It was just another usual writing day for me. I was still not sure what my column was going to be about. The frustration was only building up, till it reached its climax when I saw my partner’s ashtray brimming with cigarette butts toppled over the bed, where I was supposed to do my writing. Oblivious of the impending storm, my partner was relishing the last few morsels of egg scramble on his plate, before he could go about his day. “I am sick and tired of living in a messy house. I can’t deal with the remnants of your all-nighters,” I yelped. Utterly shocked and furious, my partner snapped back: “Then why don’t you try cleaning up for a change?”
Soon it turned into a verbal duel on who was contributing more to keep the relationship and the house running. He had lined up a list of things I didn’t do, and how I don’t acknowledge his contribution in running the household enough, citing past events in great detail. I, on the other hand, was on the brink of revising my relationship status foreseeing an unhappy future for us.
After an intense bout of acerbic exchanges laced with a good amount of crying and drama, both of us were too tired to continue. I still had a deadline lurking, and he had to attend his class. Slowly, our rational minds took charge and we could access mutual feelings of love and respect.
It’s a ritual for us to go over our fights and identify patterns that are unprod-uctive and toxic so that we could weed them out slowly. In our post-fight analysis, we were quite accurately able to pin down our fighting and defence styles. He tends to dig up past events to hurt me and defend himself and I tend to judge his momentary lapse in behaviour as a catastrophic event in our relationship and predict doomsday for us. His strategy is to draw ammunition from the past to make a case defending himself — how he is putting in efforts to make things work for us. My strategy is to simply give up when I hear him spell out the “efforts” (imagine passive aggressive air quotes) he was making to accommodate me and my needs. Because I would immediately interpret the word “effort” as being a burden on him.
Further examination brought my personal obsession with self-reliance to the fore. There is a deep-seated belief in me that no one must be inconvenienced to accommodate me. As a child, self-sufficiency was the top-most value I was trained in, not interdepen-dence. So, every time he goes on a tirade about what he does to make me feel at home (I temporarily shifted to his place following the lockdown), I read it as being a burden. This eventually makes me feel dependent and weak. Self-reliance is an armour worn by people who have time and again been hurt and betrayed for depending on someone, or who saw their primary caregivers abdicate their responsibility early on in their childhood. However, deep down they pine to be protected, loved and cared for. In the course of our discussion, it became clear to me that he highlights his contribution and past events because he wants to hold on to me. That it’s more like an appeal for consideration and not an assault. I, in turn, put forth my reservations about this toxic habit. By referring to past events he denies and disrespects the progress we have made as a couple.
With every fight, our relationship and understanding of each other’s mental make-up evolves. We mutually decided that on my part I will stop catastrophising (thinking of the worst possible conse-quence) about our relationship when something goes wrong, and he would try not to delve into the past to bring up hurtful events.In the end, he promised to smoke on the balcony (not sure how long that would hold). By then, both of us had understood that the fight was never about the toppled ashtray. All we needed was a temperature check to assess if we were doing fine as co-habitants under the same roof, if we were taking care of each other’s needs, and if we were not compromising on our love owing to the many practical problems we were encountering for the first time as live-in partners.
The rigmarole of daily life can be a romance killer. But trust me, there is nothing more romantic than understanding your partner’s triggers, defences, and childhood trauma.
(The writer is a mental health and behavioral sciences columnist, conducts art therapy workshops and provides personality development sessions for young adults. She can be found as @the_millennial_pilgrim on Instagram and Twitter.)