My independent spirit, natural reserve, and aversion to needy men has often led me to men who are emotionally unavailable in some fashion or another. Nice men, with one notable exception, but not really ready or able or willing to truly sink into a relationship, embrace it, and let it naturally evolve. Sometimes these men were badly damaged by previous relationships (romantic or familial), sometimes they were shy to the point of being closed off, and sometimes they were just fun guys who had no real desire to go deep emotionally. Whatever the reason, I have spent a lot of time in relationships in which I reached for my partner, only to have my hand close on nothing but air.
My therapist likes to talk about how some people simply “don’t know how to have.” I refer to them in my head as “Have-nots.” They basically are incapable of embracing and being genuinely happy with a new, healthy relationship, so they find ways to sabotage it. These people often feel, deep down, that they are not deserving of a truly amazing relationship. Guilt, shame, regret, or fear can cause them to pull away from anything that feels genuine and authentic. Have-nots are hesitant to be really known by anyone, out of fear that rejection will somehow follow, and they worry that they won’t be able to sustain a real relationship. Some Have-nots hide behind being “too busy” or “too hurt” or some other “too” to avoid really digging deep and creating something incredible. It is easier and safer to be in something with clear and distinct boundaries and limits, so a deep and sincere intimacy isn’t ever really possible, but neither is heart-breaking pain. When Have-nots encounter someone who is open and giving and loving, who attempts to create something real with them, they often react with irritability, confusion, or even anger. Usually, their own inability to get close is blamed on the other person, who is often characterized as too demanding.
I think, like most emotional issues, this “inability to have” is a spectral thing, and I know that I have vacillated along the spectrum at different points in my life. There have been definite and clear periods of my life when I have not been certain of what I deserved or able to give much, and other times when I have been open and loving and discovered myself involved with someone who was not. Sometimes I have figured this out on the first date; other times it has taken months (or even years — yikes!) of mixed signals and roller-coaster emotions before I finally realized it. Sometimes I’m the one sending the mixed signals, but more often I’m the one trying to decipher them. Either way, it’s exhausting and unproductive and sad.
In fact, I have spent so much time in relationships like this, that I had pretty much forgotten what it feels like when it’s not. I’d forgotten what it feels like when it flows easily. When I don’t feel insecure about anything. When I feel free to raise uncomfortable subjects and have them addressed. When there wasn’t something hanging out there, like a dark thunder cloud in the distance, leaving me wondering how we’d handle that when it was overhead and whether it might do us in.
But I am, apparently, learning.
Somewhere in the darkness of my recent depression, when I wasn’t consciously analyzing anything, my subconscious was working out some really big questions. And when I emerged from that darkness, I carried with me a quiet certainty, a soulful knowledge of what I wanted and deserved. I didn’t feel like I needed to chase it down or apologize for it or worry that it wouldn’t show up. It simply was, as much a part of me as my red hair or the freckles on my nose. And then Pete appeared.
Pete could easily be a Have-not. The stories from his marriage, divorce, and subsequent life upheaval are epic and sad. I can only figure that he survived them because he had two little girls depending on him and a strong core of integrity around his own actions and decisions. He could easily have become bitter, resentful, and closed off. But he didn’t. He is open and present and available. Steady and unwavering. Patient and kind. He has even, for his daughters’ sakes, negotiated a courteous relationship with his ex-wife; something for which I really admire him, especially given her behavior.
I think Pete’s ability to have — to truly, happily embrace our new relationship — is indicative of his strong sense of himself. His unconscious sense of self-worth, of knowing that he deserves someone amazing and that he can be amazing, too. He isn’t gun-shy about us, he doesn’t back-pedal or run away or over-analyze or freak out and blame me. He doesn’t get defensive when I raise something touchy, and he goes out of his way to show me that I’m special to him, that he respects me and likes to spend time with me. In turn, I don’t worry about anything — where our relationship is going, whether he cares about me, whether we can handle the challenges of four young girls while still carving out time for each other, and on and on. I just know that we’re both here, happy and excited and wanting to see where it all leads, and applying our best selves to the effort.
I love that I can be every version of myself around Pete. I love that he constantly surprises me by showing me more of himself that I wouldn’t have guessed at. I love that we share an optimism about our relationship that allows us to playfully imagine lots of fun things in the future. But I think the thing I like best is being able to finally be kind and loving toward a man and him wanting to have that, without reservation or holding back. There is something particularly beautiful in telling someone how much you value them and seeing their face light up with delight, or doing some small thing for them and seeing them appreciate it without attaching some negative connotation to your motive. These are simple things, but they are also the things that create trust in each other and faith in the relationship. And I believe that those are the things that sustain you later on, when the initial blush of the new relationship fades.
So, I think being able to really have a relationship must also be important to its long-term sustainability. I think that knowing that you and your partner both value what you have is huge. And being able to look at each other and agree that you’re both lucky is priceless. The rest I’m still figuring out, but that I know for sure.