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.