33: Kittens in Boxes

Cats suck at conflict resolution

– Bryan Gardiner, Why Do Cats Love Boxes So Much?

We have private names for the people we love. Terms we use when we are trying to soothe, charm, play, seduce, calm, chastise or in some way connect with others. 

I call my daughter Sunshine, my grandaughter is Lil’ Poppy, and my father is Daddy-O. 

During our relationship, I often referred to Painter as Kitten. 

There are reasons, of course. 

One reason was when Painter and I started our affair, she told me a story about how she felt trapped in her marriage. As if she was living in a box of expectations. An example was when her husband wanted her to start selling kettle corn at festivals instead of paintings.

At least that is the story…

Calling her “kitten” partially fell out of that conversation. 

Painter has said a few things to me over the years that remain firmly lodged in my memory. For example, the last morning Painter and I talked, she said, “My pride will not allow us to be together again.” 

I understand the trap of prideful decision-making. 

When my feelings of pride act as a directive, I am boxed in by a rigid set of rules. When I am holding a perspective, any inconsistency feels like weakness. A prideful bravado becomes a shield and spear even when it isn’t in my best interest.

In the process, I become trapped by stories, expectations, and opinions.

Pride told me I had to keep the mistake of my affairs a secret. As such, motivated by a pride-filled desire to keep my relationship with Painter, I made foolish and selfish decisions to protect that secret and, in the process, protect myself and the relationship. As a result, I betrayed her trust and love. 

I imagine from her perspective the secrets and lies rewrote the story of our history.

I was motivated by a desire not to kill a relationship I loved with a woman I loved. In other words, I wanted to avoid the discomfort of uncertainty, loneliness, and loss. I built an ever-increasingly more rigid box with each new deception to keep out the real and imagined conflict.

Hiding in a box like a cat makes perfect sense until it doesn’t. It makes sense because, like a cat, I suck at conflict resolution. Unlike a feline, I am conscious of how badly I suck at conflict and am willing to learn the skills. 

I may not be doing it perfectly, but I am doing it. 

We all have boxes we retreat towards when conflict is brewing. Boxes offer protection and can feel safe and secure. However, I also know the damage pride-filled boxes cause to my psyche and my relationships; thus, I am deeply conscious of them when I see them. 

The reality is Painter has her boxes too. 

In declaring her “pride will never allow us to be together again,” Painter chooses to live in a box buttressed by pride. I understand both the appeal and the trap. “A box, in this sense, can often represent a safe zone,” writes Gardiner, “a place where sources of anxiety, hostility, and unwanted attention simply disappear.”

However, it also stifles growth, intimacy, and vulnerability.

In reality, Painter brought the box to the relationship. A box Painter and I discussed as an analogy for the resentment she felt about her marriage role, as an artist, and as a woman. It was an emotional, creative, and sexual box where Painter felt trapped by other people’s expectations. 

I didn’t create that box. 

Frankly, as we discussed, one of my roles as Painter’s Hero was to make it safe for her to leave her box. I was honored and proud of the role I played for her. 

These were not abstract conversations but foundational, defining our relationship and roles. I believed by being Painter’s Hero, I could make the world safer for her to leave the box and explore.

On more than one occasion, Painter and I would be talking about something serious, and I would announce, “No one puts Kitten in a box!” 

Except for Kitten, apparently.

With Painter’s consent, I just constructed a different box for her inner kitten to hide. I won’t consciously do that again for another person.

I’ve come to recognize through mediation, writing, friendships, and therapy, we all have a box of our own making. A box we all willing climbed in. My box was my infidelity, secret-keeping, and the escalating series of lies. 

For this reason, I am grateful to my ex-wife, Beatrix. 

By calling Painter, Beatrix did what I could not do for myself. She set my box on fire. In this process, I saw my relationship with Painter and others for what it was and not what I wanted it to be. For example, I thought Painter could do not wrong. I thought she was better than me.

She can. She isn’t.

I’m deeply grateful to Beatrix for the gift. I’m not sure I would have discovered the courage to burn my box up and move on without her self-serving intervention. I indeed would have continued to minimize Painter’s entitlement and shifted more and more of the burden onto my shoulders. After all, that was my job. 

Today I see Painter as a prisoner inside a box she built on pride.

For example, I recently heard Painter say she feels like she needs to move. She feels unsafe living here. 

What I’ve come to realize is by spreading rumors, ghost stories, and half-truths about what I did and didn’t do, Painter created a box for herself. A box built on tales she told people about me and our relationship. What Painter has said about me to others has to be accurate, or else it will appear she is vindictive, jealous, and petty. 

As a result, she is trapped in her box, a box that leaves no freedom for any growth, inconsistency, change, or reflection. A box that distorts everything I do into some episode of Showtime’s Shameless. 

At least this is the story as I see it; it is the story as I have experienced it. 

I’ve discussed this with the Good Doctor and Hippie (my girlfriend).

SIDEBAR: I was referring to the woman I am dating as Tiger. After a recent conversation, she lovingly said to me, “I think you have enough felines in your past. Let’s pick something else.” As such, let’s try Hippie.


The Good Doctor and Hippie reminded me that Painter’s smear campaign has inadvertently created a situation where the people she turned to for help are forcing her to remain in a box. Her tribe is invested in stories of her ongoing victimization. Even if Painter wants to leave the box, people invested in the status quo, invested in the Hero role, will hold her to this rigid identity she has created. 

From this perspective, moving away is the only solution that allows Painter to keep her pride-fully self-serving stories intact. “So rather than work things out,” writes Gardiner, “cats are more inclined to simply run away from their problems or avoid them altogether.” 

Once I had romantically believed Painter, and I would begin again on a better foundation. I believed in her and the relationship mythology, but my infidelity, secrets, and lies contributed to the end of our fairy tale. 

Painter’s pride didn’t help. As my friend Mary said to me at the time, “You keep trying to put the fire out while Painter is burning down the house.”

I wonder where this will leave Painter in the long run. Will she find the freedom she craves? Will she turn to emotional infidelity again instead of learning to confront the conflict? Where will she hide next? 

Will she choose to be free by setting aside her pride and owning what is true?

Maybe someone will come along and do Painter the favor of forcing her out of the box she is hiding in. I am just fascinated about how this ends for kitten. 

Meanwhile, I am free of my box, and it has already ended better for me.