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.
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.
Last week, I had one of those mothering moments that I know with certainty I will remember when I’m 90. It had the kind of clarity that makes you feel like you’re watching your life from the outside, like it’s a movie. And it represented a turning point in my life, my daughter’s life, and our relationship.
My eldest daughter, who is 10, has been being a real brat for the last couple of months. I’m sorry, I know name-calling isn’t nice, but there’s simply no other word for her attitude and behavior. I knew that part of this brattiness was due to the inevitable tricks nature is playing on her body and hormones right now, but I could also feel, deep in my gut, that it was more than that. For weeks I struggled with what could be going on with her, trying to figure out what had happened to my sweet little girl. Friends told me not to worry; that her behavior was normal and to be expected. But I just plain knew better.
So one night last week, as we were sharing the final minute of our day together as we do every night before I kiss her and turn out her light, she unburdened herself. Her little face scrunched up, and big fat tears began to fall before she even spoke. And when she did speak, the words tumbled forth with barely a breath in between, as if seeking the freedom of the air and the solace of forgiveness.
She had been keeping a secret from me. Lying to me. For six long weeks. It was the first time she has ever done this. And it was killing her.
When her face began to crumple, before the first tear spilled, my heart froze and the breath caught in my throat. I knew something bad was coming, but on what magnitude? How awful and life-changing were the words that were about to be uttered?
As secrets and deceptions go, it wasn’t a horrible one. Her father and I had forbidden her from getting her own email account, and on her 10th birthday, one of her friends, knowing of our prohibition, had helped her create an account anyway. Since then she had been emailing with various friends, including one little boy who, apparently intent on proving that he’s not a nerd (because he is a nerd), had been using some pretty vulgar and sexual language, which made her uncomfortable and a little frightened.
My first thought was how relieved and blessed I am that she felt that she could tell me. That I didn’t have to discover this some other way. That this little transgression hadn’t resulted in harm to her or anyone else.
My second thought was: But she’s only ten. Are we really here already?
I hugged her and thanked her for telling me. I reassured her that she would not be in grave trouble because she had been forthcoming instead of allowing us to find out in some other way. I told her she would receive some kind of consequence for disobedience and lying, but that I would have to consider what that would be. I outlined for her the much harsher punishment she would have received if her dad or I had discovered the truth on our own. Lastly, I explained, in graphic and scary and clear terms, why young girls are vulnerable online and why we hadn’t allowed her to have a private account. Finally, I kissed her and held her and let her cry it out.
Then I went downstairs, poured myself a drink and called my ex-husband to tell him the news. He was as stunned as I. This daughter of ours is so naive, so innocent and trusting and guileless, that her 7-year-old sister is cooler and savvier than she is. We were in uncharted waters with an ill-prepared sailor, and we were both scared.
I went to sleep that night feeling the full force, once again, of the weight of being a parent. There are these moments in parenting — these milestones or benchmarks — that signal loud and clear that the game has once again changed. All the rules that applied yesterday no longer apply, and all the certainty you had about the future is gone. Instead, you stand in the middle of the vast uncertainty, peering desperately into the haze, and clinging to the hope that you are capable enough and strong enough and good enough to sail your child through this challenge and pass them safely to the other side.
Hopefully, I have a few more years before drugs and alcohol and pregnancy become realistic fears. Or maybe not. On my daughter’s tenth birthday, we crossed a line, into that gray and murky area where children begin to do things that we don’t want them to, and lie to us about those deeds. Natural behaviors, to be sure. But that is small consolation to a mother lying awake in bed at night, praying that her little girl stays little just a bit longer.
When I was growing up, my mother (widowed at a very young age) had three dating rules:
(1) Never marry a man who has been married three times or more. They can’t all be her fault.
(2) Never marry a man you haven’t known at least a year. Men change with the seasons.
(3) If a man tells you you’re too good for him, believe him. He knows himself better than you do.
People have lots of dating rules: Don’t sleep with him until the third date. Don’t call him first. Don’t get too dressed up, lest you discover that he doesn’t like you “casual.” Since my separation, people’s “rules” have intrigued me, and I’ve tried out several of my own, with varying degrees of success.
About a year ago, I had dinner with an old friend whom I greatly respect. She is very happily married to a man who is clearly her soul mate — their connection is obvious and palpable. I asked her if she had any dating advice for me and she said, “Never date a man whose butt is smaller than yours.”
