Category Archives: dating

an open letter to my friends

To my Dear Friends, far and near:

I am writing to say thank you.  Thank you for your love and support and concern and worry.  Thank you for your friendship and your shoulders to cry on and your ears to bend.  Thank you for the memories and the knowledge that you are also part of my future.  Thank you for wanting all that is good and happy and easy for me.

I am indeed blessed to have you in my life.

But.

(You knew there was a “but,” didn’t you? I thought so.  You’re smart that way.)

But the thing is, this is my life.  Not yours.  Mine.  I know you know this, but sometimes when we love someone, we tend to forget it.  We get so wrapped up in our hopes and fears for this other person, that we forget that each of us has to walk our own path, and that ultimately we walk it alone, no matter how many loving people offer their help or companionship on the journey.  Inevitably, we must make our own choices; ironically, even if we succumb to the influence of others, the choices are still ours alone and we alone are responsible for their consequences.

I know that all you want for me is to be happy and safe and at peace.  And I want those things for me, too.  But how I get there, and how you might want me to get there… well, those might be different paths.

I know that some of you are concerned about James.  You have held me while I sobbed over him and listened to my heart break.  You have propped me up and dusted off my ego and refused to allow me to fall completely apart over his past actions.  And you are reluctant and frightened to see me travel that well-worn path again.

I understand that you would prefer that I put James behind me and find some nice, quiet, solid guy with whom to make a life that is drama-free and steady.  I comprehend your hesitancy to accept that this time with him might be any different.  I respect your fear that I am fooling myself and will suffer a humiliating and painful crash in the very near future.

I cannot convince you otherwise.

Nor will I try.

What I will say is this:  I have never taken the easy road.  That is not to say that I have not led a life blessed with many wonderful things, but simply that few of them came to me easily.  In fact, when two paths were before me, I have mostly taken the more difficult one.   And — go ahead, admit it — it is one of the things you love most about me, is it not?

You say that you admire my strength.  Well, what strength is there in opting for the safe route, when one’s heart cries out for the riskier one?  What strength is there in admitting defeat when you don’t really feel defeated?

You say that I inspire you.  How inspired would you be were I to acknowledge that I love James with all my heart but was choosing to be “smart” and settle for someone I feel less for?  Can you even imagine me doing such a thing?

You say that my life is interesting.  What is interesting about it?  The times that I played it safe and made the choices that others wanted for me?  Or the times that I politely told everyone to take a flying leap and struck out in a direction on my own?

I don’t mean to belabor the point (or is it already too late?), but would you really want me any other way?  Is not my choice to throw all my chips on the table with James not the epitome of everything that you value and love about me?

I know you’re scared.  I am, too.  But I’m still me.  I’m still determined to have that Happily Ever After that I’ve believed in my whole life.  And I want you there with me, amazed at the wonder of it all as it unfolds.  I want to share the beauty of this with you and the authenticity of how damn hard it is some days.  I want to know that I’ve been real and true to myself, and that you have shared that.

I cannot make you comfortable with my choices; no amount of reassurances would assuage your fears or discomfort.  But I can ask you to remember what you love and admire and value most about me.  Because I am exactly and entirely that person these days.  I am true to exactly who I said I would be when I left my marriage 4 years ago and you cheered me on for my bravery to take that monumental risk.

The risks don’t stop.  And I won’t start shying away from them now.  No one is more acutely aware than me of how dreadfully painful it will be if James and I fall apart this time, but I can only tell you that I don’t see it happening.  Beyond that, I can offer no guarantees.  Neither can James. And neither can you.  None of us has any way of knowing if we shall ultimately emerge a cautionary tale or one of those cute, old couples that no one can imagine not being together. I have my inkling, and you have yours, but none is more valid than the other.

So, I will continue to endure your qualified support for my happiness, your obvious expectation that our relationship will fall apart at any moment, your unwillingness to invest in us as a couple.  I will do this because I truly love you, and I am truly grateful for your friendship and support, however limited it has become due to my decision to be with James.

I only hope that someday you will fully join me and James (and other members of my family and friends) in this new chapter of my life.  I will be waiting and hoping.  But in the meantime, I will continue to live my life according to my own instincts and sense of what is right and true for me in this moment.

And really, would you honestly expect or want anything different from me?

road less traveled

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an unconventional love story

Today, I want to share a love story with you.  It is not a typical love story, but it is my current favorite.  This story doesn’t read like a standard romantic comedy from a major Hollywood studio; at best it’s an arthouse film with flawed protagonists and a convoluted plot.  But it has a certain charm for me.

