It’s Tuesday. I’m finally going to talk with Kevin* an entire week after this started. I can think of nothing else all day. Though I do work at the computer, I stop and cry several times. I keep getting confused mid-task, and I’m terrified I’m going to make a mistake. Finally I finish the time-sensitive work. There’s a whole pile of important projects I want and need to get done, but both my eyes are twitching. I’m nauseous and afraid and I know that my nervous system just isn’t up for much productivity. Again.
I look at the bookshelf next to my friend’s desk and see “Getting To Yes With Yourself.” Interesting. William Ury’s work was the foundation for the course at West Point where I worked years ago as an actor. I love the wisdom of his approach to negotiation with a consideration for mutual benefit, and I have this inkling the book will contain some forgotten grain of truth that might calm me down.
I sit for some time on the couch with that book, Dr. John Gottman’s “What Makes Love Last” and Dr. Sue Johnson’s “Hold me Tight: Seven Conversations For a Lifetime of Love” as well as Gottman’s “Aftermath of a Fight” guidelines open on my phone. I diligently take notes on my experience, reviewing it for hints of blame or criticism. I jot down my feelings and the things I want to take ownership for as well as what I need to feel secure that the conflict can be repaired. Then I review it through the lens of Ury’s work, considering how my fears are driving my perceptions about the situation. I remind myself that an emotionally catastrophic week where I did not communicate with my partner is fertile ground for assumptions, misunderstandings and overreactions. I acknowledge that some of my perceptions are wrong. I am willing to accept Kevin’s* influence. This is why it’s so important for us to talk.
I struggle for a BATNA (best alternative to negotiated agreement). I remind myself about Sunday with friends and my carefully cultivated inner resources. That feels like a shitty, shitty alternative to repairing my connection with my very favorite person in the world, so I cry some more and text a couple friends. I’m tense and terrified, and I imagine if anyone saw me with a stack of books preparing for this conversation I’d be perceived as both horrifyingly pedantic and also perhaps a psychopath. I don’t care; this is the only thing holding my attention and keeping me relatively calm.
Ury’s fifth chapter, “Respect Them Even If,” gets to the heart of all of it all: why I deeply give a shit about this conversation even if it’s a relationship ender, why Gottman’s Four Horsemen concept describes the habits so lethal to a relationship–hell, why we connect to anyone to begin with. I won’t let my hurt feelings get in the way of my respect and admiration for Kevin*. I’m very clear about that.
The sixth chapter takes away any remaining resentment over my own pedantry. Ury writes:
“In dealing with any conflict or negotiation, we have four possible choices, depending on the concern we show for our interests and the other side’s. We can choose a hard adversarial win-lose approach, in which we are concerned about our interests alone. We can choose a soft accommodating approach, in which we show concern only for the other side’s interests and not ours. We can choose an avoidance approach in which we don’t talk about the issue at all, thereby not showing much concern for either the other person’s interests or our. Or we can choose a win-win approach, in which we show concern for both the other person’s interests and ours.”
This is how I know I’ve grown. I am completely committed to bringing all my skill and compassion and love into this conversation–for him, for me, for us. Significantly, as upset as I am I’m also not being driven by my desperate, frightened parts. I have specific needs in mind which if he’s unable or unwilling to meet I have promised myself will end this. I’m afraid of losing him. I’m afraid of not being able to get through to him. I’m not afraid of losing myself like I did with my abuser in failing to enforce my insistence on healthy relationship behaviors by leaving for the lack of them.
I’m seeing my friend Barbara immediately before Kevin* meets me, and in the same place. Barbara is a deeply skilled listener, motherly, kind and magnificently supportive. If there’s one person in my life I know will keep me calm it’s her.
Barbara talks to me over tea, letting me tell the story and making a few guesses about what to expect. She tells me about some similar conflicts she’s had. I feel relieved hearing this wise, educated, skilled woman and her sweet, caring husband are also capable of triggering each other. I’m not just some supremely mentally ill freak who ruins everything! She reminds me that I’m still healing, still in a tough place on my journey and that she believes in me. I cry a few times and she notices the intensity with which I regard everyone who enters the cafe.
Of course when Kevin* does arrive I know it immediately while he’s still in the parking lot, but I have so much fear over the possibility of losing him that rather than get up to meet him I cling like a child to my friend’s hand and begin to tremble, turning my face toward her so he won’t see me panicking.
Barbara keeps hold of my hand and reminds me that I’m going to be all right, I can do this. It’s just my nervous system acting up. She loves me. I’m scared but I believe her.
When Kevin* comes closer he looks tense and distressed. I feel concern and long to touch him but I keep my distance because that seems to be what he’s wanted. Our conversation feels difficult and strained; we’re both still in our corners with our misperceptions and hurt feelings. I follow my intuition about deviating substantially from the Gottman method outline I’ve carefully prepared; I know he’s read my blog and therefore already knows about my emotions and perception of the experience. I skip right to taking responsibility for my parts of the conflict. I apologize to him for not communicating earlier and more clearly. I tell him I wanted to get help and was afraid to ask him and say I’m sorry for that too. He says I don’t have to apologize, but I insist that I do. This has been painful and difficult for us, we both contributed to the conflict, and I want to take ownership of what I could have handled more skillfully. I still feel tense but I’m a little calmer. His face softens slightly, though he still isn’t making eye contact.
We talk for a while and I’m moved by his reason for being so upset in the first place. I see how else I unwittingly made things worse. I’m horrified that we’ve hurt each other so much over something so solvable. All of this, of course, is consistent with the character of the man I know and love. There are still pieces where we’re struggling to understand each other, and he wants to think more and talk again later. I don’t like it, but it sounds reasonable. I’ve missed him and am afraid to let him go. “Please don’t cry,” he asks me as I struggle not to.
We go out to the parking lot where he’s brought my things from his place. This does not feel good at all, and I’m clumsy and awkward navigating how close to stand and what to reach for. I begin to panic a couple of times and shake my hands to discharge the fear response. When everything is in my car I look at him, terrified. I want to cling to him for dear life. He steps close and holds me. He tells me we’ll talk soon. His voice is much gentler now, and I hold him tightly with my face against his shoulder. I remember immediately the first time he held me, and this feels perfectly right in the same way. I begin to breathe more deeply as my anxiety dissolves, and then in a few moments I’m pacified–calmer than I’ve been all week. I imagine he might want me to let go of him, but as I begin to I tremble and involuntarily seize him again. This happens a few times, and I feel my fear of losing him intensely. He continues to hold me. Relieved, I bring my hand to the back of his head, softly touching his hair with my fingertips. He asks if I’ll have a friend to be with later. He’s making sure I’ll be all right. I feel the skin of his neck against my face. He smells so good.
I notice he’s holding my back with only one hand and release him. He looks into my eyes and tells me he’ll see me again soon, and maybe that will feel better. I hope so.
*Not his real name