Monthly Archives: March 2011

discovering the “parallel relationship”

Today, I am pondering the surreal quality of discovering that you have been engaged in a “parallel relationship.”  A parallel relationship, for those of you fortunate enough to not have encountered this particular brand of pain, is when the two people in a relationship are having completely different relationships.  The easiest example of this is the girl who thinks her boyfriend is totally committed and in love, while he’s telling his homeboys that she’s nice enough and the sex is okay.  These two people are not having the same relationship experience.  They might both be enjoying the relationship in their own ways, but they are definitely not on the same page.  That example might be the clearest, but I actually don’t think it’s the most common.  At least not at my age.

I think the most common version of the parallel relationship at my age has to do with the person who is simply looking for someone to pass the time with.  In the post-divorce, middle-aged world, companionship and sex are valuable commodities.  The once-married are used to having those things, and miss them when they’re gone.  So they seek out someone to fill the role, usually temporarily, to meet those limited and specific needs.   It’s kind of like a friends-with-benefits (FWB) situation.  You spend quite a bit of time together, have sex, maybe even meet each other’s friends, but there is no expectation or desire of it going any deeper.  It’s a great system, when you’re on the same page.  When you’re not, frequently a parallel relationship will emerge:  one party is going along, happily thinking that this FWB thing is great and lots of fun; the other party is also going along happily, feeling good about things but unaware that the relationship isn’t really a relationship at all.  It’s more of a friendship.  With sex.  It has a short shelf-life and absolutely no future.  Minimal investment will be made in the relationship — usually just enough to keep it alive.  Certainly not enough to take it anywhere further.

The dangerous thing about the parallel relationship is that you may not even know you’re in one.  When you first start dating, things are always casual.  You gradually spend more time together, learn more about each other, have more fun.  You might start to rely on each other a little bit more, maybe get more comfortable with each other, talk every day, spend time hanging out without having sex.  But here’s the catch:  you still aren’t in a relationship.  This could just as easily be a long-term FWB situation.  And you might not know it until some little action or word clearly spells it out for you.

Which is what happened to me today.

I have been, against what should have been my better judgment, allowing myself to get close to a man who will never truly care about me.  It’s probably not his fault, to be fair.  We can’t control our feelings.  Whatever “that thing” is, he just doesn’t feel it for me, and if I’m being honest, I’ve known it all along.  He has never exactly lied to me.  He has never “led me on.”  But I liked him and I thought that maybe, just maybe, there was some real potential there.  I thought this despite ample evidence to the contrary.  I refused to see the obvious and instead applied my own standards for behavior and engaging to him. I was thinking that we were seriously interested in each other and exploring what might (or might not) exist between us, but I think now that he was simply having fun with me, enjoying his time with me, all the while knowing that it would never really be anything.  We were having parallel relationships.

So now I am in that awful place of having to sort through the reality of what is, versus the dashed hopes of what might have been.  The reality feels heavy and empty and cheap.  The dashed hopes feel like sharp shards of glass that slice me each time I touch them.  But touch them I will.  I will pick up each and every piece and place them in the prettily-wrapped box in which they came.  Then I will take out my metaphorical Sharpie and mark the box, in clear, firm letters, “Nothing.”

And then I will carefully, deliberately make my own way once again, a little less sure of myself, a little less trusting, and a little less open.

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relationship cpr

In my teens and twenties, I had several relationships that followed the “get together, break-up, get-together, break-up” routine.  This is a tired and unsatisfying pattern, but the experiences were useful because they eventually taught me that there is no point in getting back together, because it’s never going to be the same after the first break-up.

In the years since then, I had heard stories of couples of who had broken up and gotten back together, or whose marriages had gone sour and been salvaged, and the couples had discovered a completely new relationship amid the ashes of their previous one.  This concept — that things could actually be better after a break-up or near-divorce — was completely foreign to me, and I considered it with the same degree of skepticism I reserved for magic dragons and small garden fairies. Clearly such ideas were cute and imaginative and interesting, but not real.  Certainly not real.

My own experiences had shown me — beyond any reasonable doubt — that once you broke up or broke down your relationship, there was no real way to repair it.  When my boyfriends and I broke up and got back together, we were constantly searching for it to feel as good as it had before the first break-up.  But it never did.  And I saw in my  own marriage and that of many friends’, that when the marriage was broken, you might hope that it would get better again, you might even convince yourself — temporarily, of course — that it had gotten better again.  But the truth was, it was never as good.

When my husband and I were talking about separating, we discussed attending couples counseling.  Plenty of couples do, we argued with ourselves, but no one we knew had actually resuscitated their relationship that way.  They might have stayed together, but they were still miserable.  This didn’t surprise me, given my earlier dating experiences, and I, moreso than my husband, felt that such counseling would be a futile attempt to save our dead marriage.

But recently, I have had cause to reconsider my previous certainty that things cannot, in fact, get really and truly better.  Because, as often happens, the universe has been busy showing me that I’ve been wrong about that.

In  lovers should be seen and heard, I wrote about how the guy I’d broken up with in December had reappeared in my life in February, more open and real and available than he’d felt to me before.  In the weeks that followed, what amazed me more than anything — beyond the change in him, or the change in me, or the way that we related to each other — was the basic, fundamental fact that things were actually better than they’d been the first time we dated.  They truly were. And  I marveled at this new little wisdom and held onto it like a precious jewel, lest I somehow forget that such possibility exists.

I am further impressed to discover that things are still getting better.  No kidding.  The relationship I’m in now bears almost no resemblance to the relationship I had with this very same man in the fall.  We laugh more often and more loudly.  We are kinder and gentler with each other.  Fears are acknowledged and treated more tenderly.  We have ease with each other than we never had last fall.   And, don’t even get me started about our sex life….

That’s not to say that things are perfect.  Of course they aren’t.  We are two very imperfect people trying to get to know each other and figure out along the way if there is enough of that magical quality to sustain a long-term relationship.  That process could not be less perfect.  Add to it the various baggage that we both bring along for the ride and it gets really messy.  We’ve had some serious little bumps already… times when he felt distant and preoccupied and I wondered, with a bit of a sinking heart, if we were going to slide back into the space of last fall when he felt far away and unknowable to me.  And there have been times when I have felt uneasy and wanted to cut and run, an old and bad habit that is very, very hard to break….  But so far, we are both hanging in there.  And we must be doing something right, because things really are better, not only than they were last fall, but better than they were last week.

