I hung up on her. Our 30-minute battle exhausted me and I needed to retreat. Instead of a neutral corner, where a trainer urging me to re-enter the ring would tend to me, I dropped into the cushion of my lounge chair. My abrupt halt to our cell phone conversation didn't make me feel like a champ; instead, I felt flattened, as if I were an over-the-hill boxer.
I returned to the paused TV show I had been watching before the phone call. As the images on the screen moved from scene to scene, and characters' voices bounced from one to another, I realized I couldn't focus. So, I left my viewing chair and paced as I rehashed my recent fight.
First I cried at our mutual behavior. Then, I fumed. I built a case against my foe and layered it with past arguments. I found the pattern, and while the themes were not fresh, my response was new: I had fought back. With cell phone to my ear, I yelled at her. And while the hot exchange left me exhausted, I was glad I had held my ground, gone toe-to-toe with my tough opponent.
This experience spurred me to review my squabbling style, as well as the one I had witnessed in my childhood. I propped two pillows on my bed, stretched out, and let the file tape flow across my brain.
In my 2006 memoir,
I wrote this about my parents' quarrels: "Whenever I heard their arguments, I
d duck for cover, like a recruit frightened of battle. And although the two of them never came to blows and seemed to recuperate quickly, my wounds took longer to heal."
Forgive me for the marketing, but I just love that sentence. I believe it was this early experience that led me to the style I chose for my first marriage. I was determined to not repeat those painful scenes, so when I felt injured by my husband's actions, I chose silence. I sulked; complained to friends, let my children fight my battles -- anything to not engage. And so, during our 30-year-marriage, the two of us constructed a wall. Tiff-by-tiff, the bricks grew taller and more impenetrable with each year, until it toppled in divorce.
In comparison, my second marriage was a pleasure cruise. We sailed along -- watching the same TV programs, walking our dog, taking occasional vacations -- and on the rare instances we argued, it was always Tommy who said, "Let's not be mad at each other. Let's talk about it." A few words, maybe a tear from each of us, hugs, and then it was over.
I remember once, when my first husband was at our house -- gratefully, we had stayed friendly through the divorce and in the subsequent years, and Tommy enjoyed his company -- my second husband and I began to squabble. I can't remember what the issue was, but we tapped lightly, as if we were first-time kids in the ring.
"Why couldn't we have done that?" my first husband had said, as he watched Tommy and I
tussle, and then make up quickly.
He was wistful as he asked this, and at the time, I answered, "I have no idea." But I do: my parents' union had infiltrated that first marriage and successfully silenced me.
Was husband #1 jealous that I had landed in a stable second marriage, or was he wondering it could've been different if I had only learned how to fight?
It isn't as if he and I hadn't booked therapy appointments way back then, where each on our own time would spill our secrets, our unhappiness, and our frustrations. But somehow, those scholarly souls couldn't solve our problems, and so after our three-decade marriage and a six-year separation, we signed the divorce papers.
After my most recent clash with a dear one, I pondered how I had journeyed from watching on the sidelines in my childhood, to righteous silence in my first marriage, to simple taps in my second, and finally, to the loud-mouthed, hotheaded battler I had become. Was it age that had toughened me, a conviction I was the injured party, or a desire to see only what I wanted to see?
It's likely my opponent and I will take a few days to lick our wounds. We'll kvetch to friends about the other's stubbornness. Then hopefully, we'll edge our way back towards each other, and to love.