Monthly Archives: November 2012

the heart wants what it wants (or why love doesn’t always make sense)

I had a conversation with a friend recently about how the heart seems to have a mind of its own.  It yields when we want it to remain strong and resolute, clings when our brain is clamoring that there is no hope, and refuses admittance to some people who seem to be a really good fit.  For centuries, poets and balladeers have struggled to make sense of the unpredictability of the heart, while psychologists and social scientists have attempted to explain and understand its irrationality.  But I don’t think anyone has figured it out yet.

When “Pete” and I broke up last month, he (and other, well-meaning, male friends) attempted to convince me of the reasons why we belonged together.  These reasons consisted primarily of apparent similarities in our present lives, family structures, and goals.  They were concrete, they were rational, and they were the kinds of similarities on which online dating algorithms rely heavily.  I listened quietly to Pete (and those friends), and noticed that how I felt did not seem to enter into the equation.  The fact that my feelings toward Pete had changed as a result of the natural evolution of learning more about him and us seemed almost irrelevant.  The facts and evidence of our suitability were there and acknowledged and so, it seemed, should trump any reservations my heart was expressing.  In fact, at one point I even said to Pete, “Love is a matter of the heart, not the mind.”  To which he replied, “I don’t think that’s always true.”

I had a more visceral and emotionally aggressive reaction to his words than many people probably would, because, for me, that was an important and clear demonstration of how differently we approach relationships and think about love.  I do not expect love to be practical.  I do not expect love to be a matter of adding a column of numbers and reaching an immutable conclusion.   I see dating as gathering qualitative, not just quantitative, data about how we fit (or don’t).  The greatest loves of my life were amazing qualitative fits and seemed completely wrong for me quantitatively.

I think of quantitative similarities as the kinds of things you might find on someone’s “life resume” — cultural upbringing, religious background, education, relationship experience, socio-economic status, parenting style, geographic proximity, level of professional attainment, etc.  Qualitative elements might include outlook on life, values, dreams, physical attraction, curiosity about the other person or the broader world, or a sense of relating to someone on a “soul” level instead of or in addition to an intellectual level, etc.  When couples share quantitative similarities, they seem to line up and “fit” in ways that are obvious and identifiable to almost anyone.  These couples make sense to us.  Successful couples who do not share quantitative similarities are often considered “opposites” and we lump them into the “Opposites Attract” adage.  I would argue that they are likely not true opposites, but that they share commonalities that are not as easily perceived to outsiders.

But the heart doesn’t always make sense, and I would argue that no one falls in love –truly, madly, deeply in love — with their partner’s quantitative traits.  I do understand that most people are attracted to people who are similar to themselves in these ways, but I don’t think those similarities alone constitute love.  They contribute to comfort, companionship, understanding, and ease.  But you can have all those things and still not have love.   I think that people who have both similar life resumes and a deep and abiding love often point to the quantitative data to show their compatibility because that is more easily explained and understood, even though it is actually the qualitative elements that bind them so tightly.

But regardless of what is true for others, my heart knows what it wants, and I have learned the hard way that to allow my brain veto power over my heart is disastrous for all involved.

I have met many, many men in my life whom I’ve wished I’d felt more for.  Men who were good, practical, honest men but whom I absolutely did not want to wake up next to every morning forever.  Sometimes, my heart will play along for a while, seeming to appreciate or warm to a guy who appears to be a good fit on paper.  And my brain cheers and crows victoriously.  But soon enough, my heart sheepishly admits that it simply isn’t real, and my brain rages at the heart’s apparent unwillingness to get with the general program.  But my heart persists, unfazed by my brain’s tantrums.

I’ve also spent many sad moments begging my heart to relinquish its attachment to men with whom a future is not possible.  As I’ve written before, it took me 4 years to get over Parker… to stop using him as the measure for every other man I dated.  Four long and mostly lonely years when my heart whimpered and pouted and cried out for him, even as my brain forced us on lots of dates and through a couple of meaningless relationships.

I guess I simply do not believe that we can force ourselves to love someone anymore than we can force ourselves to stop loving someone.  We love who we love, whether we should or not.

I think, to a very large extent, this is true for most of us.  Our heart wants what it wants, and then we cite the quantitative data to support that decision so that it feels more rational and right to us.  I also think that, for many people, the quantitative data lines up more neatly and more consistently than it does for me.  For instance, I was a lawyer.  A lot of lawyers enjoy relationships with similarly educated and/or employed mates.  I’m sure this is because most of the people who choose my profession are somewhat similar in nature.  But here’s the kick for me — not one of my close friends from law school is married to anyone remotely similar to them in profession.  In fact, my two best friends from law school are married to a Broadway producer and a sales manager, respectively.  This is not surprising to us because we three were very dissimilar from most of our law school classmates.  We were slightly odd, slightly different.  And it is those differences that speak loudly in relationship contexts, I think.  On the flip side, I have friends who are much more representative of their chosen fields of endeavor and they do seem to select people who quantitatively match them.

