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“You Can Never Know a Man Until You Fight Him”

“You can never know a man until you fight him.” A line I heard this afternoon in “The Matrix Reloaded.”

©Warner Bros.; Photo: Jasin Boland

Can true wisdom be found in a Matrix Movie? When more weight is given to the source than to what is (or can be) learned, much can be missed. I was struck by that line of dialogue and, in the moment it took me to consider it, the memory of the first fight I had with my husband flooded across my mind. I clearly saw two truths. One about him that I couldn’t have understood at the time, but still should have known meant that danger lay ahead. And one about myself that delineates how the person I want to be, has melded with the person that I am. Because of those thoughts, and the urgency with which these words are spilling out of me, I’d say the answer to my question is yes. It’s possible to find wisdom anywhere, if you’re ready to see it.

The heartbreak of this incident lingers because heartbreak does. I’ve turned down its volume but, in a way, we are our memories, and they rarely go away. What’s more important now is that my doubts about how I handled that situation have gone, and I no longer need to look outside myself for validation that I didn’t do anything awful. I’d rather be a bit scathed in a battle I didn’t start, than be crushed in a defeat that I did nothing against. This means you do or say things that will hurt. This is what a fight is, and why it’s generally best not to start one. 

This is what happened:

My mother’s house and most of her belongings had come to me when she died. Very early in our marriage, my husband and I had agreed to take her dishes out of some kitchen cabinets to make room for his kitchen things. He had convinced me that the beautiful old dishes would be safe in the attic if we boxed them up and marked them clearly.

I had been crouching in front of a cabinet, carefully taking out glassware and dishes, then setting them before him on the table to wrap in newspaper and pack into boxes. I was crouching again to redistribute what was left in order to make the best use of the space. I saw him begin to stack dishes.

“No. Remember: don’t stack the dishes before you wrap them,” I said. ” You want to wrap each one separately so they don’t get scrapes.”

“The dishes don’t need paper between them.”

“No, honey, they do– to keep them from scraping.”

“I’m not scraping them,” he answered. “Why do think I’m trying to mess them up?”

“I don’t think you’re trying to mess them up. It’s just that carrying the box, or moving the boxes in the future, can make the dishes move and rub against each other. There’s plenty of newspaper. I want to wrap them so they don’t touch.”

He smiled and shook his head a little. “Ohhh,” he said, “now I get it.”

I sensed something. I’m used to the way under-the-belt punches rear back and arc their way toward you. I’ve always marveled at how much a verbal altercation mirrors a physical one. He knew I’d had a lot of experience with people who lob that kind of abuse, and because we had talked about many of our experiences with that sort of thing in both our lives, I didn’t expect it from him. I hoped the moment would pass as something I misread.

I glanced at him as his smile disintegrated into something like resignation tinged with sadness. I was confused but I didn’t know what to say. He said, “Now I see why your mother acted that way.”

I kept looking at him and said, “What?”

“The way you’re acting here. This must be why she was always so upset with you.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“That. Right there. And this having to be exactly your way, like nobody else can do anything right.”

I stood up. “The dishes are going up into the attic because it’s the right thing to do and it’s a good idea. We’re making space to bring your things into the kitchen, because our lives are together now and we’re starting our future. There’s nothing in there about you not being able to do anything right. Me wanting newspaper around the dishes is about vaguely remembering something from Martha Stewart, and wanting to take the best care of these old dishes that I like and want to keep for the future. Don’t you bring up stuff about my mother that doesn’t have anything to do with this.”

“The way you’re acting has everything to do this. If you acted this way with her, I don’t blame her for being so mad at you all the time.”

I was so shaken, and mad, I didn’t know what to say, so I crouched back down and tried to get back to the task.

He continued, “I’ve been here before. I can’t believe I did it again.”

“What are you talking about!” I was raising my voice.

“Yeah, well,” he paused as he dutifully wrapped newspaper around a dinner plate. “I didn’t think marriage would be this way with you. But I should have known by what you said about you and your mother.”

My gears fell into place, and something about the scene came into focus for me. “You need to stop dragging my mother into this. I don’t know what your problem is, but you should know better. Any idiot knows that those are fighting words. If you want to start a fight, fine; but you better know I’ll finish it. And you better believe I know how. You live in a glass house.”

“See! There it is again! You don’t even make sense.” I couldn’t believe how self-righteous he looked. Like he absolutely knew in his heart that he was right. Like all the logic in the world supported what he was saying to me. He went on, “Why are you starting a fight?”

“I didn’t start this, but if you don’t want a fight you should just stop. We can both be quiet and just finish what we’re doing.”

As I worked on consolidating more space in the cabinet, and forgetting his words, he was quiet for maybe a minute. I could hear him letting out long breaths, and I saw his movements across the room in the corner of my eye. Then he spoke again. “You know, you don’t get to decide that I don’t talk.

