Learning to be Yourself

Cliff Pervocracy wrote an awesome post on relationship maintenance which you should definitely check out, and it got me thinking about my own relationship and how we spend our time together, and how I feel about that. And it led to a deeper awareness, a reminder that I can be good, even if things don’t go the way I want them to.

Gawain and I live in different cities which are about an hour’s travel apart, so we get to see each other most weekends and usually one night a week. We phone every night, or thereabouts, and text on and off during the day. Thing is, I don’t really like phones and I don’t like being interrupted when I’m in the middle of something, so I don’t reply straight away, and I have a habit of accidentally forgetting to take my phone off silent. Coupled with my belief that phone calls ought to have a purpose, the person initiating the call ought to have something to say more than “Hi, love you. Night”. You can see where this is going, right?!

The misery of "Ought"

Eros Caged

Basically, we went through a bit of a rough patch. Gawain was upset I wasn’t returning his texts, and I was getting frustrated at the phone calls, especially since he never asked how my day was or what I’d been up to. I’d end up feeling guilty because I wanted to hang up when I felt I *ought* to still be attempting to make conversation. The calls were full of long pauses and there was always the awkward dance that precedes hanging up. Resolving it took several tearful, snappy phone calls, and eventually comforting hugs and apologies and explanations in person. I’m not quite sure, now, looking back how we did fix it but we did. I think it took some re-adjusting of expectations neither of us realised we had.

Another frustrating thing with underlying expectations was the ‘but I’m waiting for you’ dance. There have been many occasions where I’ve said I want to go do X, while Gawain was on the internet or whatever. He’d say “yep, in a min when I’ve finished Y” so I would sit down next to him with a book, or something on my phone to wait. Some time would go by, us both sat there with our devices, until I’d metaphorically poke him again in conversation. His response was invariably “Oh but I’ve been ready for ages, I was waiting for you”. But of course, I was waiting for him! I cannot begin to describe how annoying that was! If only one of us had said something sooner! Oh yeah, that thing where you have to use your words. Right.

The more serious thing I was finding difficult was to do with how we spent our time when we are together. I have a busy schedule during the week and often only leave myself one or two evenings at home. I like doing stuff at weekends too, so maybe I’m off at a jiu jitsu event, or whatever, or maybe I’ve travelled to his city or to London to see my family. So, when I am at home for a weekend, or I have an evening free when he can come visit, it’s a rare occurrence and consequently, I always have stuff I need to get done. The problem comes in when you add to that a huge massive pile of guilt of ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds’.

A part of me feels like I ought to be attending to his every need and hanging on his every word. If he’s staying of a weekend, he is fully capable of sleeping past lunchtime, whereas I’m usually awake by ten. I don’t like lying in bed awake when I have stuff to do but I feel guilty for getting up when he wants to sleep in. I feel obliged to prepare breakfast for him when he’s in bed half asleep and I feel bad if I leave him alone to do his own thing when I have chores to do or shops to go to. I feel as though I must feed him whatever he wants for dinner, even when he explicitly says he doesn’t care, that he’d much rather we ate what I want. Gawain is quite content reading stuff on the internet or watching videos on his laptop whereas I’d rather be curled up with a book, but it just feels plain wrong for us to be in bed awake, not talking, engrossed in our favourite sorts of reading. Which is frankly ridiculous! We’re both introverts! We both need quiet down-time to recharge. We both need time to potter and faff, and put our world to rights. But I just can’t shake that feeling that I ought to be doing something more.

The feeling of course is the culmination of our society’s expectations and stories of how to be a good woman in a relationship. All those Disney movies I watched as a kid that had the princesses being dutiful, and good, and kind, and selfless. All the church moralising I soaked up about serving others, the importance of putting them before yourself, of giving even of your last coin. Essentially, how you should just pour all of yourself out on the altar of the Relationship, until you have completely subsumed all your needs and desires into his.

I know this is the case. I know the guilt I feel is because I have swallowed those lies hook, line and sinker. I know the pressure to put myself last is not of myself. But that doesn’t stop it playing in my head and messing with my heart to the point that I forget to take care of myself, because I forget I’m worth caring for.

I learnt began learning that lesson the hard way in a relationship I had in the second year of my undergrad. I was so convinced that “this relationship is it, this is the guy I’ll marry. Look at my parents – they got together during University and they’re still happily married nearly 30 years later.” I did absolutely everything I could to make that relationship work. I put up with his moody strops designed to guilt me into doing what he wanted. I put up with him ignoring all of my advice that he’d asked for, but listened to when it came from his mother rather than me. I believed his lies that he would totally get a job this summer and would work to catch up on his maths so he could do a course he actually liked. Eventually it got to the point where I had nothing left to give. I was so unhappy and I knew it, and I knew he was manipulating me but I felt so guilty for having to end it. But again, I knew the guilt was from outside. I realised on some level that I had to put myself first, that in fact I had a right to. So I did it. I put my own needs first.

And it’s so difficult, to realise it’s a thing I still have to do. To uproot those lies and the guilt they bring where ever I find them. Even in a thing so simple as reminding myself that no, I don’t have to stay by Gawain’s side for his every waking moment. Or, yes, I can sit down beside him with a book without the obligation to talk. Yes, it’s okay to go and do my own thing. Yes, it’s okay to take an evening off, where I specifically refuse to waste any brain power on worrying about what I “ought” to be doing to maintain my relationship, as if it’s solely and entirely my responsibility for how our relationship pans out. Remembering that it is acceptable, necessary and good to give due consideration and weight to my own needs and wants in a relationship, even in the face of a lifetime of teaching that to be good is to put myself last, always. That I can be good, regardless of whether my relationship works out the way society says it’s supposed to. Just because the oughts and the shoulds are there, doesn’t mean I have to listen to them. And neither do you.