So, when someone argues with me over why I should or should not love someone, I find it pretty perplexing.  Am I not an intelligent, emotionally-aware woman capable of understanding and expressing my feelings and desires?  I am not particularly impulsive, nor overly judgmental of minor faults, but I do know what I value, what my dealbreakers are, and how I want to feel in a relationship.  Are those not a good enough basis to make a decision without facing an appeal that is, to be honest, a bit patronizing? And furthermore, I would absolutely, positively never want to be with someone that I had to convince to be with me.  Sure, it’s tempting to make those arguments, but if you persevere, what have you really won?  Reluctant love? Love by forfeit?  Don’t we all deserve more than that?

And what of our friends who are still aching for a love that is no more?  Why do we expect them to simply “get over it”?  Why do we value the ability to forget so easily what we once thought so special? Maybe we, as outsiders, don’t value their love as they do, but does that even matter?

Time and experience are great teachers.  They have the power to guide us gently and tenderly into great love, and they have the power to eventually guide us out, as well.  They alone influence our hearts, I believe.  Not our minds, not our friends, not our life resumes.  They abide by no rules or algorithms.  They follow no trend or dictate.  And if it were any other way, love would be far less special, far less rare, and far less magical.

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Filed under dating, internet dating, love, pete, relationships

the perfect day (or defining happiness through little things)

This being the time of year when we are supposed to be consciously thankful for the good things in our life, I have been contemplating the idea of gratitude.

Gratitude is a tough one.  The Dalai Lama teaches us that we cannot have happiness without gratitude.  For myself, this is true.  I can be exuberant or excited or giddy without gratitude but to be truly happy — to wake up with a smile and go to sleep with a sigh — I must have gratitude.

I think the tricky part of gratitude is that we all tend to hang it on a couple of big things.  Or we have socialized ideas of what it “should” look like.  Or we merely graze the surface when noticing the good stuff in our life — like being thankful for our kids, rather than specifically noticing how lucky we feel that our kids have talents that bring them joy and confidence.  I am as guilty of these trespasses as anyone else.

I read something once that the best way to locate your gratitude is to get into a gratitude habit.  The suggestion was that you start each day, before even getting out of bed, by counting your blessings, in detail.  Spending a few moments, each morning, running through a list of the small things for which you’re grateful, so that pretty soon, recognizing those small, perfect things becomes a habit that you do all day long.

I wish I could say that I have mastered this, but I have not.  I am working on it, in much the same way I am working on my yoga practice, which is also far from perfect.   But today, I had a glimpse of what it must be like to carry gratitude with you throughout your day, every day.

It was a simple day.  A perfect day.  I awoke early, well-rested, for a haircut appointment with my stylist.  For breakfast, I had my favorite bagel with my pumpkin-flavored cream cheese that is only available this time of year.  That, my hot chai tea, and one of my favorite blogs provided a nourishing and warm breakfast.  I ate consciously, enjoying every bite and every word.   I drove to my stylist’s and was grateful that I was on my side of highway and not the other, where there was a long traffic jam behind a bad accident.   At my stylist’s, I was aware of how wonderful it feels to have someone else shampoo my hair… the gentle fingers massaging my scalp, like a mini spa for a few precious moments.  We chatted as she clipped, about family, holiday food, and the state of my love life.  As always, my Korean friend had a wonderful Eastern-based perspective, for which I was thankful.  After, I went shopping for Christmas presents for my children and food for our Thanksgiving dinner.  As I selected the presents and the food, I was grateful that I have the money to make those purchases.  Every small stocking stuffer and every piece of fruit separate me from those less fortunate.

Once I had unpacked my purchases, I took my sweet dog and went for a long walk on a trail by the creek.  I watched the angle of the sun glancing off the water, and how happy my dog was, trotting gleefully from creek to tree to rock, taking in all the smells and running back to jump on me, as if saying, “Isn’t this positively the BEST?!!”  When we returned from our walk, I gave the dog a bone and I laid down for a nap.  I drifted off with the window open and the slanted sunlight on my face.

