On Thursday night I was waiting for my husband to get home – waiting to have what seemed likely to be one of the most important conversations of our marriage. I was waiting and watching an episode of my favourite TV show, Grey’s Anatomy, and it happened to be Season 12, Episode 11, ‘Unbreak my heart’: a series of rewinds and fast-forwards through the on-again, off-again relationship of two of the main characters, April and Jackson – an episode that ends with them signing their divorce papers. Though I didn’t know exactly what my husband was going to say when he got back, I knew he wasn’t going to mention divorce, but I was expecting almost anything else. And so much of that episode hit notes – off-key notes, discordant notes, sour notes, familiarly mutually destructive notes.
Very different circumstances, yet I recognised the reactions. I recognised the wildly different expectations and perspectives.
April: “It just seems like you are looking for an excuse to walk away instead of putting in any of the work.”
Jackson: “You left me. You walked away. You ran halfway across the world – ”
April: “Because I was dying, Jackson. Samuel died and I died. Until Jordan, until I was able to go over there and – ”
Jackson: “And what? You think I was somehow just fine after Samuel? You don’t think I was dying too?”
April: “No, no, okay. You weren’t. Not like me. You were coping. You were okay. I couldn’t even – And then I found something. I found something over there that I needed so badly, and I thought that you understood that.”
Jackson: “I wasn’t coping. I was covering for you. To take care of you.”
April: “And now you’re punishing me over and over because I dared to take things into my own hands because I recognized the spiral I was falling into and I went and did something about it?”
Jackson: “I was putting you first. That’s what you do in a marriage. Or I guess that’s not what you do.”
April: “I took care of myself so that I would survive, and all that does is make you angry. Look at you. What is it, Jackson? What pisses you off so much, that I chose to go after the thing that I needed to heal or that the thing I needed wasn’t you?”
Jackson: “The thing that I needed was you. I survived. You survived. But I do not think we can survive this.”
My mental health difficulties hit us hard, very hard. I got lost in depression and in BPD and withdrew, and withdrew some more, and I know that it was hurtful and upsetting for him and he didn’t understand it and didn’t know what was due to my disorder and what might be something to do with him, something to take personally. He felt unloved and that would put anyone’s defenses up, and it did, because he had to guarantee that one of us could survive well enough to look after the kids. Things hit what felt like rock bottom, with him completely disengaging emotionally in order to protect himself. Though he wouldn’t go to therapy I tried to use my therapy for the both of us, hoping I could make sufficient progress for myself, that it would help our marriage.
Imperceptibly slowly, things felt as though they were shifting a little. Incremental, tiny steps. I became ‘a better flatmate’ – to me, that was an achievement, but to him it was still a very long way from a ‘good marriage’. But still things continued to improve, in my eyes at least, and I saw myself taking more risks, more chances, being a little more vulnerable, a little more open, and a little more self-assured– pushing back a little when I thought there was a problem, instead of absorbing the problem and the blame and falling into a spiral of dark and hopeless thoughts.
I had much more of an ‘off week’ a couple of weeks ago – work has been horrendously stressful and I wasn’t able to stay in ‘adult mode’ as much as I would have liked. I was more irritable, less forgiving. It felt like a step backwards but I tried to ignore it, and things didn’t fall apart. In fact, bizarrely, quite the opposite.
All of a sudden it was as if someone took the incremental change and decided to speed it up one thousand fold. I was hugged almost every time I entered a room – or at least it felt that way. There were kisses, compliments, kind and caring things said which were very different to the more practical and pragmatic responses he’d previously had to my difficulties. I should have been pleased- but I felt overwhelmed.
He was clingy and I couldn’t stand it. I didn’t want to be touched or kissed all the time, even though he ‘asked permission’ first. It all felt too much and I felt myself pulling away. I tried to explain that I was finding it hard to adjust to, and that it wasn’t necessarily anything to do with him. Though I didn’t say so, he was triggering me on multiple levels, and ‘acting like my mother’. Wanting more physical touch and closeness than I wanted; clinging onto me both emotionally and physically. The change itself didn’t feel safe, it was so sudden – how did I know he wouldn’t change back just as quickly? My mother’s volatility was in my mind, and I found it hard to believe any of the lovely words he was saying, when they were a contrast to the words that still hung between us from the past. How could I trust the new words? He couldn’t really explain the change either – save to say that he had been feeling more loved recently.
A few days of this change, followed by a triggering visit from my mother, resulted in another ‘off-day’ where I was more irritable and less thoughtful than I could have been. But somehow what two weeks ago was just another argument, this time turned into some sort of enormous turning point – apparently one of the worse nights of my husband’s life, for reasons than I simply could not understand and that no one event could explain. He told me later that something crystallised for him that night – that lots of pieces had suddenly fallen into place and he’d realised something he hadn’t seen before.
When he came back, when I was waiting, he gave me several pages that he’d written containing his realisations. Not all of them are accurate – at least, not as far as his assumptions or statements about me are concerned. But I think he’s come to the conclusion that though I might be turning into a more functional person than I was before, he’s not sure if that person is compatible with him, and with his fundamental needs and desires. I know he doesn’t want that to be the case. And I don’t know if it is.
So I find myself confused. About what’s real and what’s not. About what’s true, and what’s not. What am I meant to take out of therapy, and what can only ever exist in the room? Is unconditional love only for parents and therapists, and do grown-ups love only if they feel loved? Should I trust, even though things (and people) change; and when does compromise turn into self-suppression? What do I really think and feel, and how can I tell? How did we get here, and what does it mean?
April: “We talk about the mechanism of injury, about where it all started, but the truth is, it’s sort of a myth. We can’t boil every injury down to one single blow. What hurts us is cumulative. It happens over time. We absorb blow after blow, shock after shock, painful hit after hit. But even then, even if we know exactly how we got here, it doesn’t mean we can fix it. You can’t heal every wound, and that’s okay. I have to believe it’s okay. I have to believe that even if something seems like it cannot be fixed, it doesn’t mean it’s broken.”