Monthly Archives: February 2011

lovers should be seen and heard

In an earlier post, the truth will set you free… or break your heart, I wrote of my intense reluctance to have a difficult conversation with an ex-lover of mine, the outcome of which could end any possibility of our reconciling.  In the two months we’d been apart, I’d realized how much I didn’t want to watch that door slam shut, but I also knew that without the truth, we had no way to move forward together, either.  So, last night we met for dinner, a couple of tequila shots, striped bass with sauteed spinach, and generous helpings of honesty.  It was uncomfortable, even tortured at times.  But we did it, and I was mistaken (thank god!) in what I’d believed he’d done and had broken up with him over.

But the outcome of our evening together isn’t actually the point of this post.  It’s what we gave to each other in those hours together that I want to throw out there for your consideration tonight….

Our previous relationship had been typical in many ways:  two forty-something adults, burned badly in previous relationships, tentatively trying to make a connection without over-investing and risking heartbreak.  We had our share of posturing and bluffing, lest our partner think that we’re “too” into him or her.  Conflicts between us were usually wrought with frustration and exasperation.  It seemed like we were never in the same place at the same time — one of us reaching out to make that connection; the other one hesitant, pulling away.  And so it ended with a series of polite but painful text messages, and I felt certain I would never hear from him again.

During the two months between our break-up and last night, I had a personal growth epiphany, much of which I have written about here.  I don’t know yet how he spent the last two months emotionally, but I know that the two people who met each other across the table last night had a completely different relationship than their December counterparts.

Last night, I tested all the recent promises I’ve made to myself:  to be in the moment and not hold too tightly to the past or grasp for a pre-determined future; to be authentically me in expressing my feelings, needs, and shortcomings; to not allow my pain or fears to polarize my expectations; and to remember, above all, that my well-being is not dependent on anyone else.

It was fucking hard, I tell you.  Seriously.  This “being a grown-up” thing is tough stuff.  When I didn’t hear what I wanted to hear, my reflex was to withdraw, shut down.  But I didn’t.  I asked for clarity, and usually discovered that my fears were coloring my inferences.  When I felt vulnerable and anxious about something that had just been said, I wanted to duck behind a coy or sarcastic comment.  But I didn’t.  I took a deep breath and reminded myself that there is nothing about myself that I value that anyone can actually take from me.  Had he laughed at me, or belittled me, or been indifferent to me, I would still have walked out of that restaurant the same woman who walked in.

As with any new skill set, my performance was awkward and pained at times.  I was definitely not smooth and polished and consummately articulate.  But, I was real and I was effective.  And I am very proud of myself.

I have no way of knowing what was playing out emotionally for my guy across the table, and (being that he’s a guy) I’m not sure he could even tell me if I asked.  But I suspect that his struggle was not dissimilar to my own.  He is a man who is used to hiding behind humor and flirtation to avoid awkward situations.  He is adept at holding people at a comfortable distance and revealing only what he chooses.   But last night, he came locked and loaded to be real.  Gone were the walls that I had slammed into so many times before;  in their place was an openness that caught me off guard.  Prepared to face a ducking and dodging jokester, I instead found myself connecting with a man who was fully present and engaged, actively listening and responding with as much detail and clarification as I required.  Even when he broached hurts and offenses that I had apparently inflicted on him, his anger and frustration was subdued and tempered by a genuine desire to simply be heard and acknowledged without punishing.

And this is what struck me most about our interaction last night:  how dearly we all want to be heard, and seen, and understood.  Is there anything more hurtful than a lover who refuses to acknowledge a need we have?  Or who belittles a concern or fear we have? In relationships, we can spend huge amounts of time arguing over the same issues again and again, because we still feel that our partner isn’t hearing us.  All that is missing is active, compassionate listening.  Most of us don’t honestly expect our partners to agree with us every single time.  But we want — we need — to be heard and acknowledged.  (I should admit here that I am not always good at this, but I am working on it.  I swear.)

The same is true for being seen.  How many affairs have been spawned by one spouse feeling invisible to the other?… feeling that their needs and dreams don’t exist to that person?… that they aren’t special or important in any way?

Being understood is like the cherry on the top of the sundae.  It’s what we mean when we say that someone “gets” us.  It’s that feeling that this other person doesn’t just understand our words, but the joy or fear or vulnerability behind them.  We can spend years with someone who doesn’t understand us, but it will slowly eat away at us, because to be constantly explaining the basics to someone doesn’t encourage or support us to grow much beyond those basics.

