Monthly Archives: August 2011

practicing “aggressive vulnerability”

When my friend Annie was in couple’s counseling with her husband during the last year of her marriage, the counselor would frequently encourage Annie and her husband Brad to do things that were loving or caring or affectionate, even if they felt awkward at the time due to the stresses and strains their relationship was experiencing.  The idea being that, with enough practice, feeling warmly toward one another would start to become natural again and some equanimity would be restored to their stumbling, increasingly tense marriage.  For example, the counselor suggested that Annie come up behind Brad sometime when he was cooking dinner and whisper something in his ear that she’d like to do to him later that evening after the kids were in bed….  Surely by being fun and playful and intimate with each other, some of the tension would dissipate and love would be encouraged to prosper…?

I had similar thoughts during my own marriage’s death throes.  The idea that somehow the warmth of love can be rekindled if you just give it a start — however forced that start may feel — is a very seductive and powerful idea.  In my case, it took the form of being more loving and attentive than I actually felt, in the hopes that by doing so, I would somehow actually begin to feel those feelings again, and feel them being reciprocated by my husband.

Well… Annie and I are both divorced, so it’s not difficult to draw your own conclusions about how well that approach worked for either of us….

But since my separation, I’ve realized that it wasn’t the concept of going through the motions that was wrong; it was the application of it to our situations.  Here’s what I mean:

By the time that Annie and I were individually trying to apply this idea to our marriages, it was too late.  The loving, admiring, tender feelings for our husbands were not dormant, they were not being held back or suppressed, they were gone.  Plain and simple.  Under those circumstances, trying to recreate that connection is like fanning a fire that has been out for days.  Futile.  Being playful when one feels dead inside from years of built up resentment isn’t authentic or real or effective.  Pretending that you’re still attracted to someone you can barely carry on a civil conversation with is likewise disingenuous.  So, the idea of “going through the motions” can, in those circumstances, feel more than uncomfortable.  It can feel downright false.

That doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.  Just that it doesn’t work when things between you are already over.

I think that the important pivot for the success of the “going through the motions” theory is the basis for the discomfort between you.  In some of my relationships since my separation, there have been times when hurt or frustration would cause me to pull away from my partner.  He would likewise retreat and a chasm would open between us.  But I wasn’t withholding from him because I wasn’t feeling anything for him, but rather because I was feeling so very much.   Showing him affection or tenderness didn’t feel uncomfortable because I didn’t want to be affectionate or tender toward him, but because I was scared of the vulnerability inherent in offering that connection. Indeed, I have found myself, even in the midst of my anger with my partner, wishing that he’d put his arms around me or call me so that I could hear his voice.  I still wanted him, in a very real, very honest way.  So putting myself out there, while uncomfortable, was also very natural and authentic.   It wasn’t fake.  It was just damn hard.

You see, there is a difference, I believe, in those small gestures feeling uncomfortable and them feeling unnatural.  And I have begun to wonder if that small difference represents the big difference between a relationship that is injured and one that is dead.  At the end of my marriage, my ex-husband’s therapist convinced us to try dating again, but I realized as our first “date” approached that I was dreading it with a sense of mounting panic.  It wasn’t that deep down I still loved him and wanted to connect with him anymore — I genuinely didn’t even trust him or like him at that point.  Going out on a date was not going to change that.  Likewise, Annie’s counselor’s suggestion that she be sexually playful with her husband would certainly be helpful if both people still wanted that connection, but in Annie’s case, she would have been faking those feelings.  They were not natural to her anymore; they were false.   And I just can’t believe that something false and unnatural could possibly be a good basis for intimacy.

So maybe going through the motions doesn’t work when making those motions is false or unnatural.  But even when the desire to recreate that connection is there, it can still be very hard to reach out past the hurt and the pain.  Maybe the key to successfully going through the motions is being what I have started thinking of as “aggressively vulnerable”:  throwing yourself out there even when — or perhaps most importantly when — you are most afraid to do so, but deep down you really wish you could.

