Recognizing that angry, nasty, mean-spirited feelings are signals that something "not good for us" is going on; listening inward to discover what that something might be and what we need to do about it.
Angry, nasty, mean-spirited feelings come
when something "not good for you" is going on…
Listen inward for what that something is!
Two years into our relationship, we'd been through seven iterations of my moving in with him or having him move in with me and then my moving out or having him move out. For reasons that seem unfathomable to me now, we decided to see if making the commitment of marrying each other would move me beyond this ambivalence about having a live-in relationship. We married as an experiment rather than as a forever thing.
We made our own tiny, elegant wedding in my apartment (into which he moved yet again). Just our parents, siblings and the Rabbi were present. My partner and I had jointly prepared a small, beautiful and delicious feast for the celebration.
So began five years of what quickly became an open (non-monogamous) marriage. Sharing the emotional details of our intimate and/or sexual experiences with other people became a deepening part of our intimacy and connection with each other. For a time it felt like a creative (if inherently contradictory) resolution to what was, apparently for both of us, the sometimes claustrophobic experience of living together.
Our wedding, in late 1967, came during the rise of the second wave of feminism. We both were actively involved in and dedicated to the movement. And, we were committed to developing ours as an egalitarian, feminist marriage – an oxymoron perhaps?
We shared housework, marketing, cooking and baking (which we both did from scratch). We each did our own laundry and ironing and button sewing. We kept our monies separate and divided household and capital expenses according to the proportion of the total joint income that we each provided. (We started at a 65 him/35 me split, moved through a 50/50 split and wound up at a 35 him/65 me split when he left his job in research psychology to enter training as a Rational-Emotive Psychotherapist.)
On (and somewhat beneath) the surface, we were functioning as equal partners. There was never any assumption that either of us would be called upon to give up anything that mattered to us "for the sake of the relationship." We even were interviewed for a New York Post series on feminist marriages.
One summer, midway through our years of being married, he was asked (at the job he was planning to leave that coming fall) to spend the month of August doing research work. This would have involved living for the month in the mosquito-ridden boondocks of New York State. There he would solicit visitors to the County Fair as potential control subjects for an ongoing research project in his department. We took a brief trip to check out the area and to see what kinds of resorts or vacation rentals might be available – August was usually the month we would take our joint summer vacation.
The area was depressed and depressing, the available rentals gloomy and uninviting. None of it was any match to the charming French-Canadian hotel/resort to which we had planned to return before this new wrinkle had appeared. At Mont Tremblant we would again have had our small motel-apartment on a lovely mountain property at the edge of a glorious lake. There'd be luscious country French meals in a tasteful hotel dining room with simple but caring service. There'd be several canoes, sail and paddle boats to take out on the lake, an adjoining executive 9-hole golf course (where I could chase a ball around the magnificent countryside) and a genteel, discreet, mostly European clientele with whom we could choose to engage or not. We had a sweet connection with the warm multi-generational family that owned and managed the resort. We'd again have been bringing our cat, our bicycles, our books, a scrabble set, my crocheting and L's collection of things for his mathematical/theoretical explorations.
At Mont Tremblant we'd be exquisitely pampered for a month of complete relaxation with no responsibilities other than our personal laundry. For me it was a no-brainer. He was welcome to figure out how to manage his August in the middle of mosquito-ridden-nowhere in New York. I was heading back to the solace, beauty and chore-free deliciousness of Saint-Jovite, Quebec. I thought the whole idea of his doing this project was ludicrous, particularly since he was planning to leave his crazy-making boss and stressful (literally headache producing) job by October anyway. But, it wasn't my place to interfere in his process. I simply had no intention of interfering with my taking good care of my self in order to support this choice he apparently needed to make.
In the end, my not being willing to ruin my summer by going with him made the choice a no-brainer for him as well. He quit his job two months early and came to Saint-Jovite and Mont Tremblant with me. We had some wonderful adventures: Getting caught on the huge lake in a tiny sailboat during a thunderstorm we watched approaching over the well-named "Trembling Mountain." Dodging lightning as we worked to beach the boat at someone's magnificent summerhouse. Getting our selves and my bulky crochet project (a long skirt) totally soaked on the way. Capsizing a canoe during my first, very nervous canoe ride. Going as guests of the bartender cum golf pro to play a round of golf (i.e., me chasing a ball all over the back of beyond but playing the best round I'd ever played) on the nearby majestic world championship golf course at which he taught. We played countless games of cutthroat after-dinner Ping-Pong, went on hilly bike rides, laughed our way through silly and ridiculous attempts to teach me tennis and enjoyed lots of luscious lazing about drifting, dreaming and reading. (Something I loved even that long ago.)
