Consider this symptom of a sinister, underlying disease.
6:50 PM…event begins at 7.
“We’re going to be late to the rodeo/rubber convention/ Hungarian movie if you don’t hurry up! You always make us late!” Hands on hips, eyes rolled, expression disgusted.
“No we won’t, stop nagging me! God, do you ever stop bitching?” Slowing down, glacier movement of putting on socks.
7:06 PM arrival time. A long line waits. It’s cold and outside.
“See!” Scrunched up madface. Superiority.
“See what? The line?” Playing dumb yet annoyed tone, exaggerated gesturing.
“If we had left when I was ready and not had to wait for you to change shoes three times, we would be sitting inside right now.”
“You are so wrong on that one. No way is that true.”
“Yes, it is! We’re late, and I told you so.” Beaming correctness at being right.
“No, we would have caught this line anyway.” Defensiveness at said correctness.
“Okay whatever. Like you even know.”
“Like you do?!”
“You always do this! If it weren’t for me, we’d never get anywhere!”
“If it weren’t for you, I’d be on the couch playing Playstation with my pants off instead of at this stupid rodeo/rubber convention/ Hungarian movie.”
“Do you have any idea how much I put up with? I’m a saint to take this crap from you!”
“Do you have any idea how much I put up with?”
There is such a thing as relationship debt, and we carry it around at all times, slipped into handbags and tucked into our winter coats; more accessible than our cells and crackberries. We call on it; slap it down with more vigor and frequency than our debit cards (and we’d use our debit cards at the Laundromat if we could…).
It’s always at hand, like a favorite icebreaker at an uncomfortable industry event (Love your necklace, have you heard the speaker before, where’s the bar?). It’s an extension of us and we see no wrong in how we use it. Or whom we’re used to using it with. It’s the “remember what you put me through?!” mantra.
It’s against the person we’re supposed to love the most, and we find ourselves asking how we got here. When did this happen, or more importantly why? Why did this shift turn us from a relay team to individual competitors—was it a moment where we realized the flow and actively did not swim against it or was it imperceptible while still being significant and awful, a poison building—and why was it able to change, to defeat us? It morphed into a cloud, a gray frown of a feeling that someone else, and we all know who we are, owes us, at all times.
This is the moment we may find ourselves bargaining for a bad cause, for this debt that we feel must be collected and must be collected NOW. You’ve done this and that for a person in your life. You supported them through art school, you moved to Death Valley for them, you gave up this dirty-haired hipster gathering, that regatta, whatever for them, them, and, while we’re on the topic, how dare they not thank you for your benevolence at all times, and you feel as though because of the act or succession of acts, acts that should have been borne of kindness and not of reciprocity, that you are allowed, no—required—to cash in said favor whenever. In fact, as soon as possible.
Whenever means whenever. The middle of a party, the Superbowl, the really important branding brainstorm at work. You want to cash it in because you think it’s all about staying even, measuring what’s owed on both sides.
Life isn’t fair, you think. Work is work. School is work. Working out is work. For the love of all that is holy, your relationship shouldn’t be work, we say. We know we’re wrong, but since when has that ever stopped us? We're ready to cash in, and our count is completely different than our partner’s. We all end up empty-handed, and yet the count continues.
With tantrums, come no teams. This is a brawl, this is about being righteous, not right per se, because of a skewed thought that is what which matters, no thought to who is decimated, steamrolled, along the way. You can or cannot remember what it was like to impress this person before you, this person who does not appreciate what you do because this person does not tell you every second of their life how grateful they are that you are in it…and then you stop. You’ve heard there is a fine line between love and hate, and now you’re sick to your stomach because you finally understand what it means. And ignorance was bliss, truly.
Relationship debt is a problem that’s hard to shake. There is no such thing as starting over. There is only moving forward. And in actuality, we owe relationship debt to ourselves. There is no one that can pay it to us, but us. There is no one who will pay it to us, but us.
Turns out this isn’t about debt or owing at all. It’s about owning. Owning your own faults, owning your life and your problems and fixing them without purging them onto someone else. This isn’t about who is right and righteous, this is only partially about winning as we see it. What it is about is winning back peace, dissolving conflict, smiling until it’s true. There is so much owning to do in a relationship and in a life, and owing has very little to do with it. There is no fairness, there is no judge to cut your debt in half and make you both pay your shares. You put in what you can, and you leave what you do not want infecting you, and that is the best that you can do, and the kindest that you’ll ever be. If you can let it all go.
It’s lonely being right and it’s lonely being owed. It’s my new goal to be neither. Not ever again.