After my nap, I went to a yoga class hosted by one of my favorite instructors.  I was grateful that I arrived early enough to get a good spot and that the instructor moved us through our poses firmly but gently.  The sweat was pouring from my shoulders, and my arms felt like over-stretched rubberbands, but I was thankful for a body that allows me to move and stretch.

I came home, started the fire, and took a hot shower.  I fed my skin with my best-smelling, all-natural lotion and closed my eyes to absorb the perfection of the scent.  Then I made a delicious dinner that I savored while watching a favorite movie in front of the fire.  I sit there now, sipping a cup of my favorite tea and grateful for this outlet for my creativity.  Soon I will go to bed, quietly preparing for a day tomorrow with my eldest daughter.

None of these things in my day could be described as particularly unusual, but they were special.  They were special because I saw them — perceived them — as such.  It is not always easy to notice our blessings in the midst of our hectic lives.  And when some of the big things are absent or going wrong, it can be particularly hard.  But every time, every day, it is still a choice.

Today, I choose to be grateful.

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Filed under general musings, personal growth

dating as research, pt. 2 (or ten things I’ve learned along the way)

My first post ever (on this or any other blog) was “dating as research,” and in it I laid out my theory that dating after divorce is a useful way to really get to know yourself again — who you are in a relationship, what you seek from it, what you can or cannot abide in another person.  I still believe the words in that post, and I am grateful for each and every man along the way who has taught me a little bit about myself, no matter how short our interaction.

I have a couple of good friends who are wading into the dating pool after their divorces for the first time in many years.  Listening to their first, tentative successes and failures, hopes and dreams, has inspired me to contemplate what, if anything, I’ve learned over the last 3 1/2 years since my separation.  And I discovered that I’ve actually learned quite a lot.  So I’m going to share my observations with them, and with you.

1.  Not every relationship is supposed to be The One.

Not every relationship is meant to result in a love story that rivals Scarlett and Rhett or Napoleon and Josephine.  Some are meant to teach us things, reinforce things we already know, or even correct a course that isn’t working for us.  Most of the time, I think it’s hard to know what a relationship was supposed to be until you look back on it from a distance, but sometimes it’s apparent quickly.  Either way, it still has value to me.

In America, we equate divorce and breaking-up with failure — why couldn’t we make it work?  what was wrong with that relationship?  But not every culture sees things this way.  Lots of people are able to see the bigger picture… the idea that people (and the relationships we form with them) come into our lives for a period or time or for a particular reason, and then leave in the same fashion.  The fact that they left does not in any way diminish their impact or value to our lives; it simply means that life has other plans that don’t include them anymore.

So don’t force it.  Let it be what it’s supposed to be and be grateful for whatever it gives you.  Then move on.

2.  Don’t assume anything.

No matter what they tell you or how they act or what you think you know, none of us can truly know what another person is feeling.  What one person means when he says “I love you” may be a very different feeling from what another person means.  Sometimes we assume (or believe) things that lead us to think we are involved in a Hollywood-worthy love affair, when in actuality our mate doesn’t feel particularly deeply about us at all.  Other times we assume (or believe) that our partner’s feelings are relatively superficial, only to discover that they are stronger and more persistent than we had suspected. Our brains can’t know, and our hearts are blind; only our intuition can accurately detect the truth in any given moment.  And, more often than not, that intuition is drowned out by a host of other feelings, wishes, and expectations.  Ask questions, listen closely, and don’t get defensive with what your intuition is telling you. Deep down you know the answers.

3.  Almost everybody seems great for the first month or two.  Only time and experience will tell you what you need to know about a relationship. 

Lots of dating has helped me discern when I’m feeling infatuated, really “in like,” or truly in love.  I’m not often confused, and I’m not in a hurry to cross the Love Finish Line.  Because the truth is that you can be infatuated with lots of people, but only time and bumping past some rough spots will give you a real sense of what kind of emotional connection you have with a given partner.   Neither one alone is going to show you everything you need you know.  And if you find yourself “falling in love” with everyone you date, it might be time to take a big step back, spend some time by yourself, and really evaluate what you know about love and how you define it.

4.  Relationship envy is a waste of time.  Appearances are deceiving, and love is more than window-dressing.

You’d think that after spending so long in a marriage that looked picture-perfect from the outside, I wouldn’t have had to re-learn this one, but I did.  Repeatedly, in the last three years. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve observed new couples who have all the appearances of the “perfect couple,” and yet there was a vague sense of something being off…. like they’re going through the expected motions, but without any real depth.  They do and say all the right things, but something feels…. a little forced, a little false…  Like I’m watching a show more than witnessing a love affair.   Sometimes it has made me second-guess my own choices; after all ease and perfection can be very seductive.  But then I snap out of it and realize that I’d prefer deep and messy over shallow and placid any day of the week.  And usually, when those “perfect” couples break up, you see pretty quickly how imperfect the relationship really was.