We’ve all been in that place — where emotions are raw and stinging and we’ve talked about the issue until our tongues are tired and our heads ache.  Neither one is pulling the trigger to end the relationship, but both are feeling weary and uncomfortable and unsure of what can be salvaged or how to do it.  Here is when I think it takes one or both partners to be aggressively vulnerable to close the gap and begin knitting the shredded relationship back together. It is so easy to withdraw when we are hurt, to want the other person to move toward us and close the gap so that we needn’t risk our hearts in their direction.  But what if they are hurting or mistrusting, too?  Then the gulf widens and solidifies and you eventually find yourselves on either side of it, wondering how you got there.

So, instead of backing up further, pushing yourself to call him and tell him you were thinking about him, or putting your arms around her so that she can relax into you, can work wonders.  I think of being aggressively vulnerable as carrying on in the relationship as though everything is okay and the hesitance or mistrust or discomfort is not there, in the hopes that the sense of normalcy will invite you both to relax and sink into the relationship again in a very authentic way.  I’m not talking about ignoring the problem.  I’m talking about taking a break from the problem to come together again so you can address it productively.

One of the difficult things for most of us, I suspect, is figuring out if we’re truly “done” or if we’re just hurting and pulling away.  I know that I was still telling myself that I wanted to save my marriage long after all evidence suggested that I had emotionally unplugged and begun to move on.  It took my skilled therapist to help me understand that what I was clinging to was the marriage, not the man. I didn’t want to hurt him or my children or lose the life we’d built, but my relationship with my husband was dead and cold.   And for me, just the marriage shell would never be enough.  I was done.  No amount of date nights or going through the motions or was going to change that.

On the other hand, I have seen how going through the motions can work when the underlying feelings are still vital and alive.  Forcing myself to be aggressively vulnerable, rather than retreat and hide has carried me over some interesting hurdles since my separation and made me a believer in the concept. I think that sometimes we have to simply push past our fears and insecurities and reach out to that other person, even if they aren’t reaching for us right away.  When they don’t reach back, it most definitely hurts.  But when they do, it feels wonderful and hopeful and reassuring.  And that’s a damn good start.

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

new facebook fan page!

Hello to my lovely readers….

I know that many of you are not Twitter followers or comfortable subscribing to that precarious gait through the email service offered on this page, so….. I have finally gotten my act together and launched a new fan page on Facebook!  Please search for that precarious gait under the Pages category. “Like” me on Facebook and get blog notices straight to your News Feed.  (You can see what’s happening on the blog, but I won’t be able to see any of your personal information.) What could be easier?  🙂

Thanks and see you on Facebook —

TPG

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blindsided

I had shut my laptop, put my phone in the charger, turned out the light, and was hovering somewhere just on the edge of sleep when I heard it.

Ping.

I don’t know why I checked.  The person I wanted most to hear from wouldn’t send me an email.  But for some reason, I reached for my phone and pulled up my messages.

And there it was.  The name I thought I’d never see in my inbox or on my phone or in my life ever, ever again.

Mike.

With a message that starts “Hey old friend…”

What. The.  Fuck.

First of all, I loved this man with every inch of my body and soul, but to say that we were ever exactly “friends” is more than a little disingenuous.  Friends don’t do the awful things he did to me.  Friends don’t have to threaten legal action to make friends go away, like I did to him.  But maybe this is a word that is simply beyond his comprehension.  Like “love” and “fidelity” and “truth” and “compassion.”  He seems to have difficulty with the basics.

His message asked for advice about his divorce, which is dragging out.  Seriously?  You can’t spit in this town without hitting a lawyer, but he’s got to dig two years down in his little black book to uncover my name in order to obtain legal advice?

No, this is not about legal advice.