Of course, the realization that it actually is possible to not only salvage a relationship but improve it even after you’re sure it’s dead, did cause me to momentarily contemplate whether I had shortchanged my husband with my  contention that couples counseling would have been a waste of our time.  But, sadly, I’ve also realized that there is a disclaimer to this overall idea, and that is this:  there has to be something left to salvage in the relationship and two people who truly have the mutual desire and commitment to salvage it.    My marriage was irretrievably broken, and had been for years, and I had neither the will nor the energy to try to save it.  And that remains the sad truth.

My current relationship may also end; most do.  But if it does, what I hope I can still hold, still remember and cherish, is the lesson that things really can get better, with the right motivations and right people.   It’s a valuable lesson, I’m sure, because some day, in some relationship, it might mean the difference between a dying relationship and a living one.

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the divorced and the furious

Anger and I have never been friends.  I was raised in a household where the only anger tolerated was my mother’s.  Every one else had to be “nice.”  As a result, I grew up not really knowing how to constructively deal with my anger, so most of the time, I swallowed it.  And it became an ulcer on my soul called depression.  It wasn’t until, as an adult, I had a therapist explain a theory about depression that centered on the idea that depression is anger turned inward.  In other words, it’s anger with no place to go… for one reason or another, the anger you feel cannot be expressed, so you bury it and grow increasingly depressed.  This is a clinical depression, not a sadness or a grief, but a low-energy hopelessness about your situation that usually feels completely out of proportion to the actual facts of your situation.

Once I understood the concept, I had one of those beautiful “aha!” moments when something in your life just clicks into place in a way that completely alters your worldview.  This theory, I realized, explained so much of my life and the intermittent depression I’d struggled with privately.  I wasn’t sad, really, I was just very, very, very pissed off, but too “nice” to do anything appropriate with that anger.

Anger is still something with which I’m learning to get comfortable, and it’s not easy for me.  Of all the emotions, anger seems to me to be like that loud, bawdy, vulgar aunt who drinks too much at Christmas, burps loudly, and laughs at her own jokes.   There is no softness to anger, it is angular and sharp and hard.  It is unforgiving and unyielding, and it frightens me how it can be blinding in its extremes.   I realize that it is a vital emotion, and one that can be cathartic and cleansing when managed properly, but when I’m angry, I mostly feel like a newbie driver behind the wheel of a semi-truck — ill-prepared and dangerous, ready to roll over an innocent bystander at any minute.  So, I guess you could say I’m working on it.

When my parents divorced, my mother was outraged.  I am not exaggerating; there is seriously no other word for her feelings toward my dad.  His primary sin was that he didn’t love her anymore, and for this she was completely and utterly furious with him.  Now, my mom comes from a long line of Eastern European hotheads, and she did her ancestors proud.  She stayed furious at my father for 13 years after their divorce.  Yes, that’s right: THIRTEEN YEARS.  For 13 years, she seethed.  If his name was mentioned, her face and demeanor perceptibly changed.  Those who had anything nice to say about him were banished, and he became this horrible villain in her life story.  Fortunately for her (and all of us, really), an enormous falling out with me followed by some intensive therapy helped her let go of most of her anger.  Thank goodness.

Since my separation, I have dated plenty of guys who were divorced, and, not surprisingly, anger has been a frequent theme.  As expected, some of these men reported ex-wives who were a combination of Medusa and the Wicked Witch of the West, but I became adept at being an active listener and discerning what was real and what was pure emotion.    I learned to avoid the men who had a lot of unresolved anger; my experience with my mom had taught me that anger of that nature is ultimately visited on everyone around the injured person, and that’s a kind of baggage I decided to avoid.

That’s not to say that I don’t get pissed off at my ex or that I wouldn’t be in a relationship with a guy who didn’t have a fairytale happy relationship with his ex.  I’m not talking about the guy who still gets annoyed at his ex or thinks she’s a crazy bitch.  I’m talking about the guy who is seething.  The guy who has so much anger in his heart toward his ex that there probably isn’t room in there for anyone new.  That guy is, for all real intents and purposes, still in a relationship with his ex, as much as if he were still sleeping in her bed.  He is engaged with her, consumed by her, negatively infatuated by her.  And for any woman who is good enough to try to love him, he is a dead end.

The most obvious example of this kind of man was one of my first match.com dates.  We’ll call him Chris.  Chris and I met for coffee one morning and talked for over an hour.  He was handsome and interesting and seemed to smile easily. But as the minutes ticked by, I perceived that, despite his relaxed Colorado demeanor, inside he was clenched tight as a fist.  I asked about his ex-wife, and, at first, he claimed no hard feelings and enumerated some of her wonderful qualities.  I sat back and listened and, as often was the case, he kept talking.  And I saw that his smile, while easily worn, had a tightness about the edges, a sharpness to it that belied his inner anger.  He pulled at the napkin in front of him with a kind of controlled fury that I noted with apprehension.  He talked of her egregious behavior and how she had failed to honor her commitment to a life together until death did they part.  I finally interrupted him and asked how long they had been divorced.

Nine years.

They had been divorced nine years and Chris was still raging over her and the fact that she had left him.  Wow.  Needless to say, I got the hell out of there as fast as I could.

Of course divorce makes people angry.  It might even make them rageful. A lot crappy things are done and said when a marriage is dying and a divorce is being born.  But what the two people do with those feelings and how much control they surrender to them and how long they hold onto them are all very telling.  Does their anger color their world view?  Are they aware of their anger or do they deny it? Do they ever consciously let go of that anger in order to make a new life?  Or do they allow the anger to consume them, so that they are living a life in the shadow of a relationship long over?

Last week, my ex-husband disappointed me.  In a big, big way.  And I was shocked at how quickly my anger and resentment toward him boiled up again.  I spent a few days telling all my friends (not our friends, but my friends) what an asshole he was.  I had bad dreams and journaled furiously about how perfectly this latest offense encapsulated my reasons for divorcing him.  I avoided this blog, lest it become a repository for my negativity. And then, after a couple of days, I was spent.   So, I turned away from him and my feelings about him and back to the life I’m creating for myself.  And in the last few days I’ve hardly thought of him at all.

