I snuggled into my bed, cat purring in my lap, and opened the letter. Five pages of typed words in response to the eight pages I’d written a week prior. Given the length of our writing to each other, you’d think that it had been a while since I’d seen this person, but I’d actually seen them just moments earlier in our kitchen as I made a cup of tea. That person is my partner.
Maybe “partner” isn’t the right word, though. I guess, technically, we are separated, but even that doesn’t quite encapsulate what has happened—and is happening—between us. If we could be summarized by a Facebook relationship status, it would be the one that reads “It’s complicated.” What do I call the person who was my partner for over a year and a half, who I broke up with, who I still love and still live with, and who I am working to grow and heal with, all in hopes of being partners again?
Whatever word you want to use for our current relationship, Aram and I have been writing letters to each other for the past five months. During an argument, not long before we broke up, I sat on the couch in tears, and they frustratedly exclaimed, “Maybe we should just not talk anymore; maybe we should write all our problems down!”
At the time, I scoffed at the idea, thinking that we should be able to talk things out. Communication is the backbone of a healthy relationship after all, right? And if we couldn’t talk about our issues with each other, then what did that say about us?
A Perfect Storm
We broke up several weeks after that argument. I spent quite a bit of time in self-reflection and had some major epiphanies about myself, including about the ways I communicate.
I live with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), and the trauma in my past has drastically impacted the way I communicate with people. To keep myself safe during past abusive relationships, I learned to do what is known in the mental health field as “fawning” (the “fourth F” in the fight/flight/freeze response). Fawning means that I try to anticipate the needs, desires, and emotions of others, putting myself last in order to appease the other person and avoid conflict. In arguments (or even in situations my trauma made me think could potentially end in arguments), I immediately fawned and deferred to my partner. In abusive relationships this can help keep one safe. But this strategy, which had kept me safe before, was now actually hurting me: I’d completely lost my voice and felt like I was losing myself.
Aram, on the other hand, would speak their opinions and thoughts openly and freely. They are animated and their (at that point undiagnosed and untreated) ADHD often led them to interrupt, talk over, and impulsively respond during conversations. Their emotions often bubbled up, leading to outbursts.
This combination created a perfect storm. Due to my C-PTSD, I saw their excitability and assertiveness as unsafe. This triggered my fawning, which then resulted in issues not being resolved, needs not being met, and both of us misunderstanding each other. Our relationship became unbalanced and resentments developed. I felt on edge, just waiting for the next argument.
Clarissa Silva, a behavioral scientist and relationship coach, tells O.school this isn’t that uncommon. “Sometimes couples form maladaptive communication patterns that go unresolved,” she says, adding that, when this kind of communication is frequent, “defensiveness becomes the habitual response to one another.”
Aram and I realized we were stuck in an unhealthy pattern in our communication, and that we both had work to do.
Aram found a psychologist who diagnosed them with ADHD, and they began attending groups to learn new skills. I found a new therapist who could work with me on my trauma and began tackling some unhealthy coping techniques I’d developed over the years.
But still, we knew that if we wanted to give our relationship another chance, we had to do more than work on ourselves as individuals. We needed to change the way we communicate.
Silva states that “writing [can provide] a way for you both to stop the pattern of defensiveness.” So, with nothing left to lose, Aram and I decided to try that. We began writing to each other.
Finding My Voice
In that first letter that I wrote to Aram, I was able to articulate things I’d never put into words, even to myself. I told them how I felt I’d become voice-less in our relationship. I talked about our communication, about trust, emotions, and boundaries. Then, I printed out all seven pages.
I was terrified to show them. I hadn’t expressed myself in those ways before, and the voice of my past trauma was screaming at me in my head. “What if they get angry? What if this sets them off? Who do you think you are, saying all those things, saying what you need? Why do you think you even matter?”
But I ignored those words in my head, took a deep breath, and put the letter on Aram’s bed. I knew this was just one more step in being the self I want to be, and to restoring our relationship.
Rachel Elder, a licensed mental health counselor in Seattle who works with couples wanting to build stronger relationships, advocates for the use of writing in relationships. “For individuals who sometimes struggle to use their voice, written communication can be a lifesaver. Writing down what you want to say even when you cannot say it helps you have a voice in the relationship.”
In writing that first letter to Aram, I did feel like I’d started to find my voice. That feeling was only amplified when I got their response back several days later. In their letter they validated what I’d said, explained some of their feelings and actions, and asked me questions. It was obvious that they’d reflected on what I had to say, and that it mattered to them. “Taking time to write can help your partner see you are listening and working towards trying to understand them,” states Elder.
Not only did I feel like I was finding my voice, but I also felt heard.
And so began our letter writing journey.
Back-and-forth every week or so, we pass multi-page letters. We talk about the hard stuff: issues we each had in our relationship, parenting difficulties, jealousy, addiction, trauma. Writing these things down allows us to form our thoughts and state our feelings in articulate ways, devoid of hurtful words. There is also something liberating about getting the words on paper. “We leave it in the writing,” Aram says, which allows us to go about our days without angry words hanging between us or our minds focused on an argument we had.
Beyond just the difficult topics, though, these letters also provide the opportunity for us to remember the things we appreciate about each other. We write about what we loved about our relationship, and what we would want a future relationship together to look like. I write about wanting to be kissed more passionately, and two days later I’m met in the hallway with a kiss that sends tingles from head to toe. Aram writes about wanting to go on more dates, and we schedule one, both of us giddy with excitement when the day comes.
“I feel like I get to fall in love with you all over again,” writes Aram in one of the letters.
Regardless of what happens between us, the writing process has let me find my voice and learn the importance of speaking my needs and desires. I’m relearning who I am and what I want. In that, I get to fall in love with myself all over again too. Maybe, just maybe, the most important relationship I’m restoring here is the one with myself.