With four grown sons, one daughter, and several grandchildren, his parents had been married for almost fifty years. Both were retired. At their modest suburban rancher, Dad spent his free time painting peaceful watercolor landscapes or gardening, and Mom thrived as a homemaker, orchestrating wonderful family dinners on Sundays, after they came home from church. Later, it was a game of badminton in the yard or, in winter, piano playing and singing indoors.
That the oldest son, in his forties, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and lived at home was no matter to me; it could happen to anyone. That the next eldest son was divorced didn’t elicit a judgment either; why should it? That another son seemed critical of his family and acted as if he were above them—and his wife even more so—did bother me a little, especially since I was included in the equation, but I figured they were just used to a different, more fast-paced life in the big city. That my boyfriend had a hard time holding down a job and making a living wasn’t a big deal either; he was a struggling musician and it went with the territory.
All in all, a lovely family, a wonderful guy. So refreshingly calm at their home compared to my own family home, where chaos and arguments and fighting reigned. I reveled in the comparative peace. I congratulated myself on a fine match, until around year two or three, when I started to see things a little differently.
Something felt wrong
Sometimes things were tense between Mom and Dad. Sometimes, during dinner, Mom’s mouth was set very tight, and her body was stiff as she bustled about the kitchen. Dad would be quiet, and conversation amongst the kids would pick up and become louder, more lively. One time Dad picked up a chair and slammed it down hard while speaking to Mom in a low but intense tone, eyes blazing. He had picked up the chair only a few inches off the floor, so it wasn’t too loud or dramatic, but it was scary. And the look on her face was fearful even if determined, set. As if her lips were sealed or like she were holding something in that would escape if she let down her guard. And I wasn’t supposed to see it; I was coming out of the bathroom headed back to the yard. They both straightened up a little as I tiptoed through, but they said nothing and neither did I.
I noticed scenes like this periodically, and I realized the apparent peace had been deceptive. I wondered about it, but I shrugged it off. It wasn’t my business, and besides, no family is perfect.
Everything was wonderful with my boyfriend; we became engaged and I moved in with him. It wasn’t long, though, before I started wondering about things with him, as well. A comment here, a little wisecrack there, things he did or said that stopped me in my tracks and made me wonder: why would he say such a thing?
Something was wrong
I responded in the best way I knew how: I tried to talk about it calmly and see if there was anything I needed to know: was he upset with me about something? Was there anything I could do differently? With little or no response, I shrugged it off and let it go, but something inside me was getting upset. Hurt. Angry. I didn’t know what it was, but something was wrong. Was he backing out? Unhappy? He didn’t seem so. He was never angry, never upset, never admitted to anything bothering him when asked. None of his comments required different action on my part; he wasn’t usually complaining about something specific.
In retrospect, though, I think he was dropping hints or beating around the bush, but what could I do? Sometimes his nit-picking was about things I knew he didn’t care about, or so he said, and he did things he complained about exactly the same way himself. I tried to sort things out, but any attempt at conversation fell flat or he’d laugh it off or roll over and go to sleep.
Life went on, and most of it was great, or so I thought, until he said something that was over the top and under the belt. I snapped. Shocked with him and myself (what was going on?), I calmed down after a day apart, and I apologized for my own harsh words and asked if we could talk about it. What was bothering him? Nothing. The more I tried to talk with him, the more silent he became, and the angrier I got once again. Now he was outright ignoring me. This was not OK, and I told him so as I went out for a walk.
It was all wrong, at least for me
When I returned, he was gone. He moved in with his parents, and he moved back when I finally got myself together and moved out. I never did figure out exactly what the problem was. I don’t know if he did, either, but if he did, he wasn’t telling.
Later that year, his sister was divorced, and another brother was hospitalized with what everyone called a nervous breakdown (cocaine was involved, from what I heard, and I wasn’t surprised). The big city brother was next to be divorced and, three years later, a woman I never met—the new girlfriend of my now ex-boyfriend—called me in tears to ask “if he did the same thing to me.” Um, yeah, if you mean nit-picking and growing increasingly hostile and never discussing it and then walking out after getting me totally confused and upset, yeah. That’s exactly what she meant. Poor girl cried a river, especially for her daughter, who had become attached to him. My rivers were already dried up.
So much for the Cleavers. And so much for my delusions about a perfect family.
I know his parents did the best they could with what they had, and they were, by the way, really sweet and I cared about them.
Plus, divorces happen, mental illness happens, nervous collapses happen, drug addictions happen. Things happen. Or do they? Some things, like schizophrenia, are diseases, and that’s one thing. And, of course, adult children are responsible for their own lives and happiness and whether the relationships they form are lasting or not.
What tools do we have?
But kids march off into adulthood with the tools they’ve been given and what they’ve learned in their families. And what I’m looking at here is the family “system.” How were the inevitable conflicts handled in this family? What model did the parents provide for healthy and productive discussions of any kind? What did the kids learn? How were emotions handled, especially anger, and how were they expressed? Or not?
From my vantage point, I saw that emotions weren’t allowed in his family. Discussions didn’t take place. In the three years that I was involved with that man, I never had a real discussion with him that went much deeper than the weather, though I tried.
Granted, I was young, in my young twenties and he was only a few years older. I was too young or too inexperienced or didn’t know myself well enough to see that this wouldn’t work for me before I got deeply involved (my family didn’t give me the greatest tools, either, and I was groping my way in the dark, learning as I went along).
I was, however, experienced enough to know that things need to be discussed in any relationship. Needs, wants, and desires need to be shared, understood, and resolutions or compromises made. Irritations and anger can’t be allowed to fester or they’ll come out, eventually, in unhealthy ways.
Was my boyfriend angry? Most definitely. Did he show it? Not really, though it oozed out of the cracks in the form of snide, hurtful remarks and silence while I was hurting. Did he talk about it? No. Did he act on it? Yup. Not only with me but with the next woman he got involved with, in exactly the same way.
Anger is like moles and their cousins the voles, those persistent little rodents that tunnel through yards and are almost impossible to eradicate. You can ignore them, but the cost may be destroyed shrub roots and flower bulbs and a very lumpy yard. You can tamp down the tunnels, set out repellents, and sprinkle the ground with any number of anti-mole products but, if you don’t catch them and deal with them as they appear they’ll never go away. And neither does anger.
What tools can we develop? How can we deal with anger?
Let’s skip the moles for now. How can we discuss something that we’re upset or angry about? Is there any way to be disappointed or upset with someone, angry, or even outraged and not be hurtful toward the other or destroy the relationship? Does being angry with someone equal abuse or is it morally wrong or bad? What if someone is angry with you?
Comments are always welcome.