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.