15 Feb How we got past competitive exhaustion: A love story.
There was a time in my marriage when, in amongst the normal and the good, a space had started to open up. A distance was widening between us.
My plan was to ignore it. If I busied myself with the day to day I assumed (I hoped) we would one day naturally regain our previous ease, our relaxed intimacy.
While I waited, I held Matt at arms length.
To protect my heart, I hid how I was feeling.
Matt tried to talk to me about how things were, but I refused to acknowledge it. I had neither the time nor energy nor courage to enter into the conversation. I worked around it, ignoring it, hoping it would go away.
But there was grit under the surface, irritating and unsettling us. As in the story of the Princess and the Pea, it’s presence was often felt, disturbing our peace, pushing us apart.
This was way back, when I was in the pre-school, or as I call them, the wiping years. Back when I fully inhabited the world of overwhelm, back when caring for my very demanding small people was exhausting me, when I spent a lot of my time trying to ignore the fact I felt depressed and anxious.
Matt was busy running his own business. He had built and loved the business, but his work was demanding, and could be draining. He was the sole bread-winner and felt the responsibility to provide for us, to pay the mortgage and put food on the table.
By the time he arrived home in the evening, we were both already spent. Wrung out.
And instead of looking after each other and listening to each other, I felt the need to compete.
And the crux of it went like this;
“My life is harder than your life“.
I didn’t use these words, but they were inferred in many ways. I was competitively tired, or competitively stressed. Matt would tell one story of how hard his day was, only for me to better it with my tale of woe and exhaustion; of nappy changes and weaning and squabbles and school runs and no thanks, all the time, every day.
I said these things because I didn’t want anything else to be asked of me, because I wanted some help, or a break.
Our over-committed lives were being lived at a break-neck pace and we were struggling to cope.
It wore us both down.
It wasn’t all the time. Of course we had many happy, even carefree, days. During these years we enjoyed renovating three houses together, threw parties and went on holidays. There was plenty of good.
But just when we thought we had moved past this feeling of being on opposing teams, the exhaustion competition would raise it’s head again. I would start to feel my life was worse, tougher, more boring, less fulfilling, and, rather than risking vulnerability and talking to Matt about this, I would make comments, a few digs, a little passive-aggression.
Or, more often than not, I would give Matt the cold shoulder, zoning him out.
Matt would reach out across the battle-lines I had drawn. He wanted to understand. He wanted to talk about it, about us.
I wanted to watch television and drink wine.
I am not proud of this, but for me it was easier to ignore, to bury the pain and disappointment, to move quickly past it, with another busy day full of essential things I just couldn’t miss. Anything to avoid having conversations that required me to be emotionally vulnerable. These conversation felt uncontrollable. I didn’t know how they would end, or what would be exposed. I found this frightening.
When I think about this now and try and figure out why I refused this discussion I can only come to this answer: I didn’t think it was fixable, I thought we couldn’t change. I thought life couldn’t change. I thought it was always going to be this way and I needed to just buck my ideas up and get on with it.
When you are stretched thin it can be this way.
Also, (and, although this is not the focus of this post – this played a big part) I didn’t realise I was not well. I didn’t realise that it was not normal to be this perpetually low and anxious. This was some time before I received a diagnosis of depression or anxiety.
And so we continued. Neither of us getting our needs met. Neither of us having the time or space to think about the bigger things at play. Like the fact that we were both working our arses off and neither of us felt appreciated. Like the fact that we were gradually, imperceptibly, moving further away from each other.
When you stop supporting and listening, and start competing, life can be pretty lonely.
By the time something finally changed I had resigned myself to the fact that this was just what life was like.
Don’t raise your expectations, don’t expect change, then you won’t be disappointed, I told myself.
And then, just when all hope was lost when I was at my lowest, much to my surprise, the ground beneath me, beneath us, started to creak and move.
We were on holiday in France, summer 2009. Matt suggested we listen to a series of podcasts about marriage* in the evening after the kids were in bed.
This is the kind of thing that in our everyday life at home, I would have avoided. It felt too much like hard work, and I could be watching America’s Next Top Model, or some other such nonsense to distract me and dull the pain I was in.
But on this holiday I agreed. (What can I say? My guard was down.)
So, for five nights we sat out under the stars, drinking wine and eating olives, listening together.
This is where it started.
Listening to these podcasts allowed us to have new conversations. We talked for the first time in years about how we really felt. About our disappointments, hopes and fears. We learnt to listen to each other with open minds and hearts. We risked asking each other questions, and genuinely wanted to know the answers.
There were tears. It was emotionally draining. But it was good. We weren’t pretending anymore. We were becoming brave enough to bare our souls.
Being emotionally vulnerable is nerve-wracking and, if I am honest, it felt kind of awkward at first. We had to learn a new language.
“Sometimes brave looks more like staying when you want to leave, telling the truth when all you want to do is change the subject… Brave is listening instead of talking. Brave is articulating my feelings, especially when the feelings are sad or scared or fragile instead of confident or happy or light.”**
I think of it now as a kind of cracking or breaking open. Something seismic was changing.
We left behind the shell of how it used to be.
And took the first steps into a new way of being together.
Things have not been plain sailing since then, but we are starting from a different place. We know how good and hard vulnerability feels, and, as often as we can, we fight for that level of openness.
Although I can still want to zoom past the tricky conversations, so desperate am I to get back to the good bit where we all like each other, I am learning to stay in the conversation longer.
Relationships only move forward as we look each other in the eye and allow ourselves to be seen and heard, without rushing off, without pretending it is all okay.
I dont think we are an isolated case. As life speeds up and responsibilities pile on it can feel easier to avoid and deny the difficulties and painful parts of a relationship.
When you are ready to risk an honest conversation about your relationship there are three things I have found that make it a little bit easier: enough time, the right location and (often) some kind of third party support.
Make plans to make sure you have enough time. There is a level of commitment necessary to have a discussion like this. There has to be a willingness to stay in the discomfort long enough to get to the truth.
Being in a new or neutral space can be conducive to good conversation. Going for a walk can be great for facilitating deeper conversation. The side-to-side rather than face-to-face nature of the dialogue can give you both a buffer to allow for processing without second guessing what each others’ facial expression means. Also, being outside is always good for big thinking.
There have been a few times we have needed the expertise of someone outside the emotional pressure-cooker of our relationship to offer insight and to enable conversation. It could be a book, or a podcast which acts as a springboard for discussion. But I am also a big advocate of therapy. A trained professional can help ensure difficult conversations happen without unnecessary pain being inflicted. A therapist can offer insight and allow you to hear each other properly (not just what you assume you are hearing!).
I know this is all terrifying, especially if, like me, you have gotten used to behaving and responding in a certain way which makes you feel safe and in control in your significant relationship, even if you are miserable.
But it is worth the risk, I promise.
For us, this was just the beginning. There were to be many other interesting (and by interesting I mean painful, joyous and complicated) twists and turns ahead and I am sure there will be many more. But this was where it started. With honesty, with space to have a longer conversation, with a large dose of grace and a sprinkling, that became a cascade, of hope.
*Looking back these podcasts were not actually any good. I wouldn’t recommend them, but they provoked new conversation between us – which was good!
**Quote taken from Present over Perfect by Shauna Niequist.