Monthly Archives: July 2011

long day’s journey into night

There is a lot of chatter lately on blogs  and among my friends about what, precisely and exactly, each of us wants and needs in a partner and out of a relationship with that partner.  I have had my own cause to once again revisit this question this week, and the contemplation of it has resulted in yet another post-divorce aha! moment for me.

In a post earlier this week, I wrote obliquely about my break-up with James (or at least I’m assuming we’ve broken up, since we are no longer speaking).  We have broken up twice before, both times by my decision, when an issue arose that I felt we could not get around and so I walked out.  Each time, he waited a while — a few weeks or months — and then reached out to me and asked that we talk through it, which we did.

After the second break-up, we talked at length about my being a flight risk and how that made him feel and how much he wanted me to talk to him about things that were bothering me, rather than assume they were unworkable and exit the relationship.  I agreed.

And so began my journey down a road I hadn’t traveled in nearly 14 years:  the road of open and honest communication about problems.  It wasn’t easy for me.  While dating my ex-husband in my 20’s, and during our subsequent 11 year marriage, I quickly learned that when I had a problem with him or our relationship, I had two choices:  1) sit down and shut up, or 2) just plain shut up.  And when I had the temerity to ask for something more than he was already offering, he responded in one of three ways: 1) he paid lip service to it (“I promise I’ll try harder,” which then lasted approximately 4-9 days before fading away); 2) he scoffed at me for being unreasonable and claimed that “every guy would feel the same way” (this one makes my guy friends want to pummel him); or 3) he would assassinate my character and hurl a litany of my own faults at me to avoid ever addressing my initial complaint.  And each time my ex-husband did this to me, I died just a little bit inside, and my love for him died with me.

I want to be clear here that I’m not generally a demanding partner; even my ex-husband’s friends used to comment that I was coolest wife they knew.  The kinds of requests that would elicit that reaction from my ex were, for example: 1) that he let me sleep in one morning on the weekend, because our preschool-age daughters were early birds and I am not, and getting up at 6:00AM seven days a week was wearing me out; 2) that he be willing to watch the children sometimes so that I could go to book club or brunch with girlfriends, without making me feel guilty about it; and 3) that we have sex at times other than first thing in the morning, because — again — I’m not usually a morning person and routine sex is… well… routine.  All three of these requests resulted in big, on-going arguments and building resentments.

Now, I’m a pretty damn smart woman.  It didn’t take me long to realize the futility in trying to talk to him.  So shutting up seemed like the least painful route, and I am ashamed to admit that I took that route for so long, that after my divorce, I really had no idea how to do things any differently.   And so walking away became easier.  If a man didn’t automatically meet my needs, or if he hurt me in any way, I simply left.  No point in sticking around and telling him about it, I’d learned, because he’d only attack me and degrade me and ignore me.

And then James came along, with his request that I not run, that I stay and work things out.  The very idea of this was daunting to me, terrifying really, after so many years.  But I knew it was the next step to having a healthy relationship.  I knew in my deepest heart that I had to learn how to do this or I would never, ever again be able to create the kind of intimacy I knew before my marriage and that I want again someday. And there was something about James… something different that made me want to try harder…. something that made me think that I could actually, just possibly, open up to this man and even fall in love with him.

So, over the last two months, I have tried.  When he has had something to say to me, I have tried to listen.  When I have hurt him, I have tried mightily to make it better and not allow resentments and hurts to simmer.  I have been far from perfect, but I have also made huge strides.  I know I am still not fully “there” yet, but I’m miles closer than I was two months ago.

I could tell that there were times when he was really trying, too.  There were  a few occasions when I approached him with things that I felt we needed to work on generally and he responded thoughtfully and kindly.  These weren’t arguments, but a means of negotiating what our relationship would be.  I was so impressed with him during those times; it was exactly the positive reinforcement I needed to keep communicating.

But it’s not all good news, or we wouldn’t be broken up, would we?

On three separate occasions in the last 7 weeks, I have been hurt or confused by something James did to me, and my inclination to cut bait and run pressed in on me.  But I resisted it.  I cared for this man.  I wanted this to work with him.  I wanted to be a good partner.  So, I gathered my courage and approached him to explain how I was feeling.  None of these things were monumental as far as relationship issues went; I knew that it might be awkward or uncomfortable.  I thought that he would listen and then respond and perhaps we’d argue a bit and then we’d come to some sort of understanding.  I didn’t expect that we would always agree, but I hoped that we could find a way to talk about our screw-ups that was respectful and loving.  I took a leap of faith that it would be different from my ex.

Except that it wasn’t.

All three times, he reacted with defensiveness and anger and leveled accusations at me before we ever even talked about whatever I’d raised.  He told me I was “backing him into a corner” or “busting his balls.”  He refused to talk about the matter I’d raised, and instead insisted that I was wrong for being upset about it.  I felt attacked and dismissed and foolish.

The first two times this happened, I rationalized his negative response and told myself that it was just because of the crap his ex had done to him or because he was out of practice in relationships, too, etc.  But this last time…. I can’t.  I just can’t.  He was downright rude and boorish to me at dinner on Friday night — cataloging my failings and faults in a manner that was half-joking and very painful — and, while he has apologized for it, he didn’t offer any explanation for his behavior or assurance that it wouldn’t happen again or indication that he hadn’t meant the hurtful things he said.   And immediately following his apology, he stopped speaking to me and didn’t respond to my last communication with him.

I have not reached out to him because I know that I cannot go back to another relationship in which I have those same two options when I’m hurt by the man I love.  I did not leave my marriage to live in a different city or find someone to mountain bike with or because I wanted to party every weekend.  I left my marriage because I had a dream of maybe, someday, somehow, being in a relationship in which I could actually speak and be heard and be treated with tenderness. It is, perhaps, my number one dealbreaker in my post-divorce relationship world.  I honestly don’t expect a man to be perfect; we are all going to screw up and be unkind at times.  But if I can’t talk to you without fear of being verbally attacked, I can’t be with you.  Period.  I didn’t save myself from one sad relationship to die slowly in another.

