One night not too long ago, just as I was about to log off my computer, my dear friend Ryan popped open a chat window, which surprised me. Ryan spent much of the summer angry with me because he felt that I was not particularly supportive of him after his girlfriend, Cate, left him. I would argue (and have argued) that I was supportive of him, but not of his anger and antipathy toward her. When she left him, his claim was that she hadn’t tried hard enough; my perspective was that she tried as hard as she could muster. And that’s how we’d left it.
But that night, Ryan’s perspective had altered slightly as he’d been processing his feelings and conducting a post-mortem of their relationship. That night he talked to me of his frustration that she hadn’t told him how she was feeling, hadn’t told him what he was doing wrong, hadn’t allowed him the opportunity to do better and not just save their relationship, but enrich it. He wished she had yelled at him, if necessary, and stood her ground and really been vocal about her needs and fears. But she didn’t. As she was leaving, she told him that she was afraid that it wouldn’t matter…. afraid that he’d stop loving her if she complained… afraid that she was not what he wanted or needed. Her insecurity in their relationship accumulated, along with her certainty that he did not truly love her. And so, she left before he could leave her.
And now Ryan sits in the house they bought together and catalogs all the missteps he made and the things about her that he misses and tries to create a new life for himself without her in it.
How many of you men have been Ryan? Trying to figure out the clues you missed, how and when things “changed,” and why in the world the woman you loved couldn’t talk to you about her darkest fears about your relationship? How many of you have wished for that do-over? How many of you have shed a tear over the wasted promise of a relationship that you thought just might last forever?
And how many of us have been Cate? So afraid to be vulnerable in front of a strong man that we withdraw instead? So afraid to be found lacking somehow that we don’t reach for the very reassurance that might assuage those fears? So certain that he doesn’t care that we don’t offer him an opportunity to prove us wrong?
The biggest question, of course, is Would It Have Mattered? Would Ryan and Cate have found the same outcome even if she’d have spoken up? Would he have listened and heard her and responded in a fashion that would have reassured her and offered her the security within the relationship to explore her fears and concerns so they could be addressed in a healthy, open manner?
I have no real answer, of course. I know that Ryan is one of the most emotionally intelligent men I know. I know that he is capable of enormous compassion and acceptance towards others. But I have no real idea if he would have genuinely heard her or whether their relationship could have been saved.
Ryan first met me when I was a 21-year-old sorority girl. He was taken in by my ginger hair and my sassy sweetness but he stuck around because he values my friendship and my efforts to be better at being myself. And Ryan knows me the way someone knows you after all those years. He knows I have been known to run when I get scared and he knows that I have been known to underestimate a man’s feelings for me. He has watched me take remarkably foolish leaps with my heart in my hands, and he’s seen me hold back beyond all reasonable logic.
When we were chatting that evening, Ryan had no idea what is going on in my life right now. As I said, we hadn’t spoken in many weeks, and the last few times we did communicate, it was only about him and Cate. Despite that, as we were signing off that night, Ryan took the opportunity to stress his point to me:
“Have the courage to use your voice. Please. You’re an amazing woman and whatever guy you’re with probably knows that, so give him the chance to hang on to you. He can only make things safe to a certain degree. After that, you have take a leap of faith. You’re hard work, but if he’s smart, he knows that all the best ones are. Please. Jesus, just don’t be a chickenshit.”
A lump caught in my throat. He didn’t realize that it’s too late for that advice…. he didn’t realize that my last guy and I waltzed a similar dance to he and Cate… with the same, sad result. Would it have mattered if I had spoken up? Maybe, but maybe not. I tried to, honestly I did, but it only seemed to make things worse. So who knows….
But I will hold his words to my soul and try to remember them next time. I will try not to assume the worst. I will try to speak up and say what I feel and what I need. I will try to make myself vulnerable again, even if the guy across from me doesn’t respond in kind.
I will try to not be a chickenshit.