My Parents Taught Me How NOT To Deal With Emotion

Photo by Frank Busch on Unsplash. Reenactment footage of my parents’ dumb fights.

Earlier this year, I moved in with a romantic partner. It was the first time I’d moved in with anyone like this, and it was also my first long-term relationship. I’d only started having sex and dating at all about a year prior. In fact, I wouldn’t have moved in with him so quickly, but some prior roommates had royally screwed me on the rent, and I suddenly found myself needing to find a new place to live.

We’d talked about me moving closer to him, and I’d been looking at places nearby, but at some point, we both realized living together made the most sense. It made financial sense, but the fact was that I had been spending about 80% of my time at his place, anyway. His (now our) cat liked me, too, and I loved them both, which helped.

I’d had roommates and lived in overcrowded places most of my life, so moving into a one-bedroom with a partner after dating for six months wasn’t something that I found particularly objectionable. But it is different, or at least it was different for me, to move in with a partner like this.

With platonic roommates, they’re more or less interchangeable. Not to downplay the bond that can form between roommates, by any means, but if one moves out, it isn’t quite the same as breaking things off with a romantic partner. The emotional toll is significantly higher, at least in my experience.

In that respect, it makes sense that moving in with a partner brings with it a different kind of work, too. There are growing pains involved in both scenarios, but even if you’ve dated for a while, you’ll learn new things about each other when you decide to cohabitate.

I was aware of that. I was also aware that we both had some growing to do, both as a couple and as individuals, and it hadn’t escaped me that my emotional fitness could use some work.

What I learned, quite unexpectedly, was that I would have to force myself not to emulate behavior patterns I’d observed in my parents.

These behavior patterns had never had occasion to be activated in me before, and I had no idea that they would be, given that I knew how bizarrely ineffective they were. At best, they could be considered ineffective, but more often than not, I think they actually put more strain than necessary on everyone involved.

My mom had a tendency to show emotion, as opposed to telling or analyzing. She tended toward the assumption that the world was against her. If something bad happened, it wasn’t just something bad happening. It was personal, or there was a conspiracy afoot. It was an attack. To say the woman was paranoid is to say water is wet; that is, it’s a basic and defining truth.

She and my dad had a queen-sized bed. Dad would sit up with his laptop, and they’d watch TV together. She hated watching the news, but he loved it and would put it on when he came to bed at night. I believe she mostly resented him using the TV at all. She was literally addicted to it, and she liked a small number of shows and not much else.

That was how she was: she liked only a very small number of things, period.

Toward the end of her life, I watched her sit in bed next to him, a foot or more of space between them, her arms crossed in a huff as he typed on his keyboard while MSNBC blared from the front of the room. Sometimes, she’d curl up to him, but not usually. More often than not, she’d be doing cross-stitch or playing a word search game on her tablet.

When she was mad at him, she’d lean at an angle away from him. She’d sit as far away from him as possible, arms crossed tightly, and lean at about a 30- or 45-degree angle. I remember thinking, when I’d see this, how weird it was, how little it accomplished, and I’d want to say something. But when I’d tried to talk to her about this sort of thing before, it hadn’t gone well.

She couldn’t take criticism. She could never let it go. Being told she was wrong was considered an insult and an indictment of her mental acuity. Granted, her mind deteriorated over time, especially toward the end, but she was never a stupid woman. Paranoid, yes. Delusional? At times, perhaps. But she was not lacking in intelligence.

General intelligence, that is. Emotional intelligence, as is (thankfully) becoming common knowledge, is a horse of a different color.

As it turns out, the solution to my inherited emotional kerfufflery is simple: when I find myself about to do a thing that my parents did, something unhealthy or just something I don’t want to emulate, I can do something else. I get to choose.

Note that I used the word “simple.” It is a simple instruction, but it’s not easy to put into practice. You can’t undo years of conditioning by sheer force of will and expect that it won’t take serious effort.

And really, in my parents’ cases, the effort eventually caused them to give up in many ways. It’s understandable: from my point of view, they seemed a little bit like Sisyphus, cursed to repeat the same futile actions, ad infinitum.

Mom said, “Same shit, different day.” She said it a lot. Dad will often use the phrase “Groundhog Day,” to describe his present-day experience. And these, in my mind, are substantively identical to one another (and to Sisyphus cursed). They seemed, after a while, to give up on changing things for the better. And that’s just sad.

As an adult, I often wonder (and sometimes ask) why they didn’t do certain things differently. I wondered aloud to my aunt, at some point, why they decided to have children at all. I could have understood, actually, if I was an accidental pregnancy, but it was intentional. Granted, part of my confusion on that subject, in particular, stems from my confusion as to why people want kids at all. But these were two people whose coupling and subsequent marriage was due at least as much to proximity as any other factor, and neither of them could be said to be ideal candidates for parenthood.

Don’t get me wrong; I love my parents, and I don’t think anyone is an “ideal” candidate for parenthood. It’s impossible to know what you’re getting into where kids are involved. There are things you can predict, such as universal needs like food, water, and shelter, but with kids, anything can happen. And they did their best.

We learn a lot of things from our parents. Mine taught me a lot about the world, myself, and each other. But all people also have gaps in their knowledge. You don’t have to be a genius to understand how having prodigious gaps in emotional intelligence can impact a kid.

My personality is analytical, sometimes to an absurd degree. In recent years, I’ve become more solutions-oriented and gutsy in my creativity; in other words, I’ve chosen to concentrate on solving problems rather than on the fact that there are so many problems. I do this to avoid killing myself, in essence, but I also do it because I think I can be better. I think the world can be better, and I want to be a part of making it better for everyone.

That doesn’t mean I don’t get discouraged, by experiences both internal and external, and I’ll likely always struggle with depression and anxiety. No matter what, I’ll probably need to take medication for those things for the rest of my life. My faulty attempts at managing my emotional state — namely, eating disorders and other forms of self-harm — have also had ramifications that will continue to affect me for the rest of my life. There are, in other words, many barriers to optimism, and I’m no stranger to them.

But I’m not looking for a struggle-free existence, mostly because I don’t believe such a thing is possible. Solving problems teaches people things and strengthens prior knowledge, and they’re not all bad, neurologically speaking. Still, as I’ve said to many a psychiatrist, “I think it can be done better.”

It starts with awareness. We’re all out here flying blind when it comes to a lot of what comprises the lives of others, both inner and outer, but we can all also start by being more aware of our own behavior and our own emotional responses, as well as the behavior of others toward us. We can ask questions to understand others better, what their feelings and perceptions are, and why they do what they do.

It turns out that most people have motivations that they believe are reasonable and that, when they do things that negatively impact themselves or others, they believe they have good reason for doing so. Whether this is true or not is what we have to figure out together. Misunderstandings are not completely avoidable, but I’ve found it helpful to ask myself (and my partner) certain questions before committing to reacting to something in anger. I’ll end with these now.

  1. What happened? What is making me feel this way?
  2. Why did it happen? Is there a purpose for it?
  3. Who (if anyone) is responsible? What was their intention?
  4. What is the best course of action going forward?
  5. Is this worth getting upset over? (Or: should I be upset about this? This is not the same as asking, “Do I have a right to be upset?”)
  6. If yes, to what extent?

I don’t remember my parents’ fights being “about” anything, much of the time. That was perhaps the most frustrating thing: if you’re going to fight, expending all that time and energy, make sure you know why.

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Queer vegan cryptid trying their best to survive late-stage capitalism while helping others do the same.

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London Graves

London Graves

Queer vegan cryptid trying their best to survive late-stage capitalism while helping others do the same.

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