I have no idea what James is capable of and what he’s willing to do for the right girl.  Maybe the problem is that I’m not the right girl.  Maybe he was being nasty to me because that’s really how he feels about me.  Maybe he needs to find someone who keeps quiet like I used to.  And maybe it doesn’t matter anymore.

I could torture myself with “what if’s” and “I wish-s” but instead I am trying to embrace the clarity this experience has brought me.  I now understand, more than ever, what I need in a relationship and how very much I am willing to push myself for someone I truly care for.  I really do think that I’m a little bit closer to being able to make the kind of relationship I want happen with a man who wants that, too.  I wish it were James, I really do, but I cannot make him want the same things I do or insist that he treat me as I’d like him to.  If I never see him again, I will miss him and think about him and hope that he is finding happiness, whatever that looks like for him.  But I will also move on.  Because I have to.

Sometimes, knowing what you want out of a relationship is liberating, or energizing, or empowering.  But other times, it is painful, because it forecloses the possibilities of lots of other things.  Knowing what you want means, to a certain extent, limiting your options, eliminating that which does not meet your needs, narrowing your potential pool of mates.   And when that elimination includes the man who was in your life a week ago… well, that’s even more painful.

This journey I’m on is a long one, and a few weeks ago, I felt the warmth of the sun as my heart slowly opened and bloomed for the first time in a very, very long time.  But now, I am once again in the dark of night, and my heart is closed and my defensive walls are up.  I am fighting the tendency to overgeneralize and assume that all men are like my ex-husband or that I am only worthy of that kind of dismissive treatment.  I am struggling to focus on the valuable lessons I learned during my time with James.  I am resisting the fantasy that he will call and make all of this okay somehow.

And I’m hoping that the sun shows up again.  Soon.

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Filed under dating, divorce, general musings, healing, love, personal growth, relationships, sadness, single mom

mommy, lost

I just tucked in my 10-year-old daughter, Sabrina, and her friend Colby, who is spending the night with us.  I sat on the edge of the bed and said prayers with Sabrina and watched an array of emotions play across the face of her friend.  My daughter must have sensed it, too, for she reached across and took Colby’s hand in a quiet act of tenderness that broke my heart just a little bit more.

Because Colby’s mother is battling Stage 3 ovarian cancer, and, so far, it’s winning.

I saw her mother today — a lovely, upbeat, kind-hearted woman named Esme who, thoughout her ordeal, has hardly voiced a single complaint to me.  Esme tried radiation, but it failed to arrest the cancer, and so now they are throwing chemo at the beast.  She has lost all her hair, even her eyebrows, and her face has taken on the artificial fullness associated with chemo bloating, but her smile is bright and she is determinedly optimistic.  I am in awe of her.

In contrast to her mother’s softness and sunniness, her little girl is not an easy child to get close to.  Colby can be difficult, mouthy, and disrespectful.  Thanks to the influence of a 17-year-old sister, she is wise beyond her years and in ways that my own 10-year-old finds off-putting and confusing.  But Colby is still a little girl, struggling with something that I, more than 30 years her senior, cannot fathom dealing with — losing a mother.

My mother and I have a complicated relationship.  It has been good and it has been bad, but it has never been easy.  Even so, I love her dearly and would miss her desperately.  Her love is a constant and a beacon and a touchstone on which I have relied for nearly my entire life. I was never so afraid as the night she called to tell me she’d been diagnosed with four (that’s right, FOUR) autoimmune disorders.  I stayed up half the night researching them on the internet and torturing myself with worst case scenarios.

And I was 35 at the time.  Colby is 10 and a half.

I have no idea what to say to Colby about her mother’s illness.  I have no idea how to comfort her or what to offer her or how to be present for her as she moves through this confusing and frightening time.  I know that other parents feel the same way.  Although Esme is well-liked, her daughter is generally not, and I can see the other mothers wrestling with my hesitancy, too.  What do you do for a child who is not easy to love?

I’m not sure, to be honest.  For now, I am simply opening my home to her.  I have talked to Sabrina about what Colby is going through and encouraged her to be supportive but also acknowledged that she cannot fix this for Colby, nor should she allow Colby to take advantage of her simply because of her sad situation.  I have instructed my nanny to be patient with Colby and helpful to Esme and to keep me informed of anything she hears or sees.  And I have signed up for the neighborhood dinner delivery group to help Esme on her chemo days.

But I cannot make this stop for either of them.

When I place myself in Esme’s situation, my throat closes and my heart pounds in my chest.  Not for the hypothetical loss of my own life, but for the excruciating pain in having to leave my girls too soon.  The very thought of having to say goodbye to them, to leave them without my love and wisdom and guidance and nurturing is almost too hurtful to contemplate.  And yet, surely Esme is having to do just that.  What must play through her mind in her quiet moments?  How is she strong enough to let Colby go for the evening and stay with us, when her own nights with her are likely numbered?  How do you simultaneously keep living, even as you plan for possibly dying?  And finally, how the hell do you carry your daughter through an uncertain nightmare that you’re stuck in as well?

Again, I am in awe of her.

I know the statistics for recovery from stage 3 ovarian cancer, and they are bleak.  I have no idea what will become of Esme or Colby.  I wonder at how random the brutality of cancer is.  And I hope for the best.

In the meantime, I pray passionately for a little girl named Colby and the mommy she is so terrified of losing.

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Filed under general musings, parenthood, personal growth, sadness

grown up

When I was a kid, I couldn’t wait to be a grown-up.  When I was a grown-up, I would be “finished.”  I would know everything I needed to know, be free to do whatever I chose, and never, ever cry again because I could solve all my problems myself.  I was pretty sure I’d never worry about anything or have to do anything I didn’t want to do.  All in all, is it any wonder that kids are in such a hurry to be a grown-up?

