“Swipe This!” is an advice column about how to navigate human relationships and connections in an age when we depend so heavily on technology. Have a question? Email email@example.com.
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Dear Swipe This,
This might sound silly, but my boyfriend and I have been together for over a year and we haven’t had any fights.
When we started dating, we lived across the country from each other. We met in real life, felt an instant connection, and then went back to our own cities. But thanks to the magic of text-messaging and Skype, we fell for each other. We chatted every day, we bonded, and soon we were in a committed relationship. At the time, it made sense to me that we weren’t fighting because we were in a new relationship and we had this technology buffer between us.
Then, last winter, he finally moved to my city and we continued to go through a honeymoon phase. We were so excited to be able to do normal couple things and see each other all the time. But at a certain point, I started to wonder why we never fought. Sure, we’ve gotten annoyed at each other and we’ve had no problems expressing frustrations about something specific, but is it weird that we haven’t had any big, throw-down yelling fights yet?
I’m not really the type of person to yell and a big fight hasn’t ever really occurred in any previous relationships (unless you count screaming at my mom when I was 17). We’re both very grounded, logical people. What usually happens is something will make me upset, I’ll take a day to think about how I feel/cool down, and if it still bothers me, I will bring it up. I think the level of self-awareness I have sometimes convinces me that the thing I am upset about isn’t a big deal in the long run. I favor a calm conversation over a scary fight where someone walks away mad at me.
Am I being too passive? Should I be worried? Should I stop worrying?
Lover Not A Fighter
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Dear Lover Not A Fighter,
Many people think technology creates superficial connections, but I find there is some real beauty in a digital courtship such as your own. It calls to mind the romance of handwritten letters in a Jane Austen novel, or the intimacy of notes passed under desks in hushed classrooms. Today, they may occur on a touchscreen, but these exchanges remain deeply personal. Much like when we touch pen to paper, when we send text messages or set up Skype dates, we must be patient, intentional, and present. And, as your story illustrates, over time, technology can help us form deep bonds and real connections.
Technology also gives us the opportunity to present our best selves. You can revise a text until you get your phrasing just right. You can angle your front-facing camera so that the Skype call shows you in your best light. You can hide the messy corner of your room that needs tending. You can filter and edit and meticulously craft yourself into a more perfect and desirable lover.
So it doesn’t surprise me that now—without the buffer of technology between you and your partner—you’re wondering when things will get messy.
Based on what you’ve shared, I suspect you like order and stability more than chaos. I also believe you have built a relationship with a sturdy foundation. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t buried parts of you that are raw and wounded and need healing. We all have wounds that we carry into our most intimate relationships, and the closer we get to one another, the more likely it is that those wounds will be revealed.
It sounds to me like part of you is eager for that moment. You want your wounds to be seen. But when discomfort or discord arises in your relationship, you’re scared to let your wounded self come out. You say you’d rather have a calm conversation, you label fights as “scary,” and you offer an outcome where someone who is angry and you dared to express anger “walks away” from you. As I see it, this is the most alarming part of your letter. In essence, you are saying that if you risk showing your unfiltered anger, the only outcome you can imagine is one where you are abandoned.
Which brings me to the one time you do recall expressing anger. You say you yelled at your mother when you were 17. I’m sure you meant this as a throwaway comment about teenage tempers, but I wonder what lessons your family taught you about anger. When was anger allowed? Was anger labeled a dangerous emotion? Could it have a healthy outlet? Or were you encouraged to always be calm and collected? Were you validated for being a lover, not a fighter?
I don’t know what your experience was, but I’m certain if you reflect on it, you’ll find some connections to your current relationship. For example, if fighting was the norm in your home, maybe you were drawn to a peaceable partner because it counters that sense of chaos. And now that you’ve found the peaceful connection you desire, you wonder if a lack of chaos indicates a lack of connection. Alternately, if feelings of anger were not permitted, if everyone always had to hold it together, perhaps you are hoping that this partner will offer you a safe space where you can explore negative emotions and express yourself without losing his love.
Whatever your past may be, what I see when I read your letter is someone who is deeply passionate and sensitive and afraid of showing it.
When we are small and scrape our knees, we don’t try to hide it. We run to someone we love and trust—a parent, a grown up. We cry out for help. We wail if abandoned. If we are lucky, the grown-ups are there, ready with band-aids and kisses. They hold us until we feel better. Can you imagine a child dusting herself off and selecting her words carefully before reporting her boo-boos to Mom?
But this is what we do when we grow up. Because somewhere along the way, we didn’t get the first aid we needed. We screamed and we cried, but whoever was around was too busy to hold us. They tossed us the band-aids and said, “Here.” So, we hide our wounds. We dress them up. We edit out everything that is raw and messy and sorely in need of healing in the hopes that we will get the love we need. And, oddly enough, in doing everything we think we need to do to protect ourselves, we rob ourselves of opportunities to heal.
I believe you are wondering when and if that knockdown fight will come because when it does, you will have to show him the parts of yourself that need to be healed. Who is the tiny tyrant who lives inside of you? What is she still crying out for? What does she need more of? What is she afraid she might never get?
As much as you may fear abandonment, you’re hungering for a fight because you know it would push things to a tipping point. But, if the fight never comes, if everything is always “OK”—you will never know if your partner would, in fact, reject you. So, you find yourself in a kind of emotional limbo where you believe someone loves you, but they only love you “if.”
It’s also true that women are socialized to hide their anger. We are taught to be nice and accommodating and pleasant to the point that it hurts. For fear of being labeled a bitch, or a nasty woman, or (god forbid) romantically undesirable, we mute our emotions. We water down our reactions. We anesthetize our hearts in the hopes that someone will continue to choose us.
But here’s the secret: You get to do the choosing, too.
And it sounds to me like you are in the process of choosing a relationship where you get to drop the pretense and polish of screens and be your most authentic self.
I suspect your partner was drawn to you, not because you presented him with an edited, idealized self, but because you showed him glimmers of your truest self—someone smart, incisive, and deeply sensitive. Beneath your calm and collected exterior, I suspect there is someone who is wickedly smart and passionate. She may have been taught to filter things out, or she may have learned early that it was her job to keep the peace. But she never stopped feeling things deeply.
Ultimately, in any relationship, the biggest challenge is how we relate to ourselves. Your partner may be compassionate and understanding, but it won’t mean anything to you if all along you are telling yourself that you must filter your true self away.
So the next time your words get caught in your throat, I wonder if you can text your inner tyrant. Instead of wrestling with her, what would happen if you befriended her? What messages would she send you about her sadness and her anger? Could you let her out from her secret world? What would happen if you finally let her have her say?
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