Mike is nothing if not strategic.  I don’t know what he’s doing or why.  I only know that just seeing his name staring up from my phone sent my adrenaline pumping in that “fight-or-flight” way that happens when you encounter real danger.

Why me?  Why now? Why, dear god, him?

Well, I’ll have all night to consider the answers, because I sure as hell won’t be sleeping.

Damn.

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time to unpack some emotional baggage

One of the especially difficult things about having a failed marriage is the lessons you take with you.  You can divorce your spouse, but all of the bad relationship habits, knee-jerk reactions, and deep-rooted fears go with you into your next life.  Forensic psychologists know that past behavior is the best predictor of future tendencies.  That’s not good news for those of us with the detritus of a marriage strewn out behind us.  When you’ve spent most of your adult life learning how not to have a healthy romantic relationship, to say that it’s a challenge would be a gross understatement.

I have been thinking hard this week about the baggage that I haul around from my previous relationships and how it continues to undermine me now.  Much of it is, not surprisingly, from my 11-year marriage, but some of the most poisonous stems from the relationship I had immediately after my marriage.  Regardless, I have watched myself recently engage and behave in ways that are not who I want to be, which strongly suggests that my baggage needs a good, hard look.

During my relationship with James, I learned a lot about myself and my baggage, and much of it wasn’t good.  But it was useful.  It was informative.  And it was necessary.  So buckle up and here we go….

Suitcase #1:  I don’t trust my own judgment.

I learned that almost as soon as I begin to really care for a man, I stop trusting my ability to appropriately gauge his intentions and feelings.  Once I am invested, I completely lose my confidence in my natural assessment of the situation.  I wasn’t always this way; this stems from my boyfriend, Mike, who after six months of “I love yous” told me that I was crazy to think that he’d ever wanted anything more than a casual relationship and why couldn’t we just go back to “having fun and fucking.”  But regardless of the origin, this particular demon must be exorcised.  It isn’t fair to make every guy prove and re-prove himself just because Mike was a lying shithead.  I don’t know exactly know how to regain my trust in my judgment but I know I have to do it.

Suitcase #2:  I expect men to leave.

This is an old one, and part of the reason I ended up with my husband.  He is a sticker; he’s not going to leave no matter what.  And he didn’t, even though we were both so unhappy; I had to.  Again, I know the origin of this and could bore you with reams of psycho-babble about an adopted child who loses a father as an infant and the ensuing abandonment issues that arise.  But, again, regardless of the reason, I need to put on my big girl pants and get over it.  Because the hard facts are this:  I have been blessed, through most of my life, with men who do not leave.  I have some of the most loyal and amazing men in my life.  I have male friends I have known since I was a child, male family members who get on planes just to check on my well-being, and ex-boyfriends that resurface just because they truly think I’m worthy of their friendship.  If I’m being honest, I have to acknowledge that most of the men (and boys) that have meant something to me over the course of my life have fought to keep me in their lives, even when I was being a brat and pushing them away with everything I could muster.  So, really, psycho-babble aside, I’m not an infant in a orphanage or a baby at a funeral anymore.  It’s time to figure out how to give the men who care about me their due credit.

Suitcase #3:  The more I care, the more I suck at communicating.

I gave my first television news interview on CNBC at the ripe age of 26.  I buried a lawyer almost twice my age in court on cross-examination during my very first trial.  I can break up with men compassionately and clearly.  But when I have to sit down and tell a man about whom I genuinely care that something is wrong or I am frightened or feeling insecure or in need of anything from him, I freeze.   Origin of this particular failing?  Thirteen years with a man who took any conversation of this nature as a personal indictment and would immediately turn my vulnerability into an opportunity to further increase our power dynamic in his favor.  Under those circumstances, you learn quickly that expressing your needs or wants is pointless and inadvisable.  So now I am stuck trying to learn how to do this in a productive fashion, while fighting back 13 years of conditioning that I shouldn’t do it at all.