It concerns a couple who met many, many years ago — almost 15 years ago, actually — and knew each other only in passing for most of those years. The day of their first meeting was a sunny, warm spring day when they were both young and in love with other people.  She remembers that he was handsome and soft-spoken, but perhaps arrogant.  He remembers that she was smart and intriguing.  Every few years, their paths would cross for some brief moment, and they gradually formed ideas about each other.   They came to know each other in the way that you might know someone to whom you spoke casually and infrequently over the course of many years.  During that time, they each got married and had children and then later divorced.

He divorced first — a long, bitter, nasty battle that left him emotionally scarred and terrified of intimate connection.  He dated, but didn’t allow anyone to get close to him, lest his heart be ripped from his chest yet again.  Two years later, she divorced, too.  Hers was more amicable, but her self-confidence had suffered badly during her marriage and a post-divorce relationship with a terrible charmer had left her bruised and burned.

The summer after her divorce was final, she contacted him on a business matter.  When the office manager discovered that she was divorced, she quietly played matchmaker, setting up a rare Saturday appointment for the two (so there would be no time constraints on him to attend to other appointments) and explaining to each that it was the only time the other could make it.  Both grumbled, but agreed.  At that first appointment, they talked for a long time, first about business, then about life.  A second business appointment quickly dissolved into a lengthy discussion of marriage, divorce, and love.  The third appointment, several months later at the conclusion of their business together, ended with a dinner date.

Both were dating other people at the time, but there was something between them that outpaced the others.  For several months, they dated and got to know each other more deeply.  They spent many hours in intimate conversation, gradually opening up to each other, but still guarded.  Then, a misunderstanding triggered their mutual fears, spiraled out of control, and they broke up.

A couple of months went by and she found herself surprised by how much she missed him.  She went on dates, but nothing compared to how she felt with him.  So, when he called and asked her to go out for drinks, she said yes.  And they began dating again.

But, despite all their wonderful long talks, they struggled to communicate effectively about issues between them.  They were, in many superficial ways, opposites, and some of those differences caused chronic and painful misunderstandings that quickly devolved into defensiveness and the silent treatment from him, and panic and mistrust from her.  So, over the next year, they dated and broke up three more times.  In between, they always dated other people, but neither of them discovered anything that rivaled what they experienced with each other.  They kept coming back, but always the same dynamic quickly re-established itself between them — one borne of mistrust, insecurity and fear.

The last break-up, after 15 months of dating off and on, left them both exhausted and miserable.  They had each tried so hard, in their own ways, but it hadn’t been enough.  It was over.

Over the next year, they connected occasionally, but never with any success. They might see each other for a week or two before some disagreement blew them apart again.  Their interactions were fraught with the pain of past hurts and the fear of hurts yet to be inflicted.  To be sure, the chemistry, the emotional bond, and the energetic pull that had first brought them together was still there, but both realized that they could not continue to hurt each other over and over again.  It wasn’t going to work.

So they went off and dated new people  — him more than her, but her more seriously than him.  But always… lurking somewhere in the corner of their hearts, was disbelief that, with so much great stuff between them, they simply couldn’t make it work.

And then something happened.  If this were a scripted romance, the something would be monumental — a dramatic climax to a perfectly crafted story, perhaps.  But, alas, this is not a scripted romance, it is real life, and the shift was not dramatic, or even perceptible.  It was silent and invisible and impossible, even now, to pinpoint.  But something changed.

In her, the change manifested itself as a loss of fear.  Not all fear, mind you, but the fear of not being enough for him.  She found herself ready, finally, to ask the hard questions of him, to hear the truth, and to receive it with compassion, even if understanding eluded her.  She was ready to talk about what had gone wrong between them without fear of losing him.  Because, after all, she already had.

For his part, he finally decided that he was tired of running from her and from what they could be together. The risk of letting her in was terrifying, but losing her forever was more so.  He wasn’t sure he could be what she needed, that he was whole enough to be the partner she deserved, but he knew he needed to try harder or risk watching some other man finally claim her heart.

So, one night, they met at their favorite bar for drinks.  It was a familiar scenario; many of their earlier, failed attempts had originated at that same bar.   But tonight was somehow different.  First he talked and she listened, then she talked and he listened. They listened for understanding,  intently and without judgment, asking questions for clarity but without defensiveness.  They talked about all the issues that had been landmines in their relationship — the ones that the mere mention of would immediately generate tension and a retreat to opposing corners.  Each was surprised by the other’s open nature that night, and the conversation went on for several hours, until their tongues were tired and their brains were full.

They separated that evening knowing that something had happened.  What that something was, was still unclear, but it was different and they could both feel it.  “That was the most productive conversation we’ve ever had,” he said to her when he called the next day. “Thank you.”  She agreed and thanked him, too.