But she was serious, and as we talked, I saw the value in this advice. It wasn’t about being superficial or shallow; it was about finding someone with whom you could feel soft and feminine and safe, after a long day being a modern, ambitious, successful woman (as she definitely is). Everyone needs a soft place to land, as Dr. Phil is fond of reminding us, and part of that for many women means feeling physically safe and cared for. It doesn’t mean he has to be built like The Rock, but it means that he needs to have a presence, a feeling, of being able to care for you. This reasoning holds value and truth for me. These days, I don’t have many rules around dating, but I do still hold this one. I offer it here to challenge those reading this to think about your own rules and how well those rules serve you. Sometimes we cling to rules because we’re scared not to; other times they just feel right to us; still other times we have mistakes to bear out the wisdom of our rules. The trick is in knowing when our rules are best for us and when they aren’t.
When I was 13, my mom broke all three of her rules to marry my stepfather, a good man who was just plain bad for her. The marriage was comprised of one year of crazy, head-over-heels love, followed by four years of wretched misery, topped off by a divorce and 15 years of seething anger and resentment. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
I have a friend who has been divorced for 8 or 9 years now. He and his ex-wife have a pretty remarkable relationship — they still spend holidays together with their daughter, they went on college -visiting trips together as a family, and they have actively supported each other through their respective family crises.
This weekend, this friend explained to me that, for them, divorce was like a divine mercy — the last act of mutual kindness they paid to their marriage, ending it before the pain became too great to bear. A kind of marriage euthanasia, if you will. Rather than wait until it the cancer of betrayal and deceit completely gutted their respect and concern for each other, they ended their marriage when some modicum of decency still existed, to be nurtured and built upon, to provide the basis of a a new relationship of mutual respect and caring.
I had never heard divorce described with such tenderness before, and it made me ponder yet again why we have turned divorce into such a nasty, vindictive, painful industry. Why have we accepted all of that vitriol and jealousy and nastiness as “normal”? Why do we expect people to behave more maturely when breaking up a simple dating relationship than we do a marriage? Doesn’t a marriage deserve even more mutual tenderness and understanding and compassion? Shouldn’t we demand from ourselves, and each other, better than this? Why should any marriage be battered, burned, and bruised until it is no longer recognizable? Aren’t most marriages worth more than that?
I think that divorce is likely often a “divine mercy.” And, really, when it’s all falling apart around us, and in our hearts we know it can’t be rebuilt, don’t we owe each other that much?
I have a very good friend who studies marriage for a living. Literally. She is a walking encyclopedia of facts about why people marry, when people marry, why it works or doesn’t work, etc., etc. Needless to say, her work fascinates me.
Shortly after I separated, this friend told me about “sliders” and “deciders.” In the marriage research world, “sliders” are those who marry almost by default…. they metaphorically slide into their marriage. A date that was fine turns into a relationship because he seems perfectly nice so why not keep dating him, which then turns into something committed because who really wants to sleep around anyway, which then turns into living together because it’s silly to pay two rents, which then turns into a marriage because isn’t that the next logical step? Notice how every choice made here is actually the result of being passive, rather than active.
“Deciders,” on the other hand, actively select their partner. He picks her, not because he’s lonely or afraid of ending up alone, but because she, and only she, rocks his world. She might have never planned to marry, but marries him because they have a connection she’s never experienced before. Get the idea? Deciders tend to marry later, stay married longer, and report higher levels of marital satisfaction. No surprise there.
Here’s the sad news: we are a country of “sliders.” Despite our romantic notions and chronic worship of the soul mate ideal, we are taught to lower our expectations. Being picky is not generally viewed as a good thing. How many of you have been asked (or asked of a friend), “Why did you break up with him? He seems perfectly nice!” Ummm…. if that’s the basis for selecting a mate to whom we pledge ourselves for a lifetime, is it any wonder how many of us end up divorced?
Let me acknowledge at this point that people have different needs and different ideas of what is perfect for them in a mate, and that those needs and ideas change over time, both within a person’s lifetime, and over the history of the world, as circumstances around us change. But I am not talking about a one-size fits all kind of love here. I am talking about being true to your own ideal of love.
According to my friend the marriage guru, 75% of second marriages fail. When I first heard that, a few months after separating, I was despondent. What did that mean for people like me, who left her marriage precisely so she could find something better in a committed relationship? It was scary stuff. But since then, I’ve observed and absorbed and I realized that it’s amazing that the statistic isn’t higher, because very few people seem to truly examine what went wrong in their marriage beyond blaming their spouse. And so, according to the researchers, we simply carry our old baggage into our new relationship and doom it. It seems that the short explanation is that, even after a divorce, most people are still sliders.