I’m sure there isn’t only one right way to deal with the anger of divorce, but I know that this is the way that I’m dealing with it.  I’m trying to allow my anger to speak when appropriate, but to do so constructively and without malice.  As with any new skill, I’ve had mixed results.  But so far, I’m just glad it hasn’t become the centerpiece of my life.  Because anger held too tightly for too long creates a barren and harsh landscape, inhospitable to compassion and love and empathy and intimacy.  I learned this early and I learned it well.   Thank goodness.

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sex as communication

I had dinner last week with a good friend of mine who is worried about her marriage.  She and her husband have one of those marriages that I admire.  Not that they don’t have their ups and downs because of course they do, but their relationship —  after 18 years — is still based on a deep love and admiration.  I can see it when she looks at him, and I can see it when he looks at her.  Unfortunately, they can’t see it very well when they look at each other.

They are facing a crisis precipitated by a lucrative job offer she has received in another state, and decisions must be made, including the decision of whether he will be accompanying his family out of state, or staying here.  She is frightened and sad and stressed, because she loves him and doesn’t want to lose him.   Their main problem seems to be communication and emotional intimacy.  She wishes he’d communicate more, be more affectionate, and share more of himself with her.  He, I believe, wishes she would appreciate him more, spend more time with him, and focus more of her attention on him.

But for now, they are at an impasse, staring at each other across a divide carved deep and wide by their mutual retreat.  Each is waiting, it seems, for the other to make the first move.  And so they eye each other warily.

As I listened to my friend, I was reminded once again of the differences in how men and women communicate, bond, and reveal themselves.  My friend’s husband is a reserved man of few words, a former farm boy with a broad chest and good heart, and not a trace of metrosexual in him.  My friend is a strong and beautiful woman, a feminist who doesn’t exhibit her vulnerability easily, but admits privately how much she loves her husband’s masculinity.  So what can two people who are so guarded and self-protective do to close the chasm between them?

Get naked, I say.

Get naked and have sex.  A lot of it.  Often.  Be playful. Be flirtatious.  Be sexy and coy and freaky and free.  Talk and laugh and tease and admire.  Make love and fuck and cuddle and kiss for hours on end.  Walk around in your underwear — often.  Sleep naked.  Get reacquainted with the look and feel of each other’s body.  Be shameless and vulnerable and open.  Sure, at first it’s going to seem a little awkward, even stilted maybe.  And that period may last longer than expected, but gradually, very gradually, I wonder if the walls will slowly come down and the tenderness they have for each other will fill the chasm between them.  It’s sure worth a try, right?  What the worst that can happen?  A few good orgasms?

First, a short primer for anyone who has never met a man or a woman:  Women are verbal creatures.  Most of us communicate through words and expression and sharing our ideas and experiences and dreams and fears.  We can talk about the same issue or problem for hours with our girlfriends, turning it over like a puzzle piece, examining every possibility.  We feel grounded and rejuvenated and energized and connected after we’ve had “a really good talk” with someone we care for.

Men, on the other hand, are physical or tactile creatures.  They bond with their friends by sharing an experience together — being on a team, playing poker, attending a sporting event, getting drunk and rowdy.  They don’t usually tell their guy friends that they love them without simultaneously  slapping them or punching them.  And when they are with a woman they care about, they often struggle with expressing that.   I am forever amazed at how even some of my most articulate male friends fumble and stammer when explaining their feelings for a woman in their life.

It took me many years, and many patient friends and boyfriends, to understand that sex is often more loaded for men than for women.  For a lot of men, it is their primary — maybe even their sole — avenue to intimacy with the woman in their life.    These men convey a million emotions and thoughts and needs and desires in how they touch and connect with a woman in bed.

If you’ve had sex with enough men, and you’ve been paying attention, you can tell that how a man is with you is usually about more than his technique or his level of sobriety or his ego.  Many candid conversations with men have taught me that men really are different in bed with different women, and not always in the ways we women might expect.  Sure, maybe their technique is basically the same, but — just as in other forms of communication — it’s the little things and the body language that speak volumes.  The eye contact.  The way he touches you.  How much of his body he connects with yours and for how long.  How he behaves as you lie there afterward.

Women know all of this, of course.  We can all tell when someone is emotionally absent in bed, when they are “using” us purely for pleasure and nothing more.  Every adolescent girl comes to understand very quickly that not all sex is created equal.  But what I think escapes a lot of us — me included sometimes — is that if we’re not paying attention to those little things, we can miss some really big messages.

Last spring I was dating a  great guy, who also happened to be a serious player.  Really.  We had been good enough friends for long enough that I knew exactly how much of a player he was and, truly, his escapades were pretty extraordinary.  Shortly after we finally had sex for the first time, he did something that hurt my feelings, and when he asked me what was bothering him, I told him that I wished I’d never slept with him.  He acted like I’d run him through with a dagger.  I swear.  He got so upset, I was terrified that this big, muscular, hard-ass was going to cry.  I hadn’t said it to hurt him, honestly.  I just figured that I’d been one of his many conquests and, especially because we were friends, I didn’t want to be that.  When I explained that, he exploded.  How could I think that?! he demanded.  And then he  listed off all the things that had happened between us that night, all the ways that he’d tried to communicate to me that I was special.  And I’d missed them all.  Pretty much every single one.

That was perhaps my starkest lesson in sex as communication, but there have been others.  Most of us have dated a guy or two for whom sex is the only form of communication.  These men can be frustrating because they have often gotten away with using sex as a means of smoothing things over, and have never had to develop their other communication muscles.  When you try to talk to them about an issue or problem, they typically resort to kissing you or caressing you.  This is sweet, but it can also be maddening.  I mean, really, a little of both worlds is necessary, don’t you think?  Otherwise, the woman ends up feeling like the issue has just been swept under the rug, with the expectation that the orgasm wiped the slate clean.  This can be seriously unfulfilling in the long run.

Then there’s the sad experience of trying to reach a man through sex, only to discover that he’s not actually that interested in reaching you.   This is the sexual equivalent of screaming at a deaf man, and leaves you feeling just as foolish.  Remember:  you can’t connect with a man, through sex or otherwise, if he doesn’t want that connection.  This is the more mature version of the warning issued to teenage girls:  he won’t love you just because you have sex with him.  It was true then, and it’s true now.

