Shit happens. Shit happening leads to conflict. They make you mad. They hurt your feelings. They don’t wipe the crumbs off the counter when they KNOW how much crumbs bug you and how hard it was for you to ask for the crumb cleaning when you were so afraid of being seen as an OCD freak, and then they just made the toast, with butter and also big blobs of strawberry jam, and then when it was all over and the plate was in the dishwasher they just walked away–– LEAVING THE CRUMBS BEHIND. Sprinkled across two counter tops and a cross section of the flooring as if toast making was now an Olympic sport and they were an athlete at peak performance sweat glistening and splashing droplets to the tune of Eye of the Tiger and you were supposed to be inspired by their irreverence to such a silly distraction as cleanliness. And then they blazed off to work in full glory leaving behind a trail of enough multigrain to lead Hansel and Gretel out of the deep dark forest thrice and break your spirit.
Or equally as devastating they got drunk one night and slept with that person who was NOT YOU. You thought of divorcing them, you were gonna you swore, like any self respecting betrayed person but then you just sat there weighing the pros and cons of leaving your sad forlorn beloved who you had spent all those tender fucking years with ––loving one another, eating toast together, sharing cards and gifts, making plans those cute plans to feed the ducks together in your retirement, telling your stories and triumphs to, and you knew it could happen to anyone. I mean you believed that you would never but honestly there was that time when you had a few too many and you flirted with that bartender and well it only takes a misstep and were you really going to throw away so much good for one misstep? Especially when they are the one person who understands how important it is to clean up the crumbs and they do it with such zealous devotion?
Or what about the time when you were sad, so sad, deep in an inside quiet place because it was THE DAY THAT WAS A REMINDER OF A VERY SAD THING and not everyone knew but THEY knew and you just needed them to ask so you didn’t have to ask them to ask. You didn’t need them to do anything or buy anything or make anything but just some compassion, some indication of loving caring. Over and above that you needed them to not actually need you on this day and be so painfully wrapped up in their own needing –for you to buy things and cheer them on and make the day about them –that they not only didn’t think about you being sad or asking if you were okay but also they got mad at you firstly for not cheering them on and being involved in their happy day but then, quietly and in private for inconveniencing them with your actual sadness.
Time marches on.
Your hurt card starts to fill up.
Crumbs are no longer about crumbs. When you see a crumb now well boy howdy! We all know what it means. They think that you are ridiculous for caring so much about order and beauty. That you are wound too tight and controlling even unlike that cool new friend of John and Sarah’s (who are supposed to be your good friends but god only knows they probably talk about you behind your back too because they now hang out with HER) and she has those little earrings that climb all the way up her ear and she wears cut offs and messy buns and always sort of looks disheveled like she is just crawling out of bed exuding sex while some devoted fuck boy makes her an omelet and does her laundry. Every time her name comes up you hear that strangled tone in your voice and you start inadvertently making remarks about grown-ups who have actual jobs, are capable of managing their lives and have much more important things to do than lazing and freeloading while the rest of us contribute to the world, as you pull the bed cover taught with fiery aggression and shine that spot on the bathroom mirror audibly sighing your disdain against spots and spot-makers. If a person didn’t know how afraid you are of not being embraced by the one who should embrace you for all of those quirks and tender places, supported in your love of beautiful surroundings, appreciated for how you bring light and flowers and sparkle into a room they might think you were actually uptight, or even a bitch. You consider quitting your job and becoming a professional hippy. Ha ha. Except that it’s not really funny.
Time keeps on marching. Primary conflicts become secondary conflicts. Secondary conflicts become tertiary conflicts. We know better than to say “You’re always blah blah blah” “You never blah blah blah” but it’s on the tip of our tongue.
I mean it’s not always constant conflict. There are days when you forget the disconnects and the hurt places and you have a really good time at that dinner with friends. You laugh at an inside joke. You’re on the same team. You consider that even on the bad days you still have someone to eat toast with. They are so cute when they eat toast. In a burst of endorphins you decide that you want the relationship to be better and so you try to get a handle on some of it. But you don’t even know that you don’t even know what you’re fighting about anymore. It’s like trying to diffuse a bomb when you don’t know your green wires from your red or what happens if you press on the thingy that looks like a button (obviously don’t ask me to help diffuse your REAL bombs).
But this is not a big lead up to to you’re going to need some help for this and don’t try to diffuse a love bomb at home! Well obviously I can help you and so can many a professional but that is not the secret jewel of extremely important information I am sharing today. The secret reason as to why, even with help, so many of us can’t pull a relationship out of the shitter, and a big HEADS UP on how not to let it get there, and a big heads up on THE ONE SUPER IMPORTANT THING YOU NEED TO DO IF YOU’RE EVER GOING TO SAVE IT AND BE HAPPY TOGTHER AGAIN?
I call it EMOTIONAL DEBT. I don’t know what anyone else calls it because I have never heard anyone else talk about it before.
If you are going to save your relationship (and keep a healthy one) you need to get out of emotional debt.
I have talked to you about emotional debt in other contexts. I have urged you to practice forgiveness by understanding it not as permission to be mistreated, or a holier than thou pardon but as a cancelling out of bad emotional debt. You don’t want to walk around carrying thousands of injustices or even one really heavy one. Just like a money debt where you know they are never going to get on top of it, or it’s causing more harm than good, forgiving the debt sets everyone free. It says I have a choice to allow us both to heal, to become solvent again, which we cannot do under the burden of the debt.
