Category Archives: general musings

the unsychronized life

If you bother to notice it, synchronicity is breath-taking.  It’s that experience of having your life fall into step, each moment seeming to blend effortlessly into the next.  Every thing that you attempt is completed, every goal that you set attained, with a minimal amount of exertion or hassle or trouble.  When synchronicity kisses your life, you hit every stoplight at green.  Each store has exactly what you came for, in the quantities that you need, and just when your old mattress finally fails, the Tempurpedic set goes on sale for 40% off.   Your house seems more peaceful, your office time more productive.  Life is good, in the simplest ways.

I’ve learned that most people don’t notice synchronicity.  We’re so caught up in our chores and our bills and our work and our parenting that we don’t notice the utter perfection that sometimes occurs in our lives in a million small ways.

Synchronicity was first pointed out to me more than 20 years ago by a young man I knew when I lived in England, named Danny.  Danny had the sunniest of smiles, a creativity that astounded me regularly, and a peacefulness that I rarely saw flustered.  He had a lot of beautiful insights about the world and how it worked, and we would stay up all night, staring at the stars, talking about existential questions and positing the answers with the certainty of young twenty-somethings who had a lifetime in front of them.

Danny’s life was full of synchronicity.  It was pretty amazing to watch, once you were aware of it.  The simple things seemed to just come easily to him, always.  Jars opened, trains were on time, parking spaces were aplenty, and his size of jeans was always on the rack.  It was odd, but in a beautiful way.

Once I became aware of synchronicity, I studied how it came and went in my life.  I analyzed whether it was simply a function of my mindset — perhaps sometimes I focused on the positive and others the negative?  But I realized that, at least for me, there were definitely times when it was present, and times when it was not.  It was not simply my imagination.

On the flip side, an unsynchronized life feels like a series of minor hassles, like you’re moving in fits and starts, with no flow or constant forward motion.  Everything seems to take much longer and cost much more and consume more energy than you’d expected.

You lock your keys in the car.  The grocery store is out of milk.  The washing machine breaks down.  One of your children forgets her flute, you take it to her at school and discover the other forgot her sneakers for gym class.  The dog develops some kind of mysterious barfing illness.  You can’t figure out where your American Express card is.  Every time you try to log onto your bank to do your banking, they’re conducting “maintenance.”  You have a permanent bruise on your elbow because you seem to whack your funny bone at least four times a day.  Every single light is red, and your car is making a funny clunking sound.  You can’t seem to get anything done at work.

And that’s just one week.

See the difference?

You might not believe in synchronicity, or possibly it doesn’t happen in your life.  But try paying attention and see if you notice it.  I’ve no idea how common it really is.  What I do know is that my life right now isn’t synchronized.  Not at all.

I feel as if I’m moving through molasses, as if every turn I make causes me to run headlong into a wall.  I bounce off, and adjust my course, only to hit another wall.  It’s mildly frustrating, a little discouraging, and very tiring.

In the last 20+ years, I’ve realized that when my life feels out of sync, it’s usually because I need a course correction — somewhere along the way, I’ve made a minor misstep that has taken me off-course and is creating some general discomfort, like a sliding screen door that’s off its track.  The screen door still works, but not easily.  It grinds along beside its track, without its usual smoothness or efficiency.

But I’m not sure where I’m off-course at the moment.  Believe me, I’ve looked at it, but it’s just not clear.  I’m hoping that one of these days, it will hit me and I’ll know what to do to get back on track.  But right now, I’m just creaking and grinding along.

Eventually — I hope — synchronicity will appear in my life again and I’ll feel its warm glow.  Until then, I’ll keep muddling along through my molasses, rubbing my funny bone and cleaning up dog barf.

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the year of the dragon

It is, I am told, the Chinese Year of the Dragon.  My Asian friends sigh when they tell me this. Sighing Asian friends do not set me at ease.

I don’t know much about the Chinese zodiac, but given that it’s been around for at least a couple thousand years, I suspect that they’ve ironed out a lot of the kinks and are probably onto something at this point….

Ling, my Korean friend, told me that the Year of the Dragon is something to get through rather than something to really celebrate. This is not what I wanted to hear.  Given that I rang out 2011 (the Year of the Rabbit) with a tearful and gut-wrenching end to my last relationship, I was rather hoping for a Year of Sunshine and Happiness.  Or a Year of Puppies and Kittens.  But it is apparently not to be.

Ling explained that the year of the Dragon is full of chaos and change and shifting.  In her imperfect, colorful English, she described it this way:

It’s like the dragon is breathing fire and burning everything down and everything is chaotic and unpredictable and scary and then afterward, everything start growing again, and you realize that it all feel clearer and healthier than before!

It would seem that Ling might be onto something with this scorched Earth theory of hers…

As she was talking, it dawned on me to ask Ling when the actual first day of the Chinese New Year was…  January 23, 2012.  Quick check on my phone confirmed it:  that was also the last day I spoke to James.  The day that I told him to go away finally and leave me alone.  I told Ling, and she beamed. “See?!  Chaos, then clearing out and healthy!”

