• Wed, May 26 2010

Love Among the Ruins: What Happens When You Take Stress Out On Your Partner?

It happened all at once.

Within a month, I left my job, started a new one, agreed to spend boatloads of money to be a destination-wedding bridesmaid, signed a lease on a new apartment with my boyfriend, and found three white hairs on the crown of my head, pointing off in crooked, asymmetrical directions. All this—and I still needed to pack for the move.

I was losing what little cool I had previously had. I had bitten my nails off, lost sleep, started eating my feelings, and was one stalled subway ride away from a heart attack.  Murphy’s Law had asserted itself over my move. There were issues with my current landlord, and suddenly my new apartment’s management company was changing the move-in date, a situation that, I assumed, would result in me squatting somewhere with my furniture. I had a nightmare in which I found myself sleeping in the back of the moving truck in an abandoned back alley in Queens, where I was attacked by homeless meth-head zombies who stabbed me over and over again with cell phones and ballpoint pens.

I woke up hysterical—bolting up in bed so abruptly that I was shocked to see my boyfriend had slept through my panicked jump and cry. Worse, he was snoring contentedly, a happy half-smile mashed into my pillow.

So I did what any hyper-stressed-out, frightened woman on the brink of an anxiety attack would do.

I picked a fight.

Looking back at that night, I know I was wrong. But in the heat of the moment, I acted on instinct. I elbowed him in the gut and lost all control.

Stress can do crazy things to relationships. They can even make you pick a fight with your boyfriend for snoring (which, I theorized at the time, was a conclusive sign that he didn’t care about me or my current anxiety and was therefore a terrible boyfriend and didn’t love me enough. Like I said, crazy things).

It’s often easier to manage difficult situations when you’re single. The last time my small, selfish world had been turned upside down by change, I’d been alone. This meant that when I bit off my nails, ate five extra pounds of my feelings and lost sleep, it was my mirror that took the brunt of the associated pain. I devoured all the ice cream I wanted and didn’t think twice about how I looked naked. I was surly and sour, and when I couldn’t fall asleep, I pulled what I called “Nick at All-Nighters.” No one judged me for calling my mom three times a day for moral support—hell, my friends preferred it to the constant therapy sessions I stuck them with during lunch.

But none of those me-me-me reactions worked with a boyfriend. I stress-ate and felt fat. When he told me I looked sexy, I accused him of lying to me.

Instead of calling my mother or wrangling my friends into makeshift therapy sessions, I dumped all of my baggage on our relationship.  I spent hours in bed worrying aloud about a missing rent check when I should have been sleeping with my boyfriend, or just sleeping. We went out for nice dinners, of which I spent the duration discussing the stressful ins and outs of my new job. He listened diligently; I talked endlessly. By the time the new building’s management company decided to torture me with more decisions, I had become even more of a self-obsessed lunatic than I normally—as a twentysomething New Yorker—tend to be.

And then came the elbow to the gut.

The snoring had been bugging me for a while, but it wasn’t until the nightmare forced me awake that I felt angered by it. How dare my boyfriend sleep while I tossed and turned from anxiety-induced dreams? Even worse: how dare he taunt me with his foghorn snores while I was doomed to go to my new job with bloodshot eyes and back-cracking yawns?
I would be lying if I told you the fight that ensued was anything but my fault. It was terrible, but it was cathartic. Because being in a couple when you’re freaking out isn’t all bad. There are infinite hugs and kisses, an excuse for open communication and sexy reasons to stop eating feelings.

There is also the lesson you learn—sometimes the hard, shameful, apologetic way—that you have to manage your own freaked-out feelings like an adult.

More importantly, if a relationship can weather the storm of changing careers, changing addresses and changing bank accounts in the span of one month, perhaps it is an optimistic sign of what it can weather during a real hurricane. And perhaps it can weather a little snoring too.

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