In my wallet I have a coin that can’t be spent anywhere. I had six of these, once, and I can’t remember where I got them from. They look a bit like two pound pieces, but they’re designed as arcade tokens of some sort.
A long time ago I gave half of them to my boy. “These are yours,” I said. “Because you like shiny things, and because I have no idea what to do with them but they’re too satisfyingly pretty to waste, there’s something deliciously symbolic in each of us having a few.”
“OK,” he said, conveniently forgetting to add “why must you always be so weird, darling?”
Later that week I got pissed. A horrible, ugly kind of pissed, the way I used to get at University when hangovers were just something that happened to other people. I made exactly the kind of fool of myself that you would expect, and that I still blush to remember. Loudly obnoxious, I made inexcusably crap jokes in front of his friends, flirted wildly with at least two of them, and said some thoughtless things to him in casual conversation that gave him a tight hurt deep in his chest.
“I’m so sorry,” I said the next morning. “I’m awful, and I will never do that again.”
“Shit, don’t worry,” he replied, because he is infinitely magnanimous and lovely like that. “Happens to the best of us.” And then he took one of my tokens.
So began a game of give-and-take. When he’d fuck up in some way, or upset me, he’d give me a token. When I fucked up, I’d hand one to him. The actual tokens were meaningless – you couldn’t buy anything with them, and they weren’t recognisable to anyone outside of our twosome. But between us they meant loads: I fucked up, I’m sorry, I love you.
It’s my fault.
Fighting and reuniting
I hate fighting. The arguments I had in past relationships were usually drawn-out affairs, in which both I and my partner would sit in spiky, accusing silence for hours, waiting for the other person to throw the next hurtful comment. When the comment came, so did the knee-jerk response, and the ground of the argument shifted from “you haven’t done the washing up” through “remember how you behaved at my friend’s wedding” to “why have you never truly loved me?” over the space of miserably bitter nights.
Because – especially for an argumentative harpy like me, who sees debate as a matter of both professional and personal pride – it’s hard to say ‘I’m wrong’. Giving ground feels not like a natural compromise between two sensible adults but like – *gulp* – losing.
Hence the tokens: it’s easier for me to give him a token than to admit a mistake. Easier to hold my hand out and ask for a token when I think he’s fucked up. It’s a way of transferring blame that doesn’t mean having to say any actual words that hurt each other.
“You’re a cunt.”
“You’re a bitch.”
I can just hold out my hand and hope he gives me a token. Or I can pass him one of mine, and meet his eyes, and he’ll know without me having to say it that I mean ‘fuck fuck fuck I’ve done it again and I’m so fucking sorry.’
Your fault/my fault
There’s only one token left in my wallet now, which I think means that on balance I’m a bad person. But I can’t quite be sure because this system died a long time ago. Did we just forget? Were there so many months without arguments that the system fell by the wayside? Or did he, knowing I had just that one left to hold on to, forego the chance to ‘win’ so that I wouldn’t feel too terrible?
One of the heart-achingly wonderful things about him is his power to stop arguments. As I shake and rage on my stubborn high horse, he can step forward, put out his hand and say “let’s stop fighting now.” Never “just admit you’re wrong” or “shut up and we’ll have dinner” – there’s no blame or anger, just “let’s stop fighting now.” A heartfelt desire to be held, and loved, and an understanding that although the problem remains, the fight itself is over. It means no row has to bleed over into tomorrow, and the next day, and the next.
It’s one of the best things about him, and a skill that I – as a stroppy and defensive bastard – would utterly love to be able to master. It’s one of the things I boast about when I’m boring my friends with stories about how lovely he is. Relationship diplomacy at its best, and a tactic that has proven valuable during every fight we’ve ever had.
Except, inevitably, this one.