Arguing Doesn’t Have to Mean Abandonment

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Photo by Zdeněk Macháček on Unsplash

I really hate arguing.

Even when voices are level, and the most distressing part of the exchange is a heavy sigh, I feel my body tighten. “We are being attacked,” my brain keeps repeating, ready for fight, flight, freeze, or fuck responses (freeze being my go-to), just anything to either get away or end the tension.

I thought I understood why. I had been taught early on in life to expect screaming and threats, not talking. Later, during my marriage, calmer tones didn’t translate into relief. I would start with “Hey, this bugged me a little, can we talk about it?” and quickly find the tables turned, trying not to drown in waves of guilt now that my feelings were categorized as wrong and unreasonable. I reached out for reassurance and could almost feel the teeth snap tight on my fingers.

I thought the anxiety and fear would go away in a better relationship. They didn’t.

I couldn’t understand it. There are tears, there are difficult conversational hurdles to navigate, but my girlfriend and I don’t yell at each other. We don’t try to intimidate the other or “win.” But I’ll still feel the muscles of my chest winding tight, my pulse approaching a staccato beat, my mind pulling out all the files on calm assertiveness in case I need to defend myself.

I hate every second of it.

Of course arguments aren’t meant to be pleasant. That’s why they’re arguments, after all. But it takes two people to argue, and, as much my ego would love to tell me that I’m doing everything right, I’ve tried to ask myself what I do to create the very situations I don’t want. Then it clicked.

I’m afraid of being abandoned.

It doesn’t matter whether the argument is about sex, schedules, or statements that come off wrong. The same fear creeps up. Because I’m convinced that unless I can quickly and calmly restore smooth seas, I’m going to lose the relationship.

I can’t identify one single event that encrusted the fear into my heart. All I know for sure is that the toxic little worry sent out roots and grew over time, reinforced when I lost my marriage and a second intimate relationship within six months of each other.

For more than a decade, I firmly believed that there would always be a tomorrow. That when you love someone, you carry a promise to work out disputes and try to heal. But both people have to believe that, and my partners did not. They left suddenly and, in the case of my poly partner, did not even say why.

So now every little tremor has me on high alert. Every argument feels like it carries the terror of abandonment, again, as if I am too difficult and ask too much. I struggle to both defend myself from the perceived attack and console my girlfriend, and whatever peace we ultimately create feels like it carries a tarnished edge. Another dark scratch on my record. Another reason that I’m not easy or worthy enough.

When my girlfriend needs space, even just for a few minutes, my mind wants to eat itself. Logically, her request makes total sense and I agree with the approach. No reason to keep pecking at each other if we’re stalled. But my experience tells me to start squirreling away emergency money and think about where I would live on my own. The distortion feels like reality, that I am really just one bad exchange away from tearfully standing on the curb.

It’s taken practice to change. To take a deep breath and say “Ok” and self-soothe for a little bit. To believe that the upset is temporary and will not be used on a scorecard of wrongs I’ve racked up. It’s still difficult to prevent my mind from hyperfocusing on all the tips and tricks I’ve picked up in therapy, coming off as condescending when I try to approach arguments the “right” way.

Not that I’m entirely aware of all this at the time. When you’re in a fight, it’s hard to think of anything else. And letting an argument rest — for a few minutes, or until after a workday is through — still drives me up the wall. Every hour is filled with fear that all the waiting will culminate in my love standing in the doorway with a suitcase.

Sometimes all I can do is say “That’s a distortion, that’s not real” until I maybe start to believe it.

Thankfully, I haven’t had much chance to put my recent realizations to the test. I hope I’ll remember them the next time I have to handle something difficult, that I can believe my partner loves me despite the tears. That I will be ok.

Trust isn’t earned. It’s practiced.

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