Monthly Archives: August 2011

breaking up with his kids

When I was first divorced, I knew that I would likely end up dating men who had children.  I thought that I was prepared for this eventuality, even though the first few men that I was involved with did not actually have children.  I thought that I knew what I was in for.

Statistics tell us that step-children are the primary stressor on second marriages and the biggest reported contributor to the deterioration of those marriages.  I am not here to dispute that.  Between my kids and James’ kids, we accumulated some pretty good examples of children acting out against the interloper in their family.  And some of my worst arguments with James — including the last one — stemmed from disagreements about the children.

But that didn’t stop me from falling in love with his kids.

Sure, his son Jay’s teasing of me ventured into the disrespectful realm sometimes, and yes his teenage daughter, Taylor, once spent an hour pretending like I wasn’t in the room.   His two youngest girls, devoid of guile, would sometimes ask me directly what I was doing there and how long I was staying, with the clear implication being that I was somehow interrupting.  But the moments that stuck in my heart were preciously sweet..  Like how, when we were all lying on the sofa watching a movie, Jay would allow me to put my arm around him, and he would ever so subtly snuggle against me.  Or the times when 9-year-old Chelsea would beg me to stay and hang out with them.  Or how little 5-year-old Chloe  insisted on carrying my purse to the car for me, just to be “helpful.”  So many tender, small moments that I cherish.

I last saw them 10 days ago, when I went to his house to say goodbye.  I couldn’t believe how sad it made me, how many tears fell on my solitary drive home over children that are not even my own.

I knew, from my own childhood experience, that when you date a single parent, you also date their children.  What I hadn’t fully appreciated is that when you break up with that single parent, you also break up with those children.  And it hurts.  A lot.

I have spent some time recently remembering my own experience on the other side.  I remember many of the men my mom dated, but none so clearly or so fondly as Van.  Van and my mom dated off and on from the time I was roughly two until I was 12.  They had a passionate, tempestuous relationship, and I learned early on that when they broke up, it was never forever.   Other men didn’t get a second chance, but Van kept coming back.

Van was as much of a father as I had in those early years.  On Sunday mornings, I’d curl up on his lap and he’d read me the comics, changing his voice for each of the Peanuts characters.  He took me hiking in the Shenandoahs, and built me snowmen in the yard, and taught me to ride a two-wheel bike.  He was the one who told me that my grandfather had died.  He was tall and handsome and funny and one of my best friends.

But one day he was gone.  The last time they broke up, I remember asking my mom what had happened.  She pursed her lips and said tersely, “We broke up.” I shrugged, certain that it didn’t mean anything and certain that he’d be back. But I never saw him again.  The weeks melted into months and the months turned into a year and my mom met and married the man who became my stepfather.  I loved my stepfather, but I never forgot about Van.

When I was 27, I finally tracked Van down and wrote him a long letter, telling him of my educational and professional achievements, my budding relationship with my now ex-husband, and updating him on all my friends and family he’d known.  I enclosed a photo of myself and my boyfriend.  I had no idea what to expect when I mailed the letter, but what I got back was no less than wonderful:  a lengthy missive telling me how often he’d thought of me over the years and how much he’d missed me.   He told me how he’d always regretted not having the opportunity to say good-bye to me, but my mother wouldn’t allow it.  He’d remarried and later retired, and he sent me a photo of him and his wife.

How I wish I could talk to Van now.  Not only must I get over James (damn hard on its own), but I must also let go of his children.  I can still see Chelsea’s smile and feel Chloe’s small hand in my own and laugh at Jay’s constant tickling or rib-poking.  I was not in their lives long enough to have made more than a passing impression on them; but I’ll remember them, and the weeks we spent together, always.  I protected my heart mightily with regard to James — walls and buttresses surrounding it lest I should fall completely in love with him and end up broken beyond repair.  But I had no such ramparts in place to protect my sorry heart from his kids.

There is so much about dating this time around that surprises me…. so much for which I am woefully unprepared.  Breaking up is brutal.  Around every corner is another reminder of James that cuts me quickly and cleanly and makes me wonder again how we ended up here.   Then, just when I catch my breath again, I round another corner and smack squarely into a reminder of his kids.  It’s bruising, I tell you.

