The Surprising Ingredient That Made My Relationship Flourish


I grew up with parents who argued…a lot.

I mean genuine screaming matches that almost seemed to shake the foundations of the house. My mother screeching out of hysteric frustration, my father’s grumbling revving up to a fever pitch like a rusted engine given the oiled elixir of blood-red anger.

My brother and I kept ourselves distracted enough with video games and music to let the family feud play out in the background like the faint crackling of old vinyl. It was just a fact of life, something as seemingly natural as anything else in our young lives. Trees grew from the ground, the sky was blue and black and sometimes grey, school sucked, skateboards were cool, Nintendo was awesome, dinner was ready, and Mom and Dad argued. It wasn’t some kind of “bad day” occurrence, it happened with such frequency that it wasn’t concerning. We never thought to ourselves, “I wonder what’s wrong,” as the reasons for it were irrelevant. They argued in the same way an old house creaks, and I knew to stay clear of the screams in the same way I knew where to put my feet on the steps so as to not make them groan as I snuck downstairs for some late-night Playstation.

Fast forward 20 years and a few young romances later.

Looking at the dynamic of the relationships I had had up to that point, I see how I have a tendency to follow in my family’s footsteps. I don’t start fights, but I’m prone to the friction, if only for the “fun” of it. To me, I wasn’t arguing, I was simply “debating.” I said something, you said something I disagreed with, let the petty roasting begin.

Sometimes, sure, this kind of dynamic can be fun when done in a lighthearted way. You should be able to take playful jabs at your partner without it turning hurtful, but it should be more of a psychological tickling and not a pathological need to vanquish an opponent.

I was never an angry person, and I’m still not. I was never a fuming screamer when it came to getting mad or having actual arguments. Instead, I turned to sarcasm, petty humor, and condescension to drive my points home like I was just being an aloof asshole for kicks and you were the one being ridiculous for attacking me. Granted, this isn’t every relationship dynamic I’ve ever had, but a few select moments stand out to me so I know how I can get.

I met my current girlfriend last year.

We met on Tinder just after I decided to delete Tinder. Literally thirty seconds before I was about to trash the app. I’m not sure what angelic algorithmic entity was possessing our digital circuitry at the time, but whatever it was, I am forever in its debt.

My girlfriend is in the Navy, and at the time of our meeting, unbeknownst to me, she was soon facing a deployment. We got to spend a little over a month together before she found out that what she thought would be a 3–4 month trip was now going to be eight months. Not fun news to hear for anyone, let alone a new couple. Most people might say that that’s too long to wait for someone you essentially just met. To me, I liked this girl, and it’s not like I was stepping out each night as Mr. Playboy anyways. I had nothing to lose by sticking it out and simply resisting the urge to find someone else to stick it in. So, we decided we’d make the best of it and do what we could to keep in touch as much as possible. I even wrote about that decision and the difficulty of the separation in detail here.

We were both fairly enamored and committed to each other. We both knew the influences of our environments, with me having the freedom of the real world and the option to go on the late-night prowl, and her being surrounded by emotionally stunted, sexually frustrated sailors who were more than willing to not only cheat on their spouses but were surprisingly vocal about it.

What happens on the ship… right, guys?

*cue the collective eye roll

But regardless of the slew of harassment from sweaty degenerates claiming to be good men and the relative ease of which I could stumble into a drunken hook-up on any given night, we kept our promise to each other. We wrote as often as we could, switching from letters to email after realizing that it takes forever to handwrite things and even longer for the mail to reach her ship.

Our emails became frequent, very frequent. Often every day — when her ship had internet at least — we would either send or receive an email that was a long and detailed dive into how we were feeling, what we were going through, how we were handling the separation, the trivialities of our daily lives, the mundanity of the weekly grind, and all of the other in-between existential quandaries that made up each of our personal experiences in these lives of ours.

We had already been really open with each other before she left. We talked for hours about an array of subjects, we each had a decent grasp on who the other was, and it was because of this prerequisite that we made the decision to stick it out in the first place. Now, we were learning more about each other through emails than we ever might have through being together in person.

You see, normally when you start dating someone, you start to spend more and more time together. You hang out, you go out to eat, you go explore the city and watch movies and hang with friends. You get the comfort and affection of your partner being physically there with you. You can lean on them for emotional support, but just as importantly you can literally lean on them. Beyond the obvious feelings of love and acceptance, this is obviously the best part of relationships, being able to be with them, in real life, not simply through a screen or phone call. To be around each other, even just sitting in the same room not speaking, can do wonders for your sense of personal security and contentment.

A growing appetite

My girlfriend and I only got a taste of each other…so to speak. We got a glimpse into just how much we connected over so many things, how much physical chemistry we had, and how easy and comfortable it was being together, and then those most obvious comforts were all stripped from us. We were left with nothing but our words and a heaping helping of hope to go with the main course of uncertainty marinated in the saltwater that separated us.

We wrote of our fears, our individual upbringings, our paranoias, our evolving and devolving states of mental health, how ship life was treating her, how routine mundanity was treating me, and everything in between. We had nothing to distract ourselves from each other when we communicated. There wasn’t a silent meal between us, or a hypnotic movie on a screen keeping our eyes glued forward instead of into each other’s, we simply received articulated emotion and information, digested it, and responded in as much or more detail accordingly. As a writer, this was actually pretty great for me, and she was just as enthusiastic about the process as well. It wasn’t ideal given the typical in-person expectations in a relationship, but we made do, and I’d say we’re all the better for it.

Because of our lack of physical contact through a forced separation, our only path forward was forged through finding a real and humbling connection with each other. We weren’t able to rely on the more common love languages of physical touch or acts of service or quality time. We had to settle for words of affirmation and occasionally receiving gifts, although neither of us is very materialistic.

