The Object of Dread: Something Few People Talk About In Love
The trick to understanding love is that it is the easy part. Love flows freely, as we all long to be in love, and so given the slightest outlet love will come fizzing out of us like champagne from a bottle.
The problem is in this society, “love” gets confused with “like” – and anyone who’s ever loved a family member who irritates them with every single phone call and yet still rushes to the hospital in tears whenever something goes wrong, knows that love and like are as similar as apples and crankcase shafts.
Give someone a relationship full of love but no like, and it’ll be awash in petty arguments about mundane things – why do you watch that stupid FOX News, well, why do you listen to that insipid song, oh look we’re late for this movie again. It’s like living in a sniper pit, where you’re continually being shot at by irritations. But give someone a relationship with zero love, yet topped off with vast amounts of like, and it’ll function well enough. Won’t be as satisfying as a sweeping romance, but you’ll live in a house without killing each other, and you’ll pay the bills on the time, and not fight over what movie to watch, and enjoy each other’s company.
Love often renews, automatically, like a magazine subscription. It takes a lot to shake someone out of a good love.
Renewing like, however, takes an active effort. And when the like’s gone, as I have been arguing here, the relationship might as well be over. You won’t be happy in it. You can’t be happy. You’re with someone who’s constantly jabbing at your ribs with an umbrella, and though it may be an accidental jabbing, you’re still stuck with someone who’s lowering the quality of your existence.
And what no one tells you is that as each dollop of like evaporates, it leaves behind a thin layer of dread.
Like many things about relationships, dread is best recognized in retrospect. It’s that small “Oh, God, I have to…” when you think about being in your lover’s arms. It’s that reluctance to show up, lest s/he do That Thing again. It’s that twinge of reassurance you have to offer yourself that everything will be wonderful if that just doesn’t happen. It’s that weight on your heels as you go out the door, realizing that if you don’t go you’ll have to explain why and oh Lord let’s get it over with.
Learning to identify dread is a very valuable skill in a relationship, because most people are bad at it. We’re trained that if we’re in love, everything is wonderful, and so if there is dread, we try not to acknowledge that. We submerge it. We argue it away by saying that doubtlessly, we all have bad habits, and this is just one soft spot among the many delightful things our partner brings to us, and aren’t we just as bad sometimes? We see it as a problem to be worked on, something we’ll get used to, like choking down vegetables until you learn to like the taste.
Yet dread is different than annoyance. Annoyance is when your partner does something, and you hate that, but you still want to be around them.
Dread is when you actively start to not want to see them. You often do, because if the relationship hasn’t tumbled head-first into the Chasm of Dread, there’s still a left to like, and this twinge of please no is drowned out by a chorus of yes please.
Yet the relationship’s in trouble when, consciously or no, you hesitate and do that calculation: should I?
And dread creeps up slowly, because usually you’re floating on a big sunny sea of New Relationship Energy where everything is wonderful, and you’re loathe to call it dread because society says that you can’t be in love forever with someone you dread, and by God society is pretty spot-on on this one. You don’t want to think it’s over this soon. So you try not to think about it and just blindly hope that it’ll get better.
Little bits of dread can sometimes be snipped away, but that gets awkward, because you have to have to say, “Something you’re doing is so big a turn-off that it’s making me not want to show up.” There’s a careful alchemy here, which varies from person to person – step too lightly and they’ll go, “Oh, you’re not really bothered by me subjecting you to Dutch Oven farts when we’re in bed!” Step too harsh, and they’ll react as though you’ve just told them a part of them is vile and repellent – which, you know, it actually is to you if you’re talking about it honestly, but you’re often not asking them to stop being that, just to not be that around you.
Which is tricksy. Dread’s often a sign that you’re fundamentally mismatched. Who wants to talk about that?
But dread is the death of relationships. You need to recognize when dread is creeping up, and look it boldly in the face to say, “Maybe this isn’t gonna work.”
Since you can, as noted, get by without love. If you have to, you can function as a unit for the kids or your career without like. But when you’re saturated in dread, well, the biggest danger is not a break-up. It’s that you’ll stay together, loathing so much of each other that it’s like living in a mosquito-filled tent and never being able to really swat, filled with all sorts of awful things you can’t bring yourself to say because you love them and don’t want to hurt their feelings and they don’t seem to have all of this dread, they’re filled with nothing but purest love, and how could you refuse that?
So you wait. Dreading. Flinching in anticipation of the next hammerfall, and it will fall. But not leaving, because hey, you’re in love, that should mean something. And there, trapped in a place where you have no affection left in your heart, you will find out just how bare, rocky, and discomfiting love – and only love – can be.