Co-habiting and what it can teach us about how we relate to others in partnership
I have, in the last twenty plus years of adulthood, co-habited with a sibling, with friends and with three romantic/sexual partners. These experiences were mixed but I do not feel like any of them had much of an impact on me. I recently started co-habiting for a three month period with my current and just one week of that has changed everything.
I have talked a little in the past about growing up with an alcoholic parent and with my, still yet to be fully addressed, issues around anxiety and anger. These are big issues for me (and, I would say, wider society) that I am tackling (as I do with all big issues) through fiction as well as therapy and supportive friends.
The last four years saw me, concurrently, in the last few years of a 10 year long marriage (12 years together in total: ages 28-40) and in the first few years of what was my first non-monogamous relationship. Both relationships were (and are) with cis het white men, both of whom are Europeans, with one being English, middle class and a similar age to me and one being Italian, middle class and over a decade younger than me. I have spent my adult life in relationships dominated by a lack of communication about all subjects and the move to non-monogamy as well as fully expressing my bisexuality has been emotionally liberating but also challenging as I have has to learn a lot of skills that I just did not have.
When my marriage came to an end in 2016, I tended to understand it, at the time, as being about incompatible physical needs. But, as my new relationship progressed at the same time as I began to unpick my family history through therapy, I came to see how obviously my ex-husband and I had re-created the dynamics that had been present in my family of origin. The silence around feelings, the lack of connection with the body, the inability to inarticulate needs. These were all things I had grown up seeing in the relationships around me and had, then, repeated in my marriage.
My new relationship was a space so very different in so many ways from previous relationships that it offered a very clear lens through which to see certain behaviours. The fact that my partner was also going through some major life changes and therapy of his own made a big difference. There was a shared willingness to do the work and be honest with ourselves as well as each other as well as a willingness to be increasingly vulnerable with each other. We were able to have an ongoing dialogue about our old behaviours and issues as they were triggered by our open framework as well as our own connection. These conversations helped to bring my patterns further to the foreground.
All the people in the relationship need to be doing their individual work
We had always agreed how important it was to have our own independent living spaces and were aware of how lucky we were to be able to have this in London. The remodelling work needed on his apartment meant that he would be living with me for three months. As we usually only saw each other once a week, we both anticipated this change with excitement as well as nervousness. Having had both negative and positive experiences of co-habiting in the past, there was some concern about how it would impact on our connection and we discussed this frequently in advance of his moving in.
Unsurprisingly, when he moved in, the first week was a lot of fun. It was all new and the novelty made for a great time. Then, a few weeks in, the sheen of newness began to tarnish.
It was an illness that started it. I fell ill with a cold and then, a week later, I was still feeling unwell. There was a familiar sense of fearing criticism for being ill – fearing rejection and anger as this had often been the response of my working parents to my being unwell as child.
I also felt overwhelmed with feelings of resentment and anger to the extent that I was rendered almost mute. This unspoken rage that both felt very new and ancient at the same time. Rage that was thick and black like primordial mud.
He went away for the weekend to see friends and, when he came back, I felt angry that he had not come back sooner (an old feeling of never being important) as well as angry with him for being tired and having had lots of fun when I had been stuck in with the kids and still unwell. I was raging but also silent. Resentful and simmering. I was dismissive, short tempered, kept moving away to do other things in the kitchen. This is the space that my mum always retreated to and I had noticed my habit of doing the same.
I felt both the actor of and stuck within this resentment and rage – I could see it and feel it but was also so immersed in it that I could barely breathe.
I had prepared for the demands of shared time space and also different logistics and challenges but I had not been prepared for how very quickly, and deeply, I slipped into the grooves of familiar behaviour from my past.
I was mean and unpleasant – making bitchy remarks, being cold and horrible. I then felt better. Thinking I was done “processing” it was only when I saw Andrea collapsed on the bed, curled up and in literal pain from the shitty time I had given him that I suddenly saw what had happened – I had taken my pain and put it all on and in him. I had not processed or worked through but had, instead, dumped it, a fly tipping of toxic resentment.
I saw what I had done and felt both shame and pain but also, beneath that, relief that I was seeing it. The pattern was clear – the groove of learnt behaviour lit up for me to see clearly.
I apologised. I owned my terrible actions but without self flagellation. We talked, later, about the need to speak so openly and clearly about how we feel so that the stuff does not leak out like poison gas, invisible and sour, and spoil what we share.
An ongoing realisation, as I processed these experiences over the following days, was that I had learnt, living alone, to speak my feelings to myself as well as to friends but I was still unable to speak them out loud to a partner. The risk that involved (if I speak how I feel I will be left/ punished) still felt too big and so I had retreated into old behaviours that had been learnt but which had also kept me safe in the past. Staying silent had been a safety mechanism adapted to keeping me safe from harm among people who could not handle or hold space for my feelings.
When someone says: “I need you to be direct with me” it is time to listen and change how we behave accordingly. But it is also important to acknowledge and understand the depth of emotional safety required to be able to do this.
So much of this this taps into trust – do I trust him to mean what he says? I notice that there is still work for me to do here. Feeling unable to trust is a common thing for children of alcoholic parents and I vividly recall wondering which parts of what my dad used to say were true: the things he said when he was drunk or the things he said when sober? This is a complex thing for a child to deal with and has left its own emotional scars. Related to this is the question: do I feel safe? This is something that I am still asking myself. We can create emotional honesty but emotional safety is something that cannot come from outside of the self, it has to come from within.
These childhood experiences have left me feeling, all too often as if I am and the world around me is like a laser maze – a set of invisible tripwires of pain and hurt that can catch you, and those you care about the most, regardless of how carefully you move.
Seeing the tension I had put us both under as well as working through that helped me see the pain that that my parents must have lived within as well as the ways in which my marriage had recreated so much of that pain. These were, and are, difficult things to experience but I feel better for having done so.
This is not to say that the same mistakes will not happen again but I am aware now in a way that I was not before. I can see what I do and and why and I am determined to be honest with myself when I am on the verge of acting in that way again.
There are no neat and easy answers to these feelings or experiences. It is just necessary to notice and understand and then create space and safety within the self to make a different choice about how to act. It is an ongoing process, it is part of living and loving fully and honestly.