But here’s the thing:  we’re never “finished,” are we?  There’s no final finish line we get to cross, after which life is an endless joy.  There’s no end to the “character-building moments” and “life lessons” and “fresh starts.”

This is a chronic struggle for me… grasping the idea that there isn’t a finish line, except for possibly death (but even that’s only a transition, in my mind).  I want to be “done.”  I want to have it all settled.  I want to know what it’s going to be each and every day from here on.

Except that I don’t.  Because as much as I crave stability and certainty, I get bored incredibly easily.  I want to — need to — be constantly learning and growing and changing or I quickly grow tired of myself.  I have the demeanor of someone who is cautious, but I have always surprised people with the leaps of faith that I have taken.  The truth is, my head may prefer the carousel, but my heart knows I can’t live without the roller coaster.

That’s not to say that I’m fickle or unable to permanently attach to people or places, because I am quite the opposite.  I have more than one friend whom I have known since I was in diapers, and, although I love traveling, moving from place to place holds no real allure for me.  I was always the girl with the long-term boyfriend when I was younger, and I’m still acquainted with most of the men who ever claimed me as their girlfriend.  It isn’t different faces or horizons I need, but people and places who continually challenge me.

Hmmm…

Having said that, even as I sit here, waxing philosophical on my keyboard, I have to admit that I hate the uncertainty of life.  I have finally grown up enough that I don’t seek an ending just to have one, but I am no more comfortable than I ever was with allowing it to unfold gradually.  I want a crystal ball that tells me how this relationship will end or what my next career move will be or whether my breasts will tragically begin to sag as I age.  I want to know if my children will be okay, whether my parents will pass peacefully in their sleep, when my next appliance will fail.  Sometimes I am amazed by those people who seem to have everything under control… as if they really do have a red phone to the universe that informs them of every bump and hurdle in advance, so that they can handle it all with an aplomb that makes the rest of us look like Keystone Cops in our own lives.  How do they seem to anticipate every problem and come prepared, like some eternal Boy Scout?  In my pettier moments, I suspect these people are simply so anal-retentive that they spend every waking minute preparing for every possible outcome and thus convince the rest of us that they are divinely competent and capable.  Similarly, I envy and admire the people who can delight in the uncertainty,  the unknown, the blind spot, even as I skeptically wonder if such people truly exist or if their bravado is simply concealing the same mild angst I feel.

Don’t get me wrong, for the most part, these are not things that I lose sleep over.  But they do trip me up and send me sprawling onto the metaphorical floor with a complete lack of grace that unnerves me. And so, I wonder…

I wonder if there will ever be a time when I feel as if I have figured any of the important stuff out.  I wonder if I will ever be free from the self-criticism of “I should have known.”  I wonder if I will ever feel completely competent and fearless and in-charge.  In short, I wonder if I’ll ever be a grown-up.

And I think we all know the answer to that is no;  I’ll continue to be a work in progress and a child at heart.  And I guess that’s just as it should be.

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stop selling yourself short

Sometime in the last few weeks, I made another major breakthrough.  My goddess of a therapist pointed it out to me this week.  I finally started owning myself.  Not owning my bad deeds or my failures (I’m pretty decent at that, these days), but owning my place in my relationship with James.  Sometime recently, I stopped wondering why he is with me or whether he will stick around or whether I can trust that what we’re creating is real rather than fantasy.  As my therapist pointed out to me, I am finally owning my place in this relationship.  I am finally owning what it is he sees in me and what I bring to our relationship and allowing myself to believe that I am worthy of this kind of happiness.   I have finally relaxed and allowed ease and joy and acceptance into my view of this relationship.

And the results are amazing.

But they didn’t come easily.  My last 2 1/2 years are littered with relationships that were “almost” or “kinda.”  Men who had “potential” but not much else.  Lots of second (and third, cringe!) chances and “why not?”-s and excuses for men who would not or could not offer me what I wanted or needed.  Granted, what I needed during that time was constantly evolving, but that will always be true, won’t it?

Finding someone who has the same relationship dream as you is not easy.  Especially at this age.  It’s not all about getting married, having a couple of kids and a nice house and a few vacations each year.  Relationships are more diverse and complicated than they were in our twenties.  But what hasn’t changed?  You still can’t fit a square peg into a round hole, no matter how much you pound it with your mallet.  If it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t fit.

I think that getting to the relationship you want is like having a door in front of you and an endless supply of keys to try in the lock.  Sometimes you might find a key that is super shiny, or made of beautiful materials, or heavy and solid and secure.  Some keys won’t even slide into the lock, but many others will.  But very, very, very few will actually turn it.  I have spent a lot of time staring at beautiful keys that were worthless for my door.

I am currently watching many of  my friends struggle with relationships that range from “kinda” to “almost” what they want and I am amazed at how we all do the same things.  How we rationalize and excuse and ignore the stuff we don’t want to see in favor of the stuff we do.

Just to be clear, I do this as much as anybody.  In fact, once I realized it last year, I became over-vigilant about not doing it.  It has been exactly this tendency that has held me back in my relationship with James — I was so busy trying to avoid rationalizing and excusing and ignoring things I shouldn’t about him that I wasn’t really letting myself go.  I had become so aware of my tendency to fall for the fantasy, that I couldn’t accept that the reality could actually be good… or even better.  I didn’t trust myself to make good choices because I’d made some pretty lousy ones before.

Some of those choices involved genuinely bad people….people I cannot believe and am ashamed to admit that I allowed into my life during a particularly desperate or needy or sad time in my life.  I don’t have many regrets, but some of those people were truly not worthy of my time or attention.  One of my dearest friends is going through something similar right now.  “Katrina” is trying to let go of a man we have both known for many decades.  When we were teenagers, he was a wonderful person; truly one of my favorite people and her first true love.  Now, it makes me sad to acknowledge that he has turned into a liar and a player and a charmer who seems genuinely incapable of offering any intimacy to any women he dates.  His temper is frightening and his behavior unpredictable.  But Katrina is struggling to let go of her lifelong fantasy of the two of them ending up together.  If they did, it would be horrible for her, but her heart will not let go of the memory of him as a great guy, and the alluring fantasy of them being together forever.