Often, even when all we’re seeking is closure in a relationship, what we’re really looking for is the assurance that this person for whom we cared fully saw us and heard us and understood us — that we registered in their life in some meaningful way.  That we mattered, even if it didn’t work out.

The future between me and my guy is still unwritten.  But last night we gave each other that assurance.  And for that, I am proud of us.

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keeping it real

I realized today that I have two men in my life who are somewhere in the gray area of romantic possibility and/or friend, and I won’t allow either of them to read this blog.  I have other male friends who know about my writing and are very supportive of it, but I won’t let those two anywhere near this.

When I asked myself why, the answer was immediate and clear:  because I do not want to have to edit myself here.  I don’t want to feel constrained by their feelings or needs.  This writing is something I do for myself, because I love to write, and because I feel like I have something small to add to this great global conversation.  I do not want to imagine their reactions as they read it, or anticipate the subsequent conversations with them if they are offended or hurt or confused.

I had a taste of that experience recently when one of my blog posts hurt a dear friend of mine.  She told me so and we spent quite a bit of time and energy working through her feelings about my post and my intentions and motives in publishing it.  And I can feel, since then, that my writing flows less easily and I am more considered in my topics and my words.  I feel like I need her permission to write about anything that she might interpret as being about her or related to her.  This is ridiculous, of course, because she never asked for that, nor would she want it.  It is entirely about me.

During my marriage, I felt constrained in many ways, but one of the most insidious to my well-being was my ex-husband’s sense that our relationship was part of his private life, and therefore not a subject for discussion by me with my friends.  For me to discuss my feelings, concerns, or fears vis a vis him with my friends was akin to a betrayal in his eyes.  Very early in our relationship, I discovered this about him, and out of respect for him and our relationship, I revealed nothing personal about my relationship or feelings related to it to my friends from then on.

Given that we moved across the country shortly thereafter and that women create bonds by sharing our feelings and secrets and dreams and fears, this lack of authenticity, of depth, of communicativeness meant that most of my friendships of that period were barely more than superficial.  It wasn’t my friends’ fault — they tried — but I became adept at turning the conversation back to them or to something more mundane.  It was obvious to me that most of my female acquaintances eventually decided that I was nice but closed off.  It was lonely, this emotional cage I lived in.  Multiple studies have shown that women (and men, too, for that matter) need those emotional connections for all kinds of good reasons.

Even my husband observed the change in me from the vivacious, outgoing woman he’d first met, surrounded by friends, to this homebody who had few friends and seemed somehow diminished.  Toward the end of our marriage, he lifted the ban on my communications, but it was too late.  I had forgotten how to be real.  It was a skill, like any other, that requires practice.

These days, I apply considerable consciousness to living an authentic life.  I’m not talking about approaching every stranger as an opportunity for a confessional.  I’m talking about not pretending anything you don’t truly feel, ever.  It’s not easy.  My diplomacy skills are becoming more fine-tuned.  Making people unhappy with your choices or opinions doesn’t feel good.  Sometimes it feels selfish, and sometimes it feels unfair.  But overall it feels a hell of a lot better than moving through life as someone you’re not.

When I started this blog, I promised the friend who inspired it that my only rule would be that I would be real in my writing.  By doing so, I’m feeding two needs — the need to write and create, and the need to constantly practice authenticity.  I have taken several steps to create the space necessary to allow myself to be honest and real, including the use of a pseudonym (Beth McDermott was once my name but is no longer) and the anonymity of most of the people to whom I refer to here.  I don’t want to hurt anyone, but I also don’t want to sacrifice the ability to write candidly and clearly and honestly.   As soon as I allow this writing to be edited by someone else’s fears or insecurities, I will be taking a huge step backward.  One which I cannot afford to take.  But really, can any of us afford to sacrifice our authenticity to make someone else happy?  To become or pretend to be someone we aren’t?  Don’t we all die, just a little bit, every day, when we do?

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when “conflict-averse” isn’t

I’ve been spending some time of late considering conflict and what it means to be conflict-averse.  One thing I’ve noticed is that I don’t know anyone who describes herself as conflict-averse.  I think it must be like a sense of humor and good taste:  not everyone is funny and tasteful, but everyone thinks they are.  Not everyone is good with conflict, but no one wants to admit that they aren’t.

