Once you’re in a relationship with someone, you’ll always be in a relationship with that person. It’s like the Hotel California, you can never leave. I don’t care if you never speak to her again, if you move to the other side of the world, and put up a dartboard with her face on it; you’ll always be in relationship. There will always be a corner of your brain, I dare say, a corner of your heart, that has her name on it.
This is doubly true if you’re in photos in Facebook together. This is triply true if she met your parents. It’s quadruply true if you were married. It’s doubly, triply, quadruply true if you have kids together. You’re hitched.
Love may not be eternal, but relationship is. The legal end of a marriage is not the end of a relationship.
Relationship, at its minimal level, means that your partner rents space in your head. You think of him sometimes, happily or unhappily, with fondness or regret. He’s part of your story and you’re part of his. You have to account for him if you’re honest. You’ll be flooded with memories, good or bad, after the most trivial cues. He’ll affect the way you relate to anyone else. He’ll always be an item to compare and contrast.
Usually, there are more feelings. Many more. They may be negative feelings. You might hate her, but hate’s a feeling. At some point, time and time again, for the rest of your life, when the right buttons are pushed, you’ll be transported by your passions.
You’ve seen this in others. You’ve had beers with the man who, at the mere mention of his ex, goes on a ten-minute tirade about the shrew. You’ve drained a bottle of wine with a friend who combs over every detail of her ex’s pervasive perfidy. These are people still in relationship even though their divorces are final.
By the way, love and hate are not that far apart. They’re both intense. They are both very, very far away from indifference. You’ll never be indifferent about a former partner, no matter how hard you try to fake it.
If you agree that you will always be in relationship, then the question is: what kind of relationship will it be?
Seizing the rope
Picture yourself having fallen off a cliff and hanging on to a bush. Just as the roots are beginning to give, someone lowers a rope down to you. It’s the person you once loved, who hurt you, and you no longer trust.
Do you grab the rope?
I think, no matter what you might say, you’ll grab the rope, but maybe not until after the bush begins to give way.
If you don’t grab the rope out of spite or stupidity, because you don’t want to give him the satisfaction of saving you, then you die.
If you do grab the rope, then you’ve demonstrated that, no matter how untrustworthy a person is, if the need is great enough, you’ll trust him.
After he hauls you back up and you catch your breath, you might not fall into his arms and live happily ever after. The wounds of the past are still unhealed. He may have saved your life, but he’s still a jerk. However, you have succeeded in setting aside your differences to work together towards an important goal. You briefly re-negotiated your relationship.
I tell this story as a way of saying that sometimes, not only when you fall off a cliff, you still have a need that only your former loved one will satisfy. When that happens, you re-negotiate your relationship.
The re-negotiated relationship
Once a relationship is made for one purpose it’s possible to change that purpose to another. When you get together with someone to hang on Friday nights and you end up having sex, you are re-negotiating the relationships. When you decide to be exclusive, you’ve re-negotiated it again; and again, when you give her a ring. Before you know it, your relationship is all about raising kids and paying off a mortgage. Hopefully, you still enjoy each other’s company on Friday night and the sex. In long, vibrant marriages purposes accumulate. In ailing ones, old purposes die off.
If you have lost some purposes, but others remain, then it may make sense to re-negotiate the relationship. People do this all the time when they get a divorce, but cooperate with each other to raise kids. They say their union is finished, but it’s really not; it’s been converted into another kind of union, working together towards a different purpose.
The couple might not achieve authentic reconciliation this way; they never go back to the fullness of their relationship as it existed before. You don’t need to trust that your husband won’t sleep with other women, for example, you just need to trust that he’ll bring back the kids. These can be very satisfying and valuable relationships, nonetheless, for both of you and, especially, for the kids.
Re-negotiating and growing up
You can see this process of re-negotiation in any healthy relationship between parents and children. In early childhood, parents are responsible for everything and they can claim almost complete access to their child. When you were young, you crapped in your pants and your parents had to clean you up. When they did so, they would touch you in a private area. As you got older, you had to clean yourself up and doing so, you earned the right to set boundaries on your parents. As an adult, your parents can’t touch your ass; they may even have to knock before they can come in your house; but you can have a very satisfying, valuable relationship with them, nonetheless.
In cases where you have been harmed by a parent, you may need to re-negotiate the relationship further. If your father can’t say three words to you without being critical, then you may not want to play golf with him every weekend because you can’t trust him to go eighteen holes without getting on your nerves. On the other hand, you might not want to sever the relationship completely because you don’t think that would be right. Besides, you still want to see your mother. That’s what Thanksgiving dinner is for, I guess. For the sake of peace, your relationship has been re-negotiated into one where you have a meal once a year.
The long way to reconciliation
When someone has been harmed in a relationship and the relationship is re-negotiated into something more limited, we can’t really say the partners have achieved full reconciliation. It’s not like they’ve gone back to the way things were before; but they have negotiated a peace, so to speak. They instituted a demilitarized zone that none can cross. Having this understanding is so much better than all-out war, but the partners still warily patrol the border for violations and incursions. In time, if the DMZ is respected, it can turn into an ordinary boundary that requires no special defense. Then you might say there’s reconciliation, if only because the two parties simply don’t need to fight.
It’s hard to believe that two former British colonies, the United States and Canada have, several times in their history, fought wars against each other. The issues between them have long since passed away and only historians remember why they fought. You could say that the two countries have reached reconciliation without ever uniting. This is the long way to reconciliation, which is achieved, not by the members working it out, but by agreeing to leave each other alone.