Perfect.  So, apparently, this is to be my life between now and February 9, 2013, when we enter the Year of the Snake?

Awesome.

Because, seriously, I can’t think of anything I need more than a whole year full of days like January 23rd.  Really.  That’s, ummm, … perfect.

But, in fairness, I’m not in this boat alone, it would seem; no, the Chinese zodiac apparently did not single me out for this form of chaos torture.  I am watching the world around me and see people — friends, acquaintances, strangers — tossed about by shifting winds (some not metaphorical) and the vagaries of fate. I can’t even count anymore how many times in the last couple of weeks someone has uttered the phrase, “I just didn’t see this coming…” to me.   That damn Dragon is plenty busy….

When I hopefully asked Ling if there was anything I could do to avoid all the chaos and just get to the new growth stage, she cheerfully responded, “No!  Have to have the chaos to have the clearing!”

So, here’s to the Year of the Dragon, and all the apparent chaos it brings with it. My plan is to hang on tight and see what’s not charred or trampled or simply blown out of my life at the end of it.

But I’m still wondering when the Year of Puppies and Kittens is…  Anyone?

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a visit to my former life

Tonight I attended a fundraising dinner at my daughters’ school.  It is an event I have gone to every single year since Sabrina was in kindergarten and I was a stay-at-home mom, small business owner, and PTA member.

I remember how big and intimidating the school seemed that first year — so different from the daycare/preschool from which Sabrina had come and Bryn still attended.  The hallways seemed so wide and long, the furniture so large, the staff so foreign and unknown.  But when Sabrina started there, I threw myself into the Supermom role.  I volunteered in the classroom, I baked for the bake sales, I helped start the Brownie troop, I donated my business services to the silent auction.  The school became a home-away-from-home very quickly.  I’d breeze through the front door, waving at the office staff, on my way to one appointment or another.

I came to know the other moms (and some dads) really well.  We’d stand on the playground at the beginning and end of school and exchange news about our children or idle gossip about the school.   We arranged playdates and sleepovers and afterschool activities.  We compared notes about teachers and troublemakers and summer camps.  I felt a part of that community.  Known.  Appreciated.

When Bryn started kindergarten two years later, my marriage was coming apart at a rapid clip.  Little did I know when I kissed her off to her first day in that now-familiar room with that now-familiar teacher that life was about to change dramatically.  By the end of the school year, my husband and I were separated, and my place in that little community had shifted perceptibly.

I moved out of our family home in March of that year and so never really got to know the parents of Bryn’s school mates quite as well as Sabrina’s.  I worked part-time while Bryn was in first grade, so I was still there at drop-off and pick-up, waiting patiently with the other moms, but there was no more time for classroom volunteering or the PTA.   But it was a mixed blessing… not knowing the parents of Bryn’s classmates also meant that they didn’t have much emotional stake in my marital situation.  They didn’t know me or my family well enough to be shocked or upset by our divorce, so they received me, my ex, and the news of our divorce with more equanimity than the parents of Sabrina’s friends.  In fact, I think my divorce brought me closer to some of those women than I would have been otherwise.

But, perhaps not surprisingly, it is still some of the mothers of Sabrina’s classmates to which I gravitate at these school functions.  The ones who knew me before, supported me during, and accepted me after my divorce; these are the women who feel like old friends.  In truth, we probably hardly know each other, and yet there is something rich in watching your children grow up together, something bonding in moving through those early parenting years side by side. And I, of course, remember every small kindness paid and friendship given during the darkest times of my divorce.

Next year, Sabrina and her classmates will splinter off to multiple middle schools.  The easy familiarity of these school functions will be no longer as strange faces replace the well-known ones.  Some families I will likely never see again, which is an odd and discomforting thought.  This school, and these families, provided the context for the largest upheaval in my life to date.  For better or for worse, the drama of my divorce played out against the backdrop of the community built around this elementary school.   It was in those hallways that I was comforted by near strangers and dismissed by some I’d thought were friends.  It was those teachers and staff who sheltered and supported my children as they struggled to grasp their new reality.  It was that principal who called to check in with me every few months for the first year.

As I sat there tonight and wondered — for the sixth year — why the spaghetti was so bland and tasteless, I felt as if I were already a visitor to the school, rather than a current member of its community.  So much has changed since I was a PTA mom.  I looked around the room and remembered my old life.  I can’t say that I’d want to go back, but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t miss parts of it, too.  So I savored those moments tonight, in easy conversation with the women who’ve watched me move through the wretched transitions of the last 3 years.  We shared memories of days past and fears of days to come and there was a bittersweet quality to all of it.   Or maybe that was just me.

When Sabrina goes to middle school next year, I’ll meet new parents, and they will only ever know me as Sabrina’s divorced mom.  Our seemingly-perfect intact family and the divorce that blew us apart will fade from collective memory.  Life will keep moving and changing and surprising us all.  And someday, probably very soon, the memories of those spaghetti dinners will be distant, treasured snippets of childhoods gone too soon, and a former life nearly forgotten.