People who grew up with me will tell you that I never seemed to shy away from conflict.  In elementary school, I decked a boy two years younger than me because he was picking on a two-year-old (I still maintain that my action was justified.  I mean, really, who picks on a two-year-old??).  As a teenager, I spoke my mind freely and easily and often.  And even now, in many areas of my life, and with many people, I am quite comfortable being clear in my thoughts and feelings.  But not in every situation, and not with every person.

I have noticed that this is often true of other people, as well.  Most people, it seems, have areas of their life wherein they are more willing to tackle conflict and do so in a productive manner.  Maybe they’re good at it with their friends, but terrible at work.  Or maybe they are great with their kids, but awful with their parents.  (Parents, by the way, seem to be a conflict averse area for many, many people.)

For me, it is less about the type of situation and more about the type of person.  For the better part of my adult life, I saw myself as something of a conflict wimp.  A large part of this perception stemmed from my ex-husband’s pronouncement that I didn’t “stand up” for myself enough, that if something was bothering me about him or our relationship, I should voice it and express it.  I can appreciate the value in those words and the truth in his analysis that I was not always forthcoming with him about my feelings.  But I didn’t have an explanation.  Indeed, I was truly puzzled by my own reticence to broach matters of importance to me with him, and some of my guilt, post-separation, generated from a fear that if I had been more confrontational with him, perhaps we could have created a better relationship.

But yesterday, I had an amazing aha moment.  I finally realized that there is a difference between being conflict-averse, i.e afraid of conflict and unwilling to face it, and simply choosing not to engage in conflict for reasons that are valid and real.  Sometimes, as in the case of my ex-husband, the person with whom you are engaging is not ready or willing or maybe able to hear any of the truth in your words.  Sometimes that person needs to come to the truth themselves.  Sometimes it is wise to simply let things go, knowing that our words will be wasted and our efforts misunderstood and misinterpreted.  I learned this week that there is sometimes wisdom in not being confrontational, depending on the situation and/or the person.

This is hardly a novel idea.  Activists and pacifists have written tomes about when to confront and when to act passively to achieve laudable goals.  Martin Luther King, Jr.’s plea for passive activism was an acknowledgment that the audience that black America was trying to reach wasn’t necessarily ready to hear the message, and so needed to be dealt with less directly.

What I’ve learned is that we simply need to be clear with ourselves in our reasons for avoiding or choosing not to engage in conflict.  Being strong does not require that we engage with someone when the engagement will merely feel like pounding our head against the defensive wall they immediately pull up.  Being strong doesn’t mean sharing every feeling we have, when we are fairly certain, based on past experience with this person, that our feelings will not be valued and honored.  Sometimes being strong means choosing what is best for us in that situation, regardless of whether it is what the other person wants us to do or how they want us to handle it.

None of this is without nuance, of course.  I know that I have moments of sheer conflict-avoidance, and that I will continue to do so.  Realizing when we are simply avoiding something, as opposed to making a conscious and valid choice, is a difficult thing.  I mean, not many of us are aware when we are practicing denial or avoidance.

So, maybe the next time you or someone else labels your behavior as “conflict-averse,” you might take a breath and a step back and consider several things;

1.  Am I avoiding broaching something?

2. If yes, why am I avoiding broaching it?

3. Does this reason serve my best interest in some meaningful way?

Because maybe, just maybe, you’re not being weak or conflict-averse.  Maybe you’re just being wise or self-protective.

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the truth will set you free…. or break your heart

Tonight, I am struggling with fear and cowardice and the tangled complexity of wanting something other than the truth as it likely is.  I am not feeling at peace or grounded or strong.  I am vulnerable and frustrated and anxious.

Yesterday, a former lover of mine reappeared in my life quite suddenly.  We went to drinks last night and spent 90 minutes catching up and joking and doing that guarded dance that former lovers who ended badly do with each other.  I had a nice time, and it was good to see him.

Our relationship didn’t end well — on this we agree — although we relate different stories about why we ended.  When it was over, I was somewhat surprised by how much the thought of him lingered and by how often it was tinged with the sharpness of missing him.  But I  never considered going back because I had ended it when I felt that he wasn’t being honest with me, or rather he wasn’t being completely honest with me.

Toward the end of our relationship, I strongly suspected that he was hiding something pretty awful from me.  I tried to gently encourage him to come clean, but to no avail.  When I raised the issue, I felt that he was carefully parsing his words so as not to lie, while at the same time not revealing his deception.  (And yes, like most women, I still consider this a form of lying.  And yes, I still believe this to be true even on the occasions when I have been guilty of it.)  Finally, on the last evening of our relationship, I told him my suspicions, and he did not deny them.  He simply talked around them.  Feeling that I had my answer, I ended the relationship and didn’t look back.

