, like failing to maintain my childhood friendships.
I was considering all this when I recently picked up Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, which I then devoured in a single day. I will not spoil why this particular book was so relevant except to say that, at one point, the narrator’s friend Margaux says: “I sometimes feel pretty paralyzed by my own feelings of empathy.”
I immediately recognized myself in those words, and finally understood that I’d been using empathy as an excuse to not express myself. By rarely letting unchecked thoughts exit my body, I’d been guarding myself from shame. By always considering everyone else’s feelings, I could unfeel my own. But what if sharing unchecked thoughts and feelings was the definition of intimacy? What if fights and the resolving of them actually made relationships stronger, like micro-tears in a muscle?
The other week, when my boyfriend knew I was having a rough day, he came into my apartment with a bright, optimistic energy. He greeted me with a huge smile and, before asking how I was, started monologuing about an artist he found inspiring. From my stupor, I felt uncared for. I felt annoyed. But I swallowed my emotions and reasoned that I was cranky. Of course he would never mean to hurt me. This was my practiced process.
But a few minutes later, I decided to change course: I told him that I thought he was being selfish — that he wasn’t reading the room and that he was making me feel alone. The words felt foreign coming out of my mouth. I had not led with empathy. I had used no proper “I statements.” I had not couched my frustration with reasons it might be unfair. It felt… incredible. He was taken aback. Then he started to defend himself: He was only trying to cheer me up, he explained, a bit frustrated.
This was not our normal rhythm. We rarely accuse each other of malice or defend ourselves; we empathize, analyze and apologize instead. But what happened this time was different: we expressed raw, unfiltered emotions in the moment they arose, voices raised just enough to flood our bodies with adrenaline.
This was barely — laughably — a fight, and we resolved it within a couple minutes, but it lead to a long, enlightening conversation about what it means to be honest with each other in moments like those. What it means to trust one another enough to abandon our filters and know we will still be cherished. What it actually means to have flaws, and love and seek love anyway.
“Fight first, empathize second” might sound like absurd advice. I’m sure many need to hear the opposite. But for people like me, who pride themselves on seeking out the best in others and hold tight to their ability to quietly supply forgiveness before a person has even sought it, I think it’s worth considering whether those acts are truly selfless or actually a form of self-protection. Because expressing raw emotions requires vulnerability and confidence in your own worthiness of love. And suppressing them can be a form of walling yourself off.
When I gloated that my first serious boyfriend and I never fought, what I didn’t realize is we also didn’t know each other that well. He may have known my dreams and quirks and insecurities, but that’s not the same as knowing the parts of me that reveal themselves before I’ve had the chance to tie them up in a bow and deliver them in a low voice. I didn’t know those parts of him either. We actually ended up getting back together, but we broke up for good a year later. The impetus? The subtlest series of hints and suppressed emotions that revealed we weren’t very compatible. Had we fought more, we probably would have learned that a lot sooner.
Now? My goal is to yell the next time I’m hurt. Before I’ve had the chance to consider other factors, like whether I’m being fair or reasonable or likable. More than that, I want to do it with the confidence of someone who knows she’ll still be lovable. That may sound like a backwards pursuit, but I find the fact that I cannot recall a single time I’ve done it far more unsettling. Anger, after all, can serve a purpose.
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