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breaking up with his kids

When I was first divorced, I knew that I would likely end up dating men who had children.  I thought that I was prepared for this eventuality, even though the first few men that I was involved with did not actually have children.  I thought that I knew what I was in for.

Statistics tell us that step-children are the primary stressor on second marriages and the biggest reported contributor to the deterioration of those marriages.  I am not here to dispute that.  Between my kids and James’ kids, we accumulated some pretty good examples of children acting out against the interloper in their family.  And some of my worst arguments with James — including the last one — stemmed from disagreements about the children.

But that didn’t stop me from falling in love with his kids.

Sure, his son Jay’s teasing of me ventured into the disrespectful realm sometimes, and yes his teenage daughter, Taylor, once spent an hour pretending like I wasn’t in the room.   His two youngest girls, devoid of guile, would sometimes ask me directly what I was doing there and how long I was staying, with the clear implication being that I was somehow interrupting.  But the moments that stuck in my heart were preciously sweet..  Like how, when we were all lying on the sofa watching a movie, Jay would allow me to put my arm around him, and he would ever so subtly snuggle against me.  Or the times when 9-year-old Chelsea would beg me to stay and hang out with them.  Or how little 5-year-old Chloe  insisted on carrying my purse to the car for me, just to be “helpful.”  So many tender, small moments that I cherish.

I last saw them 10 days ago, when I went to his house to say goodbye.  I couldn’t believe how sad it made me, how many tears fell on my solitary drive home over children that are not even my own.

I knew, from my own childhood experience, that when you date a single parent, you also date their children.  What I hadn’t fully appreciated is that when you break up with that single parent, you also break up with those children.  And it hurts.  A lot.

I have spent some time recently remembering my own experience on the other side.  I remember many of the men my mom dated, but none so clearly or so fondly as Van.  Van and my mom dated off and on from the time I was roughly two until I was 12.  They had a passionate, tempestuous relationship, and I learned early on that when they broke up, it was never forever.   Other men didn’t get a second chance, but Van kept coming back.

Van was as much of a father as I had in those early years.  On Sunday mornings, I’d curl up on his lap and he’d read me the comics, changing his voice for each of the Peanuts characters.  He took me hiking in the Shenandoahs, and built me snowmen in the yard, and taught me to ride a two-wheel bike.  He was the one who told me that my grandfather had died.  He was tall and handsome and funny and one of my best friends.

But one day he was gone.  The last time they broke up, I remember asking my mom what had happened.  She pursed her lips and said tersely, “We broke up.” I shrugged, certain that it didn’t mean anything and certain that he’d be back. But I never saw him again.  The weeks melted into months and the months turned into a year and my mom met and married the man who became my stepfather.  I loved my stepfather, but I never forgot about Van.

When I was 27, I finally tracked Van down and wrote him a long letter, telling him of my educational and professional achievements, my budding relationship with my now ex-husband, and updating him on all my friends and family he’d known.  I enclosed a photo of myself and my boyfriend.  I had no idea what to expect when I mailed the letter, but what I got back was no less than wonderful:  a lengthy missive telling me how often he’d thought of me over the years and how much he’d missed me.   He told me how he’d always regretted not having the opportunity to say good-bye to me, but my mother wouldn’t allow it.  He’d remarried and later retired, and he sent me a photo of him and his wife.

How I wish I could talk to Van now.  Not only must I get over James (damn hard on its own), but I must also let go of his children.  I can still see Chelsea’s smile and feel Chloe’s small hand in my own and laugh at Jay’s constant tickling or rib-poking.  I was not in their lives long enough to have made more than a passing impression on them; but I’ll remember them, and the weeks we spent together, always.  I protected my heart mightily with regard to James — walls and buttresses surrounding it lest I should fall completely in love with him and end up broken beyond repair.  But I had no such ramparts in place to protect my sorry heart from his kids.

There is so much about dating this time around that surprises me…. so much for which I am woefully unprepared.  Breaking up is brutal.  Around every corner is another reminder of James that cuts me quickly and cleanly and makes me wonder again how we ended up here.   Then, just when I catch my breath again, I round another corner and smack squarely into a reminder of his kids.  It’s bruising, I tell you.

I have found myself sinking into my own children for solace.  Their hugs and kisses ease my sense of loss.  Like the jilted lover who takes a new partner to bed to forget the smell and taste and touch of the one just lost, I am burying myself in my own children to block out memories of time spent in that other family.

I wonder what will happen the next time I date a man with children…. I suspect that I will not be so unguarded, so open to his children.  I suspect that I will begin — maybe already have begun? — to construct the walls that protect us from future grief.

And I wonder if I will ever see them again.  Possibly, but probably not.  Maybe for me they will remain frozen in time… captured in my photos from this hot summer that we spent together.   Locked in my heart forever.

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the last dance

My mom likes to tell me stories about the old folks in her retirement community… how this couple has been married 53 years and is still (or, more likely, again) blissfully in love… how that couple can barely stand each other and is each waiting for the other to die…. how that woman is a “tramp” and will sleep with anyone with a pulse… and how that lovely lady can’t seem to find a decent man.

