The Barbarian’s travel for work over the past two years has really changed the dynamic, not just of our day to day life, but our relationship as well. It’s extraordinarily difficult to feel connected to your partner when you don’t see him or her on a daily basis, and there are so many things of varying levels of gravity you just end up not saying to each other, usually because you’re waiting for a time when you’re together. But by the time you are together, there are so many other things demanding to be said or done, that many things just get forgotten or left by the wayside. Things that happened to you, thoughts or ideas you had, something hilarious the kids did or said, updates about various things, messages to pass along from other people. After over two years of not seeing my partner on a daily basis, I’ve realized how much these things, the little tidbits we tend to take for granted in our daily lives with our partners, really make up so much of the foundation of a relationship, and how their absence greatly contributes to the distance between you, even when you’re physically together.
Recently The Barbarian had reached his limit of not saying some rather important things to me, and the result was a full-blown argument, the likes of which we rarely have. I can probably count on one hand the number of times we’ve argued like that in the past nine years. Being angry with not just what he was saying, but also the way in which he was saying it, I felt I was being attacked, immediately got defensive, and responded with the appropriate righteous indignation of one in my position with that attitude. Unfortunately, that response was precisely what had kept him from bringing these things up previously, but being told you’re too defensive is the quickest way to bring about feelings of defensiveness, no? So I defended and justified my actions to him and then didn’t speak to him for a day or two, which is not something I’ve ever done.
The whole thing was pretty damn shitty.
So what was the argument about? In a nutshell, my crappy housework ethic, something I have struggled with since forever. I’m just not a neat person, I never have been, and I suspect I may never be. When I do clean, I am incredibly anal and do a spectacular job, but I struggle with the day to day stuff. I know how much better waking up to clean house feels, but except for rare stints here and there, that knowing doesn’t translate into actively making that happen on a regular basis. My negative self-talk is that I’m lazy, of course, but as someone who deals with severe depression, laziness is not the issue I’ve been assured by my therapist. The general issue is simply having low energy, whether physical or mental or emotional, and choosing, when I can muster up some energy, to spend the precious stuff on something other than housework. For those of us suffering from depression, having our priorities in line is of utmost importance so that when we do find ourselves with some energy, we know where and how we should spend it. And although the benefits from a neat, tidy, and clean environment are huge and well-known to me, I simply haven’t made it an ongoing priority.
There are two factors that contribute to my feelings of defensiveness and ultimate lack of doing when asked or reminded or prodded to accomplish something by The Barbarian. The first is that The Barbarian himself is as bad or worse than I am in the neat, tidy, and clean department–part of this having to do with his own struggle with depression–so when he brings up my failure to do something, my first reaction is to look around the house or yard and pick out all of the things within his purview he hasn’t done. I have never envied the quintessential dynamic of one neat and one messy partner, as it comes with a host of frustrations for both partners, and I’ve always been happy The Barbarian and I were at least on the same page in that regard, even if that page was horrifically messy at times. But even us messy people go through periods of cleanliness, and when one of you is in that space and the other is not, the messy/neat dynamic definitely comes into play and it totally sucks.
The second factor that comes to the fore when The Barbarian encourages me to get my act together with regards to housework is my good ol’ friend ODD, who likes to take the reigns when I’m asked or expected to do something. And the topic of cleaning with regards to being diagnosed with ODD was a huge insight for me, as the issue has been prevalent since I was a tiny, tiny child. My mom likes to tell the story of how my older sister was generally so compliant and eager to please as a child, that threatening things like throwing all her toys away if she didn’t clean them up was a surefire way to get her to immediately act. But by the age of two, when she tried that the first time with me, she realized she was dealing with a different beast entirely, as my response was a shrug and dismissive green light to do whatever she wanted with my toys, as I still wasn’t cleaning them up. And I can remember distinctly more than once getting a wild hair up my ass to clean my room on my own as a child, but coincidentally meeting my mom somewhere in the house on my way there and having her demand that I go clean my room. The response this evoked was complete visceral anger and frustration, as I was literally on my way to do just that, but now that it had been asked of me, there was no fucking way I was doing it! And as utterly ridiculous as that scenario sounds, I felt truly comforted to finally know why my response to something like that was always so over the top and felt totally out of my control.
So, because my reaction to his words was so profound, and because I know that a reaction like that speaks to underlying issues, especially in light of my past as it relates to cleaning, after my anger dissipated for the most part several days later, I sat with his criticisms, or as my therapist likes to say, I “held them lightly.” Holding things lightly is another concept that has been tremendously helpful for me recently, and it involves taking a thought or action or occurrence or idea or memory or whatever’s clouding your mind and simply holding it lightly, being aware of it but not becoming attached to it, examining it but not allowing it to dictate your mood. And after sitting with The Barbarian’s criticisms lightly for a week or so, I was finally able to let something I was already very much aware of float to the fore so I could finally, truly face it.
And that thing was my feeling of deserving. I am responsible for an entire household while my husband travels almost every week for work, so I deserve to not get to the dishes on a daily basis. I rarely even get a chance to take a crap without an audience, so I deserve to not do anything responsible like laundry when I do get a free moment. I deal with severe mental illness, so I deserve to put a movie on and hole up in bed and ignore my kids for the afternoon. The foods I eat are restricted due to my IBS, so I deserve to binge on the ones I can eat. I was up all night alone with two sick children, so I deserve to take a nap instead of take the dog for the hike we both desperately need now that I have someone here to help with the kids. I am not a girly girl who spends a small fortune on shoes and clothes and jewelry and beauty products, so I deserve to buy myself this one item to pamper myself with even if we don’t really have the money for it. I am essentially a single parent much of the time, so I deserve to yell at my children in frustration and anger.
You get the idea.
And what I was finally able to truly see is that in all of these instances, the net result of doing those things I feel I deserve to do, or not doing certain things because I feel I deserve not to do them, is not positive but very much negative. I may convince myself that I’m justified in eating a ginormous bowl of cereal before bed or not taking the dog for a hike when I have the chance, but the net result is that I am technically obese and severely out of shape and have horrific self-esteem in regards to my appearance. I may feel justified in not doing the dishes or laundry on a regular basis because I have such a crazy, stressed life, but the net result is that my kids often don’t have clean jams for bedtime and the kitchen too often stinks of sink rot from days’ worth of dirty dishes. I may feel justified in yelling at my children because I’m at my rope’s end and that was my model, but the net result is anxious children who either tune me out completely or are terrified of their mother. I may feel justified in not cleaning up after myself because The Barbarian didn’t either, but the net result is a house that is twice as messy and children growing up with seriously unhelpful modeling when it comes to being responsible for your own mess.
So what starts out as something I’ve tried to convince myself is a positive–giving myself a break because of xyz–ends up being a negative, and not just for me, but for my family as well. And that’s really rather shitty and unfair to all of us, isn’t it?
Habits and patterns like these are extraordinarily difficult to change, but realizing they’re there is clearly the first step, and I feel much, much more in control of my own day to day existence just simply being aware of them. Is my house currently spotless? Nope. But it is much cleaner than it was a week ago and that’s something.
And just that little something is pretty damn big to me right now.