I know now that I have serious work to do, but I’ve also made some progress, too.  A year ago, I was more likely to run at the first sign of trouble.  The idea of working through anything seemed presumptuous — why would I assume that this guy I was with would want to put any work into this?  And why would I risk asking him and feeling foolish?  No, it was easier to just end it and not bother him with all of that. Yeah, I know.  That’s just plain crazy.  And I’m learning not to do it.

During my time with James, I also rediscovered some of the good stuff I bring into a relationship, and I know that in order to focus on that good stuff, I need to get a better handle on these other issues.  And that might be the best reason of all for applying myself to the difficult task at hand.  I want to give someone the good stuff, without burdening them with so much of the baggage.

These kinds of lists are tough.  They’re humbling and they’re a little scary.  But the honest and hard truth is that we can all write one.  No one is “done.”  No one is “finished.”  We’re all merely works in progress, looking for that one person with the patience and compassion and unique understanding of our shortcomings to take the ride with us. I guess for the moment I’ll be riding alone, working on myself and trying to be better for the next great guy that’s willing to take a chance with me.

And maybe by then, I’ll be traveling lighter.

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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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when sweet nothings mean everything

Almost three years ago, I met a man who swept me off my feet with his words.  The sheer romance of his verbal courtship left me breathless.  I was astounded and bewildered by the force of his affection for me.  In that relationship, I felt wrapped in a warm cocoon of his love, which sheltered and protected me from the buffeting winds of my life at that time.

Later, when the relationship imploded and he was revealed as the liar and the cad that he was, all those precious words felt hollow and empty, and I swore that I never wanted another man who waxed poetic about his undying love for me because the words weren’t worth the air they expended.

Be careful what you wish for.

In my current relationship, there are no sweet nothings.  And I have had to face the painful reality that some sweet nothings are worth everything.

Don’t get me wrong.  The man that I’m dating is nice to me.  He tells me I’m beautiful and buys me flowers and takes me to nice places for dinner and spends a lot of time with me and helps me out sometimes when something breaks at my house.  But the closest he ever comes to expressing an emotion that concerns me is to tell me that he’s missing me when we haven’t seen each other in days, which is absolutely sweet, but doesn’t give me much information about what I am in his life or his heart.

Now, I certainly understand that different men are comfortable with and capable of different levels of emotional communication, and I can definitely make allowances for those differences.   It’s unfair to expect gushing romantic declarations from a guy who is stoic by nature, but even those guys will usually tip their hands, and those spare, tender words are all the more valuable because of their rarity.  And I have dated enough of those men to know that sometimes priming the pump is necessary:  sometimes the woman has to gently lead them into the emotional territory with which they are so uncomfortable in order to encourage more openness from them.  With these men, sometimes you have to be the first to say something — whether it’s that you like them, that you want to be exclusive with them, or even that you love them.   But the hope is that once you open yourself up, make yourself vulnerable, they will reciprocate in some fashion and the two of you will begin the delicate dance of creating intimacy.  And priming the pump needs to be exactly and only that — if one partner is the one constantly reaching out to the other, trying to make an emotional connection, trying to forge something solid and special between them, it’s probably not going to work for the long haul.  I, for one, can only put myself out there a few times before it begins to feel a little sad and desperate and doormat-y.

So what about when there is nothing said?  Early in a relationship, it is wise to be circumspect about your feelings, until you’re more certain of the direction in which they are moving and whether you’re comfortable with them heading there.  But later on?  Well, later on, words build intimacy.  They create bonds.  They reassure.  They weave a safety net that emboldens us to take the leap necessary to eventually fall in love.  They tell us that we are on the same page, sharing a joint experience.  They chronicle our story together.

And without words?

Without words to check-in, to move things forward, to assuage insecurities, the relationship that was once flourishing begins to wither.  Every little action and reaction is subconsciously evaluated for meaning.  Assumptions are dangerous, but the words left unsaid gather a power all their own.  The silence becomes deafening. And a chasm opens between the couple….