“I think it’s best that neither of us is talking right now.”

“It’s not my problem that you don’t want to hear how you are. This isn’t the way you act in a marriage. Maybe if your mother had talked to you about it before…”

“I’m not gonna warn you again. Something is really wrong with you if you don’t know what you’re saying! But mention my mother one more time, you stupid asshole– one more time and I’ll finish this! Think! Do you really want me to shut you down? Think! How would I do that?” I went through the motions of moving things in the cabinet, because I had started to shake and I didn’t want to drop anything.

“So you’re too good for an honest conversation about your problems.”

“Shut up!”

“So this is how it is? Your mother was right.”

“Yeah,” I said. “As right as your father was about you, you asshole.” I didn’t stand up as I looked him right in the eye. “Why don’t you talk to me like a man? A real man wouldn’t be trying to mess with me like this! You’re not even man enough to talk to your wife without trying to browbeat her. What is it? The only way you can feel big is to manufacture a fight out of nothing so you can win something? Maybe that’s what happened to your other marriages! And I fell for your ‘Oh, I’ve learned so much’ rap. You’re still just as fucked up as your father ever thought you were if you think you can fuck with me like this! Asshole!”

He looked wounded. I saw his eyes glass over as he put down the dish. “You could say that, and you call me an asshole?”

“You started it.”

“I didn’t say anything like that to you.”

“If you believe that, then you weren’t listening to yourself. I’d have never told you that stuff about my life if I thought you could be so cruel. I guess you didn’t realize that you’re not my parent. If you start something with me, I’m gonna finish it. Asshole!”

He looked at me as if I was a stranger, then he walked out of the room. It took me a few minutes to begin my pre-programmed descent into self-doubt.

I know now that he wasn’t able to comprehend what that fight was about, and it’s harder now for me to understand why we recovered from it. Neither of us knew about his condition at that time and I still had very low self-esteem so, like many emotionally abused people, I talked myself once again into accepting the misplaced blame in order to make things better and move on. He and I went on for a few more years after that, and I was different. I always tried reason when he made our disagreements become strange, but I only ever raised my voice again to try to be heard. I suffered a lot, but I didn’t fight him or use tit for tat, though he would tell you I did. Today I can say that I don’t see any wisdom in giving up my fighting instinct.

His part in that fight was truly about who he was, and he showed that he wasn’t for me. The why of it doesn’t matter. How I handled that fight was about who I truly was. I can see that some could be offended by what the woman I was said to him, and how she said it. That’s fine. I embrace her now, because I’ve grown to like her very much. She is me.

Photo by Jennuine Captures via Flickr

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33 thoughts on ““You Can Never Know a Man Until You Fight Him”

  1. This was very brave. I have spent sixteen unhappy years not being that brave, and I am learning it now (better late than never). Thank you for voicing what I am still trying to get enough breath to say.

    • Thanks, Bee. I had to write it, but I almost didn’t press ‘publish.’ Then I remembered that I’m not the only one. I think I wrote it for us all.

      You’re speaking for all of us when you say, “better late than never.” Take care of yourself, and you’ll find that breath.

  2. Like Bee said, this was a very brave post. I’m not sure I could have done this; I hope people see me as I am now, older and wiser, and not as I was, but who I was has made me who I am, so why are we ashamed of things we might have done, right or wrong? What I see here though is a strong woman standing up for herself. That’s something I highly respect.

    • Thank you, Lisa. For so many years I thought, what would have happened if I hadn’t said those things? I never thought of why I should have swallowed what he said to me, until after we were apart. Sometimes we’re ashamed of the wrong things.

  3. Fighting is SO important. LIke dreams, fights expose so much on so many levels. Fighting fair is the only way to maintain sanity, but those things he said were low blows. It was completely reasonable to defend yourself once the fight got dirty. (But once a fight gets dirty, all future fights are liable to go there, aren’t they? We pick up where we left off.) I agree that this was brave and I love that you can write the truth. When you’re writing the truth, your words have power and resonance. (And of course you were right about wrapping the plates! 😉 It’s almost like he picked up on the surge of emotions about your mother that caring for the plates brought up in you but completely misread their meaning.)

    • Those things he said were extremely low blows that make up a story I haven’t been able to tell yet. And about him misreading the meanings of emotions: that happens all the time with Aspergers. That’s why he and I were completely mismatched from the start. If I had known he had it, we wouldn’t have gotten married.

      What’s interesting to me about fighting dirty, is that I’ve seen and heard so much of it that I know how to do it pretty well, but before and after this incident, I’ve used it sparingly when whatever the relationship was, was over for me and the other person started the dirtyness. I completely lost my fight after this incident happened, and I don’t ever want to lose the impulse to stand up for myself again. It’s an important impulse. Like that feeling I had at the start, that something was wrong.

