Tough Love Gets You Through Tough Times

Julia Hubbel, Walkabout Saga, Horizon Huntress

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What a boot blister taught me about relationships

All relationships have conflict. It's how you and I go about responding to it and dealing with it that determines if our love can last.

Two more long laps. That was another 1200 steps, not including the down part. I had on a brand new pair of ladies’ Lowes super heavy thick leather hiking boots. Breaking them in for my hike to the summit of Mt. Kenya that fall, a hike of 17,058 feet. As I headed down the north side of Red Rocks Amphitheater, I felt a hot spot grow, and three toes cramp badly on my left foot.

Well damn.

I tried to concentrate on my tunes. Didn’t do much good. Once a blister begins, and the toes cramp, those tend to focus your attention.

Sounded a lot like my relationship at the time.

At the base of the steps I took the new boot off, straightened my toes and rubbed the sore spot. One of us- the boot or my foot- would have to adapt. I wasn’t sure who was going to win this battle.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I tried different approaches. The two days that the blister had been the worst, I’d had two pairs of socks on. Remembering the advice of someone at REI, the third time I ditched the extra pair, and the pain stopped. I kept testing until something paid off.

LIke with people.

This past week, I added a full Camelbak, slipped in an extra ten pounds of weight, and hiked 2400 steps in total comfort. The boots, assisted by a certain amount of foot sweat, had begun to give. To soften with wear.

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That blister reminded me about a previous relationship that had many similar characteristics.

In 2003 a BF moved into my house, an arrangement that was designed to be short term. We were saving up for a house that would accommodate both or office, a dog and lots of my clothing and gear. That was going just fine until he and his workplace parted company for very good reasons. He then had to focus on getting another, which meant hard work and phone interviews. It eventually happened, but it set him back for a while, which meant we were in close proximity much longer in a small house.

Like a lot of my friends, I have lived alone most of my adult life. It had been a very long time since I lived with someone, with the exception of when one of my closest friends was my roommate for a blissful two years. She and I get along like peanut butter and jelly, and her quiet presence in my house was much missed when she moved in with her boyfriend. That’s not even vaguely close to this. When you add sex to the mix, all kinds of other considerations shoulder in rather like a rugby scrum.

The then BF and I had lived six hours apart for a long time. This was a chance to see if we could make this work. The hot spots on my toes breaking in a new boot made me consider what it’s like being a then 52-year-old adult who loves her privacy, her quiet house, her (admittedly anal) neatness, who suddenly had a very different person taking up considerable space both physically and emotionally in the same place.

Our personal habits, for example, were very different. He was messy and left his clothing and shoes all over the house. His bathroom sink was always full of facial hair and soap scum. It gave me the heebie jeebies to walk in there, and I avoided it at all costs. Neatness comes to me naturally, and having been military for five years there’s a part of me that loves the crispness of everything has its place. He left dishes and silverware in the sink, as though the effort of putting those items in the dishwasher (which of course is right there) was simply too much. My girlfriend and I had a good laugh about this because her BF at that time did precisely the same thing. Doesn’t matter how many times you mention it.

When he was stressed out, he was not an affectionate man, and I am uber affectionate. Very physical. If he was in the mood for fooling around, he could be very affectionate. The rest of the time he was as remote and isolated as the Azores. This starved me for touch. I could choose to interpret this any way I want. I brought this up umpteen times. Made no difference. He had a default setting and it seemed that his comfort level was hands off- particularly when he was job seeking. At least at first. And that’s the point. None of us knows what things will be like tomorrow or next week or next year.

I’m quite sure he had many similar complaints about me. I traveled too much, left him alone, I talked too loudly, name your poison. Those were the initial hot points about me. They softened over time. Those of us who have lived many decades alone have developed deep habits that simply don’t change overnight.

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Here’s the piece. Any time we allow someone into our intimate space, there are going to be inevitable hot spots. We are simply going to rub one another the wrong way, be it our relative neatness/messiness, our comfort levels around intimacy, any one of a thousand touchpoints. The BF, who was younger by about 22 years, had also spent most of his adult life alone or with roommates. Both of us had very different ways of being, and it is also just as inevitable that we saw those preferences as right. Why not? It works for us as individuals, but not necessarily as a couple.

Like my cramped toes and the angry beginning blister, that can be cause for arguments. I could choose to argue, get pissy, and fight for what I think is right. People do this all the time over the most ridiculous of issues, including which way to load toilet paper. As though such a thing could possibly matter, but that’s what I mean. We allow small, insignificant things to overwhelm the gift of another heartbeat in the house. Something small grows into a major annoyance, and like a blister, it can become hugely painful, burst, and then harden into an emotional corn or bunion.