Well, I am not. In the last few years, I have realized that I will never again be a slider. I have gone on many, many first dates with many nice men, a much smaller number of second dates, and very few third dates or beyond. Why? Because if I have to work to like them, to really feel something for them or about them, I know that in a couple of years things between us will be stale or worse. There was nothing intrinsically wrong with most of these men (okay, a few were downright weird or mean, but most were great); they just weren’t right for me.
Here’s the thing: I don’t want “fine” or “good enough.” I want something that is infinitely more than that. I want something that is worth the pain of my decision to end my marriage and break my family up. I want to teach my daughters to maintain high standards and expectations so that they don’t slide, either.
Some friends, needing to validate their own slider relationships, I suspect, have tried to tell me that I’m unrealistic, that “good enough” is as good as it gets. But I know they’re wrong, because I see evidence of it nearly every day. I am blessed to have friends in relationships that are amazing — not because they are perfect, certainly, but because they are rich and full and dynamic. These relationships have heat and passion and consideration and humor and caring. And my assessments are not based solely on my own observations; my marital unhappiness emboldened me to ask people about their relationships and I discovered that plenty of people I know have more than “good enough.”
As I nosed around in my friends’ relationships, they revealed a sweetness of experience that made me joyful and hopeful: “Sometimes, when I wake up in the morning, I look at him and still get butterflies. Seriously. After 17 years!” “The only bad part of having the new baby is not having the energy for sex. It makes us both cranky because we miss each other so much.” “He makes me want to be the best version of myself I can be, and a better version that I ever imagined before him.” I love being around these couples. True, deep and abiding love is expansive; it expands to envelope the people around it, beyond just the couple who create it. It is a like a balm to the cynicism and resignation that is so prevalent in our world today.
So please don’t tell me that I’m too demanding or too picky or that I should date that guy because he seems nice enough. Dating can be a lot of fun, and sex is definitely one of my favorite past-times ever, but you won’t see me playing house with some guy just because there doesn’t seem to be a good reason not to. This time, I’ll be a decider.
A friend complained to me recently that she’d suffered a mediocre first kiss from a guy she really liked and had been looking forward to kissing. The letdown was bothering her. I agreed that a bad first kiss could be a sign of things to come, or it could be a matter of circumstances and I asked for more details.
Apparently our hero and heroine had just emerged from their local watering hole after another long evening of exhaustive conversation and flirting, and were faced with the parking lot dilemma of how to part. She was prepared to say a friendly goodnight and then go directly to her car, but didn’t want to leave him with the impression that she only wanted to be friends. He seemingly had similar concerns, so he opted for the ineffectual and (guys take note!) never sexy, request “How about a hug?” The hug, of course, turned into a rather weak, completly anticipated and choreographed kiss, and they parted, probably both nursing similar feelings of disappointment.
Certain scenarios just lend themselves to perfect first kisses: a walk in the snow or on the beach; in front of a crackling fire; on a dance floor during a sweet song; in a car with windows steamed up and the rain streaming down outside…. you get the idea. But in the parking lot, after a date, is almost never a winner and, in my opinion, should generally be avoided. Better to allow the sexual tension to build a little more than to potentially deflate it beyond repair.
Because here’s the problem with most parking lot kisses: they can’t go anywhere. You’re standing in the middle of a parking lot, for Pete’s sake. Unless you’re into some fun exhibitionism, it’s going to stop at a kiss, and you both know it, so there’s a certain chasteness built in. Sure, after a great kiss you can do the whole, “Shall we go to my place?” thing where you get into one of your cars or follow each other (and there’s the inevitable discussion to decide that), and then the drive to whomever’s place (which, even if it’s only minutes, is always long enough to wonder what the hell you’re doing), and then the awkward walk to the door and entrance into the home, and by then, often, it all feels forced and anything but spontaneous and at least one of you is wondering how long you really have to stay and what this whole scenario now means for your budding relationship.
That’s not to say that some men can’t pull off a parking lot kiss with aplomb. Some of the most amazing kisses I’ve ever had — including one that literally left me so weak in the knees I stumbled as I walked away — have occurred in parking lots. Those kisses tended to have one big thing in common: men who were superconfident in the moment, and exerted that confidence physically by almost literally sweeping me off my feet in order to give me a kiss that I would remember. Granted, our hero’s tepid, grandmotherly approach was not a great set-up, but he didn’t have much to work with, being in a parking lot and all.