      • I completely understand. I’d rather have the jugular impulse any day. It’s crucial to a person’s self-esteem to feel capable of this and completely unfair if she has to actually pull out the big guns to defend herself against the one who is supposed to be on her team. I love that you did and I hope you’ll tell more stories like this– it was powerful and true.

  4. And don’t you go changing one damn bit, Lady! Your instinctual understanding was right on the money! It is what preserved you- and probably still does – to this very day! I felt like I was right there with you, in the wings, poised to jump in, to protect, to affirm, to love – YOU- then I realized that I knew you only virtually, though I feel a remarkable kindred connection to you.

    When he made the first comment with the word ‘mother’ in it, I KNEW that those were fighting words. It was about to be on!!! (That’s a little bit of street vernacular, but I use it only to emphasize my belief in it’s truth.) That’s generally the most painful way of getting at a woman, if that relationship is ‘strange’ or ‘strained’ in any way. It’s delicate…clearly something that most men don’t understand.

    Thanks for going within, for opening up, for sharing your beauty, wit, intuition, and creativity with me this morning. It sounds like your soul opened up! Thanks for letting me in, Lady Sparks!

    SomerEmpress

    • I can tell you understand, Ms. Empress. You are so right about the delicateness of the mother/daughter relationship. I think these kinds of incidents are what make people ‘clam up’ and stop being open. How do you talk about yourself with the one you love, if you think they might tangle it up and use it like this? Thanks for the support– thanks for the kind words.

  5. Badass. I only learned how to fight my ex years after our divorce, and only because ignoring him wouldn’t have worked had we been living in the same house. I’m impressed with your fighting instinct, and wish you hadn’t begun to doubt your point of view.

    Here’s to getting back in the ring.

  6. I very much like that woman–this woman–too. The timing is perfect for me to read this, because I’ve been struggling with something the last few days. Why did I do that? Reading this is an excellent reminder that you can’t take the response absent its context; the response mirrors the context, and would be otherwise in a different context.

    The entire context has changed things. It’s funny seeing you relate this to The Matrix, because I explained the entire complicated mess to my ex-boyfriend (still very much a friend), summing it up finally as that, “Once you’ve seen The Matrix, you can’t just unsee it.” One part of the aftermath of those moments is you see more truly who you are, and who they are, and can’t just wipe that truth away without it coming back to hurt your future interactions.

    You did marvelously in a very bizarre conversation. You’ve documented it beautifully, in a way that is so beautifully illuminating.

    Also, since I’m here and keep postponing the email, interested in being one of those guest posters i just talked about? *cough*

    • I’m glad the way I wrote this worked for you. I think the practice I’ve been getting lately has helped me to be a little clearer in the way I relate on the “page” in both fiction and non-fiction. Thanks for your feedback, Deborah.

      I see what you mean about “unseeing the Matrix” and about how the context of a situation has to be considered before we decide exactly how we feel. It is interesting how we’re both coming to terms with this sort of thing at around the same time.

      And, umm, maybe. 🙂 What are the parameters?

  7. Blessings…..
    Thank you for stopping by my place and leaving a comment. I am glad what you read (ON THat DAY) helped in some way.

    As it relates to the posts….
    There is nothing worse than sharing your hurts with someone and have them turn around and wheel it like a weapon. It just sours you. makes you slam back all your barriers into place when you realize you are not safe with them as you once thought. From one woman to another, I am sorry for hurt….

    peace..
    Rhapsody

  8. Re,

    Great post.

    First, let me say that I am a Matrix fan to the nth degree. I am so crazy for them that I actually can recite lines from the movies and mimic the sound effects lol. They are one of a kind.

    We all take on misplaced blame in order to cope, an astute observation. It is hard to find the mantle of courage required to make change. It is even harder to actualize the changes that we need to make in an attempt to refine ourselves. I applaud you for remaining true to your fighting spirit. There is a warrior goddess in us all and she has her place in the scheme of things.

    I do so like what you said about the person you are and the person you are trying to be. We all have the same struggle. I struggle with that every day of my life.

    • I’m glad this resonated for you, Coco. I think all of life is a struggle. All the things we indulge in– like doing what we’re drawn to because the work soothes us and we want to be better at it, and watching Matrix movies :), we do because they help smooth the edges of our struggles.

      I like how you refer to that fighting spirit as a ‘warrior goddess.’ I need these reinforcing affirmations to help me stay true to my self-protecting spirit. Even a pacifist needs to have one of those.