Not all bad choices involve bad people. Sometimes they’re just about good people who don’t want the same things we do, or don’t want those things with us.  That can be particularly hard to swallow and very easy to internalize as a personal failure.  But it really isn’t personal, is it?  It’s like going into a shop and finding that they don’t have what you’re looking for, even though they have a lot of beautiful things.  It’s an easy analogy to stomach, but much harder when it is your heart that someone bypasses.  When we offer someone all we have and they decide it’s not what they want…. well, that’s pretty brutal.

I guess a lot of dating, at least for women, involves trying to turn a relationship that isn’t what we want into something that we do want.  I don’t know why we do this, but we do.  It’s a phenomenal waste of our time, but I guess it’s also good practice for relating when we finally do stumble upon someone who wants what we want.

We all want to believe that we are special, different, important enough to this man in front of us that he will rise to the occasion and be the Jerry McGuire who can’t live without us.  We believe that if we only care enough, he will come to his senses and fulfill the potential to be the amazing partner we all know he can be.

But let’s be honest for a minute:  how many of us know of such a man?  How many times, in your actual life, have you seen a man rise to the occasion or come to his senses or any other such redemption?  Because I’ve never seen it.  Never once.  I’ve seen men make dramatic and significant changes in their lives and themselves, but never for the woman who waited patiently by their side for it to happen.

I thought I saw it once.  A college friend of mine, “Tracy,” dated this amazing guy off and on all the way through college.  He was hot and sexy and enough of a bad boy that you could totally understand why Tracy couldn’t let go of him despite the lying and cheating and general disrespect she endured.  Finally, in senior year, he appeared to have an epiphany and righted his ways.  We were all floored and happy for her.  Two years later they married.  Four years after that, they divorced.  Because he was lying, cheating, and being generally disrespectful.  Sad, yes.  Shocking, no.

I realize now, looking back, that one of the necessary steps for me in my process in the last year has been to walk away from relationships that weren’t offering me what I wanted and needed, even though the men involved didn’t want me to go.  It was tempting to stay and imagine that things would get better… that he would change… that I would change… that it would all work out and be wonderful.  But deep down, I knew it wasn’t real.  I knew if I stayed, I’d be selling myself short and selling out my dream.  So, as scared as I was, I turned and walked.  And damn, it was hard.

I know that all of my friends who are balancing all these feelings and needs and wants and desires will get there too.  We all sell ourselves short sometimes.  I am certainly not extraordinary; I am just ahead chronologically.  And when they reach the other side, I will delight in their healthy, fulfilling, happy relationships and laugh with them about what they hell they were thinking.  Just as they have with me.

Because that’s what we all do, isn’t it?

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how dare you

Not too long ago, I was randomly blog-surfing, and what I found amazed me:  blog after blog written by a divorced person, full of vitriol and hatred for their former spouse.  It wasn’t the anger that surprised me — I understand and accept that divorce breeds a lot of anger — it was the intensity, the duration, and most of all, the basis for it:  most of these posts to which I am referring could be summed up as “How dare you stop loving me?!”

As I read one after another, I was first amazed and then saddened by how summarily and brutally these writers labeled their former spouses as “evil” or “ruthless” or (my personal favorite) “demonic.”  Several times, I took a step back and tried to uncover the cardinal sins committed by these damned husbands and wives, but rarely was it one of the obvious Unforgivables.  Most often it was the more common and intangible “drifting apart,” “feeling unappreciated,” “unhappiness with the marriage,” or “feeling like she lost her identity.”  These reasons were universally dismissed by the writers as being insufficient grounds for leaving the marriage.  No, they insisted, their former spouses are simply evil.

Hmmmm……

I used to work with families whose children had been abducted, usually for sexual purposes.  I don’t need to be educated on the presence and power of evil.  I’ve seen it and felt it and know how real it is.  So let’s get a little perspective, shall we?

But I can forgive the hyperbole.  Love — and hate — makes people crazy.  Emotions are powerful and we are all their slave at one time or another. Anger is a completely natural expression of pain, and expressing it is the only way to purge it.  I understand that.  What I don’t understand is staying crazy, wallowing in it, embracing it as your actual reality for months or years.  That part is incomprehensible to me.

What I hear when I read these diatribes is this:  I don’t care if you (my husband or wife) was unhappy or miserable or even suicidal (don’t laugh; I’ve had several women confide to me that their thoughts of desperation and hopelessness went that far, and I was nearly there in my own marriage…).  I don’t care if I wasn’t meeting your needs or if you told me so a million times or if you did seven years of couples counseling with me (again, don’t laugh; one poor blogger did exactly that).  All I care about is that you dared to take your love away from me after you promised that you wouldn’t.

I don’t mean to be a complete bitch, but to that I have to say:  So sad, too bad.

The marriage contract is not indentured servitude.  You aren’t stuck until the other person decides that you’ve earned the right to leave.  None of us is entitled to another person’s love or physical companionship, but that’s really what so many of these rants sound like to me.  They honestly and genuinely sound as though the departed partners should have stayed, no matter their feelings, no matter the state of the marriage, no matter what.

I understand that marriage used to be exactly that — you stayed no matter what.  But then society evolved and most people began to agree that a physically abused spouse should not be required to remain in such a marriage…nor should a spouse who has been cheated on…or one who is saddled with their partner’s addiction issues.  And so, gradually, more and more acceptable reasons for divorcing emerged, and the concept of the “no-fault” divorce arrived when it became clear that most of the time, marriages did not end because one party was a “victim” and the other was “evil.”  Most of the time, it was just a long, sad road to Irreconcilable Differences.