So, really, as I told my friend, give the parking lot kiss a break. It’s not always the kisser’s fault; sometimes it’s just the kiss.
Shortly before I announced to the world that I was leaving my marriage, I had a bizarre conversation with my then-best girlfriend. We were in my kitchen, one evening during a dinner party I was hosting, and she was helping me tidy up after the meal. We were talking about the second home my husband and I had purchased and how much fun it would be to have weekends away — all of us together — up in the mountains during the coming winter. And then, with a smile, she said it: “You know, y’all are the Jones. You’re the ones that have it all. The rest of us are just lucky to keep up with you.”
The air left my lungs as I bent over to the load the dishwasher and I mumbled some attempt at a witty reply, but my head spun with her pronouncement. Was that really what she thought? Could she really not see how terribly unhappy I was? Did my husband and I really seem that right for each other? God, couldn’t she see that I was dying inside??
True, I hadn’t told anyone how I felt. At that point, I wasn’t even sure myself. I hadn’t yet determined that my marriage was the reason for my depression and grief. I hadn’t yet admitted to myself that I’d been mourning a relationship that was still on life support. But I did know that something was terribly wrong and that I felt like anyone who glanced at me could see it written plainly on my face, and yet she — my closest friend — did not.
In that moment, I saw my first glimpse of what would unfold months later: the utter shock on my friends’ faces as I told them I was leaving, the complete shunning I received from some acquaintances, the gossip that analyzed my “sudden” action. To them, it would seem like I was upending perfection, tossing away all the good stuff we all want and strive for. To me, it felt like the final, gasping breath of a woman flinging herself from her gilded cage in a desperate attempt to save her soul from a quiet, silent death.
I never wanted to be the mythical Jones’ whom everyone struggled to match and keep pace with, and I don’t think that my ex did either. But somehow that’s where we found ourselves, performing the roles of the couple who seemed to have it all, when in fact, we were missing everything that really mattered.
Sometimes people ask me if I have any regrets about leaving my marriage, and I can only assume that lots more wonder but don’t ask. To those who do, I always say no. But that’s not entirely true. I often wrestle with the ubiquitous “what if’s” that lurk in every dark corner of my decision to divorce. I think this contemplation, reevaluation, reexamination is normal, and good. There was real value in my marriage — it wasn’t an all-bad situation — and I think my “what if’s” are my way of staying real with myself and not getting caught up in the polarized ideas of good guys and bad guys that seem to be the standard paradigm of divorce. I don’t hate my ex, and he doesn’t seem to hate me, and I think the utlimate question of whether my decision was the right one will only be known at the end of our lives, when we look back on what we created separately after I left.
I want it to be worth it. Really, truly worth it. I want to know that the pain I inflicted with my decision somehow gave birth to goodness in our lives in other ways, and not just my life, but my ex’s and my children’s. I want us all to emerge from the shattered ruins of my marriage as better, more well-developed, self-aware, happier people. Is that too much to hope for? Maybe, but I am damn determined to try.
Something happened recently that put my dedication to this ideal to the test.
One of the small injuries that accumulated over time into a real wound in my marriage was my ex’s apparent indifference to me when I was ill. You know how sometimes you’re just so sick and you need to sleep alone so you can barf or cough or toss and turn all night? When my ex was sick like that, I’d offer to sleep in the guest room if he wanted me to. Not because I was afraid of the germs, but because I didn’t want him to be concerned about bothering me when he was that sick. So, when he was sick, I slept in the guest room. But when I was sick… I slept in the guest room. It was a very, very small thing that became associated, in my mind, with all of the other ways that he seemed not to care for me when I was vulnerable. In the midst of one of our vicious post-separation, pre-divorce fights, I hurled that example at him with the power of the pain that was behind it. He physically recoiled as if I had slapped him, and I saw my own pain played out on his face, as he realized how broken we were and our mutual culpability in getting us there.
It was never mentioned again, directly or indirectly…. until a few days ago. My ex delivered our daughters to me for my week and explained that his girlfriend had, for the first time, spent the night at his house while the girls where there. Before I could say anything, he offered the explanation that she’d been sick and he hadn’t wanted her to be home alone at her place. He further explained that she’d slept in the bed, and he on the sofa, so that she could get a good night’s sleep.
