When two people live together, conflict arises. And I’m not talking about the harsh, difficult conflict that comes with arguing, I’m talking about a gentle conflict. Just the collision of two people. Preferences that are different. Or desires about the behavior of another because of the way it affects the self. This conflict comes up continually as our lives brush up with one another’s.
Shared space is almost synonymous with this kind of conflict. One cannot share space without it. In fact, let’s call it something other than conflict. Because I can see me reading that word in a different frame of mind and not internalizing it in a healthy way. Word images I’m thinking here: overlap, colliding, meshed, bumping against. In music, a chord suspended and then resolved. In tapestry making, threads twisted and then untangled. The act of togetherness with another, two different beings that express their preferences, and all in vulnerability because such expression is an act of trust in the other to care. To care not only about the other, but to care about choosing to set aside one’s carelessness in order to be more care-ful of the preferences of the other.
Relationship is defined by selflessness. It cannot exist without it. From the most basic, simple, and casual relationships to those formed within decades, all relationships require selflessness. And all selflessness arises from gentle conflict.
For example, merely the act of listening is selfless. Choosing to shut up so we can hear the expression of the other practices selflessness. The most basic of relationships start with just a conversation, and that gentle conflict arises and falls with each word spoken by the other as the self closes her mouth and opens her ears. Such rising and falling of expression vs selflessness continues dramatically and more pronounced as the relationship deepens.
Living with another person is a constant dance between self-expression and listening to the voice of the other. Listening, and then choosing, always, to go with one’s preferences or to set those aside in order to appreciate and love the other.
This selflessness is where I get totally mixed up, triggered (very much so) by my past. My marriage is my deepest relationship. And as I have established, relationships are founded on selflessness. But selflessness is my absolute trigger, thrusting me into dissociation and reliving trauma, mostly subconscious, so you can imagine the dysfunction that arises in my daily psyche as I struggle to normalize my life.
I have had a triune, a trinity even, of abusive power structures over my life during all of my formative years, from birth through 25. An abusive parental structure, an abusive god, and abusive church leadership. None of which I knew were abusive or abnormal at the time, and all of which created the MO by which I lived, functioned, and expected.
Abusive parents never lifted a finger to hurt me physically, but their complete emotional neglect coupled with total control of my life under neurotic, unrealistic expectations of perfection erased my entire sense of self. My choices needed to please them, my expressions needed to be flawless, and my performance needed to honor them– and would only do so by perfection.
I was deeply shamed and humiliated for my mistakes. My humanity. My entire persona took on the role of “Presentation of Perfection as told by Mother,” a complete self-denial in order to please Her. This pleasing was never achieved, so the self-less-ness alongside flawlessness became the only goal to which I aspired from my earliest memories, and the one I knew I could never reach. Shamed into compliance, I became completely disconnected from my own desires and emotions. And I knew none of this for decades. Instead, I thought it completely normal, formative, and that which my brain developed as the way life works. I never even thought to question it.
The abusive god both modeled and demanded a perverted view of selflessness to me. He was a sacrificial patriarch who killed himself/his son so that I could also spend my life killing myself (“dying to self,” the very opposite of self-actualization), all in the name of love. So both the love that was expressed to me and the love that I was to express involved death.
I deserved death. I basically killed god with my own sin and therefore deserved to be killed. So the only way I could have real life was in self-denial. Again, reject everything I want because my desires are always bad in order to be replaced by the will of an all-powerful man-god. Be selfless or displease god. Be selfless or be hell-bound. Be selfless or be responsible for the damnation of others.
This same metaphor applied itself in my life in a very real way with an abusive relationship with a church leader. Demanding I sacrifice myself, my preferences, my dreams, my daily choices, and my body for the well-being of this leader was textbook abuse. All in the name of the love of god, so I was totally blind to it. “Be Jesus, die to self in order to let the other live.” This leader would engage in self-destructive behavior if I didn’t comply, and eventually resorted to a real threat of suicide, forcing me to fly across the country and abandon my entire sense of self for their salvation.
I was both the savior and the victim. I was a prostitute, paid with the currency of reassurance that I wouldn’t crucify my leader with my selfishness. Their last words to me were written in a letter, a message to me of forgiveness. “I forgive you Teal, and so does God.”
This was several years ago. I was in my early twenties. I’m thirty now. But as gentle collisions arise with my husband, dissociation still happens on a daily basis. Upon the mention of any of his preferences that are different than my own, or anything I did that merits his frustration, I am thrust into subconscious trauma, displacing my husband with this trinity of horror in which all three abuses of power bestowed their love only if I complied into selflessness.
I see clearly right now. It may not last, so I write these words in desperate attempt to convince my future self not to dissociate. I don’t know how to define selflessness. I don’t know how to define love. The words are not there, because they are all stained with blood. But I do know these images. Suspended chord resolved, twisted threads untangled.