Most importantly, and to touch back on how this story started, we didn’t have the means to argue about anything. There was no back-and-forth conversation to be had. No banter or playful flirting available to us anymore. And since we could only write or respond to emails every few days, it seemed like a waste of energy to even get worked up enough to write about whatever grievance may have temporarily popped up. Any time that either of us would misinterpret something the other had written, it was cleared up easily and honestly in the next letter. This process gave us time to actually think about what we were going to say instead of just saying whatever happened to come to mind in the heat of the moment. Unlike the conversational sword-fighting I was so used to growing up and partaking in during my past relationships, this felt more like sinking entirely into the mind of another person, not fighting for dominance over petty trivialities.

For anyone that’s used to arguing constantly with the people they date, it can feel very strange and almost unnatural to be with someone where things are easygoing and never escalate. It feels as if something is wrong and can even make you question if you actually like the person.

You aren’t getting those same peaks and valleys of the emotional roller coaster, so it starts to make you think, “Do I even really like this person?” All because you aren’t getting those frequent adrenaline spikes of a heated argument or some other kind of emotional drama. People stay in toxic, combative relationships because they become addicted to the chemical instability. They think they must “love” their partner because they make them feel such strong emotions when really they’ve just gotten used to their brain giving them a hit of cortisol every time they butt heads. They think it’s a genuine love for the person when really they’ve just become another psychological addict. They unconsciously crave the stress, and so they continue to return to their toxic dynamic time and time again.

A great article about this very subject was written here by Kirstie Taylor

Our relationship wasn’t founded in an argumentative fashion, so as weird as it felt to not be at constant odds with each other, it was a welcome relief to experience being with someone who actually took the time to hear you. Someone who made a point to come to a mutual understanding of each other instead of holding a secret grudge until it exploded into screams at some other random time.

Now, I’d say that this also has to do with the fact that both of us are pretty chill people and don’t take to drama, and couple that with the fact that we had also both worked on ourselves enough to get over that immature side of ourselves before we had even met each other. So, the time apart and open communication ended up being the final and most surprising ingredient missing from the recipe.

We both half-joke that this time apart was actually a blessing. For all we know, had we been able to spend all of our time together over this past year, we may have very well gotten burnt out on each other and moved on like what happens in so many new relationships.

I know it’s happened to me before. It’s not uncommon at all for two people to become so enthralled with each other that they spend every waking moment together from the time of their first date. After a few months of melding into each other, it’s easy to forget who you were before you met them, and even easier to start resenting them over little things and begin to feel trapped. It happens all the time and is probably the actual cause for the end of so many relationships more so than whatever reasons the two people involved might come up with. More often than not, people just need space. Distance makes the heart grow fonder, yes? Yet so many people seem incapable of understanding the necessity of time apart and continuing to nurture your solitude while still maintaining a healthy relationship.

I can’t count the number of times the girlfriends of my past have accused me of “not wanting to be with them” simply because I wanted to spend a night alone. It had nothing to do with anyone else, I just value my time alone and sometimes don’t want to leave the house. But for people who predicate their sense of self on being one half of a whole, this can seem like a slight for your partner to want to spend any amount of time without you.

My girlfriend and I no longer had that option, and with that stark reality, we were forced to rely on our willingness to not only commit to each other but to put the necessary effort into our correspondence with each other so we still felt heard and acknowledged. It built a trust and respect between us that has yet to be shaken, and a fortitude of will that bolsters a confidence in our relationship that neither of us has ever felt before.

Now, I sit here on the cusp of our reunion. Her ship is in port, and I’m literally waiting another hour or so before I leave to go pick her up. We get to meet for the first time, again. We get to remember our first impressions of each other eight long months ago, and now get to see each other in an entirely new light, a light that may not have developed had we taken the typical path. We were forced off the relationship road just as we were picking up momentum and had to make up a new path as we went along.

I can’t say I would have chosen this course were I given the option beforehand, but knowing what I know now about the amount of strength and resilience we’ve both developed in this time apart, I’m thankful that it happened and feel lucky to have gone through it.

Speak up

Most people don’t seem to truly understand the necessity of communication. They say they do, and even say things like “communication is key,” but they don’t put it into practice to the extent that they should. They say the phrase like any other cliché, but don’t take the time to truly humble themselves before their partner and remain open to change and compromise. The distractions of the real world and the daily grind of making both of your lives work can make it difficult to find the time to connect in that deeper way that changes both of you at your core into someone more amenable to adaptation. It’s a practice that takes just that — practice.

I’m not going to sit here and recommend an eight-month hiatus for any relationships on the rocks, but I will strongly advocate for a stronger emphasis on communicating your concerns and vulnerabilities. And I will absolutely advocate for allowing each other the time alone that either of you feels you need.

In fact, maybe I can make the suggestion that although you don’t need to separate for a year to get closer to your partner, you can still take a page out of our book and start writing to each other. Maybe once a month you can each write a letter or email detailing everything you’ve been thinking and feeling, just to get it all out there. I know I’m not the only one out there who articulates himself better in writing, and it helps a lot to take your time to say everything you need to say.

Distance may make the heart grow fonder, but so does honesty.

Be honest with yourself and with your partner. Say what you need to say in as clear a way as you’re able, don’t take anything too personally, and for God’s sake, stop arguing past each other.

We’re all flawed and deserve more understanding than personal jabs over petty grievances. Give each other space, voice your concerns calmly, and work through it all together. You’ll be surprised at how much easier things turn out for you both.

Previously Published on medium


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