And so they began to try to know each other in this new way, from this new approach.  Both had sincere trepidations, given their long and complicated history, but they made a point, in those early weeks, of having fun together again.  It had been so long since they had laughed and teased freely and with ease.  They spent time together, and time apart, and each was mindful of the other’s feelings and needs, without falling into that dreaded “walking on eggshells” trap that had characterized so many of their earlier attempts to work on things.

During their year apart, she had focused on trying to learn to relinquish her expectations of certain outcomes, and she found that she was more comfortable, more secure, and happier with him when she did so in the context of their relationship.  Loosening her tight focus on a single destination for them liberated her to finally relax and truly enjoy the precious, small moments they were creating together.  By living in the now, she discovered that more wonderful little nows were quick to follow.

Not feeling the usual pressure from her that had scared him and caused him to push her away, he was able to let her in.  He told her things he’d never told her before, and appreciated her in ways he hadn’t before.  When a personal and professional crisis that had been looming in his life finally exploded, he discovered in her a best friend, confidant, and trusted adviser.  She was his quiet support and his tender comfort.  They agreed that if they could weather his storm together, they could tackle anything…

So, are you wondering how the story ended?  Are you wondering if they got their happy-ever-after?

Well, the truth is, I don’t know yet.  Because this love story is mine.

It is the story of me and James, and it’s far from over.   It’s not perfect, and yet it is.  We will still argue, because we are human.  We are both still terrified of getting hurt or left or humiliated.  We know we have a lot of hurdles in front of us in order to create something sustainable and healthy, but — for once — we’re talking openly about our fears and trying to support and understand each other.   Who knows if we’ll be able to stay on this track, but I have more confidence in us than I have ever had before.  And, I honestly don’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out our future right now.  The present is just right — even with the tough stuff — that I am simply grateful to watch each moment unfold.  Some romances are nice and neat and easy; ours is not.  But is it real and it is beautiful to me.

I awoke recently to find him sleeping next to me, breathing softly and holding my hand tightly.  I rolled over and looked at his peaceful face and felt, as I always do, my heart skip a small beat.

I don’t know what our ending will be, but this, my friends, is my happy new beginning.

swans

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the assumption pitfall

There are few things that get me in more personal trouble than my tendency to assume things.  Yes, of course I’ve heard the old saying that “To assume makes an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me'” and I swear that I don’t mean to assume things… but I do.  As an adult, I’ve realized that there is a certain arrogance inherent in an assumption — basically what we’re saying is that we are so smart that we can discern what someone else is thinking or feeling based on selected, minimal, or even no evidence.

It’s no wonder that our assumptions are wrong at least as much as they are right.  But because humans tend to ignore information that contradicts our belief structure, I think we generally place more weight on memories of the times our assumptions were correct.  “Aha!” we cry, “See?! I knew it all along!” This reinforces our future reliance on our brilliant ability to assume conclusions that may or may not true.

Crises of self-doubt result when our assumptions are wrong, so I think we try to avoid addressing those head-on.  Admitting that we based decisions, hopes, dreams, or even just directed emotional energy toward something that was born from a very flawed assumption is pretty hard to swallow sometimes.  And it seems like when we do face the fact that we relied heavily and to our detriment on a flawed assumption, everything from mild embarrassment to complete self-loathing can occur, depending on how erroneous and painful the actual truth was.

Most of my assumptions tend to the negative, although there are some ridiculous, Pollyanna-ish exceptions in my past that still cause me to grimace in shame.  But, if I’m being honest, I know that most of the time, when I’m scared and uncertain, I’m assuming a poor outcome will result and rationalizing it under the “Assume the Worst; Hope for the Best” rubric.  And we all know how easily this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, which is a whole other post in itself, I think.

I think that most of the time we cling to our negative assumptions out of fear — fear of being duped, fear of repeating past mistakes, fear of being wrong.  Basically, it’s fear.  And I think that we cling to our positive assumptions out of hope — hope that things are not as they seem, hope that they will resolve themselves, hope that if we wish hard enough, it will be true.  So, basically, it’s hope.