I have found myself sinking into my own children for solace.  Their hugs and kisses ease my sense of loss.  Like the jilted lover who takes a new partner to bed to forget the smell and taste and touch of the one just lost, I am burying myself in my own children to block out memories of time spent in that other family.

I wonder what will happen the next time I date a man with children…. I suspect that I will not be so unguarded, so open to his children.  I suspect that I will begin — maybe already have begun? — to construct the walls that protect us from future grief.

And I wonder if I will ever see them again.  Possibly, but probably not.  Maybe for me they will remain frozen in time… captured in my photos from this hot summer that we spent together.   Locked in my heart forever.

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

the last dance

My mom likes to tell me stories about the old folks in her retirement community… how this couple has been married 53 years and is still (or, more likely, again) blissfully in love… how that couple can barely stand each other and is each waiting for the other to die…. how that woman is a “tramp” and will sleep with anyone with a pulse… and how that lovely lady can’t seem to find a decent man.

I love her stories.  I love to imagine the octogenarians at the clubhouse dances shuffling around the ballroom floor, cheek to cheek.  I love when she tells me about her elderly friend who has fallen in love and giggles like a school girl when she speaks of her “gentleman friend.”  So many of her retirement community love stories embody hope and tenderness and the perpetuity of blossoming love.

But the ones that break my heart just a little are the stories of the women who, year after year, attend the dances alone and wait for an attached man to be permitted by his female partner to whisk them around the dance floor just once.  These women are the perpetually date-less.  They eat nearly every meal alone, travel with their children and their girlfriends, and fill their days with bridge clubs and water aerobics.

But it is their nights that I wonder about.  Do they ever lie awake in bed and feel the loneliness?  Have they accepted their solitude with alacrity or do they secretly hope that some handsome retiree will come along and sweep them off their feet?  Do they miss being in love?  Do they get gussied up for the clubhouse dances in the hopes that someone new will be there or maybe a neighbor will bring a male friend?

The poignant and sad truth is that many of these ladies have fallen in love for the last time.  To be sure, some will stumble upon a sweet and special love in the twilight of their lives, but for many of them — based on the sheer ratio of men to women in their 80’s — those days are behind them.  And here is what I wonder about most:  did they know when the last was the last?  Or did they think, as we all do in middle age, that there would be another, someday, somewhere down the road….

I suspect the answer is different based on how the last love ended:  if it was a long-term marriage that ended in their spouse’s death, the women seem to believe and accept (often incorrectly) that there will not be another.  But when the last one was a “gentleman friend” that ended in a break-up, I wouldn’t be surprised if they — like most of us — start looking around the clubhouse for their next dance partner.

What would we do if we knew that we would never be in love again… that we’d danced our last dance with love… that we’d never feel that giddy lightness again…?  Just typing it seems blasphemous, and yet….

Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

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

withdrawals from the love bank

When I was going through my divorce, I heard about the concept of the “Love Bank,” and it really resonated with me.  The basic premise is that inside of us we each have a “love bank,” with accounts in the names of everyone we care about.  When someone treats us well, they are making a deposit into their account and we feel closer and more appreciative and more loving toward that person.  When someone treats us poorly or hurts us deeply, they make a withdrawal from their account and we feel less close to them, perhaps less trusting, less likely to try to connect with them at that moment.  If the withdrawals exceed the deposits, we ultimately fall out of love or stop caring for that person.  For the most part, once someone has overdrawn their account, there isn’t a whole lot that can be done to save the relationship.

It is an intriguing and thought-provoking concept that I wish I had been aware of at the beginning of my marriage.  I have watched it play out in romantic relationships, friendships, and familial relationships over and over again.  Just for the record, my personal belief is that only our children have overdraft protection.  Perhaps our parents, too, to a certain extent, but even then not to the same degree as our children.

I think love bank withdrawals may be the best explanation for marriages that “just grew apart” or ones that seemed fine until “suddenly” one partner was done and over it and not looking back.  I know that was definitely the case in my own marriage — it wasn’t one or two big hurts or betrayals that brought us down, but many, many years of small hurts and disappointments coupled with weak apologies and obligatory acts of kindness delivered grudgingly.  Some people think that small hurts are not reason enough for a love to die, but, just like your bank account, multiple small withdrawals add up just as quickly (or more so?) as large ones.