As the final words left his lips, we had the same realization at the same moment, and the next moments were excruciating: me fumbling through a reassurance that I was fine with it; him over-explaining that he only mentioned it in case the girls were uncomfortable or talked to me about it; me mumbling agreement; and then us awkwardly saying goodbye as he retreated, and I was left standing alone in my foyer.
In that moment, the fork in the road was clear. I could resent him for giving her, in those small, caring gestures, what he had denied me all those years. I could rail against her as undeserving and some usurper who was now reaping the benefits of all my pain. I could hate them both for being what we could not be together.
Except that I couldn’t. I want him to be a better person. I want him to be happier than he was with me. I want to know that my leaving meant something, I want to know that I meant something — enough to cause him to pause in who he is and possibly reconsider his fierce certainty, through the latter part of our marriage, that he was fine and justified and right, and I was broken and selfish and unreasonable. And everytime I see glimpses of the new man he is becoming — and believe me, this was not the first glimpse — I am proud of him. I am proud that he is making this worth it, finding value in the pain that we created and I blew wide open. He is using this experience to become a better version of himself. It is what I wish for all of us. That, and possibly that alone, would make me feel, at the end of my life, that this decision was indeed worth it.
Online dating is hit or miss, with more misses than hits. Men outnumber women on some sites by something like 4 to 1, and even on the more balanced sites, it’s still close to 2 to 1. So, as a woman on an online dating site, you can receive a lot of mail. The temptation is to simply delete the contact attempts from men that don’t appeal to you, but there is something inherently rude in that. So, match.com has this nifty little button that says “No, thanks.” When you get an email from someone you’re not interested in, good online etiquette dictates that you click the “No, thanks” button, rather than ignore your potential suitor.
My first few days on match.com, I got a lot of mail. (I’ve since realized that they must have an algorithm for making sure that new members get inundated and feel welcomed and popular, but I didn’t know that then. ) I was going through my mail and came across someone who didn’t interest me in the slightest. I was about to hit delete, and then I remembered the “No, thanks” button. I clicked it. Nothing happened. Hmmm….. I clicked it again. Still nothing. Maybe my mouse wasn’t working… Clicked it again. And again. Apparently the thing didn’t actually work, so I gave up on the “No, thanks” button and just deleted messages that didn’t interest me.
Except that it did work.
The following day, I opened my match.com inbox to discover a message from the man to whom I tried to send the “No, thanks” message. His message said, “Thanks so much for the reply, but I just wanted you to know that I got the hint the first time. By the fourth time, it was just kind of mean. Good luck to you.”
And so began my match.com adventure.
After I was separated and had spent a few months getting my bearings, I threw myself into dating. For nearly 18 months, I dated. A lot. A whole lot, actually.
Not everyone around me was comfortable with this. Well-meaning friends suggested that I “take some time and get to know myself first.” This truly bewildered me, because I learn more about myself through my interactions with others than I could ever discover sitting at home with a book or a movie. Only recently has the source of their discomfort dawned on me: they thought that I was dating to avoid being alone, that I was simply afraid of not having a man in my life. They were wrong, but it is only in hindsight that I see clearly what I was actually doing.
I was doing research. Serious, focused research.
Coming out of my marriage, I knew what I didn’t want. I didn’t want THAT anymore. But what did I want? What did it look like, feel like? What did he — this mythical soul mate that I had left my marriage to discover — look like, sound like, act like? I dated all kinds of men. I went through a period of younger men, and a period of former pro-athletes, and a period of very tall men. Some of them had doctorates, some had diplomas. Some had private jets, others lived like college students. I tried them on (most only metaphorically), and I made copious mental notes of what felt good and right and what did not. And slowly a sense of what I want in a man emerged….
But one of the worst parts of my marriage was who I became within it. So I had work to do there, too. Who did I want to be in a relationship? What parts of myself did I value, did I want to nurture and grow and share with someone? What parts of myself did I never want to see again? Each new man taught me something about myself. I discovered whole new parts of myself that I had never known before and made instant friends with! I slowly came to realize which kinds of men brought out which parts of me and how I responded to the various situations and challenges that dating presents over and over and over again.
My laboratory work is over, and I have stopped dating. This is not a permanent situation, but every scientist needs a chance to quietly and completely examine the results of her multiple experiments before synthesizing the results into a statement of discovered fact. And that’s where I am. I think I know who the best version of myself is, and I know that I want to be her. I think I know roughly what I’m seeking in a mate, and I want to meet him. And that will most likely require more dating. But my friends can relax.