Both kinds of assumptions are bad news in relationships.  In my relationship with Pete, he assumed certain things about my feelings and about us, based on his own feelings and wishes, which he projected onto me.  As a result, he was far more upset at our relationship’s end than he might have been if I had realized the assumptions he was making and made necessary adjustments.  He was basing his assumptions on what felt like good, solid evidence, but mostly he was just being hopeful, and there’s really nothing wrong with that.  It just sucks when you’re wrong. We frequently see this kind of post-break-up assumption in the form of our expectation that the object of our desire will “come to their senses” or “see the light” and realize how special and wonderful our relationship was.  Sometimes this does happen, but it’s pretty rare, isn’t it? A couple of years ago, my friend Annie had a boyfriend of four months, Ned, who simply refused to accept that her feelings for him were never as deep as his for her.  Months later, he was still blathering on about it and resenting her for being heartless and moving on.  Most of us have been in Ned’s position at one point or another, and it definitely feels terrible.  But clinging to assumptions that are nothing but false hope is one of the worst forms of self-torture.

Conversely, in my relationship with James, I have made many erroneous negative assumptions, again based on what felt like good, solid evidence, but was mostly just fear.  I have a long list of moments when I was too petrified to ask a pointed question, lest my worst fears be confirmed.  So instead, I clung to my assumptions, which were generally worse than any reality might have been.  This is a particularly insidious kind of assumption, as it allows you to beat yourself up with the assumed facts first, and then go round two with yourself when you discover the error in your assumption.  Good times all around, for sure.

Assumptions are pretty easily avoided, of course.  “Just ask,” would seem to be solid advice in this regard.  But it’s not really that easy, is it?  Because we can be blinded by both hope and fear, and most times we’re not even aware that we’re assuming.  It’s only that pesky hindsight that usually shows us how fast we traveled Assumption Road toward Conclusion City.

So, I don’t have any answers to this particular problem, except to say that I’m really working on it in my own life. And I hope it will get easier. Or at least I assume so.

assumption sign

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I need patience and I need it now

Sunday, at yoga, the teacher instructed us to set an intention for our practice that day — specifically, she asked that we each focus on something that we need this holiday season.  As I stood, eyes closed and hands over my heart, I knew immediately what I wanted — patience.

My life is currently in a space of flux.  Typically, for me, this happens with lightning speed.  Life changes are not dithered over in my world.  I make a decision, I execute said decision, and I move forward.  Simple as that.

Except when it’s not all in my control. Then it often comes To. A. Screeching. Halt.

Right now there are a couple areas of my life that require a measure of patience and acceptance that does not come easily to me.  In one area, I am only partly responsible for the outcome, and in the other, I have no say whatsoever.  In either case, I cannot rush to the conclusion.  I cannot extract a guaranteed outcome.  I cannot peek into the future and get a hint of what lies ahead.

No, I simply have to be patient.

Which isn’t simple at all.

I found myself last night lecturing my 9-year-old about patience as she was whining that she absolutely, positively CANNOT wait until Christmas morning to see what Santa is bringing her.  She had herself all worked up into a grumpy mood because she is terribly worried that she won’t get her heart’s desire (an electric scooter) on Christmas morning.  And so, as every good mother does, I lectured her on the value of enjoying the journey — in this case, the Christmas season — and not rushing through it to get to the end.  I reminded her that this is her favorite time of the year, what with all the yummy treats, the Christmas carols, the decorations (nothing Bryn loves more than a little bling all over the house), and the delicious anticipation of Christmas morning. I was able to smooth her cranky mood, and we cuddled in the big chair, watching a favorite Christmas movie.

But after putting her to bed (“What are you grateful for tonight, Bryn?”  “Christmas, of course!”), I fixed myself a cup of steaming tea and reflected on how hard it really is to follow the advice I had so blithely delivered to my daughter.  It is so very easy to believe in the concept of The Journey Rather Than the Destination, and so much harder to live it every day.  “If only someone would tell me it was going to end well, then I could enjoy the waiting time,” we lament.  But that defeats the purpose, does it not?  The whole idea — the whole challenge — of embracing the journey is to do so without certainty in the outcome.  Learning to relish the moments as they come, as an end in and of themselves, rather than simply a means to another conclusion, that’s supposedly the elusive secret to happiness, right?

Reflecting on my advice to her, I was made aware of how much I would be missing were I to give into the anxiety and fear surrounding the potential outcomes to the unresolved parts of my life.  I can easily imagine my stomach in knots and my throat constricted as I, like my daughter, hold too tightly to my fear that I will not achieve my own heart’s desire.  Indeed, earlier this weekend, I briefly felt irritable and out of sorts, possibilities and scenarios swirling around in my head.  But I quickly snapped out of it. Because, as we all know in the logical parts of our brain,  no amount of  fussing and worrying will  promote anything beneficial; indeed, it could wreck the only pieces over which I have any control.  My head knows, with complete certainty, that the only positive path lies through the door marked “Patience.”

I know this, but it still pisses me off sometimes.

Sometimes we just have to wait and see.