And, then, there was a life-changing day of realizations. After a morning doing I-can't-remember-what together, I'd stretched out and voluptuously fallen into a fascinating book (Knots by R.D. Laing). After wandering back and forth for a bit, L decided he wanted to take a bike ride to town – five miles of scenic, steep hilly road. He announced his plan and I wished him a good ride. Apparently, that wasn't the response he'd hoped for. He grumped and rattled around our room for a while, distracting me from my book with the racket he was making. Then, he began a concerted attempt to whine and wheedle me into going with him because, as he said, he really wanted both to be with me and to take a bike ride. Absent my usual good-humor, I did at last respond to his imploring looks and words. I put my book down, gathered my gear and headed out with him.
Halfway up the first big hill, not very far from the hotel, I realized I'd left something I needed back at our room. (I can't now remember what it was, just that it seemed essential at the time.) I sped up to within hailing distance of him and told him I needed for us to go back so I could get whatever it was. He waved and said I should go on back, that he didn't want to turn around. That he would just continue on ahead and I could meet him whenever it was I would finally get to the town.
I turned around and rode back to the hotel fuming. I wanted to strangle him. I was furious. How childish, how typically male and self-absorbed he was, how unable to tolerate the absence of my attention to him when he wanted that attention. Pestering me out of my own lush space with my self because he supposedly couldn't bear to go without my company. Then, once he had my full attention, deciding to go off on his own while I went back to get whatever it was I'd left behind. I couldn't believe what I'd let my self get seduced into. I raged my way back to the room, knowing there was no way I'd go back to meet him in town.
It was impossible to calm down. I was in turmoil. I stormed around the room muttering to my self like a madwoman. Finally, I ran a bath with scented oil and bubbles to soothe my agitated soul. I needed to make space for me to listen inward to understand what was underneath the uproar I was feeling.
A flood of memories came of many other experiences that had marginally irritated me at earlier times. Previously separate things suddenly came thudding together in my brain and my feelings. I was sick of him, my self-described feminist partner; sick of my own complicity in the veiled dance we'd been into for so long without seeing it.
When L came back from his ride, he hadn't a clue about what he was walking into. He was totally baffled by my anger, perplexed about why I hadn't ever gotten to town. From my perch, still in the bathtub, I gave him my calm pronouncement. I was done, I announced, with taking up the slack in our partnership. Done having my flexibility be the critical element in making it possible for us to spend time together. I reminded him of how he was invariably such a pill about going along with me if I insisted on us doing something I might want to do. I acknowledged that I had learned that it was easier for me to do those things alone rather than have my friends, my family or me put up with how ill humored and pouty he'd be when he grudgingly agreed to come along. I pointed out that what time we spent together usually involved doing what he wanted to do. This, because we both understood that I could and would inevitably be more flexible, more good-humored, more present wherever or with whomever it might be, even when it was far from my first choice.
I was, I informed him, no longer going to be flexible in those ways. I was, I said, no longer willing to go along with doing things that were of no interest to me in order to make it possible for us to be spending time together. He turned quite pale standing in the doorway to the bathroom. Stunned, he asked, "Do you realize what you're saying? If you do what you're saying, we might never spend any time together!"
I couldn't believe my ears. I exploded. "Do you realize what you're saying?" I asked. Obviously, he had already known precisely what I was just coming to see: that in our so-called egalitarian marriage, things were not all that equal. He and I had both been in the habit of placing his needs/comfort in social situations first because, of course, he wasn't as flexible as I was.
A lot changed in our partnership after that. We became much more conscious of the subtle ways our gendered acculturation insidiously undermined our intentions to operate as equals in our sharing. A lot of our emotional and practical arrangements came up for re-examining. And, we did begin more often to go separately to do what we each preferred.
That day I learned a lot that has continued to be important to living healthily. I had allowed my self to feel all the angry, mean and nasty feelings that were welling up in me. I went with them; let them go to their max rather than talking my self down from or talking my self out of them. As I trusted and followed those feelings, they led me to an understanding and awareness of exactly what was going on that wasn't good for me. Once I knew that, I was able to make some choices that would deal with changing what was not okay for me.
These days, when I find my self having angry, mean-spirited and nasty thoughts or feelings about someone or in some situation, I know that they are a righteous signal that there's something not-good-for-me going on. I stop and go inward to hear what that something might be. Usually, though sometimes it takes longer than others, I do get the message of my anger. Then, I listen to what I need to do to remove the not-goodness from my space. Sometimes that involves speaking out about what's affecting me. Sometimes it means removing my self from the situation or person. When I address and do something about the source of the feelings, the feelings simply dissolve. Just as I'm reluctant to medicate away a physical pain before I grasp what/where it's coming from, so, too, I don't ever want to transcend my anger without listening to the message it's trying to give me. Both physical pain and emotional anger are signals for us to pay closer attention, to take better care of our selves. I believe it's essential for us, without fail, to honor, respect and attend to these powerful signals.
Consider listening to your angry, mean-spirited or nasty thoughts and feelings as messages from deep within about what's going on that's not okay for you.