Until now.

In the time since we broke up, every person to whom I have related this story has inquired of me, “Well, did you ask him outright if it was true?”  And every time I have had to say no.  Because I didn’t.  I never asked him outright if he was doing the things I suspected.  Not once.  Not even last night, when the pressure of a trying to save a relationship was gone and we were making our first tentative moves toward something else.  Not even when he brought it up and said that I should have asked him outright instead of assuming things.  Not even then.  And I have spent the better part of today examining why that is.  Why didn’t I just ask him outright?  Why didn’t I take my golden opportunity to finally know for sure?

My conclusion?  I am scared to death of his answer, and how that will make me feel.  I have a firm and fast rule in my life that I don’t ask a question that I don’t want a completely honest answer to, and, strangely enough, I strongly suspect that he will tell me the truth if I ask him outright.  Indeed, up until now he has gone to great lengths not to offer me false reassurances, rather they have all been qualified and equivocal, guarded and careful.  And perhaps it is knowing that I will likely hear the truth that is most terrifying to me.

A dear friend pointed out today that I am actually pretty good at handling the truth and that I always say it’s what I want.  Both of these things are true, except that I realized today that I have not actually wanted to hear the truth this time.  Because the truth, or what I expect it will be, will permanently foreclose any possibility of us getting back together.   And I am not sure that I am ready to relinquish that possibility just yet.  As long as there’s the chance that my suspicions are unfounded, there remains a kernel of possibility that we could be together again.  Once the truth is out there — in the open and acknowledged — there is simply no going back for me.  The transgression, if it occurred, was that serious.

And so I have been doing one of the things I least respect in others — I have been ducking and dodging the truth.  It’s pathetic and ridiculous and weak, but I have been doing it.  I am ashamed of myself, despite my therapist’s reassurances that I am merely protecting myself and that is a good and healthy thing.  It doesn’t feel good and healthy.  It feels chickenshit.

So, I have decided that I have two options at this point, in order to reclaim my self-respect:  I can either tell him not to contact me again (he spent the better part of today sending me texts) and walk away permanently, or I can tell him that we need to talk and finally ask him directly what I have been suspecting and asking indirectly for several months now.

Because I am, at heart, a pretty strong woman who ultimately faces things head-on and sincerely does believe that only the truth can set you free, I know that I will choose to have a conversation with him.  And I will hear the truth from him.  And it will change everything, one way, or another.

Stay tuned.

 

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going into story

My friend Jean has a uniquely insightful way of looking the world.  She recently posted a note to her Facebook page that perfectly summed up something that I (and many other women I know) have been known to do to our detriment.  She granted me permission to include it here.  I will rarely include something that is not originally mine, but I think Jean says it as well as I could…

“One day a woman was driving home from work and she called her husband. he didn’t answer but she had learned what going into story was that day so instead of getting mad and thinking, oh he is probably watching TV, or maybe he is dating someone I don’t know about, or maybe he is sleeping, or maybe he is ignoring my call (and the list goes on…..), she decided she would not go into story that day.  She came home from work, and her husband was fixing dinner.  He had the table set, and she came up and hugged him, and they finished cooking together, and they had a wonderful evening.  Normally, before she learned about how not to go into story she would make up stories in her mind without the facts if he didn’t answer the phone.

So many of the people I know go into story immediately before they find out the facts. How about finding out the facts before you “go into story”?  Do you see how much anxiety you can save yourself in relationships, with family and friends?  I can give you many examples but before jumping to a conclusion about a significant other, a friend, a sister, a brother, a parent, a teacher, an anyone, do not judge.  Go on the facts after you find out what they are.

The story about the woman above is from a woman I know. We learned about going into story the same day, and on the way home from work she made that call and ALMOST went into her normal story.  She said she would have been driving with her hands clutched hard to the wheel, her jaw clenched with anxiety, just overall upset so much she said she would practically  be sweating, and by the time she walked in the door, she would be yelling at her husband.  So when we learned not to go into story, there were about 30 of us who learned that day, we all told stories about when we had been in story. On a regular basis we had to let our teacher know if we went into story that week, this went on for 8 months and by the end of like 3 weeks everyone had gotten it down.  So that woman was very special.  She taught me a lot.  She doesn’t want to take credit as she learned from someone else who learned from another and so on.  I was lucky to learn this and put it into practice.”