What I have noticed most is that a lot of people don’t want to have to make things right when they mess up.  They want to apologize and have it all go away.  To a certain extent, I can understand that:  admitting we’re wrong is uncomfortable, and it makes us uniquely vulnerable.  Add to that the fact that most of us have encountered people who will exploit our moment of guilt and vulnerability into an opportunity to emotionally blackmail us or gain a power dynamic advantage. Such behavior, in the face of a sincere and heartfelt effort to make things right, is horrible, plain and simple.  And it teaches the apologizer — very clearly and directly — not to bother next time.  No self-respecting person should be expected to grovel or otherwise self-mutilate, just to make up for a screw-up.  It’s mean and unfair to expect.

BUT if you make a $1,000 withdrawal from the love bank, a $200 deposit doesn’t bring you back into balance.  And that’s the part that I think a lot of people — especially otherwise smart, well-intentioned men — miss.  If I’m angry about something, a quick apology and some make-up sex will get me over it.  But if my feelings are hurt?  If I’m disappointed in you?  If I feel unspecial or taken for granted?  Then a simple “I’m really sorry” — no matter how sincere — on its own isn’t going to bring the love bank balance back up to pre-incident levels.  I’m going to need a little more reassurance than that.  Some tender TLC.  A little reminder that you hate the thought of me crying over you.  No groveling, no public humiliation, no expensive grand gestures.  No, I’m just talking about the simple, little things.  Call me a little more often the next day.  Hold my hand more.  Tell me, just once more when I least expect it, that you’re sorry for hurting my feelings.  Acknowledge, in some tiny way that I can’t miss, that hurting me was not what you meant to do and not what you’d ever want to do.

And watch your love bank account balance take off.

I think the most powerful thing, to me, about the love bank idea is how well it captures our capacity for forgiveness, alongside the plain fact that forgiveness does not come without a price of some sort.  A sincere, well-delivered apology can be a huge deposit in the love bank, as can some small thoughtful token given at just the right moment.   It is amazing to me how those gestures, those tenderhearted attempts to demonstrate our care and concern can bring a relationship back from the brink of eternal bankruptcy.

I have forgiven a lot in my life, and I have been forgiven a lot. I have had friends who slept with my boyfriends, a mother who ruined my wedding reception, and a boyfriend who threw me down a flight of stairs.  I have betrayed friends and let people down and been the worst version of myself.  And what I have learned is this:  sympathy is not the key to forgiveness, empathy is.

When I have hurt someone I genuinely care about, what I try to do is imagine how I would feel.  Sometimes this is really, really hard to do.  But when I do that, and I am filled with the same feelings that my hurt friend or lover or family member is likely feeling, then I am compelled to make it right.  I want to take that pain away and help them feel better.  That experience is empathy.

Likewise, when someone has hurt me, a sympathetic apology only goes so far.  What really touches my heart, what convinces me that they truly do care for me regardless of what error they have committed, what dissipates my sadness or resentment or sense of distrust faster than anything is a little empathy.

Take this example: Many months ago, my friend Annie and I had a really rough time in our friendship.  She was doing something that was hurting me, and she didn’t understand why I was hurt.  After some time and several difficult conversations, she apologized, sincerely and without reservation.  But there was still space between us…. mistrust on my part, resentment on hers.  Then one day, she experienced something similar and called to tell me about it.  At the end of that conversation, she said, “I’m really sorry.  Now I realize how it must have felt for you.”  And in that instant, we were okay again, love bank accounts restored to previous levels.

In my experience, the same is true for romantic relationships.  We all screw up.  We do things that hurt the people that we love.  But I honestly think that it’s what we do afterwards that matters most.  Do we diminish the other person and their feelings as ridiculous or unreasonable?  Or do we honor those feelings and try to help them let go of their hurt through empathy and caring?

I recognize, of course, that some people are truly unbalanced and so sensitive or over-reactive that there is no chance or possibility to make it right with them.  But I think those people are few and far between.  Most of us want to get over things.  We want to give people another chance.  We want to make our relationships better.

We want our love banks to be full.

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