  9. Ok, comment from a man……….firstly, well done for putting this up here. The memory must have been hard enough without sharing it with strangers. I believe that in any relationship each person has the right to maintain their own self-esteem as best they can. That works on two levels, of course, in the eyes of the perceived and the perceiver. It’s this that keeps relationships on equal footings and supported by mutual respect. Unfortunately, Ré, you had a hidden interloper in terms of your husbands condition. You may have been battling a greater demon to maintain your self-esteem but the fact that you did is to your credit. Keep it and polish it. You fought for it. 🙂

    • It’s good to hear a man’s view on this. We’re all people, but still the sexes sometimes see things a little differently. It feels good to know that you understood so much of my motivation here, and my dilemma. Thanks for commenting.

  10. I could feel my hands curling into fists as I read this!
    This is so well said: ‘The heartbreak of this incident lingers because heartbreak does. I’ve turned down its volume but, in a way, we are our memories, and they rarely go away. What’s more important now is that my doubts about how I handled that situation have gone, and I no longer need to look outside myself for validation that I didn’t do anything awful. I’d rather be a bit scathed in a battle I didn’t start, than be crushed in a defeat that I did nothing against. This means you do or say things that will hurt. This is what a fight is, and why it’s generally best not to start one.’

    I’m really glad you don’t doubt your reaction to this incident anymore. I know exactly what you mean. I beat myself up for the cruel behaviour of others too often, which makes me think I have self esteem issues too. I mean, I KNOW I do. But I’m trying to change that, with the help of some really cool people in my life. I hope I learn.
    And I’m so glad you fought back!

    • Thank you, Munira. I can see that you really get what I was trying to say. It’s so hard to get self esteem issues turned around. I’m still learning, too. We’ll get there. Knowing is the most important part of it, I’m sure.

  11. Ré, I don’t think I can say anything here that hasn’t been said beautifully by everyone else! So brave and powerful of you to write this… and I’m so glad the fighting instinct is there. Love to you and thank you always for sharing as thoughtfully and caringly as you do.

    • Thanks, Lisa. It helps me to share things, that I know so many other people also go through, when the response is as thoughtful and understanding as the ones I’ve gotten to this. It feels a little odd to say it this way, but I’m nurturing that fighting instinct. I’m glad it’s there, too.

  12. R’e I would like to comment here although it is true there are wonderful responses here already to the story you were brave enough to share here.
    Good for You!
    Good for you for sharing this as perhaps it can help others, and really it is good to share with friends.
    Good for you for speaking out for yourself.
    Yes your ex-husband did certainly hit below the belt – especially when you, I would assume were still possibly in a recent stage of grieving for your Mom, and just the way he attacked you with your past relationship with your Mom, was dirty fighting.

    I’ve been married and divorced twice (which I never imagined would happen of course), and my most recent ex-husband suffers from bi-polar disorder, and he was sometimes terribly irrational, and cruel, and he had an uncanny ability to know my vulnerable spots, and where to target his comments to hurt the most. (This was if he was ill, in a manic stage, which unfortunately happened fairly regularly – it’s not the case with most people with the illness).
    And although I knew he was ill, I still responded myself in hurtful ways, at times.
    Finally I could see no end to the suffering in our marriage, and I left him – to stay in a women’s helter, until I could get him to leave the house (which was my house).

    I still feel sorry for the way it ended, for him, and have regrets for not being as understanding as I wish I could have been – but I think sometimes we need to care first for ourselves, and our own sanity and safety.

    You have done an excellent writing job, I could almost feel that I was right there – and I hope that by writing it – it provided you some peace, and some more sense of resolution. I think as you say, our memories are always with us, but they can soften with time.

    As well, I agree that we can find wisdom in many sources – movies, overhearing casual conversations on the city bus, or at the grocery store line-up – maybe that is what makes some people writers – the ability to look, and hear and consolidate information regardless of the source.
    Take care,
    Brenda

    • Thank you for this comment, Brenda. I’m so sorry for the way things developed for you in your second marriage. I understand so well what you say about people with mental difficulties being individuals, and not exactly like someone else with the same diagnosis. I know that there are successful marriages between neurotypicals and those with Aspergers, but in my case, it just couldn’t work. I lost most of the best things about myself. I still feel sorry for my ex, too, but I agree with you, that “sometimes we need to care first for ourselves, and our own sanity and safety.” I’m glad you’re all right, now.

      Thanks for reading this one, and you take care, too!

  13. Thanks Re, I’m doing good now, and this happened sometime ago, but I did want to share because you are not alone in your experience. Sometimes a mental health condition, can become too much and we need to accept when we are in over our heads, in a way.
    Again, this was well written, and thanks for sharing it.
    🙂
    Brenda

    • I agree that it helps others to know that we aren’t alone in having these dificult experiences. Thanks for sharing yours, too. I’m honored that you thought it was well written! 🙂

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