I know, for me, that usually when I am silent, it is because I have nothing to say.  I also know that I have never had a man I care about claim that he didn’t know that I cared.  When I care, I show it and I say it.  So when I’m not hearing from the man I’m with?  It is difficult for me to imagine anything other than that he has nothing to say to me.

What is perhaps most amazing is how little it actually takes to make someone — male or female — feel special and adored and valued.  “You’re the best part of my day”… “Hearing your voice makes me smile”… “I hate sleeping without you in the bed with me”… “I think you’re amazing”… “You’re not like anyone I’ve ever met before”… “I think I could fall in love with you”…

Sweet nothings…. that mean everything…

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sliding, deciding, and treading water…

One of my earliest posts was about the sliding vs. deciding phenomenon and my own determined nature that I would never “slide” again.  If you’re not familiar with this concept, take a moment to read that post; it was a body of research that really shook up how I think about relationships.

In my earlier post on this subject, I wrote about my commitment to being a “Decider” in my future relationships.  This is still a value  I hold dearly to my heart and place the utmost priority on.  But just being a Decider isn’t enough.  Your partner has to be one, too.  And dating in your 40’s has a unique set of circumstances that serve to undermine the delicate business of romantic decision-making.

To start with, my admittedly unscientific dating research has uncovered a large portion of the male population that simply wants another wife.  I’m going to call them “Wifers.”  I can understand this, to be honest.  I’d like to have a wife, too.  I’m tired of doing all my own laundry, and making every dinner, and buying every birthday card for my family members.  I’d like to have someone to clean my house, and sit next to me while we watch what I want on TV, and to make a nice impression at all of my work functions.  I mean, seriously, what’s not to like about having a wife?  But in all seriousness, it really is understandable that a man, who was basically content in his marriage and never wanted the divorce, might be looking to simply resume his previous status quo.  I guess I can’t fault him, but these are clearly not men who are Deciders in the manner of which I am seeking.  They might well “decide” that some woman is good wife material, but that’s not what I (or the sliding/deciding research) meant by being a Decider.  So, count me out of that pool. (P.S. – I suspect that the female equivalent of the Wifer is the woman who misses being married and “cared for” so much that she’s really intent on finding another husband, and preferably one with a healthy bank account or lucrative job.)

Then there are those individuals who resemble Sliders, but whom I am going to call Treaders. Treaders are people who aren’t looking for a great love, but for something good enough for now.  They want someone they like and respect and to whom they are attracted, but whether love follows from that is mostly inconsequential to them.  They are content to find someone nice and tread water in the relationship indefinitely, even for years.  Moving the relationship forward, creating a deep and lasting intimacy isn’t really a priority for Treaders; in fact, they’re pretty resistant to it.  They aren’t exactly sliding into the relationship or allowing it to slide forward; they are more likely to simply reach a comfortable space in the relationship fairly early on and then start treading water.

In defense of Sliders, Wifers, and Treaders, I have to admit that the circumstances surrounding dating in your 40’s — as opposed to dating in your 20’s — can really sabotage efforts to be a Decider.  The demands of a career in full-swing, children still living at home, aging parents, and attempts to create a new life around you can leave little room in your life for a truly intimate relationship.  I have gone on dates with several men who were more than capable of making time for me in their lives, but I could quickly see that there was no emotional space in their lives for the kind of relationship that I want.  Their attention and priorities were obviously and solidly committed elsewhere.  This is especially true of those of us who are single parents.  If your children are your top priority, the absolute best a potential partner can hope for is second place.  That potential partner might understand and appreciate your priorities, but it’s still going to feel lousy to them.  And those lousy feelings aren’t exactly going to create fertile ground for blossoming intimacy.  So, it’s easy to see why so many of us become Sliders or Wifers or Treaders the second time around.  Our circumstances tilt us strongly in that direction.

