One night I was cruising through rescue dog adoption ads on Craigslist, a new way to waste time I had recently discovered. I came across a pair of miniature Pinschers.
“We’re Loki and Lola,” the ad said. “Sometimes Loki gets really nervous and needs Lola to calm him down. We’re a bonded pair.”
A small smile crept out the corner of my mouth and with a few taps on my keyboard I copied the link and sent it to my ex-girlfriend, S.
“Look, it’s us,” I wrote in my message to her.
At that point, we had been broken up for two years. We had dated several people since but we were somehow still each other’s greatest loves. Not in the past, wistful sense—a great love come and gone, but never forgotten—but in a present, wholesome sense. It is often hard to explain, and more than once made a new date uneasy. Our relationship seems a bit queer, even to other queers. I’ve been asked, “What does that mean, you love her?” Now, I have a response. I shrug and say, “We’re bonded. Like shelter dogs.”
Every bonded pair has their backstory. I met S when I was twenty years old, and there was a lot of stuff happening in my body and brain that I didn’t have names for, stuff that I didn’t even realize was happening. I had never met someone like S, who had an upbringing similar to my own. I had mostly dated other working-class white people who had also grown up in rural areas, but not someone with whom I could also talk about growing up scared and nervous, about alcoholism and violence, or the pain of loving someone who was awful to you.
I know now that these stories aren’t uncommon, but then I didn’t know that these stories were even significant, that they were anything more than just the way things were. I didn’t know that these stories revealed what a therapist would call a “pattern” or “cycle” of “abuse.” When you grow up in an abusive household, it takes a long time to name what you have witnessed and experienced. It takes an even longer time to untangle the mess it has made of your insides.
I can admit that, when I met S, I was Bad At Relationships. When faced with conflict, I was defensive, cold, even mean. I would dig my nails into my skin, panicking if I didn’t have a clear path to the exit. Like a lot of relationships in our early twenties, it wasn’t pretty or easy.
The remarkable thing was that S didn’t care. She didn’t call me crazy. She didn’t threaten to break up with me. She didn’t walk away or give up. S was the first person I knew who was equipped with the term “anxiety” to describe the confusing tricks your brain can play on you, or the physiological signs that something feels wrong. Like perhaps digging your nails into your skin or panicking when the exit seems too far away? S could see the pain inside me that I didn’t even know was there. She could see it because she recognized it—anxiety, our old, mutual friend. S would hold my hands and say “I love you. I love you, but you’re hurting me and I need you to listen.”
Because of how she grew up, S knew a lot about unconditional love—at least about giving it. She was familiar with the practice of loving someone no matter how many times they hurt her or let her down. Living through trauma hadn’t made her hard or distrustful. It hadn’t made her reluctant to love. It let her see how badly everyone needed tenderness. It let her recognize pain in others and want to soothe it. Even after everything she had survived, she was still so soft and so full of love. It really seemed like a miracle to me and, frankly, it still does.
Sometimes, I would look at her while she slept and I couldn’t believe how love could feel. Like a pair of soft-gloved hands that held you tight. Like realizing you’re still standing after an earthquake. Safe. Certain. Miraculous. I couldn’t believe that even with all of my mistakes and all of my emotions that felt out of control, I was still loveable. So slowly, after being fed a steady diet of S’s love, I eventually began to change. Softness, vulnerability, and emotional labour are usually associated with femmes (and disproportionately expected from them), but I learned everything I know about being soft from a butch lesbian. I stopped storming out as much; I became quicker to apologize. I started to learn that it was possible to give and receive love even when you’re hurt or sad. I started to learn that love can be limitless and stretchy. Eventually, I could validate and try to ease S’ own anxieties and talk her through triggering news stories or trips home. I eventually became the kind of partner that could return the tremendous love I received.
I think what bonded me and S more than shared experiences of growing up in abusive families was what we made together. As people who couldn’t trust other sources of love in our lives, we quickly figured out how important it was to love each other unconditionally; that this was the way to heal ourselves. Together, we made a love that didn’t get retracted in the face of conflict, that wasn’t dependent on perfection. Together, we made a love that our past trauma couldn’t touch or ruin because we loved those parts of each other too. We invited our trauma in, studied it, and used it how we could. We did our best to listen to it when it told us how we needed to be loved. We dissected it. Hacked it apart and used the pieces that were useful to build a love like a boat—a vessel we used and still use to keep us afloat and protect us from enemies, like those pieces of our trauma that we discarded, that still sometimes churn beneath the surface, that still sometimes snap at our wake. We turned our trauma into the ground from which we could grow a love that was better. A love that nourished us and transformed us and kept us alive.
But sometimes, this is a lot to explain to someone wondering why I’m so close with my ex. It’s a lot to explain that we stayed so close because we were lab partners, engineering a kind of love that could save us. It’s a lot to explain that we were a two-person relay team, figuring out how to treat our trauma like a hurdle in the race against our brains. So I don’t say, we stayed so close because we were each other’s first—and, still, often only—ally in the battle against our anxieties and our pasts. I don’t say we stayed so close because sometimes we’re the only ones fighting to keep each on the ground and not under it. I just shrug and say, “We’re bonded. Like shelter dogs.”