As for my friend and her husband, I sincerely believe that they both desire to be closer, more connected.  And, as I reflect on our conversation over dinner last week, I wonder if her husband has ever tried to reach her, to create intimacy with her, to express something to her, and she has mistaken it for simple passion or kindness or consideration in the bedroom.   I don’t know if sex is the key to improved intimacy and communication for them, but I do hope they try.  Because whatever key unlocks that precious door can only be a good thing.

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facing loneliness and finding solitude in Cancun

My mother’s longtime boyfriend (life partner? gentleman friend? paramour?) owns a multi-week timeshare at luxury resort in Cancun, Mexico.  My mom’s boyfriend is an exceptionally kind and generous man, and he has always allotted one of his timeshare weeks to me and my family, so that we can join mom and him each year.

The first time I visited the resort was nearly 15 years ago, with my now ex-husband.  I had just completed graduate school, and it was a near-perfect vacation.  In fact, that trip to Cancun probably sealed my destiny in terms of marrying my husband.  I remember being a little surprised by how much fun we had and very caught up in the romance of the place.  We came home from the trip and moved in together the following month.

After we were married, and then after we had our children, we continued going to Cancun with my mom and her boyfriend nearly every year.  Most of those years blur together for me now.  I know there was laughter and fun; my husband and I were always at our best together when we were in Cancun.

The last time I vacationed in Cancun as a married woman was pivotal for me again.  One night, my mom watched our daughters, and my husband and I went out for a “date night.”  The night should have been incredibly romantic.  The restaurant was perfect, the food divine, the wine delicious, the sunset impossibly poetic.  When we returned to our villa, my husband went into the bedroom and waited in bed for me while I changed out of my clothes and prepared for bed.  I bent over the basin, washing and rinsing my face, until I heard his voice calling for me.  I raised my face to look in the mirror in front of me, and saw, in the depths of my own eyes, a loneliness so deep and wretched that I could taste the desperation.  A gentle voice from somewhere inside me said, “You can’t do this anymore,” and was answered by a small, pained voice that said, “I know.”   As I stared at my reflection in the mirror, I realized that I had been rinsing my face for a long, long time, stalling the inevitable act that awaited me but no longer felt real or true or good anymore.  But because this is real life and not a Hollywood drama, I dried my face and entered the bedroom and didn’t leave my marriage for another six months.  I had, however, taken the first step down a totally new path.

Fortunately, my mom, her boyfriend, and his timeshare landed in my column on the division of assets ledger in the divorce, so my daughters and I have continued visiting Cancun.  The first time without my husband, six months after I moved out, was gut-wrenching.  Loneliness doesn’t begin to describe it.  Each night, as my children slept, I sat on the veranda outside my villa, sobbing uncontrollably, typing pathetic tomes of self-pity in my journal, drinking altogether too many fruity drinks, and swearing that I was never — never! — again going on vacation to a romantic destination with my children and my parents as my only traveling partners.

The following year, I was in a better place by nearly any measure, but I still wasn’t dating anyone seriously enough to want to spend an entire week with him, let alone bring him along on a family vacation.  I had dated quite a bit in the intervening year, and my confidence had improved, but I was still feeling the poignant reality of being in Cancun and, once again, being alone.  All week I carried around the cumbersome and heavy burden of wondering if  I was destined to always be lonely in paradise.

And then I saw her.

She was probably in her early 50’s.  Her blond hair had nearly gone to silver and was held back from her face by a set of stylish sunglasses.  Her bikini showed off her  lightly tanned and very fit but clearly middle-aged body, and she held, in her elegant hand, an iced tea with a large slice of lemon.  She sat at her table with her closed laptop and a book in front of her.  It was clear to me that she was alone, and I searched her face for clues to her situation.  She looked past me, at the horizon where the aqua hue of the Caribbean meets the royal blue of the sky, and her expression spoke of peace, contentment, serenity.  She did not appear lonely, or sad, at a loss for anything at all.  She was so very present in her contentment, so at ease in her solitude.  I marveled at her, this amazing woman whose very energy conveyed her self-respect and sense of place in this world.  How I envied her.  How very much I found myself wanting to have what she had.

The host came to seat us, and we walked past her to our table, but all day the image of her stayed with me.  I felt, with a completely unfounded certainty, that this woman was on vacation alone.  In Mexico.  Without a man.  And she was happy.  She was alone, yes, but clearly not lonely.  She was at peace with herself and her solitude, at least in that moment I saw her.  And I realized that day that what I really wanted, more than a partner, more than romance, more than anything else in the world, was the serenity I’d seen on her face.  When I returned from Mexico, that woman stayed with me, an icon in my mind of where I wanted to be emotionally.  She had given me a wonderful and blessed gift — the possibility of an alternative definition of happiness.  The tangible representation — reassurance, even —  that I could truly be happy and alone.

Now, most adults know that there is a very clear and important distinction between loneliness and solitude, but we struggle with the two just the same.  Loneliness is a melancholy fellow who will show up, uninvited and unwelcome, at the most awkward or upsetting of times.  He moves right on in and camps out on your sofa and eats all your food and makes you fat and sad and sometimes even invites his buddies Hopelessness and Neediness over for a really rowdy pity party.    Solitude, on the other hand, is a gracious and serene friend who boosts your productivity and creativity with her quiet supportiveness.  When Solitude is around, she helps you think clearly and feel grounded. Often, when we seek Solitude, we are ambushed instead by Loneliness.  Solitude doesn’t live by anyone else’s schedule, and she won’t stop by when Desperation is in residence; those two really don’t get along at all.

In an earlier post, “what is all that noise?,” I recounted my journey this winter into a completely new place emotionally; a place absent of the drama and noise and chatter of my life that had been dragging me down, obscuring my vision, and generally getting in my way of creating happiness.  One of the many gifts that came out of that period was that I got acquainted with solitude again.  I learned to move peaceably through my day, recognizing and celebrating all that was good in it, rather than all that was missing.  I began to enjoy my own company again and rediscovered small joys that I could find or create that were special and unique and just for me.   And I realized that just because I was enjoying those small treats alone didn’t make them any less wonderful.

