Field notes on how one couple escaped an unhealthy relationship, started over from scratch, and created a better one. (Part 1 of 8)
I started keeping a list of what makes a good relationship five years ago when I found myself in my kitchen, taking a shit into the trash can.
Let me explain. Let me explain quickly.
My girlfriend Chelle and I had just returned from a two-day backpacking trip in the mountains where we ate freeze-dried food, drank brandy out of a thermos, and slept under the biggest star-filled sky I have ever seen.
48 hours in the woods left me in awe of the all-embracing quietude of nature. It also left me extremely constipated.
And so it was that my bulging belly became my only companion on the car ride home as Chelle slipped into a deep, open-mouthed sleep in the passenger seat.
After parking and carrying our supplies up to our second-floor apartment, Chelle went into the bathroom to take a shower. I put a few things away and eventually bent over to remove my hiking boots—which is when I felt what I can only describe as a tectonic shift in my stomach.
For the first time in days, things were happening. And they were happening fast.
I hobbled over to the bathroom door and turned the knob. It was locked.
I heard the shower running and Chelle singing Etta James. “At last…my love has come along.”
As I stood there, clenching my butt cheeks and trying not to panic, I came to a realization:
There was no way in hell I was going to barge in and take a dump in front of my girlfriend.
Nope. Not gonna happen.
I know there are some couples who’ve been married for years who don’t seem to have much of a problem with it. But right then, that became Good Relationship Tip Number 1: No bowel movements in front of each other.
Some things should remain mysterious.
Besides, we had only recently moved back in together after being broken up for 6 months. Everything was going great this time around.
So, not wanting to put a stain on Round 2 of the relationship—and with no other place to go—I did the only thing I could think of: I took a shit in the kitchen trash can.
I’ll spare you the details, but I will say I had a few things working to my advantage; namely, the sturdiness of the trash can, the fact that I’d remembered to put in a new bag and buy paper towels before we left for the woods, and the close proximity of the dumpster outside our apartment complex.
When I came back inside from disposing of the evidence, Chelle was just getting out of the shower, completely unaware of what had transpired.
I smiled and didn’t say a single word about it…for five years.
And then, just a couple days ago, we were sitting at the dining room table, our empty plates and half-full wine glasses in front of us, reflecting on our relationship and all the positive things we’ve done to improve it in Round 2.
She mentioned, off-handedly, how she liked that we tried to not fart or shit in front of each other. And I just had to tell her.
At first she looked horrified, but then she started laughing so hard she melted into a puddle of tears.
I laughed too; it was good to get it off my chest.
Because if I’ve learned anything about being in a good relationship it’s that you shouldn’t keep secrets. Even disgusting, embarrassing ones.
Also: It’s a good idea to get two bathrooms.
The Second First Date
“You sure talk a lot.”
I take my eyes off the trail and look up, lost in mid-monologue.
She has stopped walking long enough to turn around and stare at me. I stare back and search her face to see if she’s joking. She’s not.
She sighs, turns, and starts walking again.
It’s an early spring morning in Missoula, Montana, a year or so before the Trash Can Incident. We haven’t officially become a couple again.
We’re hiking up a small mountain on the edge of town, just above the University of Montana. All around us the birds and insects sing; otherwise, we have the trail to ourselves.
Chelle is ahead, wearing tight black workout pants and a hoodie, her curly red hair tied in a ponytail, the sun peeking over her shoulder every time she takes a step.
I’m following and breathing hard. Partly due to to the elevation and partly because—like she said—I’m talking a lot. This is the second time we’ve seen each other since we broke up six months earlier. The first time was yesterday, when I showed up on her doorstep with flowers and asked if she wanted to talk. She told me she was going for a hike tomorrow and I could join if I thought I could keep up.
And so, here we are.
As I follow her up the trail, I keep my mouth shut and think back to the last time we truly talked…
I sat on the the living room floor of our small apartment, my back against the wall, and said, “I don’t think we should be together any more.”
I left a few minutes after that, packed a bag and drove two hours back to my hometown where I drank beer, lifted weights, and watched bad Nicholas Cage movies with my parents.
When I got back to the apartment a couple days later, her stuff was gone. I put my bag in the closet and marveled at how many empty hangers I owned.
We’d lived together for a year. Dated for two.
She was in her final semester of college and I was in my second year of working for a company I once loved but now couldn’t stand.
On the surface, our relationship looked fine: we went out to restaurants, hung out with friends, and posed pretty for pictures. But behind all that we were fucking miserable.
