On the surface we looked like a talkative wife and silent husband. Underneath, ghosts were at war.
You know that saying, “Everybody has baggage”? I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand my own, my partner’s, my friends’, and especially my family’s. But I no longer find the word “baggage”—so vague, so generic and safe—useful. What we’re really talking about when we address the crap we all carry from relationship to relationship is fear, anger, resentment, stories, perceptions, nightmares, memories. I prefer to call it what it is: trauma. It might seem a strong word, but watch two people duking it out over these negative emotions and you’ll see that’s often exactly what you’re looking at: difficult past experiences that leave their mark on us. Trauma is what breaks down the creative process of conflict resolution and leads to emotional chaos. Understanding how and why that happens is the only way out from underneath it.
My husband calls it “Going into the red.” That’s his name for what happens when his vision narrows, his heart pounds, his chest tightens, and his ears start burning. When all he wants is to go in for the kill. It comes from a place of animal instinct—the most primal part of the brain lights up and takes over all rational thinking and decision making. I’m not always sure when it’s coming and there is not much I can do to stop it once it starts. There’s nothing I can say: Showing vulnerability makes it worse, apologizing has no impact. The only thing I can do is walk away and give him space to calm down.
He was bullied, attacked by his classmates for years as a young boy. He was hurt. He was told to swallow his fear, his anger, his pain. Until he finally snapped—the first day he saw red—one day in ninth grade, after a summer growth spurt that gave him the power to do real damage. They never bothered him again, but that ball of fear and anger burrowed inside him and grew. For a long time he didn’t even know it was there. It didn’t have a name. Intermittent explosions of fire and venom were the only signs of its existence.
Meanwhile, my response to the trauma of an emotionally abusive, alcoholic of a father—someone who felt the need to regularly remind me that he used to wipe my ass—was one of reckless honesty. If you didn’t know all of me, you knew none of me. I felt the need to divulge every thought and feeling in an effort to get ahead of what I saw as an inevitable conclusion: that I was unlovable, a nuisance, a burden. I constantly over-explained myself, just in case I might be misinterpreted.
Our traumas collided.
My insistence on talking about feelings made him bury his deeper. My prying made him feel insecure and ashamed. He had a lot of trouble admitting when he was upset, but I knew. And because I was so afraid that I—the pest, the nuisance—might be the real problem, I pushed him to tell me what was wrong. But he had been trained to repress it, so it could only erupt in a barrage of generalized accusations from the weeks or months prior. When I inevitably became sad and defensive over feeling like the rug had been pulled out from under me, he would become even more ashamed of his feelings and less capable of explaining them. This would fuel his anger at my insistence on talking about my feelings, while seemingly ignoring his. I of course attributed his growing resentments to his grudging tolerance of me, to my inherent unlovability.
I had become completely self-centered, no longer seeing beyond my own outrage and judgment to his pain. I made it about me and accused him of not loving me enough. It took couple’s counseling for him to feel comfortable enough to start opening up. He learned to start expressing his feelings and I learned to listen. I had spent so much time talking, talking, talking, it was actually a relief to finally have someone to reflect back to me and help me grow and learn. Our relationship shifted once we were able to do that: to help each other see the truth and the love and the safety. It became about understanding and respecting each other’s space and privacy within the bounds of the openness that comes with truly knowing one another.
Living with trauma does not make you weak. It does not necessarily make you strong either. It causes a lot of pain and discomfort. But it does take strength to uncover that ball of fear, that deeply buried anger, acknowledge its existence and give it a name. It takes courage to share it with others, and it takes trust to talk about where it comes from, what triggers it, what can be done to calm it down. That’s what it really means to deal with “baggage”—doing the sweaty, dirty, tiring work of uncovering ourselves, dusting ourselves off, and sharing in the plight with our loved ones. That’s the reality of bringing two people, each loaded down with their own trauma, together for a lifetime.
Anna Kawar is an improvement coach and writer living in Northern California.