Today I had a conversation with a friend during which she brought up the woman in Cancun and how seeing her had changed in my life in a very small but important way.  And I realized in our conversation that even now — even when things with my guy are going so well — I’m still okay with the idea of being that woman, too.  That alternative —  of being that woman sitting by the sea, content in her solitude — is still just as comforting, just as alluring, just as much of a pleasant possibility as before.  Because, the truth is, I just want to happy.  Whatever that looks like is just a detail.

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take me off your to-do list

My ex-husband had an uncanny ability to diminish me.  I say uncanny because I don’t think it was exactly intentional, but it was incredibly effective.  I spent much of my marriage feeling like I was his project to fix rather than his wife to love.

Before we were even married, I noticed that his list of grievances about me were far more varied and numerous than mine about him.  Whether it was the kind of frozen TV dinner I bought or the clothes I wore or my persistent optimism, I was, it seemed, in dire need of constant supervision and correction.  Lucky for me, I’d found a man willing to tackle the job.

Any objections I voiced to his constant feedback were met with claims that I was defensive, or insinuations that I couldn’t handle the truth, or (my personal favorite) the insistence that if I “really loved” him, I’d want to make him happy.  We had many arguments around the fact that I was so imperfect.  He insisted that I should follow his example, because on the occasions when I expressed dissatisfaction with him, he willingly and humbly tried to work on my concerns.  I had to acknowledge that he was good at responding to my concerns, but it took me almost 10 years to realize that it’s much easier to respond that way when you’re not under near-constant attack.  Nobody likes to be criticized — it doesn’t feel good — but it’s especially hard to take when it’s so unyielding and frequent.  One of the saddest moments in my crumbling marriage was when my husband acknowledged to me that most of the things he’d first admired about me had been eroded over the years under the weight of his constant criticism.  I’m not sure which of us was more stricken by his admission; me, realizing that I really had lost the best parts of myself in my marriage, or him, realizing that he’d been a primary cause of that.

Since my divorce, I have dated many different kinds of men in many different stages of their lives.  Most men I have encountered have been refreshingly independent and unconcerned with “correcting” my idiosyncracies, but a few have surprised me with the ease with which they assume the role of benevolent mentor and begin offering “helpful” advice and direction (that nearly always starts something like, “You know what you should do?” or “You really ought to….” or even “You really need to….”) Sometimes that kind of controlling nature is obvious — as in the case of the man who came over to cook me dinner and proceeded to literally rearrange my kitchen — but other times it’s more insidious — like when a date asked me in a pointed way if I was really doing all I could with my graduate degree, after I’d just told him how much I loved my job.

I know from experience that there is definitely a place in a secure and loving and intimate relationship for promoting your partner’s personal growth and well-being, and that sometimes we all need a little push in the right direction.  But how that “push” is delivered and the context of the relationship are incredibly important.  One of the things that I love about being single is that I meet such a variety of people and they see me and experience me in their own special ways.  Hearing their impressions or criticisms, when they are gently delivered, is an amazing gift and has dramatically accelerated my sense of personal growth.  It isn’t always easy, but I’m working on distinguishing comments that are truly well-intended and not self-interested from those that manipulative and/or belittling.  It’s easy and natural to assume a defensive posture as soon as someone levels an unfavorable assessment at you, but it’s clearly not the best response.  Even if the comment isn’t delivered with good and genuine intentions, I am learning that it might still have merit.  In those cases, I still let the individual know that it wasn’t appreciated, but I also file away the possibility that he might just be right, even if he is an ass.

The thing is that I don’t want to be anyone’s project.  But I also don’t want to make anyone mine.  I have no more right than anyone else to decide that someone needs “fixing.”  If I realize that someone in my life is flawed in a way that is not acceptable or comfortable to me, I feel that I have two choices:  I can accept them as they are, or I can retreat partly or completely from the relationship.  My experience with my husband has made me seriously averse to  approaching any person in my life as a project that would benefit from my oversight of management.

I wish I could say that this means that I just happily embrace people for who they are, without reservation, but I’m not nearly that good a person.  Of course I get frustrated, or annoyed, or disappointed by people in my life.  Those are natural aspects of human relationships.  But I’ve been working hard on understanding how and when to deliver criticism, and I am learning to distinguish between those frustrations and annoyances and disappointments that are result of something the person has done to me, and those that are simply a reflection of who they are as a person.  In other words, am I the only person in their life getting this treatment, or is this who they are with everyone?  If the answer is that I’ve been singled out, then I try to open a dialogue with the person and address my feelings.  If the answer is that this is just who they are, then I am back to my two choices:  accept or retreat.

The exception to this, I think, is when I know that a friend is conscious of and working on some aspect of their nature with which they are not happy.  In that case, when I see that aspect surface in our interactions, I will try to point it out, even though I know that it is a part of who they are, rather than directed at me.  Each of us is a work-in-progress, and supporting a friend or partner’s personal growth is an important part of being present in any relationship.  So, even though those conversations might be uncomfortable, I am going to try.  But I’m also going to do my damnedest not to make them feel that they are flawed and in need of fixing.  Because nobody wants to be a to-do list item.

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have your people call my people

My ex isn’t good at being alone.  So I knew that after we separated he would likely pair up in fairly short order.  As expected, within a few months, he had a steady girlfriend, and by the six-month mark, he’d settled into a serious relationship with the woman he’s still with.  (So much for taking some time to process your baggage and figure things out.  Oh well, to each his own, I suppose.)

His dating didn’t bother me — he is seriously an ass to deal with if he’s not getting laid, so I was glad for all of us that someone was taking care of that — but what I noticed, and what did bother me tremendously, was how he checked out when he got wrapped up in a woman.  Getting a response to a text or email or phone call was difficult, and he was chronically trying to unload the children on me or his family during his parenting time, so that he could go play with his friends or his girlfriend.  My daughters complained that even when he was around, he was constantly texting or talking on the phone and generally not attentive.  Basically, he wasn’t “plugged in” to them and their needs, and at times it was painfully obvious to all of us.  You can’t phone it in as a parent and do a good job.  You simply can’t.

Part of me understood where he was at.  When you first get involved in a new relationship, there’s that heady period in which you become completely absorbed by and infatuated with your new lover.  You talk and text all the time, have sex like bunnies, and generally bask in the warm chemical cocktail of all the great hormones that are released when we start to fall in love with someone.  Everything else seems to fall away and we steal every moment to grow and nurture our new relationship.  So my ex’s behavior wasn’t unusual or wrong, exactly, but it was maddening for me and hurtful for our kids.  So one night, after yet another email explaining why the kids needed to see him on a weekend that was his, and that, no, I wouldn’t watch them for him, I wrote “I think the problem here is that you’re more interested in being a single person than being a single parent.  Maybe we should revisit our custody agreement.”