I love her stories.  I love to imagine the octogenarians at the clubhouse dances shuffling around the ballroom floor, cheek to cheek.  I love when she tells me about her elderly friend who has fallen in love and giggles like a school girl when she speaks of her “gentleman friend.”  So many of her retirement community love stories embody hope and tenderness and the perpetuity of blossoming love.

But the ones that break my heart just a little are the stories of the women who, year after year, attend the dances alone and wait for an attached man to be permitted by his female partner to whisk them around the dance floor just once.  These women are the perpetually date-less.  They eat nearly every meal alone, travel with their children and their girlfriends, and fill their days with bridge clubs and water aerobics.

But it is their nights that I wonder about.  Do they ever lie awake in bed and feel the loneliness?  Have they accepted their solitude with alacrity or do they secretly hope that some handsome retiree will come along and sweep them off their feet?  Do they miss being in love?  Do they get gussied up for the clubhouse dances in the hopes that someone new will be there or maybe a neighbor will bring a male friend?

The poignant and sad truth is that many of these ladies have fallen in love for the last time.  To be sure, some will stumble upon a sweet and special love in the twilight of their lives, but for many of them — based on the sheer ratio of men to women in their 80’s — those days are behind them.  And here is what I wonder about most:  did they know when the last was the last?  Or did they think, as we all do in middle age, that there would be another, someday, somewhere down the road….

I suspect the answer is different based on how the last love ended:  if it was a long-term marriage that ended in their spouse’s death, the women seem to believe and accept (often incorrectly) that there will not be another.  But when the last one was a “gentleman friend” that ended in a break-up, I wouldn’t be surprised if they — like most of us — start looking around the clubhouse for their next dance partner.

What would we do if we knew that we would never be in love again… that we’d danced our last dance with love… that we’d never feel that giddy lightness again…?  Just typing it seems blasphemous, and yet….

Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

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withdrawals from the love bank

When I was going through my divorce, I heard about the concept of the “Love Bank,” and it really resonated with me.  The basic premise is that inside of us we each have a “love bank,” with accounts in the names of everyone we care about.  When someone treats us well, they are making a deposit into their account and we feel closer and more appreciative and more loving toward that person.  When someone treats us poorly or hurts us deeply, they make a withdrawal from their account and we feel less close to them, perhaps less trusting, less likely to try to connect with them at that moment.  If the withdrawals exceed the deposits, we ultimately fall out of love or stop caring for that person.  For the most part, once someone has overdrawn their account, there isn’t a whole lot that can be done to save the relationship.

It is an intriguing and thought-provoking concept that I wish I had been aware of at the beginning of my marriage.  I have watched it play out in romantic relationships, friendships, and familial relationships over and over again.  Just for the record, my personal belief is that only our children have overdraft protection.  Perhaps our parents, too, to a certain extent, but even then not to the same degree as our children.

I think love bank withdrawals may be the best explanation for marriages that “just grew apart” or ones that seemed fine until “suddenly” one partner was done and over it and not looking back.  I know that was definitely the case in my own marriage — it wasn’t one or two big hurts or betrayals that brought us down, but many, many years of small hurts and disappointments coupled with weak apologies and obligatory acts of kindness delivered grudgingly.  Some people think that small hurts are not reason enough for a love to die, but, just like your bank account, multiple small withdrawals add up just as quickly (or more so?) as large ones.

What I have noticed most is that a lot of people don’t want to have to make things right when they mess up.  They want to apologize and have it all go away.  To a certain extent, I can understand that:  admitting we’re wrong is uncomfortable, and it makes us uniquely vulnerable.  Add to that the fact that most of us have encountered people who will exploit our moment of guilt and vulnerability into an opportunity to emotionally blackmail us or gain a power dynamic advantage. Such behavior, in the face of a sincere and heartfelt effort to make things right, is horrible, plain and simple.  And it teaches the apologizer — very clearly and directly — not to bother next time.  No self-respecting person should be expected to grovel or otherwise self-mutilate, just to make up for a screw-up.  It’s mean and unfair to expect.

BUT if you make a $1,000 withdrawal from the love bank, a $200 deposit doesn’t bring you back into balance.  And that’s the part that I think a lot of people — especially otherwise smart, well-intentioned men — miss.  If I’m angry about something, a quick apology and some make-up sex will get me over it.  But if my feelings are hurt?  If I’m disappointed in you?  If I feel unspecial or taken for granted?  Then a simple “I’m really sorry” — no matter how sincere — on its own isn’t going to bring the love bank balance back up to pre-incident levels.  I’m going to need a little more reassurance than that.  Some tender TLC.  A little reminder that you hate the thought of me crying over you.  No groveling, no public humiliation, no expensive grand gestures.  No, I’m just talking about the simple, little things.  Call me a little more often the next day.  Hold my hand more.  Tell me, just once more when I least expect it, that you’re sorry for hurting my feelings.  Acknowledge, in some tiny way that I can’t miss, that hurting me was not what you meant to do and not what you’d ever want to do.

