Marie and Luke were in unfortunately familiar territory in this fight. Mostly they got along okay; but then something relatively small would happen and it would seem to set off a bigger fight. It was if the fight was about something bigger than what they were apparently fighting about.
This time it was the trash. Luke couldn’t believe that he was standing in his living room having a screaming fight with Marie about the trash.
“Marie, it’s just trash, for heaven’s sake. Calm down.”
“Do not tell me to calm down, Luke. And it’s not ‘just’ trash. This is just one more example of me not being able to count on you.”
“Marie, get real. I forgot to take the trash down. It’s not the end of the world.”
“Luke, that is so like you – minimizing when you’ve screwed up.”
“What are you talking about? You make it sound like I’ve been some horrible person for 20 years.”
“Wouldn’t you call it horrible when a man disappears on a 2 day bender and is AWOL for your mother’s funeral?”, she shot at him.
“For crying out loud, Marie. Your mom died 15 years ago. Let it go. I made a mistake. I’m sorry. Can’t I move on with a clean slate?”
“No, you cannot. How am I supposed to do that? How do I forget something that painful and upsetting? Well, I can’t. I remember it.”
“Well, how come you don’t remember just as well all the times I didn’t let you down? Huh, Marie, how come?” He was sounding belligerent, he knew, but he was feeling unfairly judged here. After all, most of the time he was a reasonably decent husband, he thought. He should be judged, he thought, on the majority of his behavior, not the exceptions.
“Okay, Luke, let me try to explain this in another way.” Marie was realizing that this fight wasn’t about trash. It was about whether she could rely on him. She stopped yelling. She really wanted him to understand finally what this was about for her, and why his wish for a “clean slate” was beyond her means to grant. “Remember when you tore your ACL when you fell into that hole outside the restaurant, where the construction was going on and the orange cone had been stolen?”
“Of course I remember that. It was a nightmare. It hurt so bad and I was so worried about the surgery. I remember every detail of that evening from the moment I hit that stupid hole.”
“That was 16 years ago, you know. And you remember every detail. And you still won’t go back to that restaurant. So why don’t you ‘let it go’? And do you remember every detail of every evening since then? You know, all the evenings that you didn’t fall into a hole. Of course not. What you remember so vividly, with so much pain that you still wince when you think about it, is the night that you got hurt.”
Luke sat quietly. He realized that he was unconsciously rubbing his knee. It was true. Thinking about that night brought it all back. It really didn’t feel like 16 years ago; it felt pretty close. And it was true – he had been unwilling ever to return to that stupid restaurant, even though they had apologized profusely and offered him a free meal for himself and a guest. He always said that he just didn’t trust them. He’d heard from quite a few friends that they’d had lovely meals there. And nobody else had gotten hurt. Still, the place had such a horrible association for him that he just wouldn’t go there.
He looked up at Marie with dawning understanding. “I think I get it. I need to do things that help you get past the bad memories. I made the bad memory; I have to work to carry us past that. It’s my job to persuade you that you CAN rely on me, not your job to forget when you couldn’t.”
She looked at him with so much gratitude for this new posture.
Luke asked, “Can I ever get that clean slate that I wanted?”
“Gee, Luke, I honestly don’t know. But,” and she smiled,” I think maybe the slate could fade over time ‘til it could get hard to read.”