As a rule, I am terrible at waiting and seeing.  But the alternative for me at this point is to ruin my favorite time of the year (and possibly more) by being grouchy over issues beyond my complete control.  And I would once again be sacrificing what could be wonderful, precious moments to nothing more than speculative fears.

So, instead, I am focused on being present and patient.  I know from past experience that sometimes the slowest moments afford the sweetest memories.  I have been grounding myself in the conscious decision to be present in all the preciousness unfolding around me right now… Christmas cards to friends I haven’t had contact with all year, a holiday party with work colleagues that are my only reason for smiling during the work day, snuggles in front of the fire with my girls as we catch up on each others’ days, and special moments with friends that remind me what’s important to me and why.  All of this, I would be missing if I were caught in the anxiety and insecurity of the unknown outcome.

Perhaps this contentedness is nothing more than borrowed time and in a few weeks or a month, I will be sad and frustrated by the outcomes as they play out.  But perhaps not.  And until or unless that happens, I refuse to relinquish my Christmastime to anticipating such sadness.  If it is to happen that way, it will.  But at least I’ll have some nice days in the meantime.  And if it doesn’t happen that way — if all that is churning along resolves itself positively — then I won’t have to look back on this short period as I do so many others and castigate myself for foolishly rushing past the wonder of the in-between to get to the endgame.

Whether your anticipation rests on the delivery of presents by a jolly man in a red suit or something a little less legendary, patience can be very, very difficult.  But it can also give birth to some pretty special moments to cherish, no matter what.

patience2

Video bonus: If you’re old enough to remember this song, you might be surprised at how well it’s held up.  Enjoy….

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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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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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the best relationship advice to men I’ve ever read… continued!

Last week, I blogged about a post that I thought was pretty amazing, entitled “The 16 Ways I Blew My Marriage” by Dan Peace.  Well, apparently, I wasn’t the only one who thought so, because the post went viral.  In response, Dan has treated us to the other 15 ways he’d left off his first list, for fear of going on too long and/or looking like a relationship flunkie. The items on this list are just as good as the first list, and I think equally applicable in a gender-neutral fashion.  Seriously, I think his list is my new relationship bible.

Read on and consider for yourself….

The OTHER 15 Ways I Blew My Marriage.

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to love deeply, we must risk greatly

One of the challenges of dating the second time around is being a grown-up about your baggage.  Sure, there are still some people who seem to think that they have gotten this far in life and are still all perfectly shiny and unscathed, but I think most of us can acknowledge that we’re carting around some stuff that gets in our way from time to time.  It may be the same stuff that undid our marriages, or it may be scars incurred by the nastiness of a relationship coming apart, or it may predate either of those events.  Whatever, it’s still clutter that obscures the truth and mangles our feelings and messes with our heads.

In talking with people, I am sometimes astonished at how comfortable some are with their personal baggage.  They can discuss it honestly and dispassionately, with acknowledgment but no self-judgment.  They are not defensive, nor do they offer it as an excuse for their bad behavior.  It simply is. Nothing more, and nothing less.  I sense that, for these people, their baggage is like having a small bank balance — something you have to work around, but not a complete obstruction to getting what you want. That is what I am striving for:  not the elimination of my baggage, but the better management of it and the feelings it engenders.

Circumstances of late have reminded me that baggage only comes into play when the feelings are deep enough to unlock the trunk and spill out its contents.  When feelings are more superficial, baggage is easily managed because it really doesn’t show up all that much.  Those relationships are placid and easy, with little risk taken and few opportunities for our deepest fears or insecurities to emerge.

I used to think that the goal was to find someone who wouldn’t spill my baggage.  Someone who wouldn’t trigger any of my insecurities or fears.  Someone who was safe and consistent.  But I don’t think that anymore.  I think that we are spiritual beings having a human experience in order to learn and grow.  And I don’t think that the safe road is the road to growth.  I think if we want to grow, we must seek out the people who challenge us and our beliefs, the ones who love us while pushing us to face the things we most fear and the challenges we most dread, so that we may push past our fears or failings and reach our full potential.

I think that human nature intuitively knows this to be true.  Even people who never take the road less traveled nod along quietly with the Robert Frost poem.   And people who constantly hug the edges of safety were moved by Robin Williams’ “Carpe Diem!” cry in Dead Poets’ Society.  Deep down, we all know that we have to test ourselves and push ourselves in order to truly experience all the richness of life, but it is so much easier to play it safe, isn’t it?

I realized recently that the men I have loved most deeply made me feel truly alive — radiant, vibrating with life and love and with the whole world in front of me.  Granted, they also generally made me completely crazy sometimes, and I told every single one of them that I never wanted to see them again at least once.  Those relationships scared me and they challenged me and they forced me to grow.