And watch your love bank account balance take off.

I think the most powerful thing, to me, about the love bank idea is how well it captures our capacity for forgiveness, alongside the plain fact that forgiveness does not come without a price of some sort.  A sincere, well-delivered apology can be a huge deposit in the love bank, as can some small thoughtful token given at just the right moment.   It is amazing to me how those gestures, those tenderhearted attempts to demonstrate our care and concern can bring a relationship back from the brink of eternal bankruptcy.

I have forgiven a lot in my life, and I have been forgiven a lot. I have had friends who slept with my boyfriends, a mother who ruined my wedding reception, and a boyfriend who threw me down a flight of stairs.  I have betrayed friends and let people down and been the worst version of myself.  And what I have learned is this:  sympathy is not the key to forgiveness, empathy is.

When I have hurt someone I genuinely care about, what I try to do is imagine how I would feel.  Sometimes this is really, really hard to do.  But when I do that, and I am filled with the same feelings that my hurt friend or lover or family member is likely feeling, then I am compelled to make it right.  I want to take that pain away and help them feel better.  That experience is empathy.

Likewise, when someone has hurt me, a sympathetic apology only goes so far.  What really touches my heart, what convinces me that they truly do care for me regardless of what error they have committed, what dissipates my sadness or resentment or sense of distrust faster than anything is a little empathy.

Take this example: Many months ago, my friend Annie and I had a really rough time in our friendship.  She was doing something that was hurting me, and she didn’t understand why I was hurt.  After some time and several difficult conversations, she apologized, sincerely and without reservation.  But there was still space between us…. mistrust on my part, resentment on hers.  Then one day, she experienced something similar and called to tell me about it.  At the end of that conversation, she said, “I’m really sorry.  Now I realize how it must have felt for you.”  And in that instant, we were okay again, love bank accounts restored to previous levels.

In my experience, the same is true for romantic relationships.  We all screw up.  We do things that hurt the people that we love.  But I honestly think that it’s what we do afterwards that matters most.  Do we diminish the other person and their feelings as ridiculous or unreasonable?  Or do we honor those feelings and try to help them let go of their hurt through empathy and caring?

I recognize, of course, that some people are truly unbalanced and so sensitive or over-reactive that there is no chance or possibility to make it right with them.  But I think those people are few and far between.  Most of us want to get over things.  We want to give people another chance.  We want to make our relationships better.

We want our love banks to be full.

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Filed under dating, divorce, friendships, general musings, healing, love, personal growth, relationships, single mom

how dare you

Not too long ago, I was randomly blog-surfing, and what I found amazed me:  blog after blog written by a divorced person, full of vitriol and hatred for their former spouse.  It wasn’t the anger that surprised me — I understand and accept that divorce breeds a lot of anger — it was the intensity, the duration, and most of all, the basis for it:  most of these posts to which I am referring could be summed up as “How dare you stop loving me?!”

As I read one after another, I was first amazed and then saddened by how summarily and brutally these writers labeled their former spouses as “evil” or “ruthless” or (my personal favorite) “demonic.”  Several times, I took a step back and tried to uncover the cardinal sins committed by these damned husbands and wives, but rarely was it one of the obvious Unforgivables.  Most often it was the more common and intangible “drifting apart,” “feeling unappreciated,” “unhappiness with the marriage,” or “feeling like she lost her identity.”  These reasons were universally dismissed by the writers as being insufficient grounds for leaving the marriage.  No, they insisted, their former spouses are simply evil.

Hmmmm……

I used to work with families whose children had been abducted, usually for sexual purposes.  I don’t need to be educated on the presence and power of evil.  I’ve seen it and felt it and know how real it is.  So let’s get a little perspective, shall we?

But I can forgive the hyperbole.  Love — and hate — makes people crazy.  Emotions are powerful and we are all their slave at one time or another. Anger is a completely natural expression of pain, and expressing it is the only way to purge it.  I understand that.  What I don’t understand is staying crazy, wallowing in it, embracing it as your actual reality for months or years.  That part is incomprehensible to me.

What I hear when I read these diatribes is this:  I don’t care if you (my husband or wife) was unhappy or miserable or even suicidal (don’t laugh; I’ve had several women confide to me that their thoughts of desperation and hopelessness went that far, and I was nearly there in my own marriage…).  I don’t care if I wasn’t meeting your needs or if you told me so a million times or if you did seven years of couples counseling with me (again, don’t laugh; one poor blogger did exactly that).  All I care about is that you dared to take your love away from me after you promised that you wouldn’t.

I don’t mean to be a complete bitch, but to that I have to say:  So sad, too bad.

The marriage contract is not indentured servitude.  You aren’t stuck until the other person decides that you’ve earned the right to leave.  None of us is entitled to another person’s love or physical companionship, but that’s really what so many of these rants sound like to me.  They honestly and genuinely sound as though the departed partners should have stayed, no matter their feelings, no matter the state of the marriage, no matter what.

