Ah! First love. Or, for that matter, any new love.
Those glorious days when you discover in total wonder the uniqueness of another human being. Every aspect, even the minor flaws, seem suffused with an ineffable charm. It seems incredible to discover someone who is like us in so many ways, while the ways that are different are splendid and add a fascinating spice coupled with the joy of discovery.
“I love that little thing you do, wrinkling your lip when you smile. It makes you look like a little kid.” Or, “This is great! I never knew I could have so much fun in a place like this.”
Sure, it is dotage, but what a wonderful dotage!
Alas, this phase does not last (just as well or we would all spend the rest of our life with a simpering smile on our face). As the days go on, we chance to discover in some flash of unreasonable temper or in some embarrassing gaucherie that our beloved is perhaps not so perfect as we thought. That momentary look of impatience we see gives us the hint that perhaps our beloved is making the same discovery about us.
And then a remarkable thing happens.
Our brains wake up. Instead of simply experiencing the other in a stream-of-consciousness state of wonder, they revert to their usual role of organizing and storing experiences. They begin to recognize certain patterns of thought and action and begin to file certain behaviors away for future reference. Particularly, sad to say, our brains begin to work on those little flaws.
As time goes on, the subterranean work of the brain starts to filter up into the addled forebrain. Instead of being awash in the whole, we begin to distinguish. We come to see that some patterns are still charming while others as less so. This does not mean that we are less in love. Oddly, awed admiration may be declining at the same time a more basic kind of love is actually deepening.
Still, that original kind of romanticism has a hard time surviving the discovery that our adored one is…predictable.
One begins to anticipate. A small voice inside your head even begins to make acid comments as some too predictable pattern works itself out.
“Uh-oh. Here it comes. Merging onto the freeway at the usual 35 MPH.” Or, “Just wait. Ten minutes in this movie and it will be knuckle cracking time. Like fingernails on a blackboard. I can feel my teeth are clenching already.”
Eventually, of course, that voice ceases to be just inside your head. As sure a God made little green apples, there comes a moment when it springs forth in full voice. It happens like this: A small disagreement is escalating into a full-blown argument. Somewhere along the line, usually after you have dissected the proximate cause of the argument but way before you have gotten to comparisons with your mothers, certain small but irritating behaviors are marshaled for display.
Sometimes, they emerge so that one side can prove how patient and forbearing they are. “I wasn’t going to mention this, but…” Other times they are used to demonstrate how thoughtless and selfish the other party can be. Either way, the first time it occurs you end up with the lovely feeling of having been tidily ambushed. It is an especially effective weapon, since it seems to leave the impeached party in the position of either abjectly apologizing or having to defend bad behavior.
Problem with this logic, of course, is that it simply compels the other party (as the only effective tactic) to bring out a matching list of foibles. Depending on the persistence of memory and the energy level of the parties, this now-you-show-me-yours routine can go on for hours.
I am still speaking, of course, of the early days. Assuming you stay together, the starry-eyed wonder and that exasperated focus on minor flaws give way to a more balanced (and resigned) view of the other person and of the whole relationship. You realize that the other person is still pretty terrific even if some fairly large distance away from perfect. You also realize that you shouldn’t keep track of every little idiosyncracy and drag them out in a remorseless litany every time you disagree.
As a mature person, you realize that just as you have to adjust to a certain number of (maddening) habits, your partner has to make the same adjustments (less severe, of course) about you. Since life spent actively NOT mentioning these problems would not be worth living, you resolutely decide not to let them bother you anymore.
This, as too many of us have discovered, is a much better in theory than it often proves to be in fact. While we can blandly ignore the offensive behavior in the front of our minds, purposefully not letting it bother us, another part of our minds retains the habit of keeping track of every sin. More, that part of our brains (The Scorekeeper) regards each occasion as slightly more intolerable than the last.
Most of us discover that, for some sins at least, far from not being bothered, we are bothered one hell of a lot but are simply stuffing our anger out of sight in some secret cache. As time goes on and more occurrences are added to the cache, a psychic pressure begins to build. And build.
In time, the pressure will grow far beyond what can any longer be held. It has also grown far beyond the point that can possibly be released in anything but an explosive torrent. A gully-washer. So some day your poor sap commits some minor blunder and is suddenly drowned in a deluge of recriminations. For reasons that are far from obvious, one discovers that leaving the car with an empty tank or squeezing the toothpaste from the middle of the tube is the worst sin one can possibly commit, far exceeding anything Hitler or the Marquis de Sade ever dreamt of.
To commit a peccadillo and be handed one’s head is not a fun thing, but it seems to be something close to universal. If you haven’t had it done to you, you have probably done it. What makes any resolution even harder is that, in the heat of the moment, the accuser really believes that they are giving a proportional response to intolerable behavior. In my experience, it usually takes a lot of time to get past all the righteous indignation and have a chance to deal with what has really gone wrong.
Even if you successfully wait it out, the problem is far from simple. It seems to be another universal that we all scatter innumerable self-defensive red herrings through our emotional realities. It makes it hard to find and deal with the real problems. Hard because they are honestly obscure and difficult, and hard because we are usually driven to address them when we are in no shape to solve anything. When I am completely possessed by the need to defend myself is not the best time to ask me to bare my soul. And when you have just spent some earnest, hard-breathing time playing attack/defend ping-pong, it is hard to believe it is safe to come out and treat the other person as a lover and a friend.
Speaking of which, there is one sure signal when it is not safe to come out. If you find yourself in full flight of back and forth and you hear (or say) the dread words, “You never…” or, “You always…,” keep your hatches battened down. No matter what the rhetoric, that encounter is solidly in the scoring points phase. I would even suggest it might be wise to abandon the attempt and return to it another day.
I’ve mentioned that one of the things that entangles us in these encounters is that the accusations hurled around are (at least partially) true. We are accused of behavior that we are, in fact, guilty of. This immediately puts us on the defensive and brings forth that fatal urge to retaliate in kind.
To be accused, in weighted tones, of something you are aware you do but thought was a minor lapse at best is to feel the victim of jujitsu: Your own actions are being used against you. But there is another tactic that can be even more maddening. That is to be accused of something you are completely unaware you do.
Your first impulse, naturally, is to righteously deny you have ever been guilty of such a crime (“Why, I never do that!”). Your second reaction is likely to be an embarrassed four-feet-in-the-air question (“Do I really do that?”). Next, you will promise to try to pay more attention and see if you are really guilty as accused. Finally (and fatally), you are apt to ask your one and only to keep an eye on you and let you know should you ever do it again.
I say ‘fatally’ because the truth is, as you don’t really believe you are guilty of this solecism, you will immediately forget all about it. I guarantee your partner will not. You have laid a fairly large trap directly in your own path. Let me assure you victory does not lie ahead. Fairly soon something like this is likely to be heard:
“There. You see! You are doing it again!”
“What? ….What? ….WHAT??!!”