I’ll be honest — I don’t like pain.  Emotional, physical, whatever.  I don’t like it.  And I have the same strong inclination to avoid it as anyone else.  But what I have that’s stronger is the drive to love deeply and fully.  And that sometimes requires plowing through some pain, even if the only pain I encounter is that which springs from my own baggage.

Because here’s the thing:  if I love someone deeply, my baggage shows up.  If I don’t, it doesn’t.  I can be the most easy, breezy, self-assured modern woman of the millennium if my feelings for a guy are only superficial. But if I really love him?  Well, then I get scared.  Scared of losing him.  Scared of him not loving me back.  Scared that he will just disappear and forget about me and I will feel foolish and duped and lost.  Every bit of abandonment issue that I have comes roaring out of the trunk to devour the reasonable and logical and intuitive parts of me.

So I have a simple choice:  I can choose the safe route.  I can pick someone who is very nice and very kind and treats me well and does not challenge me too strongly.  I can have a safe relationship with no baggage.  And, in doing so, I can make little to no progress in overcoming my baggage.

Or, I can choose the rocky route.  I can choose to love deeply in spite of my fears.  I can face those fears and acknowledge them and know that my baggage is waiting there to undermine me,  and I can decide to push through it anyway with someone I love so deeply it terrifies me.  I can acknowledge that to have the love I want, I will have to first master the work-arounds necessary to accommodate my baggage.  I can accept that I get no guarantees and that the experience itself may be the only trophy gained.  And I can accept that pain will likely be part of this process.

Because here’s the thing:  even though we commonly refer to it as “baggage,” this junk we all carry around isn’t nearly that neat and tidy.  Nor is it a static thing that just happened once and scarred us.  The solution is not in avoiding the triggers — because those triggers are our own deep feelings.  My abandonment issues may stem from circumstances of my infancy, but the real problem is the patterns I’ve reinforced over the years because of that fear.  The choices I’ve made that set me up to feel lost, the times I’ve associated being rejected or left with being abandoned, the circumstances I have misconstrued to fit my own fearful construct, etc., etc., etc.   It’s not about just suddenly seeing that this situation or this relationship does not represent something from our past and then magically shrugging off the yoke that has held us back in past relationships — it’s about learning how to respond differently and how to emotionally frame things differently so that we do not continue to allow our baggage to get in our way.  It’s creating the work-arounds that allow us to co-exist with our baggage without giving it so much power.

Now, some people are reading this and thinking rather smugly, “I don’t think I have anything like that to work on.”  Really?  What about control issues?  What about defensiveness?  What about being overly critical?  What about being condescending? What about anger?  What about being selfish? What about being fearful? All of these things can undermine a relationship.  And whatever you have, you can choose to work on it or you can choose not to.  But it won’t just go away.  That much I know.

So, before you judge that person with the crazy relationship too harshly, take a moment and wonder if, just maybe, they’re learning a whole lot and growing a whole lot and living a whole lot through that experience.  They just might emerge on the other side with a more intact spirit and a deeper understanding of themselves, which might not have been possible in a safe, easy relationship.

Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it, and to love deeply, we must risk greatly.

Good luck to all of you facing your demons and trying to do better.  I wish you success, whatever that happens to look like.

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cling less, love more

My friend Ryan is talking a lot lately about trying to become less attached to “outcomes” in his life.  For example, rather than going out with the hope of meeting someone new, or starting a project with the hope of a promotion, he might just pursue something for the sake of doing it, knowing that the experience itself may be the only outcome.  Although perhaps oversimplified, this is a tenet of the Buddhist practice — being in the present, completely, and feeling and sensing it and experiencing it, without attaching a “want” to what comes after or letting the what comes after determine the value of the experience.

I’m sure most of you have heard of this approach, and some of you may practice it. How often have you gone on a date or an interview and told yourself to keep your expectations in check?  This is a common version of this practice, even by non-Buddhists.  And, in all likelihood, all of you have experienced the wonder that can come of it.  Like those evenings when you set off for what you thought was a normal, run-of-the-mill night out with friends, one for which you had no greater expectations than to simply get out of the house, and instead you returned home from one of the most memorable or special evenings of your life?  And, in the reverse, how many times have you built up a date or a vacation to such enormous expectations that it felt flat and vaguely disappointing when it actually happened?