I understand that marriage used to be exactly that — you stayed no matter what.  But then society evolved and most people began to agree that a physically abused spouse should not be required to remain in such a marriage…nor should a spouse who has been cheated on…or one who is saddled with their partner’s addiction issues.  And so, gradually, more and more acceptable reasons for divorcing emerged, and the concept of the “no-fault” divorce arrived when it became clear that most of the time, marriages did not end because one party was a “victim” and the other was “evil.”  Most of the time, it was just a long, sad road to Irreconcilable Differences.

What’s particularly interesting to me is that, in the abstract, most reasonable people can agree on the wisdom of these premises.  They can nod sagely and agree that a person who feels stuck in a sad or loveless marriage for many years should not be expected to serve a life sentence.  They can be supportive of friends who leave their marriages because the love was no longer was there.  But when it is applied to their own relationships, the polarizing categories of “good” and “evil” are resurrected.

This form of hypocrisy was evident to me from a very young age.  When I was growing up, my mother had many divorced friends and she was always accepting and non-judgmental of their reasons for having left their marriages. But when my father left, after spending four years explaining to her that he simply didn’t love her anymore and couldn’t stay in the marriage, she was furious beyond all reason or sense.  And she stayed furious for many, many years.  Even now, more than 20 years later, she still can barely say his name without clenching her teeth.  By her calculations, he had no right to stop loving her after he promised he wouldn’t.  He broke that promise, and so he is an awful person.

My friend Annie’s husband is another fine example of this.  Even though Annie worked really hard to stay in her marriage — marriage and individual counseling, self-help books, the support of family and friends, and various attempts to reconnect with him emotionally and physically — he told her recently that he would never forgive her for leaving.  Apparently she was supposed to simply suck it up and swallow her sadness and hopelessness and carry on for his sake?

Is that really the deal we strike when we marry?  Am I really to believe that because I promise to love you always, I must do so no matter how you treat me or make me feel?  Am I required to accept whatever efforts you make and just assume that is your best and highest effort at saving our marriage, or am I — like you — permitted to judge those efforts and find them insufficient?  Why are you allowed to say that I didn’t try hard enough to save our marriage but I am not permitted to level the same accusation at you?

I think that it is precisely this ability — perhaps even propensity — to embrace such a self-righteous posture that may be a common denominator among many failed marriages.  What I mean is this:  maybe people who are capable of and willing to villify their exes are more likely to be left.  Would that really be so surprising?

In my dating life, I gradually developed a rule about not dating men who’d been left by their wives unless there was a really good reason (e.g. she was mentally ill or unstable) or the circumstances giving rise to the marriage’s demise had changed (e.g. he used to be a workaholic and has since created a better work/life balance).  This wasn’t a rule based on prejudice or a lack of empathy, but of too many dates listening to men rail against their exes and slowly reveal to me her very good justifications in leaving him.  And of course there are huge and important exceptions — there always are.  But in my experience, they are exactly that — exceptions.

Hate blogging someone is human.  It’s simply the latest version of what has gone on after break-ups for eons.  But hate blogging someone for eternity is not human.  It might just be evil.

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grieving before leaving

Last night I spent some time with my friend Lindsay, who is in town visiting.  A few months ago, she moved 1500 miles away from here to take an amazing job opportunity in the Pacific Northwest.  At the time, she was incredibly frightened about what the move would mean for she and Gray, her husband, but she was also hopeful that it would be the fresh start that they so desperately needed.  I wrote about my sadness in watching her go in I already miss her.

Seeing her last night was wonderful.  She looked amazing and her new job is everything she wanted and deserves and more.   We talked as if the time and distance between us did not exist, and I was so very grateful to be in her presence again.

But it was also very sad.  Because she is very sad.  Her marriage is crumbling around her and she is awash in the myriad of emotions that accompany that experience.  She vacillates between wanting — truly and completely — to save her marriage, and feeling almost certain that it is too late.  We sat at a cafe in the twilight by the creek, and I watched the candlelight play off her face and listened to her voice crack as she struggled to get the words out, and my heart broke for her.  I don’t know what her outcome will be, but I know that she is miserable and desperate for change and feeling hopeless, and those are all feelings I know all too well.

She has tried to reach her husband.  They have had some heart-wrenching, honest, no-holds-barred talks and each time she comes away convinced — certain! — that her marriage can be saved and they have finally turned a corner.  But within a week, the momentum is lost and their relationship has backslid into complacency and despair and silence.

Lindsay is grieving, and she’s only partly aware of it.  She is grieving her marriage and the end of all their mutual hopes and dreams.  She is processing the past and contemplating the future and considering her options.  Her heart and mind are engaged and attentive to their situation.  She is not passively awaiting some conclusion or resolution of their problem.

But Gray? As best she can tell, he has resigned himself.  She is frustrated that he doesn’t seem to see what is happening to them, that he is resigned to their situation and appears willing to live in that dismal space forever.

A few years ago I would have been puzzled and unconvinced by Gray’s apparent attitude toward their problems.  He couldn’t possibly not see it, could he??  He must realize what’s happening, mustn’t he???

Now I know better.

