PQ 7.4 — Do I perceive criticism in my partner’s statements even if they aren’t directly critical?

a black and white photo of a D20 (20-sided die) with the 1 pointing up, aka a "critical miss"
Image by Scott Ogle / CC BY

PQ 7.4 — Do I perceive criticism in my partner’s statements even if they aren’t directly critical?

*

There’s always something to work on in a relationship. Because it doesn’t matter how perfectly the blinding light of New Relationship Energy washes over the creases and cracks like a giant flashbulb.

Eventually, the soupiest chemicals fade. And you see each other in a more natural, accurate light.

Kind of like a house that you live in a while before you hear a knocking noise in the wall. Or stumble upon a bit of faulty wiring.

Relationships are sold as is. You get what you get. Buyer beware.

I used to worry a lot about what it meant if I found something. Did I make a mistake?

But I’ve come to believe that we’re all fixer uppers. And what specifically needs fixing? Can guide the relationship. Or define it, if you’re not careful.

The Affection Debt

“When you give me compliments, I need you to be more specific,” I say to Skyspook.

We’re sitting in a car at the drive-in, a giant soda wedged between us. He’s been saying nice things, trying to cheer me up. To him I seem like a bottomless pit. But I’m not. Abused kids have an affection debt. The interest rates are terrible. And it’s a long, long while of paying them kindness before you can make any progress on the principal.

“It’s cognitive science,” I explain. “If you want things to stick to people, you need details. Like those how-to-write fiction books. Details make the imaginary seem real. I had a whole shelf of them growing up. A lot of good they did me. I’m the adverb queen. Big writing no-no.”

He sighs. “You’re beating yourself up again. Why do you do that?”

“Habit,” I say. “How about you say it more like this when you –”

“No,” he says.

And I can see from his posture that I’ve crossed the line.

“Oh honey, I didn’t mean…”

He shakes his head. “Not now, Page.”

It’s a double feature. The second movie begins. I snuggle into him. His body relents, but it’s a few hours before we talk again.

“Nothing I say is ever good enough for you,” he says as we’re driving home.

“Awww,” I say. “That’s not what I meant at all. What you’re saying is good. I’m just trying to find ways to make it even better. Or at least to stick better to my kindness-averse brain.”

We talk late into the night. Past girlfriends used to ask him questions that had hidden answers. Trick questions. Conversational minefields. His exes were veteran relationship testers. And their big relationship talks? A form of high-stakes trivia. If he guessed wrong, a punishment awaited him.

It sounds horrible. I can only imagine what Skyspook went through. But I don’t know how to help him. Every time I ask for what I want, it hurts him.

And yet, I know I have it good with Skyspook. Really good.  It’s nothing compared to what I went through with my ex-husband Seth. I was always looking for more ways to reach Seth. To let him know that I wasn’t his enemy. But Seth was still fighting boys who insulted him in middle school, shoved him into lockers, grabbed his junk and called him “gay,” that frequent paradox young boys seem prone to (see also: reaction formation, more on that later). Seth was upset with them and not me. Even though we both knew it consciously, I didn’t know how to help him.

Skyspook is nowhere near as defensive (Seth had his own large debt to pay). But yet, I have that echo of helplessness, that feeling that nothing I do will let him know that he’s safe with me. That there are no wrong answers here.

“I just feel so criticized,” Skyspook says.

“Well, I think you’re wonderful,” I reply. “I’m the one who needs help.”

We hold each other until we fall asleep.

*

Several days pass.

I miss you today, he writes me from work.

Aww, I write back. What’s up?

Nothing, he replies. I just wanted to let you know. I’m trying to tell you more often, when I feel it. It’s obvious to me, but I realized you don’t know when I’m thinking it. 

And as the weeks go on, he does more and more. I don’t even have to ask. He’s delivering what I need.

You’re awesome has turned into you’re an unconventional thinker who explains things well.

And now it’s up to me to pay off the balance. To make some headway on that negative self-worth.

*

This post is part of a series in which I answer each of the chapter-end questions in More than Two with an essay. For the entire list of questions & answers, please see this indexed list.

 

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