I think most people “go into story” at various times.  It’s our insecurity’s way of wreaking havoc using our imagination as a weapon.  And all we have to do is refuse to play the game with ourselves.   We lose nothing by stepping back, taking a breath, and waiting for the facts to be revealed.  But we want answers now, even if those answers are manufactured by our own imagination, baring no relation to reality.   Sometimes our insecurity has us in such a rush to locate some definitive answer, that we hardly seem to stop and notice if the answer is real or true.

I offer this up as Jean did, as an awareness.  Something to put on the list of pitfalls to be mindful of as we navigate the sometimes bumpy roads of relationships.

 

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polarized and paralyzed

Therapy has helped me realize that I have a strong tendency to “polarize” situations. This means (as best as I understand it, and I am definitely not a therapist, so bear with me….) that I tend to categorize situations and feelings with discrete, black and white, no-gray-area labels.  For instance, if I have an argument with a friend, I imagine the whole friendship is in danger of dying a fast and violent death; if a boyfriend and I stop seeing each other, I am certain that I will never hear from him or see him again; if I screw up at work, I worry that I am not adequate to the job.  It’s like living your life in an all or nothing emotional state — things are either good or bad; they never just are.  This tendency of mine is not based on my lifetime experience; in fact, I have been blessed with much constancy, and my experiences have actually been to the contrary of my polarized expectations more times than not. And yet, I polarize.

Polarizing is a bad thing because it obscures the truth. It, like most labeling exercises, is a convenient means to observe only the superficial possibilities of the situation. By polarizing a situation, I can avoid delving too deeply into truths that might be more painful or difficult to understand than even the negative polarized label I have applied to it.

The perfect illustration of this is a relationship that I had that was complicated from the beginning and ended badly and very painfully. I was so very certain this was the soul connection I’d been waiting for my whole life, and he seemed to feel the same way. But it turned out that he was a charlatan, a chameleon, a man who alters himself to become the dream of the woman he is with. And that’s only when he’s motivated to maintain a relationship; on his lesser days, he is simply a love ’em and leave ’em user. After he broke my heart, it was much easier to see him as only a heartless womanizer who never really appreciated me or loved me; the truth was far more complicated and painful to sift through. Vilifying him felt better – simpler, cleaner, neater – than acknowledging that he is a very flawed man who most likely loved me to the extent to which he is capable, which fell tragically short of what I need and deserve. Polarizing the relationship as a big, painful, embarrassing mistake was a disingenuous way for me distance myself from the agonizing truth that he had loved me, but not enough to be inspired to change his nature and predatory ways. Somehow, the extreme – that he was just a horrible person who never loved me at all – was easier to process than the middle that was full of gray shadings and contained the closest approximation to the truth.

Polarizing can also be paralyzing. During my recent gloomy, frustrated period, I felt certain that I could see my romantic future very, very clearly and it was bleak indeed. As I surveyed my life, I saw no potential mates – no one, nada, zip – on the horizon. My friends told me to be patient, but I was adamant. My job does not afford me many appropriate opportunities to meet men; I have very few single friends in my town; and I had finally canceled my match.com membership, which had been nearly my only means of meeting the many men I’d dated since my divorce. No, I announced firmly, I will be alone for the rest of my life. And the worst part of that difficult time was that I felt temporarily paralyzed in my situation. My polarized assessment of my life’s dismal romantic possibilities made me unable to imagine, let alone pursue, a different course. I was trapped by my own deluded, grim prediction.  Now, of course, you can guess what came of all my predictions – the universe took the opportunity to prove me dead wrong, and she didn’t waste any time, either. A man from a past relationship that had ended amidst mutual misunderstanding reappeared….

Polarizing is a kind of lying to ourselves, creating “truths” that are unencumbered by those pesky little qualifiers – the “buts” and “excepts” and “maybes” that muddy our clean categories of victim and offender, good person and bad, possible and impossible. It is a way to allow our fear to limit our views of a situation, to make it simpler, but less authentic.

As with many issues, identifying that I had been polarizing my thoughts and feelings and assessments has made it easier for me to begin making corrections to that way of thinking. Now, when I do it, I often see it for what it is and can re-assess the situation to discern a clearer truth. Not always, of course, but I’m working on it… seeking the middle-ground… trying to stay away from the poles….

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love as a competitive sport

This post stems from a recent conversation I had with a friend who can be mildly competitive.  (She is reading this and saying “No, I’m not!” but she is, trust me.  It’s okay, though, because I love her anyway for lots of reasons.)