Between the work I’ve done in therapy and lots of reading on relationship ambivalence and my own observations,  I have realized that men and women face the end of relationships differently.  This is especially true of men and women over the age of 40.  Most women are proactive about examining their relationships, whereas most men are passive.  Men seem to mostly assume that things will be fine, or at least stay the same, while most women seem to think that things will have to change and get better or else they will leave.  I think this is why most men I know are surprised and stunned by the end of their marriages, while their wives report feeling like they were shouting at the top of their lungs for years before it ended.

I was one such wife.  I — quite literally and sincerely — informed my husband during our first year of marriage that if he continued to tell me I was stupid and treat me as such, I would be gone 10 years from then.  I loved him enough to want to work it out, but I made it clear that I knew myself well enough to know that I wouldn’t live like that forever.  Over the course of our 11-year marriage, I reminded him.  Each time he apologized and acknowledged it and then…. nothing changed.

I think he, and many of my male friends, assume that the wedding contract is non-negotiable.  You signed on, you’re in it, the rest is just details.  Including whatever misery you might be in.

The best example of this is a man I used to be friends with named John.  John cheated on his wife throughout their 14-year marriage and spent considerable energy detailing her every failing. The space between them gradually opened to form an enormous emotional chasm, but he was basically okay with things and, although he talked about leaving, it was clear he never would.  Then his wife, Heidi, came home from a trip to visit family and announced that she was leaving him.  From that moment onward, Heidi seemed to lighten.  Her depressed state lifted and she moved forward, and out of their marriage.  Meanwhile, John was stunned.  Truly speechless and in utter disbelief.  And I was stunned that he was stunned.  Their marriage had been a mess for many, many years.  Heidi’s needs and feelings had played second fiddle to everything else in their lives for ages, and yet he was shocked that she was leaving.  I hardly knew what to say to him.

Someone once told me that when a man in his 40’s says he wants a divorce, you need to call a marriage counselor; but when a woman in her 40’s says she wants a divorce, you need to call a lawyer.  Because when we say we’re done, we’re really and truly done.

Every divorced woman I know spent months if not years being unhappy and grieving her marriage before she finally left.  I don’t know a single woman who made the decision impulsively or without enormous angst.  I also don’t know a single woman who regrets that decision.

Granted, my survey is by no means scientific, and it absolutely can apply in the reverse — there are women who feel blindsided while their husbands feel like it was years in coming, too.   But my point — and one that is borne out in psychological literature on divorce — is that 40-something women who leave tend to process quite a bit of their divorce before they leave.   To a very large extent, much of their grieving and pain occurs while they are still in the marriage.  Which is why, I think, so many men feel like their wives simply stroll out of the marriage without a glance back or a tear shed.  What they are missing is the simple and sad fact that she is already months ahead of him in her grief process, while he is only just beginning.  The pain and reality is fresh and new and harsh to him.  It is accepted and familiar and well-worn to her.

This is not a scientific white paper on divorce psychology, so I am necessarily making gross generalizations, but I think they are useful as a jumping off point when considering why men and women experience the demise of their marriages so differently.  Lindsay is lost in a morass of “what next?” s, while Gray is sitting with sad resignation.  Their experiences of this moment in their marriage are very different.

Sadly, I think that Lindsay will ultimately leave, because Gray has made it fairly clear that he is not interested in working on their marriage.  But she’s not ready yet.  She has a lot of processing and feeling and grieving to do before she’s going to be able to take that step away from him.  In the meantime, he is likely to continue assuming that their marriage, while far from good, is perfectly stable.  And when she finally goes to him and enumerates her reasons for leaving, he will be shocked.

And I will be sad for both of them.

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jinx

I can be very superstitious.  Especially about dating.  There are certain things that, if I do them, seem to doom the relationship.  I know it sounds silly, but it’s uncannily consistent, and I suspect I’m not the only one to whom these things happen.

I’ve written before of the diabolical effects that food has on my relationships — if I provide a man a meal, either by cooking it myself or dropping large coin on the dinner tab, the night will inevitably end with me in tears.  I used to think that perhaps it was my less-than-fabulous culinary skills, but I’ve since realized that it extends to the best chefs in Boulder, so apparently it’s not my cooking.  And before you go thinking that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, let me assure you that several times I have forgotten this particular jinx, found myself crying at the end of the evening, and had to back-track to figure out what went wrong.  “Ah!  You stupid idiot!  You bought him oysters again! Duh!”

Perhaps the most annoying jinx — due to the sheer inconvenience of it — is that I cannot put a man I am romantically interested in into my list of favorites in my phone.  I have no idea why the fates insist that I dial his number every single time, but there you have it.  If I favorite his number, the relationship will most definitely fall apart with a day or two.  Guaranteed.  Don’t believe me?   I offer as exhibit A the time I favorited the guy I’d been dating for months, only to have him take off the next day for a weekend getaway with a stripper.  And, no, I’m not kidding.  Exhibit B:  the guy who surprised me with the unexpected declaration that he loved me and wanted to have babies with me and live happily ever after?  The next day I put his number on my favorites list and didn’t hear from him again for a year.   Seriously.

