It’s the small daily omissions that erode a relationship. How I finally learned to show up and tell the truth.
When I was 62 years old, I got married—for the first time. Granted it was illegal for lesbians to marry before then, but it turned out to be a good thing to have to wait so long, and not just because I had finally found the perfect person with whom to share my life. I realized when I was standing there at the county recorder’s office, under that tacky white trellis with artificial flowers, that it wasn’t until this moment that I was actually prepared to do my part in helping a relationship to succeed. And believe me, I can provide a long list of failed partnerships to demonstrate just how easy it was for me to ruin them.
Though it might seem naïve to narrow these failings to one behavior, I can do it with ease. The thing is, I lied. This is not to say I had a secret life or side assignations or gambling and addiction problems. I simply didn’t tell the truth about who I was and what I wanted. We all do it. We say we’re fine when we’re seething or sobbing inside. We don’t ask for attention or time because our partner seems stressed and we don’t want to be one more burden, but secretly we’re mad that he or she is unable to read our minds, know what we need, and make us a priority. In my defense, insecurity and anxiety clouded my reasoning and convinced me that all I really wanted was to be loved and not alone. I was willing to do all kinds of squinting and pretending to make sure I got the former and avoided the latter. And of course it wasn’t until I spent some time alone—and even more time in therapy—that I realized I was growing capable of naming truths about myself and allowing them to exist freely within me.
When I met my spouse, I was in my early 50s, and I had never really sat down with someone to say, “Here’s who I actually am and, even though it may not exactly match who you are, let’s keep saying who we are and what we want and slog through it together.” And I don’t mean I hadn’t compromised a lot. What I’m trying to say is that for the first time, I didn’t hide my fears, downplay my dreams, dismiss my fantasies or sugar-coat my faults. Before now, I had no real experience being an emotionally responsible adult.
Let me try to show you more concretely. Pre-Jodi, I had engaged in plenty of arguments with past girlfriends, and I was savvy enough to know that most of these generally stemmed from the same life issues. But I hadn’t looked more deeply at why certain things made me anxious or angry. I come from a family of people who were mostly focused on their own problems. There was a continual sense for me that things could fall apart at any moment, so I became vigilant about watching for potential crises and worked hard to fix them as quickly as possible. If it meant sitting on my mom’s bed while she cried about my dad not being attentive enough—even if I really wanted and needed to be doing something else—I’d do it to make her feel better. What this left me with was a sense that my own issues were never really dealt with and that what I needed was not going to happen until everyone else was happy. The result was a continual, underlying anxiety that I was never going to get what I needed or wanted.
Because we were a bit older and had endured some unsatisfying relationships, when Jodi and I began our relationship we each committed to our own sanity and well-being. This gave me room to say, “Hey, I feel a lot of anxiety when things seem a little out of control.” She in turn felt like she could say, “I’m afraid of not being heard.” We each learned the other person’s issues, because we first owned them ourselves and then told each other about them.
This makes a level playing field—two grown-ups being who we are, loving each other, working hard to tell the truth about our own ideas and dreams and shortcomings. And in the telling of that truth, we are both able to say, “I know I’ve got this issue and you know I’ve got this issue, and I trust you enough to help us manage conflicts that arise because of it.” The results are palpable. We have plenty of heated discussions and occasional tears, but we compromise equally, and there is never that old feeling I used to have, late at night, staring up at the dark ceiling, that I’ve sold myself out, or my partner did. It’s different now—equal footing, truth-telling, and an authentic partnership.
Writer Ginny McReynolds is a retired community college English instructor in Northern California. She blogs at Finally Time for This: A Beginner’s Guide to the Second Half of Life.