When it comes to relationship emotional debt is created when we are hurt by our person and we hold onto the hurt. We are carrying an outstanding injustice on the books. Best practice is to resolve hurt in real time. Hurt speaks to need and I have written about how to answer need so as to not create the debt in the first place. And I will write more about this in the future because it is important. But what I truly urgently want to impart to you today is an understanding and awareness of emotional debt that is already undertaken because it’s a silent relationship killer. So many of us don’t know it has happened to us. There are no creditors calling us on the phone at 6:45 am or leaving blood sweat tear inducing letters in our post box to let us know WE OWE MORE THAN WE CAN PAY. Right!? Emotional debt in relationship is all disguised as crumbs on the fucking counter. It is insidious. Cancerous. Often by the time you figure it out, if you ever do it has spread uncontrollably and it’s ten years after you called time of death and you’re on the analyst’s couch trying to figure out why you are so hard wired against toast refuse in the first place *hint you judged me instead of supporting me.
Let’s think about fiscal debt for a moment. We all understand that being in debt feels shitty. It is a source of constant strain and fear. It is not productive or motivating. Chipping away at debt feels much less gratifying than putting savings in the bank. And if we have debt in too many directions we sink fast. Why? Because our best efforts are only ever going to result in us still swimming in OWE. We don’t see a way out. There is no room for feeling good. Eventually we hit a place where we’d rather declare bankruptcy. Or we just plain give up. Things fall apart.
Emotional debt happens in relationship all the time. There is a good chance it is happening in yours now. Not that you are necessarily drowning in debt, but there’s probably some lurking. And that is not your fault. (And if that is not you, amazing, I couldn’t be happier to hear).
Emotional debt is why we keep bringing up the same incident from ten years ago.
It is why we feel hurt over seemingly small matters.
It is the how and why we cannot let things go.
It is trading in injustices and wrongs.
A commodification of hurt. An accounting of our right to punish, to restitution, without any actual restitution.
Did you know that there are 987,653.76 permutations and combinations of betrayal, wrong-doing, insensitivity, abandonment, lack of effort and failing to meet your needs that take place in modern relationship? Approximately.
Emotional debt is why they don’t seem to want to try to fix it (it’s not because they don’t love you or why would they even be there?).
If you don’t know you’re holding onto debt you’ll never get out of it, or let them off the hook.
Staying in debt is as much about the debtor’s withholding as it is about the debt-ee making amends. Both sides of the coin are at play! Pun intended this time.
There are big debts that bankrupt us. Infidelities are like a crippling mortgage.
And there are small ones – the relationship credit cards and lines of credit that added up take us down.
Let me tell you about my sweet kind University BF from a gazillion years ago who was the most wholesome least likely to flirt, feel temptation, or even look in the direction of another woman, and then impossibly on the worst possible night for me he tripped over some rum causing his penis to fall into Cindy’s vagina. Well I forgave him, didn’t I? I stayed. I mean he was crying and begging me not to leave him and I loved him and was properly confused about who was in pain about what happened and neither of us had the tools to sort that shit out, so our relationship became all of this wonderful warm humour wherein he was the repentant who didn’t deserve such a compassionate woman and I needed the attention of 300 men on any given day just to feel adequate. No relationship can survive that kind of emotional debt. I just kept reliving the hurt and there was never going to be enough repenting for him. We broke up because we had “grown apart” and we “wanted different things”, but really what we wanted was out from under that mountain of emotional debt.
Shit happened, and it wasn’t right or fair, but it wasn’t the shit that killed us. It was our inability to service the debt. I didn’t know it then. But I know it now and I am here to share it with you.
It’s not always easy to dig in. To get to the heart of an issue. To look at your own hurt and motivation. To accept differences in thinking and understanding from someone you love.
But if you are going to disarm a relationship bomb, work on a small issue, or a hundred small issues, you have to be willing to give up your debt. You can’t survive living under it. They cannot come out from under it, and you are both joined in it by it.
You have to be willing to trade your righteous anger, your right to amends, your position as the wronged party who deserves atonement –let it all go—and trade it in for honest efforts toward meeting each other’s needs, celebrating one another and getting back to joy.
You have to be willing to do what it takes to resolve matters, and decide that your efforts are enough that you will not carry forward a negative balance. And then DON’T.
You don’t have to stay in an unhealthy relationship. But as long as you have emotional debt you won’t know if it’s the relationship or the debt that is the problem.
Do the work, be vulnerable, get help with it if you need the help, or lovingly say goodbye if you know it isn’t healthy or that you have a partner who cannot or will not do the work or if you are fundamentally incompatible.
When we feel hurt our temptation is to want John Cusack at our window with a boombox making it up to us grand gesture style.
That shit is like the Ring. It’s an illusion of need that never satisfies the need.
It takes strength to choose love over illusion when you have been so hurt.
But take if from a woman with 300 Cusacks at her window, and throw that precious boombox into the fire of Mount Doom.
Before it forecloses on your marriage, and your heart.
P.S. If you have a friend or loved one who is struggling sometimes a few sessions of support can make all the difference. Reach out and we’ll find the solution that is right for them.
P.P.S. One of the kindest things you can do for me is to share my writing. If you enjoyed today’s Monday Musing and know someone else who would please forward it to a friend.