What’s particularly interesting to me is that, in the abstract, most reasonable people can agree on the wisdom of these premises.  They can nod sagely and agree that a person who feels stuck in a sad or loveless marriage for many years should not be expected to serve a life sentence.  They can be supportive of friends who leave their marriages because the love was no longer was there.  But when it is applied to their own relationships, the polarizing categories of “good” and “evil” are resurrected.

This form of hypocrisy was evident to me from a very young age.  When I was growing up, my mother had many divorced friends and she was always accepting and non-judgmental of their reasons for having left their marriages. But when my father left, after spending four years explaining to her that he simply didn’t love her anymore and couldn’t stay in the marriage, she was furious beyond all reason or sense.  And she stayed furious for many, many years.  Even now, more than 20 years later, she still can barely say his name without clenching her teeth.  By her calculations, he had no right to stop loving her after he promised he wouldn’t.  He broke that promise, and so he is an awful person.

My friend Annie’s husband is another fine example of this.  Even though Annie worked really hard to stay in her marriage — marriage and individual counseling, self-help books, the support of family and friends, and various attempts to reconnect with him emotionally and physically — he told her recently that he would never forgive her for leaving.  Apparently she was supposed to simply suck it up and swallow her sadness and hopelessness and carry on for his sake?

Is that really the deal we strike when we marry?  Am I really to believe that because I promise to love you always, I must do so no matter how you treat me or make me feel?  Am I required to accept whatever efforts you make and just assume that is your best and highest effort at saving our marriage, or am I — like you — permitted to judge those efforts and find them insufficient?  Why are you allowed to say that I didn’t try hard enough to save our marriage but I am not permitted to level the same accusation at you?

I think that it is precisely this ability — perhaps even propensity — to embrace such a self-righteous posture that may be a common denominator among many failed marriages.  What I mean is this:  maybe people who are capable of and willing to villify their exes are more likely to be left.  Would that really be so surprising?

In my dating life, I gradually developed a rule about not dating men who’d been left by their wives unless there was a really good reason (e.g. she was mentally ill or unstable) or the circumstances giving rise to the marriage’s demise had changed (e.g. he used to be a workaholic and has since created a better work/life balance).  This wasn’t a rule based on prejudice or a lack of empathy, but of too many dates listening to men rail against their exes and slowly reveal to me her very good justifications in leaving him.  And of course there are huge and important exceptions — there always are.  But in my experience, they are exactly that — exceptions.

Hate blogging someone is human.  It’s simply the latest version of what has gone on after break-ups for eons.  But hate blogging someone for eternity is not human.  It might just be evil.

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Filed under divorce, general musings, marriage, relationships

grieving before leaving

Last night I spent some time with my friend Lindsay, who is in town visiting.  A few months ago, she moved 1500 miles away from here to take an amazing job opportunity in the Pacific Northwest.  At the time, she was incredibly frightened about what the move would mean for she and Gray, her husband, but she was also hopeful that it would be the fresh start that they so desperately needed.  I wrote about my sadness in watching her go in I already miss her.

Seeing her last night was wonderful.  She looked amazing and her new job is everything she wanted and deserves and more.   We talked as if the time and distance between us did not exist, and I was so very grateful to be in her presence again.

But it was also very sad.  Because she is very sad.  Her marriage is crumbling around her and she is awash in the myriad of emotions that accompany that experience.  She vacillates between wanting — truly and completely — to save her marriage, and feeling almost certain that it is too late.  We sat at a cafe in the twilight by the creek, and I watched the candlelight play off her face and listened to her voice crack as she struggled to get the words out, and my heart broke for her.  I don’t know what her outcome will be, but I know that she is miserable and desperate for change and feeling hopeless, and those are all feelings I know all too well.

She has tried to reach her husband.  They have had some heart-wrenching, honest, no-holds-barred talks and each time she comes away convinced — certain! — that her marriage can be saved and they have finally turned a corner.  But within a week, the momentum is lost and their relationship has backslid into complacency and despair and silence.

Lindsay is grieving, and she’s only partly aware of it.  She is grieving her marriage and the end of all their mutual hopes and dreams.  She is processing the past and contemplating the future and considering her options.  Her heart and mind are engaged and attentive to their situation.  She is not passively awaiting some conclusion or resolution of their problem.

But Gray? As best she can tell, he has resigned himself.  She is frustrated that he doesn’t seem to see what is happening to them, that he is resigned to their situation and appears willing to live in that dismal space forever.

A few years ago I would have been puzzled and unconvinced by Gray’s apparent attitude toward their problems.  He couldn’t possibly not see it, could he??  He must realize what’s happening, mustn’t he???

Now I know better.

Between the work I’ve done in therapy and lots of reading on relationship ambivalence and my own observations,  I have realized that men and women face the end of relationships differently.  This is especially true of men and women over the age of 40.  Most women are proactive about examining their relationships, whereas most men are passive.  Men seem to mostly assume that things will be fine, or at least stay the same, while most women seem to think that things will have to change and get better or else they will leave.  I think this is why most men I know are surprised and stunned by the end of their marriages, while their wives report feeling like they were shouting at the top of their lungs for years before it ended.

I was one such wife.  I — quite literally and sincerely — informed my husband during our first year of marriage that if he continued to tell me I was stupid and treat me as such, I would be gone 10 years from then.  I loved him enough to want to work it out, but I made it clear that I knew myself well enough to know that I wouldn’t live like that forever.  Over the course of our 11-year marriage, I reminded him.  Each time he apologized and acknowledged it and then…. nothing changed.

I think he, and many of my male friends, assume that the wedding contract is non-negotiable.  You signed on, you’re in it, the rest is just details.  Including whatever misery you might be in.