He didn’t reply, and indeed, radio silence was the rule for the coming weeks.  But I found out later that he’d taken my words to heart and actually broken up with his girlfriend briefly during that time, which I should have deduced from the fact that he almost immediately seemed more present in co-parenting and engaging with the kids.  Suddenly, my emails, texts, and phone calls were answered in a timely fashion and with due thought given to the matter at hand.  I was grateful.  But then they got back together and he disappeared. Again.

Sigh.

I am not unsympathetic to his situation.  Really, I’m not. I’ve had my own forays into the serious relationship realm, during which I have struggled to stay plugged in to my kids.  I have had to be consciously present for them when they want to tell me about their days or ask my advice or just plain spend time with me.  Children are not at all apologetic for their neediness, and mine are very clear when they feel that their needs or feelings are being shunted to the side.   Sometimes it’s really, really hard to remain engaged, but I know that it’s important and vital to their well-being.  So I try.

And maybe he’s trying, too.  It doesn’t look that way from where I’m sitting, but I also don’t know what other demands are being made on him.  Maybe his girlfriend resents his being distracted.  Maybe she pressures him to spend his time and money with her rather than his kids.  Maybe she feels that her own needs aren’t being met.

And here’s another crazy thing:  to a certain extent, I’m not even unsympathetic to her situation, either.  In the time I’ve been single again, I have known a few men who were just plain too distracted to be good relationship material.   The needs of their children or the drama of their exes or the stress of rebuilding their net worth or their own residual anger or depression were too great to allow them to focus on me or our relationship for longer than a day or two at a stretch.  I never felt like more than an afterthought — a pleasant afterthought, it was clear — but an afterthought, nonetheless.

Relationships are hard enough, even when you have the time and motivation to devote to them, but when you allow your previous life and the obligations it spawned to consume you, you foreclose opportunities to create a new life.  Similarly, if you unplug from your existing obligations and focus nearly all your attention and concern on your new life, your children and other relationships suffer.

Now, I’ve witnessed examples of the extremes in either of these directions.  I know a woman who, after she left her husband, deposited her 15-year-old son in an apartment on his own in a medium-sized city while she moved 1000 miles away to take a job that she’d always wanted.  Did her decision damage her son?  Given that I divorced him, I might not be the one to ask that of…  I also know a woman who refuses to date and devotes all her time and energies to her children; her life is much as it was before her divorce.  She is an amazing mother, but I always wonder what will happen to her once her children leave the nest.  It seems to me that, as with most things, there must be some kind of balance, some middle ground between the all-or-nothing extremes.  I find it simply too dismal to consider that perhaps divorced parents cannot have healthy, rich, intimate relationships.  But when I look around me, I am worried by exactly that.  I see lots of companionship.  I see lots of sex.  I see lots of relatively short, sporadic relationships.  What I don’t see a lot of is soul connections that are built to survive the rest of a lifetime.

Well-meaning friends have offered advice on how to select a partner that might be emotionally and mentally and physically available:  Find someone without kids. Okay, but that brings its own set of problems since I DO have kids.  Find someone that gets along great with their ex. Okay, but most of the time I get along great with my ex, and we still have periods where we want to rip each other’s throat out.  That’s why we’re divorced, remember?  Find someone whose ex and/or kids live far away. Okay, but then there’s guilt over the distance and worry over the kids’ well-being.  Find someone who has never been married and has no kids. Been there.  Done that.  ‘Nuff said.

When I was in my “only casual dating” period, none of this bothered me.  It all offered multiple buffers from having the relationship get too intense or require more emotionally than my damaged heart could handle.  But now it bothers me.  It bothers me a lot.

So, while I wish my ex-husband would pay more attention to his kids and show some common courtesy when communicating with me, I can’t vilify him too harshly.  Figuring out how to have a relationship with an adult and be present in a relationship with your children isn’t easy, I’m finding.  I’ll still be mad at him, because it’s maddening, but I’ll also cut him a little slack and hope that he figures it out soon.  Or even better, that I do.

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the bad mother

I am having one of those weeks that fills my head with thoughts I am not permitted to express, at the risk of committing maternal blasphemy.  But, because I am me, I am going to express them here anyway.

It’s no news to anyone that being a divorced, single parent is a juggling act.  Before I left my husband, I took stock of the ways that I anticipated that my life would change.  I calculated the cost of having to do so many things on my own for which I had previously looked to my husband for help (…and didn’t usually get it, but that’s a post for another day).  I considered the demands of working full-time and raising my children, the financial constraints and the diminished opportunities, the loss of near-by familial support, and the potential loneliness.  And I made a thoughtful, deliberate decision to do this.  But what I never fully realized, what no one ever told me or showed me completely, was how hard it would be to be a single woman, who happens to be divorced and have kids.

To be honest, during the last two years of my marriage, I felt like a single parent most of the time.  My husband had checked out emotionally and physically and did the absolute minimum around the house or with me or with the kids.  I managed the household expenses, did the grocery shopping and the laundry, prepared the meals, planned “date nights,” cared for the yard, children, cars and dogs, arranged all the kids’ activities and camps, attended to familial obligations, volunteered in the community, and ran my own small business.  You name it, I did it.  My husband came home every evening at 6:00pm and retreated to our bedroom suite, where he watched TV until dinnertime.  After dinner, he’d either leave to play tennis at the club or retire to the bedroom again.  When it was our daughters’ bedtime, I would summon him to say goodnight to his children.  My friends used to say, wryly, that visiting my house was like a trip back to the 1950’s, and my mother commented once that my husband didn’t even help take out the trash. I had learned to put my own needs and desires — of every kind — on the back burner.  I was adept at caring for everyone else and sublimating myself.  When I thought about it, I figured I was pretty damn well prepared to be a single parent.

Except that I was wrong.   Because I didn’t realize how much time I’d spend managing my ex and protecting myself from his little jabs or demands.  I didn’t realize how little our division of labor would change.  I didn’t realize how much needier my children would be.  I didn’t realize how important meeting my own needs would become.