5.  Figure out what you want in a relationship and don’t let anybody talk you out of it.

Nobody has to live your life but you.  Period.  You, and you alone, have to live with the full force of the consequences of your actions.  You are responsible for the repercussions, be they good or bad, and recognizing that is the first step toward something that really suits you and your life.  Opinions and advice of friends and family, however well-intentioned, are only opinions and advice.  Don’t let anybody tell you what’s right for you.  Only you can decide that.

6.  It’s good to date lots of different people.  

I sat down and counted recently:  since my separation I have been on dates ( at least first dates) with 28 different men.  I have dated men of various colors, shapes, and sizes.  Some have been brilliant and some dumb as a box of bricks.  Some have been mouth-wateringly handsome and others not so much.  But they all have a story, and they all have a perspective, and I learned a little bit more each and every time.  When I date people who haven’t dated much, I can immediately sense the chasm of experience between us.  The world is home to billions of people.  Meet lots of them.  It’s good for you.

7.  You cannot control other people, their feelings, or your own.

Control is a big thing for a lot of us.  By the time you’re in your 40’s, you’re likely running a family, a career, a household, and any number of other responsibilities, obligations or commitments.  It gives us a false sense of being able to set our own destiny, exactly how we want it, exactly when we want it.  Of course, in our brains, we know this isn’t true, but accepting it in our hearts is another matter entirely.  Relinquishing that control, learning to sit with patience and without holding too tightly to outcomes is an enormous challenge.   But it’s important.  Maybe the most important relationship lesson we have the opportunity to learn as an adult….

8.  When considering past hurts, you usually have a choice of being righteous or being happy.  Not both.

It’s very easy to get stuck.  To decide that you simply cannot get past some pain that you’ve endured due to a relationship ending.  It’s easy to cling to it and feel that you are entitled to your pain and to your injuries and to expect the world around you to bend and accommodate and account for what you’ve endured.  But in my experience, that posture is a lonely one.  Friends and family quickly tire of propping up a victim who appears unwilling to move forward.  New people will always be aghast at your tale, but then they, too, will grow weary of it and move on to those who inspire and motivate them.  Being happy is a choice.  I don’t happen to believe that it’s an overnight choice or as simple as a pithy poster, but I do think that it’s about making choices that lead you to your best and highest self. And I’m pretty sure that no one’s best and highest self includes bitterness, rage, or vindictiveness.

9.   Dating — searching for that “just right” relationship — should be a side dish at your life’s table, not the main course.

I know of a woman who, when she is single, attacks dating like a part-time job.  She goes out almost every night, she attends a wide variety of functions, and she devotes countless hours to online dating. And you know what?  She’s never single for very long.  But you know what else?  She doesn’t have much of a life outside of her relationship and her work and familial obligations.  She never really took the time to develop one after her divorce, despite the fact that her lack of an individual life was one of her primary complaints in her marriage.  Now, I don’t have a crystal ball, but I would suspect that this doesn’t bode well for her 5 or 10 years down the road in a long-term relationship.  See, it seems to me that the people who maintain the longest and best relationships are ones who are partners in life, not conjoined twins. So start right now, when you’re first dating after your separation, to build the life that you want to have.  Fill it with people and hobbies and experiences that feed your soul.  The rest, including a great relationship, will likely follow.  And if it doesn’t?  Well, at least you’ll have that great life you made for yourself!

10.  Love is not a race.

I remember when my girls were babies, and some of the moms were hyper-competitive about when their children had hit various milestones — sitting up, crawling, walking, talking.  Around that time, I saw a movie in which one of the characters pointed out that none of that mattered because none of us as adults still wears diapers or drinks from a bottle.  Everybody gets there at their own pace, but they do eventually get there.  And simply doing it first doesn’t mean you do it best.  I’m pretty certain this applies to relationships, too.

Bonus Tip:  You will be okay.

There have been many moments in the last few years during which I have quite seriously contemplated how many times a single heart can break.  The answer? Infinitely.  But no matter how many disappointments we might suffer or tears we might shed, somewhere on the other side there is a place called “Okay,” and we’ll all get there someday.  All we have to do is want to.

So I guess I’ve learned to just slow down, smell the rose bushes, drink the pinot grigio, and learn as much as I can from this journey.  Because while I can manipulate the variables and control for some factors, the outcome of the dating experiment is beyond my control.

And yours.

