Familiar struggle unearths hard questions, deep hurts

Relationships are difficult.

It’s a refrain I often hear, even among friends blessed with healthy, happy ones. The work of cultivating honest communication, practicing forgiveness and appreciation, finding that delicate balance between independence and interdependence — those are just some of the intricacies that make nurturing our intimate partnerships an art form of seemingly elusive mastery.

Yet I’ve always believed where there is genuine love and commitment, we strive for such perfection, not because we expect to reach it but because the striving is what refines and purifies us, what brings us closer to the partner we long to be, to a love that grows and endures. And if we can see our challenges as opportunities to learn more about ourselves and each other, that connection only deepens.

But lately, I’ve begun to wonder if some struggles are simply unconquerable, even with a desire to work through them and a flourishing love on our sides. What if the tides shift and the storm bears down not so we can better learn to navigate such changes together but because it’s time for one of us to let go?

It’s the question that’s roared from occasional whisper to captious companion in recent weeks as my partner’s depression has hijacked our lives once again. I have written before of Zane’s struggles with this illness and the inertia it can create. For the last five years, I’ve watched him slip abruptly in and out of these veiled passages, sat helpless and hurting in the silence that attends them.

He tunes me out, and I am left a prisoner in a waiting game beyond my control — until he emerges, contrite and wary with the promise of change on his tongue. I believe him because I love him, because when I rail and cry and turn to him with all my confusion and heartache following these episodes, he accepts it all with compassion and tender regret — and because I do not know — cannot fathom, really — what it’s like to walk where he does. I am aware, too, that this dynamic is as painful to him as it is to me.

So somehow we rally, putting the bruising words, the tears, the bated-breath stillness behind us. We pick up as we were, lucky to be saved once more by the largesse of our love.

But in the last year, despite our happiness and all the other challenges and losses that have soldered our togetherness, these depressive bouts have begun to feel like a slow and stealthy derailment. The way he disappears, swallowed, without warning, by a gloom that sweeps past every optimistic push forward, feels like too great a burden to commit to weathering indefinitely.

For all the understanding we try to bring to this fissure in our relationship, it often feels like we’re communicating our respective experience from the shores of distant lands, with neither a raft nor bridge in between. He cannot understand why his depression affects me like it does and I cannot grasp why it’s so hard for him to keep himself from tumbling over the shadowed edge he treads.

It’s also difficult to reconcile him, and us, with this portrait of flickering light. That Zane suffers from depression at all comes as a surprise, given his engaging personality and playful warmth. And together we are that couple, the kind a friend recently proclaimed as disgustingly cute, gliding into rooms on giddy gusts, blaring how attuned and connected we are with dewy eyes and touchy hands and easy, honey-soaked words.

After five years together, even we marvel at just how smitten we are. And when I stack up everything good and endearing about Zane and think of how much he has brought to my life, I often consider him God’s reward for the heartbreaks strewn in my past.

But something happened recently when he sank into his melancholy. Beyond my usual churning emotions, the experience opened the floodgates to a stunning and clamorous pain. Suddenly, I was without a compass, holding a buried, ancient brokenness in what I thought was familiar terrain. This time, I couldn’t recover my footing, couldn’t bounce back on a wave of hope, or let my heart be washed by the stirring of love in his eyes. The ache was too big, its roots uncoiling from origins unexplored. I’ve felt its tremors before, certainly with the loss of my dad last October and my mom’s partner in 2011. But maybe even that grief is another layer on a bandaged but still-open wound.

I am tempted to run, to declare this the end. I have, after all, vowed this dance Zane and I do will not be my future. But I know the path of partnership is one of discovering not only our light but the darkness we haven’t embraced. It takes courage, and work, to allow the healing this kind of reflection invites.

I’m not sure if I’m meant to do this work with Zane or on my own. Either way, there is learning and growth here for both of us. So I am digging in, wherever I have to begin, scared, determined and willing to risk what we’ve built for a greater and liberating unknown.

– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times