The conversation happened at a time when we were still trying to “work it out.” As if the failures of a two-decade relationship were little more than a stubborn stain requiring a bit more soap and scrubbing.
We sat at “my” table in the apartment I had moved into in an act of separation. I had made a pot of steaming chamomile tea. He was a guest in my home. It was a strange dynamic between two adults who had known each other since before they’d been allowed to drive.
When i talk a lot that night. I was making sense of how I felt and what I was grieving and what I wanted to build. I was doing all of this out loud. when trying to explain what happens inside my gut when I want to say “no” but say “yes” instead.
He sat there and just listened.
The words had poured out of me, splattering all over the table and the walls. But not him. Nothing I’d said had penetrated his unusually calm surface.
He didn’t interject. didn’t defend. He simply listened. For a very long time. I was thrown off by this new dynamic. It made me feel both skittish and relieved at the same time. This was what I had been craving all of these years, and I couldn’t quite believe it was really happening. I emptied myself of the thoughts and feelings and uncertainties and fears that had been welling up inside. So I also squeezed out sentences explaining the hurt that came from 23 years of saying I didn’t feel seen and being told, in return, that I was needy and complicated.
I also talked too much and he still listened.
For a precious moment I felt seen. I felt heard.
I took a sip of tea. It was cold. I looked up. The words had poured out of me, splattering all over the table and the walls. But not him. Nothing I’d said had penetrated his unusually calm surface. My words had slid off of him like oil on a hot Teflon pan, leaving the only slightest trace that could easily be wiped off with a paper towel. He looked unfazed. Untouched. Almost serene.
A tear traveled down my cheek.
We’d done this particular dance before. He would try to adapt to what he thought I wanted — “bending over backward” is what he called it. He would become the textbook version of a good husband, checking off all of the boxes, and then get frustrated when I bemoaned his lack of emotion. “A bottomless pit,” he would call me.
That particular night, he modeled active listening. He shoved down all of his own feelings, reactions, and impatience while I talked and talked and talked. He numbed his own needs in order to be a “good listener” in a bid to fix our battered marriage so our children could have both their parents under the same roof.
I could not find the words to explain that this was the opposite of helpful and healing.
Did I need to talk my stuff out? Absolutely. But not at the cost of bulldozing his feelings and reactions. I have friends and a therapist if I need to rant. What I was trying to do that night was communicate how I felt so we could build a mutual understanding. I wanted to hear how he felt, too. So i wanted him to feel heard. I wanted to feel heard. It was a simple equation:
My Understanding + His Understanding = Healing
That night, he did what he thought he was supposed to. I have never been very good at doing what I am supposed to do, simply because I am supposed to do it.
To this day, he and I react to the world in radically different ways: autonomy and agency vs. duty and sacrifice. These are the lessons each of us imparts to our children. There is a case to be made for each of our perspectives. There are power and strength in each as well. Yet, because we projected our preferred lenses on each other, we were forever destined to fail in the other’s eyes.
From him, I wanted agency. If rambling on about my feelings made him impatient, he didn’t have to listen to me. I didn’t want him listening to me. I wanted him to say: “I don’t feel like listening to you right now. When i have my own stuff to deal with,” or however else he was feeling. I’d have rather dealt with feeling hurt, rejected, and frustrated than having him simmering inside, resenting how long it took me to express myself, or even worse pushing all of his own feelings down and numbing himself out.
I had tried to say this in many ways for many years
“Don’t be with me because you think you should be. I’d rather be alone than someone’s duty. Be with me because you are curious about what is in my heart. Because I inspire and engage you. Because you have loving and kind feelings for me. And you are attracted to me. Not because you are supposed to. If you are loving me out of duty, please stop.”
I didn’t love him out of duty. I loved him because, to me, he was (is) a glorious human being, forever learning and growing. He made me tingle. I was curious about his path and his choices and his thoughts and his feelings. I still am. so i wanted to understand how his story intersected and nourished mine and how my story supported and nurtured his. Or didn’t.
What he wanted from me was duty. To know that I would stick around even when things were tough, even if every part of me was crumbling.
My Story + His Story = Our Story
I am still trying to, posthumously, understand the story of our relationship.
What he wanted from me was duty. To know that I would stick around even when things were tough, even if every part of me was crumbling. That I would plow through whatever needed to be plowed through because it was the right thing to do — even if that meant pushing down my needs and crushing my own story. To stay true and solid even when I felt wobbly and uncertain because, in the end, that sacrifice would pay off.
To him, the equation was:
My Dutifulness + His Dutifulness = A Good Marriage
I didn’t want to dutifully plod toward some abstract definition of marriage if cost me my sense of self, or cost him his. When I didn’t want promises of better times in some distant future. So i wanted presence and possibility — here and now.
I simply wanted him as he was, articulating whatever messy feelings he had, intertwining his story with mine. when i trusted that if we shared stories we could figure it out. He was jumping through hoops of duty visible only to himself and accusing me of putting them there. I couldn’t see these hoops and I didn’t believe their existence was necessary. In fact, I actively tried to dismantle them, blindly fumbling about to liberate him from his duty. Inviting him to walk the path of agency instead.
It worked, in a way: He finally abandoned his duty to me. He also abandoned his love.
And I’m still here, still trying to understand our story. Still loving him in my own way. Even though I don’t have to.