The best example of this is a man I used to be friends with named John.  John cheated on his wife throughout their 14-year marriage and spent considerable energy detailing her every failing. The space between them gradually opened to form an enormous emotional chasm, but he was basically okay with things and, although he talked about leaving, it was clear he never would.  Then his wife, Heidi, came home from a trip to visit family and announced that she was leaving him.  From that moment onward, Heidi seemed to lighten.  Her depressed state lifted and she moved forward, and out of their marriage.  Meanwhile, John was stunned.  Truly speechless and in utter disbelief.  And I was stunned that he was stunned.  Their marriage had been a mess for many, many years.  Heidi’s needs and feelings had played second fiddle to everything else in their lives for ages, and yet he was shocked that she was leaving.  I hardly knew what to say to him.

Someone once told me that when a man in his 40’s says he wants a divorce, you need to call a marriage counselor; but when a woman in her 40’s says she wants a divorce, you need to call a lawyer.  Because when we say we’re done, we’re really and truly done.

Every divorced woman I know spent months if not years being unhappy and grieving her marriage before she finally left.  I don’t know a single woman who made the decision impulsively or without enormous angst.  I also don’t know a single woman who regrets that decision.

Granted, my survey is by no means scientific, and it absolutely can apply in the reverse — there are women who feel blindsided while their husbands feel like it was years in coming, too.   But my point — and one that is borne out in psychological literature on divorce — is that 40-something women who leave tend to process quite a bit of their divorce before they leave.   To a very large extent, much of their grieving and pain occurs while they are still in the marriage.  Which is why, I think, so many men feel like their wives simply stroll out of the marriage without a glance back or a tear shed.  What they are missing is the simple and sad fact that she is already months ahead of him in her grief process, while he is only just beginning.  The pain and reality is fresh and new and harsh to him.  It is accepted and familiar and well-worn to her.

This is not a scientific white paper on divorce psychology, so I am necessarily making gross generalizations, but I think they are useful as a jumping off point when considering why men and women experience the demise of their marriages so differently.  Lindsay is lost in a morass of “what next?” s, while Gray is sitting with sad resignation.  Their experiences of this moment in their marriage are very different.

Sadly, I think that Lindsay will ultimately leave, because Gray has made it fairly clear that he is not interested in working on their marriage.  But she’s not ready yet.  She has a lot of processing and feeling and grieving to do before she’s going to be able to take that step away from him.  In the meantime, he is likely to continue assuming that their marriage, while far from good, is perfectly stable.  And when she finally goes to him and enumerates her reasons for leaving, he will be shocked.

And I will be sad for both of them.

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jinx

I can be very superstitious.  Especially about dating.  There are certain things that, if I do them, seem to doom the relationship.  I know it sounds silly, but it’s uncannily consistent, and I suspect I’m not the only one to whom these things happen.

I’ve written before of the diabolical effects that food has on my relationships — if I provide a man a meal, either by cooking it myself or dropping large coin on the dinner tab, the night will inevitably end with me in tears.  I used to think that perhaps it was my less-than-fabulous culinary skills, but I’ve since realized that it extends to the best chefs in Boulder, so apparently it’s not my cooking.  And before you go thinking that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, let me assure you that several times I have forgotten this particular jinx, found myself crying at the end of the evening, and had to back-track to figure out what went wrong.  “Ah!  You stupid idiot!  You bought him oysters again! Duh!”

Perhaps the most annoying jinx — due to the sheer inconvenience of it — is that I cannot put a man I am romantically interested in into my list of favorites in my phone.  I have no idea why the fates insist that I dial his number every single time, but there you have it.  If I favorite his number, the relationship will most definitely fall apart with a day or two.  Guaranteed.  Don’t believe me?   I offer as exhibit A the time I favorited the guy I’d been dating for months, only to have him take off the next day for a weekend getaway with a stripper.  And, no, I’m not kidding.  Exhibit B:  the guy who surprised me with the unexpected declaration that he loved me and wanted to have babies with me and live happily ever after?  The next day I put his number on my favorites list and didn’t hear from him again for a year.   Seriously.

I have put James’ number on my favorites list twice; and we have broken up — twice.  You do the math.  I almost put James’ number on my favorites list last week and then thought the better of it…. which certainly explains the recent near-miss we had.

But the one jinx that I really hate the most is the jinx on acknowledging my own happiness in a relationship.  I don’t know why, but as soon as I begin to think that a relationship truly has legs and might not crumble at the slightest difficulty, as soon as I really trust that it’s real, that’s when it disappears.  Poof!  Gone.  And so I am guarded.  Afraid to really embrace my own contentment and joy.  My good friends know this and mostly shrug it off.  “How are things going with James?”  they say.  “Pretty good, I guess,” I say.  “Oh my gosh!” they laugh, “Will you just enjoy it, already?!”  Uh huh.  They don’t have the jinx….

The jinx holds me back.  I have been hesitant to write too much about James… fearful that the moment I wax poetic about how he makes me laugh or how I love kissing him or how safe I feel in his arms…. Poof!  Gone.  But I am all too aware of my jinx and how quickly this might disappear.  So I will continue dialing his number and trying to avoid buying him food and exercising only cautious optimism around our relationship.  Because I really, really don’t want this one to disappear.

Really, really.

Oh, and by the way, this is the second time I have had to write this particular post.  The first time?  I hit “Save Draft” and my computer crashed immediately.  Coincidence?  I think not…..

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the pre-destined ending

We humans seem to be intrigued by the “what if.”  The idea that we could have altered our choices if we only had had the information afforded to us by hindsight is a tantalizing and compelling contemplation.  Most of the time, we enter into relationships with truly no idea of what the end might be, or how it might come about, or what we might feel when it does end.

But what about the times when we do know?  When the most likely — even highly probable — outcome is very clear from the outset?  Why do we still venture down the path?  What is it that compels us to do something we strongly suspect is not in our own emotional best interest?

