Do you ever respond to something—or someone—in a way you wish you didn’t? Yet you respond that same way repeatedly, butting heads in a familiar dance pattern?
When Bubba and I started living together, one place we ran into relationship speed bumps was the kitchen, usually when I was preparing food. I rarely work off a recipe, so my style is free-form. I don’t actually know if what I’m making will work, but based on having watched mom cook—and enough personal success of my own—I’ve been content with my approach.
Then Bubba moved in. He’s comfortable in the kitchen. Sometimes he cooks; sometimes I do. When I’m cooking, he often offers to help. But instead of welcoming his offers, I’ve often resisted them; gotten defensive.
If I was cutting onions and he was nearby—trying to figure out how to help—I’d feel as if I was being observed, not casually, but with a critical eye. Or if he offered to finish cutting up carrots, I’d conclude it was because I was cutting carrots wrong. Sometimes Bubba would offer to show me a different way to do something, based on his experience. To him, he was helping; to me, I was being corrected and I didn’t want to be corrected. I wanted to do it my way.
Some character inside me heard his offers through an emotional lens of criticism. Despite the fact that he didn’t say anything critical, I responded as if I was being criticized.
Maybe I was anxious because, without a recipe, I didn’t know how to incorporate him into my process. Maybe I was sensitive because the lack of a recipe made me doubt myself. Or maybe there was a tone or raised eyebrow I was picking up on that signaled some judgement? One he didn’t even know he was transmitting?
He assured me he just wanted to help. There was no reason not to believe him.
It was personally crazy-making. Who, I’d think, doesn’t appreciate their partner offering to help make dinner? What’s wrong with me?
When I feel as if I’m being criticized—whether actual criticism is happening or not—I tighten inside. I feel as if the other person is finding me wrong; not just my way of cutting vegetables, but my character, who I am at the core. It triggers insecurity; It’s painful.
Because I don’t want to be defensive—even though I feel it—I attempt to hide it. My words suddenly become clipped or chirpy, as I try to paper-over my inner feelings to appear as if everything is “fine.” But Bubba is sensitive to changes; he hears tonal shifts, and suddenly feels the floor under him morph, from solid to slippery.
She says everything’s fine, he thinks, but she doesn’t sound fine.
It’s a moment where relationship friction can produce a fray.
Because in that moment, while I’m believing Bubba’s finding me wrong, he suddenly feels as if I’m finding him wrong. Bad combo.
We’ve had a few of these moments in the kitchen. We’ve talked about it. Tried to understand what was going on; tried to make sense of it.
We pondered the possibility that, as a child, I learned to respond defensively in situations similar to our kitchen interaction. I thought it might just be man/woman style differences: me experiencing his help more like an imposition rather than welcome assistance. Ultimately, I concluded it was a personal flaw, but a flaw that could be fixed.
I figured the best way to fix it was to eliminate it, whether by force of will, talking about it, or wishing it away. But I couldn’t, and my failure became simply one more thing to judge myself critically about, producing a double whammy: the defensive reaction felt bad, and not being able to stop having it added another layer of bad.
Have you ever experienced jealousy? Or felt a fear of heights? Both trigger physiological reactions that are hard to overcome, even when there’s no evidence for the feeling. Intellectually you know things are ok; but your body isn’t convinced.
Our kitchen moments felt like that: my body reacted and my mind interpreted the reaction as he’s finding you wrong. I’d struggle to resist or pretend it wasn’t happening. But there it was: the hairs on my neck would arc skyward while my vocal cords tightened, my reaction threatening to roil our relationship.
It was a wretched mess.
Continued in Part 2: Finding a Different Way