it's complicated

Being in My First Adult Relationship Meant Learning How to Fight

Illustration: J.V. Aranda

Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to itscomplicated@nymag.com.)

In the first few months of my relationship with Lydia, I kept track — accidentally — of the number of days between our arguments. In my mind I saw it as one of those “days without injury” boards kept in dangerous workplaces: every time we argued (for any length of time, about anything), I reset the calendar to zero. Our average number of fight-free days seemed to be about six or seven, and as I approached the latest record I’d grow uneasy, waiting for it.

After a few such weeks I called my mom to ask if she thought this was normal. She told me that when she and my dad first started dating, they would get in a fight every Wednesday. “It was the weirdest thing,” she said. It wasn’t like these fights were about anything serious, and each Tuesday she’d think they were in the clear, but then Wednesday would roll around, and they’d argue.

I should have found comfort in this (they have been happily married for more than 35 years), but I didn’t, really. My mom and dad at that time were 19 and 20, respectively. I was ten years older than she was then, and apparently believed there was an age at which you mature out of the ability to have stupid arguments about nothing. Twenty-six, maybe. That sounded about right.

Our fourth month together was particularly difficult. Toward the end of it we took a ten-day trip to California. For us, this was much too long a trip to take that early on in a relationship, but we did not know that when we booked it. We did not think about how much family time would be involved or how little free time, how much shuttling across the state we’d have to do, how much time we’d have together without respite. We thought: romance!

We planned to spend our first full day of the trip in Yosemite, which is probably Lydia’s favorite place in the world. On the drive up, early that morning, we got in an argument. About what, who can say? Mostly, I think, we just hadn’t figured out how to be fully at ease around each other yet. It soon became a gorgeous day — it had snowed the day before, and the sun broke through the clouds over the Curry Village ice rink while Lydia skated and I stood off to the side, taking pictures and whimpering about my sore ankles. The setting could not have been more romantic, and I could not have been more grumpy.

We drove to San Diego, where Lydia grew up, and we stayed in her mom’s house. The first night we went out to the local lesbian bar, and the second night, when Lydia wanted to meet another hometown friend for catch-up drinks, I did the smartest thing I did the whole trip, and stayed back. Her mom made us veggie burgers and we ate them at her kitchen counter while she told me which friends of Lydia’s she liked and which ones she didn’t. I fell asleep before Lydia got home, but woke up to her gently sliding my legs out from under the comforter to pull my socks off my feet, and wondered how she knew I was too hot.

It took a long time for me to let these sort of gestures — and the regularity with which we did them for each other, instinctively — make me feel uncomplicatedly good. At the beginning I was so preoccupied with conflict avoidance that conflict was all I had space to keep track of. I was so obsessed with our relationship’s potential for failure that I weighted each day with the worst of my expectations. While Lydia, with her ten-plus years of relationship experience, was able to look at our disagreements and recognize them as minor or typical, I had no frame of reference, and treated every clash like a catastrophe. I had spent so much time feeling certain I knew myself better than other people did, because I was single and always had been, but now that I wasn’t, I realized how little I knew about being myself with someone else.

***

After one of our early arguments, I was talking to my best friend Rylee on the phone, trying to get her to tell me either that my relationship was perfect or that it was so awful I should end it. Just as I do not wish to die whenever I seek confirmation of a suspected brain tumor or a faulty heart, I never really wanted to break up with Lydia. I wanted certainty.

Rather than suggest I break up with my girlfriend because we’d had an argument (which is probably what I would have done to her when we were younger and every one of my friend’s boyfriends seemed disposable), Rylee did what good best friends do and called me out. “You like to argue,” she said. “It’s part of your personality.” Well, I never.

But if I wouldn’t have put it that way myself, I couldn’t in good faith say that she was wrong. She and I used to fight all the time, and hard. We didn’t bicker, or butt heads; we got along great when we weren’t making each other cry. Other people might have let a lot of those grievances go, but conflict avoidance makes me crazy. When a long-term relationship is the goal, I can’t see how stewing in one’s bad feelings is more productive or less scary than saying them aloud. And Rylee and I always knew we wanted to be friends for a very long time. We cared for each other immensely, but it took time to learn to do it right. Our friend Colleen used to say our fights were about how much we loved each other.

It is like that when I fight with Lydia. It is never about a betrayal of trust, or a failure to care. It is usually about our frustration at not having figured each other out yet. It’s my impatience for her to know me completely, and vice versa. For a while I genuinely believed this was something one could actually achieve.

***

It wasn’t until I was in a relationship of my own that I realized how little I understood of other people’s. For example, I used to take people’s social media posts about their boyfriends or girlfriends pretty much at face value. When women I knew posted pictures of themselves with their boyfriends above captions like “love of my life” and “always happy to spend the day with this one,” I may have rolled my eyes, but I also kind of took them literally. Despite all the times I’d counseled friends through fights with their boyfriends, I believed that it was possible to find someone you simply do not fight with.

Now that I know what it feels like to be in love, I see these captions and clichés for what they really are: mostly bullshit. Not bullshit in the total fabrication sense, but in the way you fill the last page and a half of a college essay due in two hours. Bullshit in a way that gets at the heart of the matter but in a way that is too tidy, and leaves a lot left unsaid. I do not mean to say that the women I knew as girls in high school do not really love the men they are married to, but I have to believe they sometimes hate them a little bit, too.

I need to believe this because if I don’t, I will drive myself crazy. I am too malleable and too suggestible not to take pat romantic clichés to heart, to file them away and call them to mind when I am feeling even a hint of uncertainty or inadequacy. It’s why I couldn’t stand to read letters in relationship advice columns the full first year Lydia and I were together, no matter how little the situations described in their headlines had to do with my own. When I was single, reading relationship columns made me feel smug for not being in what was almost always clearly a terrible relationship. Reading them in the infancy of my own relationship only made me worry that I could one day be just like all those letter writers, clueless as to just how terrible my relationship really was.

Despite all my fears, something clicked into place after a year with Lydia, if not the perfect conviction I once hoped for. I realized that I loved Lydia more after a year than I had a month earlier, when I loved her more than I had a month before that. It no longer gave me pause to make plans with her for six or ten months out; of course we would still be together. I can’t imagine what could happen to make me feel differently. That doesn’t mean I don’t acknowledge the possibility, because that possibility is always there. But I don’t dwell on it like I used to. There isn’t enough time in the day.

Adapted from Katie Heaney’s Would You Rather?: A Memoir of Growing Up and Coming Out.

Learning How to Fight in My First Adult Relationship