At one particularly low point we slept in separate beds on opposite sides of the same room, like a TV couple from the 1950’s.
She said I tossed and turned too much. I said we should push the beds apart. (We had two twin-sized mattresses.) So we split our fake-King bed in half, severing any hope of intimacy in the process.
That lasted for months, all the way up to the end. Of course, that was only after we’d started regularly invading each other’s privacy.
She checked my email. I checked her texts. When we were together, every interaction with another person had a question mark hovering over it.
“Is he hitting on her?” “What is she saying to him?” “Do they know each other?”
We were searching for something to be indignant about, something to justify an outrage. We were searching for something to make us feel alive and dead at the same time.
We got what we were looking for.
Back on the trail, I think about how crazy unhealthy we both had been.
And I think about those six months of dating other people and not talking to each other. That time served us well.
She graduated college, got a new job, and studied herself intensely; she uncovered a lot of what was making her unhappy and emerged more confident and in control. She had a steady paycheck, a purpose, and new friends.
I also got a new job. And in the process, I gained some mentors who helped me examine the parts of me I disliked. I started reading books on relationships, philosophy, and meditation. As corny as it sounds, I started to learn how to love and accept myself, too.
For all our unhealthy behavior, I still loved her. And I knew—or at least I hoped—that she felt the same. I wanted to try “us” out again, but I wasn’t sure if she was interested.
And so, feeling cautiously optimistic, I emailed her.
Which is how we ended up here, hiking up a mountain on our second first date.
And even though I’m slipping into old bad habits—talking incessantly, for one—I start right there on the mountain, for the first time ever, to work on my relationship with Chelle.
I listen more. I ask questions. I’m determined to not make the hike all about me. At the top of the mountain, she gives me a drink from her water bottle—a peace offering.
As we look over the valley, the University buildings and random roads of Missoula crisscrossing below us, I ask if I can see her again.
She says yes and over the new few weeks we go on more dates. We begin having the difficult conversations we’d put off for years. We confess and forgive. We laugh more. At some point, we’re a couple again.
And this time, we’re determined to give our relationship the attention it deserves.
What is a “good” or “healthy” relationship, anyway?
Is it like what that Supreme Court Justice said about hard-core pornography, that “you know it when you see it?”
I have no idea. If my past relationships are a clue, I can only say that looks can be deceiving.
But here’s my attempt to define a “healthy” relationship:
- Each person takes care of their own happiness and doesn’t rely on the other for validation or self-worth
- Each person gets to be who they are without judgment
- Each person supports the goals and growth of the other, and by extension, the goals and growth of the relationship
Another thing—and this may be the most obvious thing you’ve ever heard— but I now know that relationships are work.
That even if you’re with the “right” person, it won’t always feel easy. That if the relationship is difficult in any way, it doesn’t mean you’re not a good match. No doubt there are wrong matches. There are people who shouldn’t be together, couples who only exacerbate each other’s narcissistic and destructive tendencies.
Yet as Chelle and I found out, even those aren’t necessarily doomed. It’s up to both people to make an effort to work on themselves in and out of the relationship.
With time and distance between them, they may find they’re better off alone or with someone else. Or, like us, they may discover a relationship is worth trying again once they get their individual shit together.
We’ve put a lot of work into ourselves and the relationship over the past five years. We’ve learned some things that have been life-changing for us. Both good and bad.
The following short essays are snapshots—field notes, if you will—of some things we’ve learned and practiced to make our (second) relationship better.
Of course, we’re very much a work in progress, so take everything here with a grain of salt. Put another way: we’re not relationship experts and this is not advice—it’s simply our experience.
We’re probably the last people you want to ask for advice, anyway.
Field notes: How we created a better relationship.
This is the first of eight short essays about relationships. I recommend reading them in order, as they’ll make more sense that way.
- Essay 1: Get two bathrooms (This is the one you just read.)
- Essay 2: Take a personality test (What happens when you combine an impatient egotist with someone who’s overly critical? You get a relationship!)
- Essay 3: Embrace silliness (Meet our ridiculous little mascot.)
- Essay 4: Handle money like adults (How to manage your finances without wanting to kill each other.)
- Essay 5: Renew your vows every day (Not every day is sunshine and sex. But you should still treat it that way.)
- Essay 6: Go away! And get new stories on your own. (Short solo trips give you the opportunity to miss each other.)
- Essay 7: Spend time in their world (Even if that world involves grizzly bears and ice-cold lakes.)
- Essay 8: Make “thank you” your default (A happy couple in the wild.)