On my “off-weeks” — the weeks that my children spend with their dad — I have learned to be mindful of my needs and to do the things that feed my soul, whether that is yoga or writing or dating or sharing tea with a good friend.  I move through my days with a consciousness of myself and my present.  I feel that I am beginning to live the life that I imagined.  I have space and time to figure out what I want and who I am trying to be.

Then there are the weeks that I have my children.  Oftentimes, I sincerely struggle to be a good mother.  I fly through my day, checking off obligations and trying to be emotionally present and available to my girls.  I strive to keep one foot in the life that is mine and mine alone, without making my daughters feel like intruders or visitors in their own home.  Usually, I collapse into bed at night, exhausted, spent, and stressed.  Sometimes those weeks with my kids are amazing and soul-nurturing.  Sometimes we are so connected and in love with each other that seeing them go off to their dad’s is heartbreaking.  But other times, those weeks are long, and tiring, and unfulfilling.

Like many women I know, one of the things that kept me in my unhappy marriage for so long was the thought of not putting my children to bed every night.  Everytime I tried to imagine what that would be like, my stomach would clench and fear would close my throat.  I was certain that living without them for part of their childhood would be far too great a sacrifice.  I read blogs and articles by women who bemoaned the temporary loss of their children and the hollow emptiness that consumed them when they viewed their children’s vacant beds on those evenings.  I sympathized with women who wrung their hands over the damage they worried they’d inflicted on their children by breaking up their families.  I wondered at women who had chosen to leave and seemed happy with their choice and contemplated if they were selfish, or uncaring, or maybe just plain bad mothers.

What’s that old adage about not judging someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes?  Oh, yeah, that one.

I know what I’m supposed to say.  I’m supposed to tell you that I miss my children every moment I’m away from them.  I’m supposed to say that my life is empty without them in it every day.  I’m supposed to be choked with guilt that I am not there for every bruise, every tear, every success in their life.  I’m supposed to say that I am sorrowful every time they leave for their dad’s and overjoyed every time they come back.

Except that I’d be lying.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love my children with every cell of my being.  The thought of harm coming to them makes me physically sick, and there is nothing — nothing — that I wouldn’t do to protect them.  I admire them and respect them and feel eternally grateful that they have given me the opportunity to be a mother.  I am in awe of what they have given me and taught me and made me.  They are probably the best thing I have ever done in my life.

But, at the same time, I spent so many years being everything that every one else wanted me to be, that now I insist — demand, even — that I be allowed to carve out a space for myself as a woman.  Not a mother.  Not a wife.  Not a daughter.  Me.

I am aware and appreciate that some women manage to be mothers and wives and daughters without sacrificing their sense of themselves, the pieces that make them unique and special and whole.  But I was not one of those women.  So now I have a lot of hard work in front of me, but it’s work that I want to do, work that I value.  And I fervently hope that, as they grow, my girls will understand that the time I take for myself is important.  I hope that my example is a constant reminder to them to value themselves and their needs and their desires, and not to forfeit those things simply to keep peace or make someone else happy or fulfill an obligation.   I want them to understand that being a strong woman doesn’t only mean surviving difficult times.  Sometimes it means making unpopular choices.  Sometimes it means putting yourself, if not first, at least on the same par as those you love.  Sometimes it means doing what you feel is right, even if it makes everyone else feel bad.

Sometimes it means being a bad mother.

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the mouse in a maze

I’m spent quite a bit of time here lately musing about truth — how we seek it, how we dodge it, whether we’re ready for it, etc.   But what about those times when we refuse to hear it?  What about those times when the truth is right in front of us, the evidence spread out before us, and we still seek to diminish it or rationalize it or excuse it away?

I’m not talking about denial here, which is, to my mind, a kind of on-going avoidance of a proven or suspected truth.  What I’m talking about is the more immediate sensation of hearing or seeing the truth, and trying to find a way around it to a more pleasant outcome.  My girl friends and I have a shorthand name for this.  We call it the mouse in a maze.

The mouse in a maze is essentially what happens when something hurtful happens and your brain struggles to make sense of it in such a way as to minimize the hurt.  Your mind races, frantically, down every corridor of possibility, trying to locate just one plausible alternative to the truth, anything that might feel better than the truth sitting in front of you.  Your imagination is like a mouse in a maze, hitting dead end after dead end, but, undeterred, turning around and heading in another direction after the much-desired cheese.  Finally, you hit upon a possibility or an alternative that just might explain away the truth that you don’t want to acknowledge or process.  And you cling to that possibility, devouring it like the mouse does the cheese.

Still not clear on the concept?  How about an illustrative hypothetical?

Let’s say that your best friend arrives on your doorstop one day, looking ashen and sad, and reports that she just saw your husband leaving a local hotel, in the middle of the day, with a stunning blonde on his arm.  They were laughing intimately and cuddling, the familiarity between them was obvious.  Your friend is devastated on your behalf and offering to help in any way possible.

And off goes the mouse!

Your brain tell you that there must be another explanation.  He simply can’t be having an affair!  It isn’t possible!  If you just think hard enough, you’ll figure this out and everything will still be okay. Your life will continue without the catastrophic disruption that this news portends.

Even though you know that he said he’d be at the office in meetings all day.  Even though the only meaningful contact the two of you have had recently involves raised voices.  Even though you don’t know any blondes that look like your friend just described.  Even though you know that you and your husband haven’t had sex in months.  Even though when you texted him an hour earlier, he’d replied that he was tied up on a conference call and couldn’t talk.

Your brain races down corridor after corridor, trying and discarding possibilities.

Maybe he had a meeting at the hotel!  Maybe the blonde is a client!  Maybe it wasn’t him at all, but just someone who looked like him and drove the same car and had the same smile!  Maybe!  Maybe!!  Maybe!!!

With pathetic frequency, my brain will pounce on a possibility — aha! — seize it, and diligently begin incorporating it into my psyche as a truth to be nurtured and protected and jealously guarded from anyone or anything that might undermine it.  Then, if left to its own devices, it would gradually morph into delusion and mature into full grown denial.  Except that I’m lucky.  I have friends who call me on my bullshit and remind me that the mouse is running in the maze.  And as soon as they do, the whole awful, wobbly facade of falseness comes crashing down and I’m drenched in the actual truth.  Which is often painful and difficult, but still preferable to the serene, eerie, and false Land of Denial.