The most obvious example of this situation is an affair.  I suspect few of us know of affairs that produced a “happy ending.”  (I myself do actually know of a few, but they are special in a lot of other ways, too.)  Most affairs end badly; which type of “badly” is the only real variable.  And yet, every day, more couples step down that path, even though the ultimate outcome is typically clear to even the most casual observer.

I have a single friend who is contemplating a relationship with a man who is polyamorous.  For the uninitiated, polyamory is the practice of or belief in having more than one intimate sexual relationship simultaneously, with the knowledge and consent of all involved.  It’s not the same as screwing around — it’s not simply about sex — it’s about having actual physical and emotional relationships with more than one person at a time.  It may or may not include multiple sex partners in a given encounter, but it usually doesn’t.  The easiest way of thinking of it is like polygamy without the marriages.

This friend is of mine is not polyamorous.  She is most definitely a one-woman/one-man kind of girl.  She is not even particularly comfortable dating more than one man at a time beyond a date or two. But she likes this man in question.  And so she is thinking about it.  To his credit, he has been completely frank about his beliefs and his preferences, and he has not pressured her or judged her or reacted defensively.  Which, of course, only makes him more attractive and interesting in her eyes….

But for most of us, the end for these two seems pretty clear and awfully likely, doesn’t it?  So why is she even thinking about it?

Lately, I have noticed a lot of people talking and writing about how our hearts don’t follow what our minds tell us to do.  The heart/mind disconnect is amazingly powerful and stubborn.  For some it manifests as behavior that is entirely out of character for them under “normal” circumstances; for others, it is the pursuit of something they know or believe to be wrong for them.  Either way, the explanation provided is usually some version of “I just can’t help myself.”

Sometimes I think we venture down that path for the best of reasons.  I know that I’ve often been aware, from a metaphysical perspective, that perhaps my course of action will likely end in my own heartbreak, and yet I feel that there are lessons to be learned along that path, wisdom to be gained, that will make it worth the trip.  That rationale tends to work best when embarking on the journey and with the benefit of removed hindsight; it usually doesn’t hold much water when I’m sobbing and hating myself for my choice.

I am constantly astounded at the romanticism all around me.  How much we all want to believe that we are different, that our relationship is different from the norm, that it will not have the obvious outcome but will surprise everyone and defy the odds.   That it — and we, by extension — is special.  I have been as guilty as anyone of this sweet delusion at times, and I cannot say that I would not be again, given the right set of circumstances.

And just as the Vegas oddsmakers understand, we believe in the jackpot because it is possible.   It truly is.  Of course it doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. Sometimes.  To some people.  So why not me, we ask ourselves, why couldn’t my relationship be the one that defies those pesky odds?

As I’ve often said, I love a happy ending.  And I love it even more when it overcomes the naysayers and the critics and the doubters.  In their own ways, every relationship that lasts another day is its own happy ending.  Because every single one has the odds stacked heavily against it.  I guess, like a good gambler, the key is being able to evaluate the nature and quality of those odds.

I know, for myself, that I could not get involved with a polyamorous man at this point in my life.  I know what I want and the polyamory choice is diametrically opposed to some of the most important aspects of what I’m looking for.  So it wouldn’t work for me.

But what about my friend?  Perhaps she will decide similarly.  Or perhaps not.  Perhaps she’ll take a leap of faith and play the odds.  Perhaps she’ll let her heart drown out her mind.

And perhaps she’ll hit the jackpot.  Or perhaps not.

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dibs

Sometimes dating in your 40’s is like a surreal trip through time.  This is especially true when you’re dealing with people who are suddenly single for the first time since their mid-20’s.

My friend Annie recently met a new guy with whom she really clicked.  If you’ve spent any time dating in your 40’s, you know how rare this is…. Seriously.  Knowing what you finally want is something of a mixed blessing; it makes it much more difficult to settle for less.  But I digress….

So, Annie met Noah and they hit it off.  He seemed to like her, too, and they made arrangements to get together for lunch or drinks or a hike.  Then the call came in from Annie’s friend Candace.  Candace explained that she’d noticed Annie and Noah talking, and she just felt that she needed to tell Annie that she had actually been interested in Noah for many years and cared for him quite a bit.  She told Annie that if anything was going on between Annie and Noah, she’d rather not know about it.

Annie is a very nice person.  Occasionally too nice.  She immediately felt bad for Candace and promised to stay away from Noah. Candace was relieved and appreciative, and Annie was…. disappointed and confused.  So she called me.

And I called bullshit.

What Candace had done — plain and simple — was called dibs on a man.  And I had all kinds of problems with it.

Let’s start with the fact that Candace and Annie aren’t even good enough friends for Annie to have known that Candace was crushing on Noah.  It never came up.  Because they aren’t that close.  They are somewhere in that gray area between friends and acquaintances.

Next, let’s consider the fact that Candace has had years to make something happen with Noah and to no avail.  If I knew Candace well enough, I’d let her know that no single man in his 50’s is that clueless.  If he wanted her, he’d have had her by now.  Period.

Finally, how about the fact that we live in a fairly small community with a very limited dating pool.  If we all start putting dibs on every guy that we feel something about, not much dating is going to happen.

I don’t mean to be harsh.  Honestly.  I feel for Candace; I really do.  Crushing on someone who’s not crushing back is brutal.  But it’s also life.  And it’s definitely dating life.  You accept it, you get over it, you move on.  You don’t pee on your territory to warn off other potential mates.

So, that’s what I told Annie.  And after a few other people said the same thing and Noah kept pursuing her, she was wavering.  And then a second call came from Candace:  Candace and Noah had met for lunch, and Noah had basically told Candace outright that he was not interested in a romantic relationship with her.   It’s unclear why Candace told Annie this, but it was enough to get Annie to reconsider her position, and she agreed to meet Noah for a platonic outing, with her kids in tow.  Nothing romantic, just a chance to see if there was anything at all there…

And then came the second phone call.  This time it was from Annie’s friend Denise, letting her know that Candace was pretty upset by all of this and that she (Denise) thought that Annie was being insensitive.  “Couldn’t you just wait six months?”  Denise asked. “Why this guy?  There are other guys….”

