Saturday, May 29, 2010

Relationship Conditioning: Ring a Bell and I'll Salivate

I was lying in bed one night and I had forgot to turn out the lights. Knowing me it was multiple lights, actually. I have a problem with lights. So do my children. I presume it is genetic.

I looked at the person who was with me at the time and asked kindly if he would turn off the lights for me and then proceeded to go into a very long babbling explanation as to why I needed him to do it and why I couldn't get out of bed and do it for myself even though I know I was the one who likely left them on. I don't remember what my reason was but I do remember it was something good. For all I know I could have been in the midst of icing or heating some body part as I know this incident occurred in the midst of a very long year of over-training syndrome.

He turned to me and said: No worries. I'll get it. I don't need the big long explanation.


That was simple.

And as is my nature I immediately flipped into self-reflection. Why did I need to give the explanation? Not only did I need to give the explanation, but I didn't even PAUSE after making my polite request and wait to be asked to delve into said explanation. I just assumed it was a required component of making the request to get him to do me a favour.

It occurred to me that this was something I had to do in my marriage every time I needed my (ex) husband to do me a favour. No matter what I was doing  or what he was doing, the explanation was always required. I could have baby in one arm and random kitchen utensil in the other hand and be standing in front of the stove and he could be on his way to sit in front of the TV but I always had to explain why I needed his help.

[As an aside, I will now stop giving too many examples from my marriage as I sense myself edging up to that line of ex-husband-bashing which is something I've sworn to never do here. I'll forgive myself this one transgression because I also plan to tell a nice story about my ex as well. They will cancel each other out. It will be like I never talked about him at all.]

I had a conversation recently with one of my triathlon friends. We were at a "meeting" and  talking about relationships. Specifically we were talking about training for Ironman in the midst of a relationship. This topic was something near and dear to my heart and I considered him an expert as he had already trained and completed one Ironman.

I don't know how you could do it, he said. It would be very difficult to be in a relationship and train for Ironman. It just takes up so much of your time and energy.

He then proceeded to admit that he hadn't done much training this season and doubted he would be able to do any racing. If the choice is between spending four hours on a bike or spending four hours with this person who you love to spend time with, then the choice for me is to spend the time with the person.

Why can't you spend four hours on a bike with the person you love? I asked. To me that would be just as good. And you get the bike ride too.

I know, he said, and she always tells me to 'just go' but I had a really bad experience in a previous relationship with that so I try and limit my time away.

Ah, I said, you were conditioned.

Yes, he said, I guess you could say I was.

And you know how it is after that, you have one conversation on a topic and suddenly everywhere you look, instances pop up everywhere on the same subject. Next came my writing friend's blog on "Drama Queens and Kings" talking about requiring a harmonious relationship environment in order to create and changing your behaviour in order to try and avoid ANYTHING that you already know will disrupt that harmony. After that came a couple of related conversations within my own relationship and that all spurred my own need to write this post.

What causes us to become conditioned in our relationships? I wrote about this in my first novel too. "Maybe being in a relationship means altering our choices to make someone else happy." Everyone has their hang ups. One guy had a thing about me coming to bed at the same time as him because his ex wife would sit up at the computer through half the night and it made him anxious to wake up in the middle of the night and not find her in bed. So I did. At least as often as my night owl self could tolerate it. One had an issue with phone calls because he had a long distance relationship in which he started to resent having to be at home at a certain time so he didn't miss her calls. And it didn't matter that I never even once got mad at him if he missed me calling. He still assumed that I was going to flip out.

"Guy Panic" is a huge one for me. Guy panic, by my definition, is any behaviour from a guy that is obvious evidence that he can't handle your emotions -- no mater how nice they are. I have one guy from my past who I still run into on a semi regular basis that I'm quite certain I've conditioned into flipping into guy panic just on the sight of me. In his defence he had been hurt in multiple painful ways in his past and he was cowering from the possibility of getting hurt before I even had a chance to do anything really nasty to him. Poor guy. He simply wasn't ready to be loved. I react to guy panic. It sends me into an anxious and depressed tailspin of confusion (because it also usually comes on suddenly and unexpectedly without warning). And there are a lot of preliminary behaviours to guy panic that can also be innocent meaningless accidents or oversights (showing up late for a meeting, not calling when they say they will, not returning a text in a timely manner...... and you could go on). And on the wrong day these oversights or accidents can send me into that same conditioned tailspin. But I'm aware of it. So I stop myself from over reacting.

I don't remember what we were arguing about. All I remember is that very early on in my dating life with my now ex husband I was dropping him off at home and I was calling him on some bad behaviour and he ultimately bolted out of the car and started running to the door of his apartment. I opened my door and ran out after him and I grabbed him and hugged him because I knew this didn't have anything to do with me. I don't know what it had to do with the person(s) before me but this wasn't about our relationship because whatever it was that I was upset about for the moment didn't change how I felt about him for the future. [Well, at least not for the near future]. All I wanted was for it to not happen again. So I grabbed and hugged him and all I said was, "I'm not her. I'm not her."

He told me once, much later in time, that this was the moment that he knew he was going to marry me.

What do they say about how you choose a mate? Men choose their mothers? Girls choose someone like their father? And then somewhere along the way these mates individualize themselves and you start to be the target of backlash of things they may be reactive to from past experiences. I dated one guy from my youth that repeatedly stated that the past didn't matter. He was an idiot.

Like I was reactive by always having to justify all my requests for help. Or the guy who had to deal with an irate girlfriend if he missed her calls. Or the guy who's wife eventually abandoned him and one of her initial behaviours prior to this happening was that she stopped coming to bed at the same time as him.

I find this the hardest thing to deal with at the age of 39 now that I am back on the market. Baggage. At one time baggage meant children but to me baggage means all those things we are conditioned to from the life we have lead and all the people we have lead it with prior to the person we are falling in love with now. Like the dog that cowers from the potential hurt of getting kicked, at what point do you realize that you are dealing with a new person who isn't likely to respond the same way to the same infractions that the person you were with before did? Like Pavlov's dog who started to salivate for the bell even when no food was presented, there are certain things I am likely to continue salivating for even though the person in front of me is not my ex husband. And how do you warn someone about what you are conditioned to when you might not even be conscious of all that conditioning yourself?

I don't know. It could be worse. You could be that frog in tepid water that ended up boiling to death as the temperature got turned up and you just tolerated the increasing heat rather than making the effort to jump out and escape.

But I promise to try and accept you for who you are. And I promise to make concessions if I know you are scarred from the past and are reacting to me to avoid backlash from someone who came before but is no longer in your presence.

And most of all, I promise, to try to remember to turn out the lights.

1 comment:

Terri said...

I think about this alot, too. There are certain things that I react to very negatively, but when I think of why, I realize it's because of my ex, not the person who committed the "fault." And yes, we all have baggage. Some of it is just more visible than the rest.