Negotiations and love songs
are often mistaken
for one and the same.
Newman and I are trying our very best to avoid fighting, and we’re doing quite well. While some couples may enjoy the occasional fight and makeup session, Newman and I have finally figured out that neither of us wants this, and we both find it incredibly stressful when it happens. We’ve done some work to identify what our triggers are, how and why we react to each-other, and what we can do to defuse a fight or prevent the tension from building in the first place.
As you may have guessed by now, I’m not one to hold back, so I will tell you that one big trigger for us is Newman’s very friendly relationship with his ex. I’m smart enough to know that being on good terms with her is a great thing for his kids and for them, and I’m in favor of that, generally speaking. It becomes difficult, however, in that Newman and I are still working through some old commitment issues (no surprise, I guess, given that we’re both divorced), and these tend to re-surface in times of stress. Things are complicated further by the fact that my ex is not now, nor will probably ever be, the least bit friendly towards me, and I can’t in any way relate to what Newman has with his ex.
All of this conspires to make me feel hyper-sensitive to reminders that Newman and his ex get along well, have always done so, and would like to continue to do so in seemingly the same ways as before. I, on the other hand, want some clear boundaries established, perhaps not forever, but certainly for now while he and I find our bearings in our new family dynamic(s). When I have tried to state my case with Newman about this in the past, he has become quite defensive and dug in his heels, which makes me more sensitive, and, well, you get the picture.
Things have generally gotten much better as we’ve had time to settle into our new life together, but the fights continue to flare up on occasion, primarily when something happens involving the ex that we react differently to. Our last very bad fight was rough enough for me to invite Newman into a therapy session, which was useful in that we got to lay out some of our issues while practicing our “I” statements. After that session, we were able to sit down to talk about some possible upcoming stresses and how we might manage them better. We focused on his son’s high school graduation and the inevitable negotiations of how to celebrate this occasion while maintaining boundaries.
I’ve written before about progress we’ve made in this department. The ice has been broken in that we’ve had dinner together with his children and his ex and her current partner. We’ve been to his old house as guests at a party. We’ve all shown up together to watch the kids play hockey and tennis, and everything has been fine. The more it happens, the less of an event it is, and the easier it is to settle in and put the focus where it should be, which is on his children.
So what is the problem, you might ask? None really, except that the more I feel I am giving, the more seems to be expected of me, and what I hoped would be a rare interaction is happening more frequently than I am comfortable with. I feel like I’m working hard to accommodate Newman’s wishes, and I want him to reciprocate by prioritizing specific goals in our evolving relationship.
I have a habit of sometimes letting go of a boundary that is important to me because I empathize with someone else’s perspective, and then later I feel very resentful and angry as a result, which fuels a fighting cycle. Newman and I are struggling through what every couple must struggle through: the reality that while lucky couples share a lot of goals and values, there are always things that have to be negotiated, and it really sucks when you can’t get what you want.
I’ve been working on clearly and calmly communicating my goals and boundaries to Newman and why they are important to me. I’ve also been working on trying to get us beyond the trigger of his ex to where our real focus as a couple should be: our own commitment issues and the ways we can, the ways we should, and the ways we are actually showing each other how we feel about each other. Newman has acknowledged to me that at least in one area, he has been saying one thing and doing (or not doing) another, and having that acknowledged has helped me enormously in terms of remaining patient and empathetic to what he finds challenging.
We were tested this week when, after we had seemingly resolved the graduation question ahead of time (we’d attend the graduation and party at his ex’s together, and his son would have a get-together for his friends at our home at a later date), Newman brought up the possibility of having his children and his ex over to our place for a party after the graduation ceremony. He asked me to consider it, which I did, but even the idea of having her in our home was so stressful to me that I knew it was a boundary I needed, and that I needed him to support. When we talked about it again, it’s a miracle we were able to just talk without a fight, especially when I suspected (and he confirmed) that he had already run the idea by his ex without him and me having discussed it.
Sigh. Nobody said it would be easy. We did survive it, however, and although it was the hardest thing I’ve had to do in a while, I did stay true to my instincts and ask him to respect this boundary. I know it was the hardest thing he’s had to do in a while, but he did, and our current plan is to go out to dinner with everyone in a neutral territory after graduation.
There’s nothing fancy or sexy about any of this, nothing poetic or pretty. It is plain and practical stuff, but it is progress, and I’m betting that most couples do some version of this work to determine and communicate their own boundaries of comfort and challenge. Newman and I are slowly, tediously, and tirelessly working together, inch by inch, to figure out how to create a shared space that is peaceful and productive, a new kind of love song for us, but one I’d like to learn to play.