And, once again, I called bullshit.

Denise is a really lovely woman with a warm heart and a caring personality.   But she is at the very beginning of her divorce and hasn’t dated at all yet.  Her advice frequently reminds me of the well-intentioned and misguided advice I used to give my single friends when I was still married.  It’s caring and compassionate, but not realistic.

I pointed out to Annie that I’m not sure what 6 months would do for Candace… she’d been crushing on Noah for years; what was going to be different 6 months from now?  And yes, of course there are other men.  But meeting someone you click with is rare enough to deserve at least a little bit of examination.

I also drove home the fact that Noah had made his interests and intentions as clear as possible.  Finally, I noted that it seemed like an awful lot of people (myself included) were weighing in on whether Annie and Noah should date, when Annie and Noah hadn’t even figured that out yet.  I mean, really?  I was beginning to feel like we were passing notes in 8th grade geometry class.

Annie decided to give it a try with Noah, and so they are doing what unattached grown-ups do:  they are spending time together to determine if there is enough between them to warrant spending more time together.  Without any permission from any of the rest of us, which seems about right to me.

I am well aware that there are going to be people out there who disagree with me on this one, and I want to be clear that I respect and support girlfriend solidarity.  I don’t date my friends’ exes and I don’t compete with my friends for male attention.  I would never try to take a guy from a good friend, whether he liked her or not.  Indeed, with besties, I follow a “no pain at all” principle:  if my being with him is going to hurt one of  the people most dear to me, he’s not worth it.  But that is a distinction I reserve for my very dearest friends.  However, even with a not-so-close friend, I wouldn’t consider dating the guy if I thought she still had any chance at all with him.  In fact, even if I were out with an acquaintance and we met a guy at the same time and she let me know that she liked him, I’d step back and let her take the first run at him.  But if he made it clear he wasn’t interested and the friend is not a particularly close one?  Then no dibs.  Men are not dresses on a rack; the “I saw it first” approach doesn’t fly with me.

Who knows what will happen with Annie and Noah, but what I do know is that they are both unattached adults with an interest in one another.  And really, none of the rest is anyone else’s business.

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dating without a license

In my opinion, Keanu Reeves isn’t much of an actor, but he has a scene in the movie “Parenthood” that is a classic in my mind.  In it, he is in the kitchen with Dianne Wiest, rightly explaining how wrong it is that “you have to have a license to drive a car or own a dog, but any asshole can be a father.”  It would be equally true and no less ironic if he had said, “Any asshole can date.”

I am not railing here against the men I have dated; in fact, I am turning the finger around.  Because I am terrible at romantic relationships.  It is amazing to me how rusty my relationship skills are after 13 years in a relationship that taught me only to shut up and go with it or life would be an uncomfortable, critical journey.  I never had an opportunity to learn how to make things work when they start falling apart.  I never had the opportunity to trust that if I express a need to my partner, it might just be filled.  I never had a sense that someone might still love me, even if I challenged them or stood my ground or said my peace.  I never had a time where I could talk to my partner and actually feel heard.  These are things you’d think I would have learned in a marriage as long as mine, but nope.  Didn’t happen.  I feel as if I am constantly stumbling along, trying to figure out what everyone else my age seems to intuitively know.

If there were a dating short bus, I’d be on it.

The crazy part is that I’m really good at other relationships — with family, with friends, and I flat out rock at work.  Communication, working through problems, receiving and doling out criticism… seriously, I’m really, really good at it.  Those who know me best are especially bemused by my dating stories.  I’m an only-child Capricorn; I’ve been a “grown-up” since I was six.  I’m the member of my family who has it all together.  I’m the mother hen at work; even my boss asks my advice on everything.  But put me in the midst of a problem in my romantic life and I’m vainly reaching for my copy of Dating for Dummies.  It’s ridiculous.

This week, when James and I hit a huge hurdle, it was kind of impossible for me to imagine getting over it.  But everyone around me seemed to take in stride that we’d talk through it, get to the bottom of things, and figure out how to get past it.  “It’s just a bump,” they said.  “You’ll work through it.”  Really?!  People actually DO that??? In real life???

If I can get out of my head and my pain long enough to apply what I know from the other areas of my life, I have to admit that I’m consistently amazed at the outcomes.  How strange it is to apply those tools and approaches to my romantic relationship and actually achieve productive results.  Such was not the case in my marriage; I tried lots of different approaches, but nothing ever truly worked.  At least I’m finally beginning to figure out what does.  Still, it’s very, very hard for me to do.  Thirteen years of being trained a certain way is a hard pattern to break, but I’m coming to realize that if I don’t break those old patterns and habits, my chances of having the kind of relationship I want are very slim.  I can’t possibly have the kind of partner I want if I can’t be the kind of partner I want.  I know this now.

I knew, when I started dating again, that it would not be easy, but I had no idea that it would be hard in the ways in which it is hard.  I didn’t have any of this baggage last time I dated.  I knew how to have a relationship then. But the rules have all changed and my own ability to handle the ups and downs has been dramatically curtailed.  But I don’t want to give up.  I will  not give up.

So I am trying.  I am trying to not be blinded by my pain when someone hurts me.  I am trying not to assume the worst.  I am trying to imagine a life where we work through our problems instead of band-aiding them while they fester and cause the whole relationship to rot.  I am learning that there are more valuable things in a relationship than a peaceful surface.

In the meantime, I’m like a newbie cook with a well-appointed kitchen:  I have all the tools and gadgets, but I’m still learning to use them.  Most of what I’m cooking up right now is coming out either burned or half raw, but I really am learning.  Thank God for patient, caring friends, a wonderfully insightful therapist, and a man who is also trying to figure out the path to a healthy relationship.

Eventually I’ll get it.  I promise.

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