A couple weeks ago, I broke one of my favorite mugs.
There are a million and a half metaphors here, but today I’m writing about three literal instances of breaking things, and what they can teach us about some common, but destructive, relationship behavior.
My best friend gave me this mug over a decade ago, for my first year as a school teacher.
“Smart Women THIRST for knowledge,” the mug proclaimed.
Every single school day for nine years, that mug held the tea and coffee that helped to power me. On hard days, reading the mug gave me a little boost.
And now it’s broken.
Don’t worry—I’m not throwing myself a pity party.
But I AM going to tell you about a pity party I threw a long time ago. And I bet you’ve thrown the same party.
Almost as soon as I realized my Smart Women mug was falling, I found myself both experiencing my emotional response, and watching/observing myself experiencing it.
And then I had a double flashback.
Eight or so years ago, I broke a dish that was really special to me. I was living with my then-boyfriend at the time.
I started out upset that I’d broken the dish.
Then I piled on being upset with him for not grasping how upset I was.
Or not being as upset as I was.
Or not doing a good enough job of making me feel better.
When he didn’t meet me and join me in my denial and panic, I got even more upset. Didn’t he GET how upsetting this was?!?
I did all but sink down on my knees, raise my hands to the sky, and wail, “WHY, God?! WHYYYYY??!!”
He quoted American Beauty, implying that I might be overreacting a teeny bit.
This did not make me feel better.
Whether or not he could have done more or better in seeing me through my broken-dish melodrama (he was probably doing just fine) is not the point today.
Cut to my second flashback.
A few years after the dish broke, we broke up (nothing to do with the dish).
And about a month after the breakup, I broke something else.
(This article is starting to make me sound really clumsy! Eight years, people.)
This time, newly single, I knocked a wine glass off the counter. It was one I really loved. Not only was it destroyed, but there were shards of glass everywhere.
I thought, Why did that have to happen? It could have just as easily not happened!!
I argued with reality for a minute.
And then…I got out the dustpan and I cleaned it up.
I moved on.
And then I suddenly flashed back to the broken dish incident from a few years earlier. I was struck by how differently I’d behaved.
“I guess this is how you clean things up when you’re single,” I teased myself.
I guess maybe I should be able to clean things up this way when I’m in a relationship, too, I thought sheepishly.
I’ve never forgotten either of those days.
When you break something, or stub your toe, or cut yourself, or drop your cupcake on the floor icing side down, and you’re alone…there’s only so long you can throw a tantrum before you realize that no one is watching, and the fact that the glass is broken isn’t going to change, no matter how long you wail.
At some point, you just have to clean it up.
And yet we often respond to the same type of event very differently when we’re in a relationship.
Sometimes we can catch ourselves “performing upset.” It’s not that our upset isn’t genuine; it’s that we sometimes kick it to the next level by trying to show our partners how legitimate it is.
We do the stage version.
We throw tantrums and expect our partners to take responsibility for our feelings.
Then we get mad at them for not reacting “right.”
We advocate for mutual misery.
We put pressure on our partners to react just as we would; to make it not be true; to feel our pain.
We act in ways we would never, ever, ever behave with anyone else (except maybe our mothers).
But we don’t have to.
Even when we have an audience, we can still choose to be sad, hurt, or annoyed for a minute…and then clean things up.
We can choose not to throw the tantrum.
So the other day when my Smart Women mug broke, I was shocked. And then I was sad. And then…
I cleaned it up.
I picked up the big pieces. I didn’t force myself to decide right then whether it could be salvaged. I just put the pieces aside and left that decision for later. I mopped up the coffee on the kitchen floor.
I heard what I always hear in my head when I break something now: Kevin Spacey and my ex-boyfriend yelling, in unison, “IT’S JUST A COUCH!!!!!”
I like to think they’re yelling it with love.
Do you throw relationship tantrums?
What behaviors do you engage in because there is a partner there to witness your misfortune?
What do you make a big deal of, that you would just deal with if you were solo?
When do you seek shared pain instead of just picking up the damn pieces of the damn mug?