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.