Anyway…

When I was already separated and she was still married, she used to compare my stories of marital angst and frustration and sadness with her own, trying to determine if her situation was better than mine had been — and therefore deserving of  sticking it out — or worse than mine had been — and therefore in need of a divorce lawyer, pronto.  She is not a sneaky person and was honest that she was evaluating her life in this manner, and I indulged her in it even though I couldn’t really understand it.  I still don’t understand it, but, according to my friend, who is now divorced and sharing her story with others, it is common.

But why?

I mean, intellectually I get that people like to compare.  It gives them some sense of what is “normal” in a relationship.  We try to gauge whether our standards are perhaps too high or if we’re being unreasonable or if we’re taking for granted a great person simply because we’re too focused on the fact that he farts and we wish he wouldn’t.  But really, is that how we should be determining our happiness — by some imaginary yardstick that doesn’t account for who we are or what we want or where we are in our life?

Because, the thing is, it really doesn’t matter whether my marriage was better or worse than yours (as measured by some empirical standard that doesn’t exist).  All that matters is whether your relationship makes you happy.  Mine didn’t.  Mine would probably have made some other woman happy — indeed my ex-husband’s girlfriend seems quite content — but it didn’t make me happy.  And really, all that matters is whether the two people involved find the relationship fulfilling and good.  To hell with the rest of the world.

For every friend I have with a marriage I admire, I have at least one with a marriage I couldn’t live in for a week.  But that’s just me.  That very same marriage that I find intolerable might be exactly what she needs.  I have realized that it is completely impossible to compare, in any meaningful way, one relationship to another.  There are simply too many variables at play. What I need out of a relationship may be different from you.  What you find attractive in a man may be different from me.  Our backgrounds and baggage and circumstances — they all inform our definition of a “great relationship.”

Of course there are the extremes at either end of the spectrum:  the drug-addled cheat with the girlfriend who swears he’s a great guy while we all roll our eyes in unison, and the high-school sweethearts whose fairytale ending of love and companionship and respect and support is better than most Hollywood movies.  But those couples whom we can all agree have wonderful or awful relationships tend  to be few and very far between.  More typically, it truly is a matter of opinion.

So back to my original point of people who compare and contrast their relationships to their friends’ like they’re attacking an English Lit exam:  it’s a futile exercise bound to only leave you more confused.  Because there’s no easy answer.  Period.

Let’s say that you play the comparison game and decide that your marriage is actually a lot better than those around you.  Does that mean you should stay in it, even if you have been unhappy?  And if it does mean that, will that “should” suddenly bless you with happiness and contentment in your marriage? Will just knowing that you “should” be happy be enough to make it so?

As for the other result, let’s say that, after hearing your friends’ stories, you determine that your marriage is unsalvageable and you must leave.  Do you expect that analysis to guarantee that you’re making the “correct” choice?  Do you think that equation offers some kind of assurance that this is the best option for you and you’ll be happier on the other side of the divorce divide?

No, of course not.  So why do we bother?  Wouldn’t the time be better spent in quiet contemplation of what we really want and whether our current relationship is meeting those needs and desires?

While I haven’t encountered as much marriage comparison charting as my friend has, I have noticed an interesting variation of this that occurs post-divorce.  In this version of the sport, women compare their new relationships and there’s this subtle competition for who’s in a happier, more stable, more fulfilling relationship.  I understand that many people need that status to validate their choice to leave or to alleviate their pain at being left, but it makes me sad anyway.   Quite often, I feel like I’m back in junior high school, comparing who got the most valentine cards, and the whole exercise feels now, as it did to me then, vaguely pathetic and depressing.

Why do we do this?  (And by “we” I don’t only mean women.  For example, men and rulers go back as long as…. well… as long as men and measuring devices have co-existed.)  But, seriously, what benefit do we really derive from referencing our own happiness or pain or pleasure by another person’s situation or circumstance?  Their story tells us valuable information, to be sure, about them and them alone.  It tells us nothing about our own dreams or desires or needs.

We all want assurances.  Guarantees.  But the simple truth is that we don’t get any.  And the only way to really “win” is to chart a course that is true and right for you.  To hell with the rest of the world.

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puppy love

Last month, my ex and I got our 7-year-old daughter a puppy.  It’s her dog, not a “family dog,” and she and the puppy are now engaged in a full-on mutual love affair.