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Filed under dating, divorce, internet dating, love, personal growth, relationships, single mom

the spiritual book club

In the last years of my marriage, I was part of a very special book club.  We started out as a normal enough book club — four women who were acquainted with each other to varying degrees, but all connected through a local daycare center/preschool.  Two were teachers there and the other two of us had worked together at the county attorney’s office and now had children at the preschool. We were from different religious and geographical backgrounds, but we shared a love of books and discussion.

It started normally enough — a novel here, a biography there.  Long discussions of the books over coffee or brunch, with frequent detours discussing mothering, sex, or careers.  It was, in most ways, pretty much your run-of-the-mill book club.  But there were early signs that it was different, too.  Something in how we related to each other… trusted each other… made our book club meetings so much more than book discussions.  I can’t speak for the others, but they were my soul food during those years, and some of those conversations sincerely changed my life.  Most notably, we read Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, and my friends’ comments in our discussion that autumn day unwittingly launched me on my stumbling path toward divorce.  It was, for me, the point of no return, but I’m sure they had no idea.

As I look back, the evolution of the book club was fateful… each progression carefully choreographed and occurring at precisely the right time; proof that the universe knows better than we when things should happen.  The big turning point occurred one day when my attorney friend, Michelle, brought a new book to the club.  It was Don’t Kiss Them Goodbye by Allison Dubois, the psychic on whom the television show “Medium” was based.  Michelle was a practicing Jew, and, in my experience, the most reserved, pragmatic, and practical of us all.  But following a death in her extended family, her son had begun asking difficult questions and life and death and the beyond, and so Michelle found herself stretching past the tenets of Judaism for answers for him. She had started reading the book and wanted desperately to talk to someone about it, but was concerned that her other friends would think her crazy.  So she brought it to us.  And it changed everything.

We read the book and discussed it, each of us taking small, tentative steps to reveal things that we’d experienced, thought about or believed in.  And we discovered a shared fascination with the spiritual world, and a surprisingly coherent understanding of God and our place in the universe, despite our divergent religious backgrounds.  I’m not exactly sure if or when we agreed to take the book club into a different direction, but after that first Allison Dubois book, I don’t think we read another “regular” book together.

For the next few years, we embarked on a journey of spiritual discovery together.  We read books about religion and ghosts, psychic phenomena and channeling, auras and spirit guides, reincarnation and past lives, God and death and angels.  Then, we began doing “field trips” — we had our auras cleansed and our past lives read and shelled out money to hear internationally-known psychics speak.  It was fascinating and expansive and left us all reeling from the possibilities we had never considered.  We approached all things with an open mind and a healthy dose of skepticism, but never cynicism.  Sometimes we debated, sometimes we agreed.  Some of our experiences and readings spoke to some of us and not so much to others.  We were honest and thoughtful and supportive of each others’ journey.  Occasionally, we would consider adding a new member to our little group, but we never actually did.  Somehow we knew that the dynamic of the 4 of us was just as it should be.

The book club broke apart right around the time of my separation.  I’ve never known if my separation was somehow the cause — did the others feel, as I did, that our work together had helped lead me to that place, and perhaps they felt uncomfortable with that knowledge? — but for whatever reason, one and then the other got too busy to meet anymore.  The bonds that had been formed quietly fell away.  Perhaps our work together was simply done.

The last thing my book club did together was a yoga retreat in the mountains.  It was beautiful and special, but I could feel the space between us.  At lunch that day, we sat in the sun on a deck and shared stories of the small miracles and wondrous things that had happened to us since our last meeting together; our meetings had mostly devolved into sharing those stories — the things you couldn’t tell anyone else without them looking at you sideways.  But I could sense the distance between us, too.  And it made me a little sad.

There are certain people and times in your life that leave indelible marks on your soul forever.  The book club was like that for me.  Those women provided a safe place for me to explore and examine aspects of myself that had been dormant for many years.  Our time together reminded me of the girl I had been and lost somewhere along the way, and the spiritual foundation I uncovered within myself gave me the strength and courage to make the scariest decision of my life.

The book club gave me one more thing — a dear friend that I see rarely but cherish very much.  Although she is several years younger than me, I admire her immensely and rely on her to ground me when I lose my way.  We understand each other in a way that goes beyond my feeble human comprehension.  The book club is over, but it’s impact on my life is felt every day.  Some of the books we read remain touchstones for me, dog-eared from multiple readings, and the things I learned about life and death and myself from those years inform everything I do now.

I’ve recently given thought to starting a new book club, with a different focus….  Maybe it’s time for another adventure…..

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Filed under divorce, friendships, personal growth, single mom