The sun just set over the mountains and Lee is taking a nap or maybe going to bed early, in part because I managed to make her annoyed with me. I was going to write a version of this post anyway because as I’ve said in the past I think Lee has some attachment issues as a result of her neglect and quick, unexpected move to her grandparents’ custody as a tiny child and so living with her has given me perspective on the issue being faced by Foster Abba, what to say when the child she was glad to have away for a long weekend asks if Foster Abba missed her during that absence.
What I was going to say (and obviously am saying now) is that Lee needs a lot of reassurance. A lot. She’ll grill steak and ask me how it is, and I can’t just say that it’s delicious, because she’ll ask again. So I’ve gotten good at remembering to use adjectives. It’s juicy and tender steak, and maybe it has more salt than the last time she made it (even some constructive criticism is acceptable) but it’s really quite tasty and I’m absolutely enjoying it. Oh, and she knows I don’t like fat, so that’s why I’m being careful about cutting away anything that looks like it touched fat; this is my issue and not a reflection on the meat. And I have to say that much because she’ll ask me three times, five times, ten times. She really, really needs that much reassurance.
And because I’ve learned (through trial and plenty of error) that Lee actually means this literally and actually does need a lot of reassurance and support, I’m no longer tempted to say something sarcastic like “Yup, just like the last time you asked, I must admit it’s the most delicious steak ever on the face of the earth and you may as well give up grilling since you’ve reached this pinnacle of human achievement!” Instead I’ve gotten good at thanking her before she asks, reminding her gently but patiently every time she asks again. She’s not doing it to feed her ego or because she loves hearing how great she is or to be passive-aggressive or anything like that. She just — in my opinion — not only feels like she can’t quite trust herself, but she can’t entirely trust me either. She’s always subconsciously yearning for a little bit more, for that right word that will leave her fulfilled.
The point was that when Foster Abba’s daughter Danielle asks if she’s been missed, I think she’s probably asking for reasons similar to Lee’s. Lee doesn’t really need a full play-by-play review of a steak (or anything else) but needs the reminder that she’s doing things well, that she’s okay and accepted and on the right track. I’ve been pretty proud of myself for figuring this out and as I’ve gotten good at telling her what she needs to hear (in an honest way) she’s also realized that I understand and that awareness between us calms things, makes her need to ask less often than she used to.
But I don’t want it to sound like I’m the hero in this story, unlocking and satisfying her deep and primal desires. I know I make her do things she finds annoying or outside her comfort zone, and I’m just not talking about them because they seem like reasonable requests to me. And it’s also because today I messed up bigtime and didn’t even realize it until much later.
I am, like Foster Abba, a big fan of honesty. Well, to be honest, I also at times very much enjoy saying things that are true but saying them in such a way that they give a different impression than the one I truly hold. So yes, I’d answer “Did you miss me?” with “It sure wasn’t the same without you here!” But I care very much about my opinions and I love debating things (must be the old ex-philosophy major in me) and I am not bothered by people having different beliefs from mine but enjoy debating and discussing them (to a point, since I think I’ve written here about how frustrating it was to hear Lee and my very Catholic father debating abortion rights.)
So today as we were readying dinner for 22, Lee asked my aunt why she wasn’t washing the chicken breasts and we got into a debate about whether it was necessary to wash chicken breasts before cooking. I agreed with my aunt that I’d read that washing was more likely to spread bacteria and didn’t seem to improve outcomes. I saw Lee was bothered by the discussion, but since the chicken breasts had already been readied for cooking, there wasn’t anything to be done differently anyway.
Later, Lee and I looked on my computer and saw that in fact it seems the current recommendation is not to wash chicken pre-cooking for the reasons discussed, that cooking kills the bacteria and washing just spreads them. Lee was still annoyed after this, and I told her that if it mattered that much I’d be sure to wash our chicken in the future, but that she’d been eating unwashed chicken for a long time now. She had no chicken for dinner.
I didn’t understand why she was so annoyed by something so minor, and it wasn’t until she’d gone off to a remote porch by herself that I realized what was up. What’s gotten to us several times before is that when Lee states an opinion, she wants a partner who’s going to back her up. That makes her feel loved and supported. So if she says that water is green, she wants me to say, “Oh, it does look greenish I suppose, if seen in the right light” or find some very polite way to redirect her even if I think she’s totally wrong. And I, being a person who doesn’t want to compromise my opinions, have a tendency to say, “That’s ridiculous, love! I completely disagree and think blah blah blah.”
This is not an issue we’ve resolved, but we’d managed to avoid it for a long, long time before tonight. I feel like I’d be compromising myself and my integrity if I stood up for a position I didn’t actually believe in. Lee feels that a loving person will support her partner no matter what. There are ways to get around this. If I’m clever enough, I can say, “Oh, is this one of those situations where you want my support?” or I can even say, “You know, I can tell how passionate you are about this, and I’m intrigued by your position. Maybe it’s something we can research later.” I’m not always clever enough, though, because I get so hung up on wanting to be heard and be right, and I end up hurting her out of my own selfish desire.
So I wanted to talk about something else, but what I ended up with is something more like Foster Abba’s dilemma than what I would have talked about before I realized that I’d unintentionally done something that ended up hurting the woman I love. Instead while she was off having quiet time, I wrote her a letter apologizing for not realizing what was going on and explaining that I know this is a problem we have and that I don’t know the way to resolve it. I apologized to her verbally quickly, once she’d felt ready to be sociable again and was having a great time with my uncle and cousin.
And now she’s sleeping, in part because she never got a nap but I think in part because she feels hurt and unloved and wants to be warm and away from all this. Maybe it’s just part of Lee’s personality to respond to things that way, but I think even if that’s the case it’s compounded by her chaotic early childhood. Because she learned early on that people who love you can just disappear from your life, she’s always somehow waiting for that to happen again, for her to be left helpless and alone. She needs a lot more reassurance than someone who hasn’t lived that life. She does ask me to tell her I missed her — and she’s also very careful about getting time away when she feels she needs it — but because she’s an adult and someone who knows herself, she’s able to make it clear that she needs answers to all her questions. I’m not sure she could have done it as a teenager. I’m not sure she could have done it with some of the girlfriends she had in the past.
I know that even though it sometimes feels like a chore to tell her the same thing over and over in different words, it’s a chore I need to do to make her feel safe and loved. I know, too, that this isn’t something I learn how to do and then will do automatically. There will be days I’ll be tired and impatient and end up annoying or hurting her. There will be days I’ll be thoughtless and not realize that I’m not giving her an answer or a backup when that’s what she needs, just like what happened today. But before she went to bed, I asked her to hug me and I told her I love her. She said, “I know!” and she does know. That knowing makes both our lives easier, but even that isn’t enough, doesn’t resolve the issue. I don’t think it’s an issue that will ever be resolved. It’s just how things are and how they have to work, how we get by. And we’re working on it.