Attachment to outcomes is something that undermines all of us, I think.  It’s just too damn easy to do.  We get excited about something, our imagination starts to run, and we convince ourselves that we will only be happy if a particular outcome occurs.  We don’t even realize how tightly we are clinging to a particular outcome, until it collapses (often of its own weight).  I see this happen a lot when we face having a difficult conversation.  Think about the last time you had to prepare to talk to your partner about something that was bothering you.  Most of us tie the success of that conversation to whether our partner hears us and understands and makes it better — but those are outcomes.  How many of us tie the success of the conversation to the fact that we are having a voice in our life and being clear and honest and authentic in that moment?

I also see this frequently with friends who are freshly dating after a divorce or break-up.  Each new suitor holds such enormous promise, that when the new relationship naturally peters out after a date or two, the feeling of let-down is disproportional to the nature of the relationship.  We hardly knew this person, we barely shared any time with this person, and yet we feel deflated that he was not “the One.”  But why?  Because we were attaching an outcome to the experience.  Just going out on the dates, just sharing space with someone and having a nice conversation, just being present in the moment, was not enough.  The value of the dates lie solely in their ability to propel the relationship forward, closer to the goal or couplehood or commitment or even marriage.

Women are not the only ones who do this.  On my second date with Coach, a busy dater and notorious commitment-phobe, he was already talking about how my children could attend the university at which he worked for a small percentage of the usual tuition.  A clear indicator to me that he had allowed his imagination to entertain the possibility that I would be the one to cure him of fear of commitment (a theory confirmed by him many months later).   When it is presented back to us, in black and white or verbalized aloud, the ridiculousness of pursuing life that way becomes obvious, but when we are in that moment, it seems normal, even natural.

Which is why it’s so hard to not do it.

I think it’s also important not to confuse outcomes with goals.  Goals are usually medium- to long-term ideals that we set for ourselves, such as buying a house or running a marathon.  Most of us need goals in our lives to propel us forward, and they can be helpful in creating and sustaining our focus.  Those are not outcomes.  Outcomes have to do with how we live the moments on the course to our goals. If every moment and every decision is laden with outcome expectation, the path to the goal becomes heavy and monotonous, indeed.  But if we release ourselves from the outcome expectations, the journey ahead becomes lighter and more pleasant, and more valuable for its own sake.

The real danger in outcomes — which again distinguishes them from goals — is that they are beyond our control for the most part.  You can be pretty determined to meet your soulmate, but as any dating single will tell you, no amount of determination will make that happen until it’s supposed to.  Same with that dream job — no matter how much you want that job and lobby for the job and effectively advocate for yourself in your pursuit of that job, it is ultimately out of your control.  And going back to the example of the conversation with your partner — you can be the best communicator in the world and deliver an oration that surpasses the Gettysburg Address in eloquence, but you cannot control your partner’s reaction.  Perhaps they will hear you and understand, but perhaps they will not.  You can only do your best and know that their reaction is out of your control.  To the point, the outcome is not yours to dictate.

Shortly after returning from my trip back East, where I listened to Rob discuss his struggles to let go of outcomes, one of my favorite bloggers shared an article from Psychology Today, “Cling Less, Love More”, which talks about exactly this issue.  (If this topic interests you, I’d suggest a quick read, and you can see her post about it here.)  One of the things I love best about this article is how it describes the physical tightness we feel when we’re clinging to an outcome.  Can you feel that in yourself, hear it in your voice, when you are clinging to an outcome?  If not, I’ll bet you can see it and hear it in a good friend.  Watch their body language and listen to how their voice sounds almost brittle as they cling to their outcome.  Usually, these are the conversations in which I find myself gently asking, “What are you defending, and to whom?” because they can sound very much like someone being defensive.  I suppose, in a way, it is a kind of defensiveness, in which we’re defending the importance of clinging to that outcome.

I’m not sure how to live a life free of outcome expectation, but it’s one of those things I’m working on.  I know how much more relaxed and happy I am when I focus on my goals, rather than my outcomes.  So, apparently, at least for me, it’s a valuable endeavor.  If you’re already doing it, Ryan and I would both love some pointers…

Photo courtesy of Clinging to the Rock blog.

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the best relationship advice to men I’ve ever read

As most of my favorite bloggers have not been writing lately, I have been stretching beyond my usual reading circle, and today I was introduced to the blog single dad laughing.  I fell in love with this blog instantly, and the post that brought me to his blog is likely to be a long-term favorite.  I have already bookmarked it.

Yes, it’s that good.

Read it.  Now.  I’ll wait.