The gift of the hot spot, should I choose to see it this way, is that I have the chance to ask whether this is really important enough to stand my ground. Sometimes yes, most of the time, no. Part of this process is learning that it is our human habit to be negative, to find wrongs, to be critical. It’s ever so much easier to find fault, rather than recognize that as we learn to live together, there are those predictable, law-comformable high or sharp points in both our personalities and living styles which will cause conflict. We either shave them off, rub them down, or they become deeply ingrained points of resentment which often rise over something genuinely small and insignificant.

Of such things, divorces are made. People begin to despise or disrespect one another for the most ludicrous of reasons. Unless someone is committing abuse, which is a whole other question, the sometimes rock-filled road of relationships is much more an issue of regularly sweeping the detritus off the pathway so that we can enjoy the stroll.

To continue the boot analogy here, when a blister isn’t tended to, mended and allowed to air out and heal, it can get infected. From a relationship standpoint, those are the issues that grow into deep resentment and ultimately dissolution of what might once have been a very happy union. At some point you can’t walk any more. There’s no forward progress. That happened with my parents, whose 50+ year marriage was an “armed truce,” according to my mother. They didn’t grow together, and ultimately barely tolerated each other at the end. My father became verbally abusive, my mother reclusive. Once a vibrant, energetic woman, which she still was when away from my father, when around him she stayed silent. At considerable cost. They simply could not, would not discuss difficult issues.

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Being appreciative invites compromise. When I assume positive intent, that opens the space for negotiation. If I sit in my corner and pout, and assume that the BF or anyone else for that matter is a jerk or unappreciative or lazy or doesn’t care or any number of patently unfair labels, the blister will eventually get vastly worse. Or we can air it out as best we can, allow time for the “boot” to adjust, and after a while, the hot spot simply goes away. For the actual blister that was developing on my cramped toes, the removal of the extra sock allowed for room in the same way that the removal of defensive posturing and righteousness in relationships allows for more room. The hard leather gives, softens, and the hot spot is no more. If, that is, we allow that to happen.

Back in 2005 I was laughing with a friend about how badly I wanted my house back. The privacy, the ability to dance around my dining room in my stockinged feet at any time of the day or night at will, not having to put up with network TV or movies I don’t much care for (we didn’t share the same tastes). Yet this house, any house can be, and is, a very lonely place at times. I can’t have both. I can have privacy at times. Not all the time. I am quite sure that BF felt exactly the same way. Ultimately that relationship ended when he slept with an old girlfriend while I was away on business. And that was the end of that.

Ultimately these things are all minor although clearly to that BF my travel was a real issue. The tiny day-to-day annoyances aren’t that big a deal unless we let them be. In the largest scheme of things, they are meaningless. The need to be right, the compulsion to be critical, the obsession with what’s wrong rather than what works all create blisters. If I choose, if we choose, every single piece of this information is a mirror. It shows me my rigidity, my selfishness, my unwillingness to accommodate. This was his mirror, too, but it was up to him to choose to see it. He didn’t. Nor could he adapt. It wasn’t my work to make him change to accommodate me.

It IS my work to take a good, long, hard look at those gifts and burdens passed down to me by my parents. Those include habits, prejudices, assumptions, habits of mind, and a whole slew of both ugly and attractive ways of being. Living in close proximity brings them all to the surface. Each of us chooses someone to hang out with who reflects a combination of our best and worst. Internet dating sites are chock full of folks who cannot adapt, will not adapt, and expect others to change to accommodate them. It’s a fine recipe for a very lonely life.

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We eventually had our own separate living arrangements again. We both moved on. Part of this invited me to question whether or not at some point, I really want to live alone for the rest of my life and have play time with a lover or if there is a potentially permanent arrangement whereby I share the same house with someone. When I live alone, I have no feedback. Feedback is essential for growth. Growth is downright damned uncomfortable. However, without it I stagnate, and get entrenched in my way of being. It’s an invitation to become self-righteous. We have plenty of that already.

A blister is nothing more than an opportunity to see differently. We see them all the time in society, in our relationships with ourselves, at work, in our interpersonal connections. They don’t have to fester. It’s inevitable that humans are going to chafe in close proximity. We’re supposed to. That’s the only way we can grow. Community can only happen when we learn to cooperate, and that begins in our most intimate spaces. Learning to let go of the hot spots makes us open, soft and curious.

Or we can stay blistered, barnacled and bitter that the world doesn’t bend over backwards to accommodate us.

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