When I told people we were getting a 7-year-old her own dog, the standard reaction was, “Are you crazy?!” or something slightly less frank.  Mostly I just told people that she had proven herself to be very responsible and so deserved it.  But that’s only part of the truth.

The whole truth starts many years ago, when my daughter was toddler.  And a terror.  Every kid has the terrible twos, but this child was exhausting.  She challenged everything, complained about everything, and broke rules with the nonchalance of a rebel 10 times her age.  She seemed chronically grumpy and mad; her happiness was always qualified.  Getting an “I love you” out of her was like pulling teeth.  Needless to say, making friends and keeping them was a bit of a challenge for her.  Those who knew her best saw the amazing parts of her that she kept tucked away, but for most people, she was distant and cranky.

Her attitude and behavior was a definite strain on me and on my marriage.  My husband implied that I simply didn’t understand her and so didn’t parent her properly, but I felt sure that something was off with her, that this behavior wasn’t normal.

When I announced to my husband that I was leaving, the one thing we did right was rally around our children and commit ourselves to helping them through this transition with every tool at our disposal.  I managed to get them in to see arguably the best child psychologist in town, and for a few weeks they spent an afternoon with her while she poked and prodded and snooped around their psyches.

Finally, she called us into her office and floored us with her pronouncement:  our older daughter — the emotional, dramatic one — was fine.  She was sad, but processing the news in a healthy and appropriate way.  Our younger daughter was not fine.  In fact, she told us that our younger daughter had problems that surpassed the impending divorce, that if we didn’t address them soon, we’d be looking at much bigger problems 10 years from now.  She told us our daughter had very low self-esteem, a lot of anger, and an unusual fear of being happy or trusting anyone.  For a kid with a really stable, loving family life, this was unfathomable to us, and the therapist acknowledged that it probably had nothing to do with anything we had done exactly.  But, she warned us, this is precisely the kind of kid that is at-risk for all kinds of worrisome behaviors later on.

Even though we were barely speaking to each other at that time, my ex and I had a heartfelt talk about our daughter.  We were both scared for her, and worried that we weren’t good enough parents to help her through this alone.  My ex, who isn’t exactly generous with money, agreed to pay to keep her in therapy for as long as it took.  And so, my sweet-faced little 5-year-old girl began weekly therapy sessions.

At first I was dubious that it was having any effect.  If anything, she seemed more angry than ever.  But every week she went, and if she missed a week, she was grumpy about it.  Her therapist reported to us that she was working hard — whatever THAT means with a first-grader — and slowly… very slowly…..she started opening up. And then the changes snowballed.

I still remember the first time she told me she loved me with a big smile on her face, unprompted and without reservation.  I watched in awe as she developed an emotional vocabulary and courageousness that surpassed most adults I know, myself included.  Her alteration was so pronounced, extended family and friends commented on it.  And this little girl who had struggled to make friends was suddenly very much in demand for playdates and parties.

Gone is the sour, complaining child with the permanently furrowed brow.  In her place is a joyful, smart, witty, playful creature who lights up a room everytime she enters it.  Her strong will and sassy nature are still present, but instead of making everything an argument, she seems to approach life as an adventure to embark on and a puzzle to figure out. My respect and admiration for her are immeasurable.

Therapy, when done right, is no easy task for most of us.  It can be gut-wrenching and grueling and really, really uncomfortable.  And that’s just for grown-ups.  What must it be like to be a child, without the words  or experiences to provide context or explanation for your feelings and frustrations?  To lack the intellectual knowledge to understand and reference the most basic of psychological terms, like projection, and repression, and depression?

My ex-husband and I have talked at length about her progress and how proud we are of her.  We know that, other than the thousands of dollars in checks he’s written, we had almost nothing to do with her success in this endeavor.  It is hers alone, really.  For no one, child or adult, can be forced down the road of personal growth.  Each of us has to venture there of our will, fortified with our desire to be better and feel better.  And each time it gets hard, it is up to us and us alone to decide to press forward, or turn back.

My daughter got her puppy because she has persevered at one of the most difficult personal tasks she or anyone can face.  We explained to her that we were getting her the puppy because we were so proud of her for her hard work with her therapist, and because we want her to understand how important that work is, throughout her life.  We explained to her that when you strive to be a better version of yourself — to truly be the best person you can be — life will reward you, in unexpected and wonderful ways.

When we told her these things, she beamed.  I mean, she positively glowed. She is enormously proud of who she has become and the hard work it took to get here.  And this little ball of fur, who would have loved her even when she was sour and grouchy, is the embodiment of that success, and the constant reminder of its value.