16 Ways I Blew My Marriage

There are so many things I love about this post — its gentle witticism, its self-deprecating humor, its brutal honesty.  But it also made me sadder than anything I’ve read in a long time, because it resonated with me so very strongly.  As Dan, the blogger, writes, he could have gone on for much longer, and I almost wish he had.  His 16 points go far to summarizing the best of every relationship book and article I’ve ever read, and I would strongly argue that most of his points could be applied to both men and women in relationships.  With that in mind, his post played through my head all day yesterday and I came up with my own ideas of what I might add to his list.  So, here are some of my proposed additions to make an even 20, necessarily from the viewpoint of a woman (since I still don’t have a penis):

17.) Tell him that you admire him and why — and do it often.

Since my divorce, I have realized how important it is to men to feel admired and respected by the woman in their life.  I think this is akin to how women want to feel cherished and adored.  We want to feel admired and respected, too, of course, but with men, it seems to take on a different texture…  You can attach whatever judgment you want to the sex roles biology has shouldered us with, but I think most men really need validation that they are strong and able protectors and providers for their family.  I now realize how important it is to frequently — and sincerely — tell my man how much I admire how hard he works and the sacrifices he makes and how proud I am of him.  I definitely didn’t understand this before.

18.)  Make a mutually-fulfilling sex life a priority.

Women can bitch about it all they want, but we have thousands (if not millions) of years of biology working against us:  men need sex in different ways and for different reasons than we do.  Yes, there are more similarities in how and why men and women need sex, but it is the differences that cause the problems, and so it’s useful to acknowledge those outright.  Men communicate through sex the way most women communicate through words — it’s how they connect with us, show us how they love us, and feel close to us.  Talking all night feels good to them, but not as good as a sexual connection.  The sooner we realize and accept that and work with it, the more likely we are to get the relationship we want.

I think the male need for sex to get close to a woman is a lot like a woman’s need for a man to be supportive in order for her to feel close to him.  Hands down the biggest turn-on I hear my friends talk about is a guy who helps with the kids and around the house.  That makes her feel close to him and appreciated by him and loving toward him.  I think sex is like that for men.  Just as we get the warm fuzzies when they tell us to take the afternoon and get a massage while they tangle with the little monsters, so do they get the warm fuzzies when we spend a long evening making love to them.

And I think the “mutually-fullfilling” part is important, because I think most men — nearly all men, in fact — really want to be good lovers to their partners.  They want to know what works for us and what doesn’t and how they can rock our world.  They want to hear it, and it’s our job to tell them.  How is that not a win-win?

19.)  Step lightly around his ego.

I know, I know, I know.  The male ego can make even the most poised woman crazy trying to manage.  It’s more tender and delicate than a newborn baby, and, when injured, takes a helluva lot longer to mend.  But unless you’re willing to go to bat for the other team on a permanent basis, you have to make your peace with the male ego.  It’s fragile.  It needs reassurance.  If you demean it or emasculate it, it may not recover.  So be careful what you say or do.  Putting your man down will never work out in your favor.  Ever.

20.)  Give him time to be him.

The men in my life have always given me high scores on this one, but my male friends have almost uniformly complained that they felt like they weren’t allowed to have individual hobbies or interests outside the relationship without feeling guilty.  I think most grown-ups know in our heads that it’s important for us to have some “me time” — to work out, to hang with friends, to participate in hobbies, or to just escape the duties and obligations of our parenting and professional lives.  Some of us need more of this time, and others less, but it’s important to figure out what his needs are in this area and try to support those.  And we don’t need to understand it (I, for one, would rather watch paint dry than a golf tournament, but, hey, that’s just me), we just need to support what’s important to them and makes them happier.  We expect no less from them, right? And happier partners makes for a happier relationship, for sure.

I’m not pretending that I have all the answers, obviously.  But I do think that my dating research has brought me lots of data to chew on and digest for your benefit.  I’ve listened to men and I’ve listened to women and I think the roadmaps to better relationships really are out there.  We just have to see them and use them, and that’s the hard part.  It’s so much easy to keep doing things in much the same way as we always have, under the guise that we are good enough and anyone who loves us will surely put up with our crappy parts.  While that may be true, I think the greater the number of crappy parts we’re asking potential partners to bear, the smaller the pool of potential candidates.  Weed out the psychos, the predators, and the garden variety creeps and you’ve got an even smaller number.  So maybe taking a look at how we can be better partners is kind of like amending the soil before planting a garden?

Yesterday, on the sidelines of Bryn’s soccer game, I had another surreal conversation with Bryce; this time about his perspective on my dating life . It was fascinating to hear him weigh in, given how well he knows me in some regards.  Toward the end of the conversation, I told him about single dad laughing’s blog post and asked if I could send it to him, as I thought he’d be interested.  “Sure,” he said, “always good to figure out how to do better.”

Indeed.

Photo courtesy of Dan Peace. single dad laughing.

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