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.