Recognizing that you’re in a relationship with a Slider, Wifer, Treader might take some time.  I mean, really, it’s not like they come with labels tattooed to their foreheads.  Generally what happens is that the Decider is happily moving along in the relationship, thinking that it’s going forward and gaining momentum and depth and breadth, when suddenly she realizes that she’s in a relationship with a Slider, a Wifer, or a Treader.

How does she know this has happened to her?

Example No. 1:  She asks the Slider if he’s ever thought about them moving in together.  His answer is “Not really, but okay.  Sure.  Why not?  Would save us both a lot in bills.”

Example No. 2:  She asks the Wifer if he’s ever thought about them moving in together.  His answer is “Sure.  I’ve thought about it a lot.  I think you’re a great mom and it would be nice for the kids to have you around.”

Example No. 3:  She asks the Treader if he’s ever thought about them moving in together.  His answer is “Why?  Things are great the way they are.  I don’t see why we’d need to change anything.”

Let’s be clear:  We’re not talking about a needy person who is pushing the relationship along at a faster than appropriate pace.  But we all know how relationships progress and what feels natural and normal to most of us.  Our society has mores and norms that signal to us when a relationship is going too fast or too slow or when it’s stalled.

I think it’s possible for any of us to be a Slider, Wifer, or Treader at various points in our life, depending on our circumstances and our emotional state.  Recognizing that has made me — and several of my friends — truly mindful of making deliberate decisions in our relationships that reflect our personal goals and create opportunities to find what we’re ultimately seeking.  But damn it’s hard.  Sliding is easy.  Treading is easy.  Deciding is hard.  Walking away from someone who is perfectly nice and a decent partner but incapable of giving us what we really want or need is not nearly as easy or simple as it seems.  I think the only thing that keeps most of us who’ve been Sliders from sliding again is the memory of the emptiness that exists inside you when you’ve slid into something that can’t possibly be what you need or what your heart most desires.   That, and the recognition that extricating yourself can be painful and difficult for everyone involved.

So, I’m still committed to deciding. But in a sea of Sliders, Wifers, and Treaders, finding another Decider who is also going to decide on me seems like a monumental task.    Sigh.

Stay tuned….

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

the self-conscious blogger

I have been gone.  The last post I wrote and published was on August 4th.

I don’t usually write about the writing or blogging process…. it seems kind of… well, self-absorbed.  Or, I guess, even more self-absorbed than the process of publishing my thoughts for the world to see, with the assumption that some people actually want to read those thoughts.  (I am still amazed and honored that anyone other than my closest friends take the moments to read my words.  It is startling and humbling to me.)

I have been struggling with my writing.  In July, I’d used my blog to vent some feelings and events that left me numb and confused and feeling naked and beaten.  I have pulled those posts for now, but have every intention of restoring them at some future date, when the feelings are not still so raw and charged.  The vomiting of that vitriol and anger left me speechless and self-conscious.  The words have not been coming and my thoughts have been scrambled.  I have not opened my laptop since August 4th, until yesterday.  My emotions have been all over the place and very few cohesive, useful thoughts have emerged from them.  And “useful” is important to me.  This blog is not my diary or my journal; I have one of those and that is entirely different.  Here, I try to write about ideas and concepts and discoveries that I think others might share or be interested in.  But sometime in July, my sense that I had anything useful to say flagged.  I lost my voice.

I have learned, as I’ve gotten older, that writer’s block in my relationship with my writing  is much like a bump in any relationship:  the more you worry about and focus on it and cling more tightly to your wish that it not be true, the longer you delay the reappearance of the easy and happy times that you most desire.  So, I have been simply riding out this latest bump… faithfully and patiently knowing that my writing and I would get past it and meet up on the other side.  That one day I would be inspired to open my laptop again.  That the good times between us would return and flourish and all would be forgotten and forgiven between us.  And here we are.  Back together again….

 

 

 

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Filed under general musings

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