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an ode to being alone

This is a poem, set to music and filmed, called “How to be Alone.”  It was written and performed by poet/singer/songwriter Tanya Davis, and filmed by filmmaker Andrea Dorfman.

And it is tender and beautiful and true.

How to be Alone

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making love to yourself

In an earlier post (what is all that noise?), I mentioned how a friend had encouraged me to see and appreciate myself from all the angles and in all the ways that my mythical Mr. Right would.  I’ve had some conversations about this idea recently and have decided that the concept warrants its own post.

I should probably be clear right now:  this post is not about masturbation.  I am not averse to the subject, but this particular post is not about that.  If you’re still interested, read on…

What this post is about is having a relationship with yourself that is so fulfilling and loving and affirming that anything you have with someone else is just a bonus…  gravy…  schwag.  It’s about the idea of not feeling needy or lonely or lost or invisible, but instead feeling strong and grounded and special and worthy.

So now you’re thinking, “Sure, that sounds great, but seriously??”  And to you I say, “Yes, seriously.”

When we’re lonely, part of what we’re missing is that part of ourselves that shines when we are in a good, fulfilling relationship.  Love songs and poetry talk about how a good partner “completes” us or is “the better part” of us or “brings out the best” in us.  It’s like there’s this whole other person inside of us who only appears when coaxed out by the genuine love of someone who appreciates us and allows us to glimpse ourselves through his eyes.  In an emotionally healthy relationship, that other person we become is typically a better, fuller, richer version of the person that we are alone.

But why does it have to be that way?  When my friend Ryan asked me to imagine the best life I could make if I never coupled off again, I felt panic rise in my chest and grief fill my heart — what about that woman that I was when in a relationship?!  I really, really like her!  I had only just become reacquainted with her again after my separation, and I didn’t want to think that I would never, ever see her again.  But slowly — very slowly — it dawned on me that I don’t have to keep her confined until some other person arrives with the key to release her.  How wonderful would it be to be her, all the time, every single day?

I started thinking about what that would take.  I spent some time reflecting on what it was in a relationship that brought out that special woman:  the sweet words of appreciation; the recognition of the little ways in which I’m special to him; the acceptance of the idiosyncratic parts of me that I like about myself but might drive someone else crazy.  All of those things are pieces of  the key that unlocks the place inside where I hide that awesome woman when I’m alone.

So I decided to start doing that for myself.  I replaced the harsh words of self-criticism with mediation on the good things about me.  I consciously noticed and paid quiet tribute to some small talent or skill I displayed.  When I heard a sweet love song, instead of wishing that some amazing man would sing that to me, I imagined that every man would, if only I would let him.  I called upon my memories of all the tender things that men have said to me and framed them and hung them in heart to remind myself of how soft my hair is, how gentle my touch, how sweet my kiss, how bright my smile.  I dusted off the truths about myself that had become stale and gone unnoticed by me — my intellectual sharpness, my compassion toward others, my kindness to strangers.

Don’t get me wrong, though.  I was never in danger of conceit or arrogance.  Thirteen years with a man who almost always made me feel “less than” is a strong counterbalance to thinking that you’re all that and a bag of chips.   And, obviously, there were some days where I still kicked myself for a sloppy mistake made at work or a less-than-charitable thought about a friend, but I simply acknowledged those shortcomings without letting them define me.

And so very gradually, I have started really loving myself.  As weird and new-agey and painfully touchy-feely as that sounds, it’s true.  And that love has brought with it an amazing peace that has wrapped itself around my soul like a warm blanket.  Sure, I still get annoyed or short-tempered or worried, but I find myself holding onto those feelings for much shorter durations.  And the peace fills the space they vacate, again.

One of the amazing things about self-acceptance is that, when it’s genuine, you’re actually inspired to become better.  Without the defensiveness that self-loathing breeds, you can see your shortcomings as temporary or changeable, rather than as immutable character flaws with which you are burdened forever.  Labeling those flaws as transient and malleable also makes it so much easier to acknowledge them to another person, to be real and authentic about precisely who you are.

My point in all of this is certainly not to brag or chastise, but to encourage.  Loving yourself requires nothing — not money or status or a degree — just the same time and commitment to yourself that you would apply to any relationship you value.  I am new to this journey and have no real idea what comes next, but even if this love is as fleeting as past ones have been, I will be grateful for it.  Always.

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