The above hypothetical is truly that — and not part of my actual experience — but there have been plenty of equally unambiguous moments that my brain has struggled to neatly explain away.  I’ve watched my friends do the same, sometimes over and over again in a relationship before the mouse grows weary of the race and the brain sees the truth for what it is.

We want so badly to be able to trust, and we don’t want to ever be accused of jumping to conclusions or allowing our fear to get the better of us.  Plus, sometimes, we just plain love the person too much to let go of that love without a fight.  So we try mightily to find an alternative that will allow us to continue loving that person who has just hurt us, to diminish their actions to something manageable, to create an alternate reality in which they are still whom we want to believe them to be.

Sometimes the alternative truth works, but generally not for long.  Because, typically, whatever behavior unleashed the mouse the first time, will reappear again and again and the mouse will run out of corridors of possibility and collapse, exhausted, at the feet of the truth.  Those moments, in which the truth is naked and unadulterated, are blinding like the sun.

Our society certainly has plenty of residents living in the Land of Denial, and I have always been simultaneously intrigued and discouraged by those who choose to live there.  I say “choose” because it is, in fact, a choice, and one that is made anew each day.  Because as hard as it is to come to grips with the truth sometimes, denial is an even bigger bitch.  On-going, successful denial requires constant sandbagging of the shores — reinforcing those barriers to the truth — so that the alternate reality is not threatened or undermined.  It’s exhausting, lonely, and usually futile to live in Denial.  But some people become so adept at it, so practiced at locating and holding the cheese over and over again, that it becomes the only reality they actually know.

As for me, my current wish is that, as I become less fearful of the truth, I will correspondingly be less likely to release the mouse to run.  But when I slip, and my brain starts to race, I will pick up the phone and let a friend set me right.  Hopefully.

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if you need absolution, see a priest

Last year, a friend of mine betrayed me in a fashion that was so hurtful to me, it left me numb and shaken.  When he first revealed to me what he done, I thanked him for his honesty in telling me (although I would have found out eventually anyway), and explained that I was hurt and surprised and needed some time away from him.  He had, in earlier times, been a good friend and supported me through some of the darkest days I’ve faced, so I tried to get my head around his betrayal and find a path to forgiveness.  I did not want to lose his friendship and over the next several days, I genuinely struggled to find my way back to a place of trust and security with him.  But then he decided that I was taking too long, that four days was an excessive amount of time for me to be upset by his actions, and that I was making a big deal out of things just to make him feel bad and punish him.  We spent an evening exchanging emails in which he became more defensive and antagonistic, and I became more aggrieved and less sympathetic to his claims that I was mistreating him.  He accused me of withholding forgiveness just to be controlling and told me that I wasn’t be sensitive to his feelings.

At first, I was confused.  Was I being a royal bitch?  Was I some unforgiving, controlling shrew who allowed no room for mistakes or missteps in my friendships, as he said?  Was I really this awful person??

And then it dawned on me:  He knew that he’d done a terrible thing.  He had at first concealed it from me precisely because he knew that it would hurt me.  He felt guilty and bad about his actions, and he wanted me — needed me — to make it better for him.  Which is all fine and well, except for one thing: that’s not fair or right or appropriate.  It wasn’t my job to make him feel okay for having hurt me.  It wasn’t my job to absolve him of the guilt he was feeling for doing something he knew was wrong.  It wasn’t my job to pretend that I wasn’t hurting, just so that he could feel better.

I had every intention of forgiving him, and I made that clear from the beginning.  But I needed some time to process my feelings, to cry privately and care for my emotional wounds away from him and what had happened.  When he contacted me the night of the emails, I told him straight out that I hadn’t been in touch with him because I hadn’t wanted him to see my pain, because I knew that it would only make him feel worse.  He was my friend, I told him, and I had no intention of punishing him by making him share the space I was in.  But concealing my ache from him while I worked through it apparently wasn’t enough; I was simply not allowed to feel it.  I was supposed to be okay with it all, for his sake, and on his timetable, so that he would no longer feel like the jerk he’d been.  He didn’t want eventual forgiveness; he wanted immediate forgiveness.  In fact, he didn’t want forgiveness at all.  He wanted absolution, a complete clearing of the slate wherein we would never mention his action again, and I would go back to being his loving, trusting, caring friend again, without reservation or hesitation.

Absolution is a beautiful thing.  The mere idea that we can completely eliminate our sin and any consequences thereof is a comforting and idyllic concept.  Which is why devout humans look to a deity to receive it — because we simple mortals aren’t really capable of it.  The best we can achieve is complete and sincere forgiveness — the chance to move forward through our hurt and create a new tomorrow, leaving the scars of yesterday to heal over.  The expectation of anything more is, quite frankly, unreasonable and unrealistic.

None of us likes how it feels when we hurt someone.  We want their pain to be over as quickly as possible, and a sense of normalcy re-established.  But to demand it according to our needs and timeframes is unreasonable and unfeeling.  For instance, if I have cheated on a boyfriend and informed him of my infidelity, it is okay for me to then demand that he “just get over it”?  To accuse him of making too big a deal of it  just because I want it be over, past, done?   Do I get to dictate the breadth and depth of his pain, or did I relinquish that opportunity when I knowingly damaged our relationship?

Please don’t misunderstand: I don’t believe that a bad action grants the injured party the right to intentionally punish the bad actor through emotional or physical abuse, or to engage in vengeful retaliation, or to seize the mistake as an opportunity to gain on-going control and manipulation of the relationship.   In the wake of a serious injury to the relationship, it is certainly incumbent on both people to do no further harm to the relationship or each other.  Indeed, in that space, tenderness and compassion must be the guiding doctrines if the harm is to be repaired with the greatest speed and success.  But it is not okay, in my very humble opinion, for the injuring party to dictate the progress of the healing.  So long as progress is being made in a very real and sincere manner,  that should be enough.

A good friend of mine is currently going through something similar with a man she deeply cared for.  She is in pain and sad and grieving the relationship, and, merely 24 hours after breaking her heart, he is accusing her of being mean for withholding her friendship and “not getting past it.”  Seriously, dude?

Like I always say, if you need absolution, see a priest.

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