I have put James’ number on my favorites list twice; and we have broken up — twice.  You do the math.  I almost put James’ number on my favorites list last week and then thought the better of it…. which certainly explains the recent near-miss we had.

But the one jinx that I really hate the most is the jinx on acknowledging my own happiness in a relationship.  I don’t know why, but as soon as I begin to think that a relationship truly has legs and might not crumble at the slightest difficulty, as soon as I really trust that it’s real, that’s when it disappears.  Poof!  Gone.  And so I am guarded.  Afraid to really embrace my own contentment and joy.  My good friends know this and mostly shrug it off.  “How are things going with James?”  they say.  “Pretty good, I guess,” I say.  “Oh my gosh!” they laugh, “Will you just enjoy it, already?!”  Uh huh.  They don’t have the jinx….

The jinx holds me back.  I have been hesitant to write too much about James… fearful that the moment I wax poetic about how he makes me laugh or how I love kissing him or how safe I feel in his arms…. Poof!  Gone.  But I am all too aware of my jinx and how quickly this might disappear.  So I will continue dialing his number and trying to avoid buying him food and exercising only cautious optimism around our relationship.  Because I really, really don’t want this one to disappear.

Really, really.

Oh, and by the way, this is the second time I have had to write this particular post.  The first time?  I hit “Save Draft” and my computer crashed immediately.  Coincidence?  I think not…..

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i do

I married someone today.

No, I am not a wife now.  I work at a town hall in a very small town  and I performed a wedding ceremony as part of my job.  It was a beautiful day, and the couple was so very sweet.  She was in her 50’s and so nervous and giddy.  He was a bit younger and beaming like luckiest man in the world.  They were in love.  They had waited for this day.  They were confident in each other and what they share.  Just being near them was intoxicating.

I don’t have any desire to remarry.  I know that is an unpopular thing to say and that some would assume that I had exited my marriage a cynical and negative person who had lost faith in the institution of marriage.

On the contrary.

I am still very much a romantic and I believe — strongly and without reservation — in the existence and power of true love.  I believe in the wonder of a marriage as a “forever” bond, between the right people at the right time.  My friends all know that I am a champion of every kind of happy ending there is.

I think that being in love is one of the small miracles of the world. I don’t know why God blessed us with the ability to connect to someone so deeply, to desire their happiness even above our own, to discover in ourselves a selflessness that we’d never seen, to be childlike and joyful in a way that we might not be in any other area of our life.  It is amazing to me that we cannot quantify it or fully describe it or capture it or synthetically produce it, and yet love is a currency valued in every culture known to man.  For every person that values money above all else, there are 10 others for whom the search for a true love is their life’s ambition.   More poems, songs, sonnets, and odes have been written about love than about any other condition or being.  Even God is only a close second.

For me, love and marriage proved to be two very separate things.  I like who I am when I am in love.  I am a good girlfriend.  I did not like who I was when I was married.  I was a “good” wife, but I was a miserable wife.  And I have no certainty that I would know how to do it differently.  So, for me, marriage is off the table.  I do not want another wedding because I do not want another marriage.

But I do still love weddings.  I love the optimism and the hopefulness and the bravery of that act.  I love that, in our culture,  it is one of the only times that the open and unabashed display of love is acceptable and celebrated. I love that, in spite of our collective pragmatism and cynicism, we have held onto the wedding ceremony as a means of shouting to the world that we love each other and we are going to try our damnedest to make our own happy ending.

I am not naive.  I know what our divorce rate is and I fully understand why it is so high.  I get that at least half of us make a mess of our first marriages, and around 75% of us do the same on our second marriages.  But that doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with marriage.  That means there is something wrong with us.

I have known some amazing marriages…. quiet fairy tales in the midst of everyday, common life.  They weather the ups and the downs, the “I-Can’t-Get-Enough-of-You” and “I-Never-Want-to-See-You-Again” moments, the highs and lows of sexual attraction, the challenges and victories of child-rearing.  And when I have seen those couples look into each other eyes, when they think no one is watching, and I have witnessed the tenderness between them, my heart has melted.  Every single time.  Cinderella is all fine and well, as is the hoopla of the royal wedding.  But the real miracle comes later, as the fabric of the marriage is woven and the texture acquired and the life lived side by side.

I watched my couple today, as they held hands and smiled at each other through tears during the service, and I said a silent prayer for them…. that whatever happy ending they were mutually imagining could please come true.  That they could find in each other their own special fairy tale.  Because I still believe in weddings.  And I still believe in marriage.

I do.

___________________________________________________________

Below is the text of the wedding ceremony I wrote for our civil wedding ceremonies.

Hello everyone and welcome.

We have gathered here today to observe one of life’s most precious moments:  the decision of two people to join their lives together in the covenant we call marriage.

This decision is not to be entered into lightly.  It deserves the benefit of long hours of soul searching and thoughtful contemplation.  It calls for knowing oneself and what one needs and desires and has to give another.  It requires an appreciation of the promise that is being made and the bond that is being formed.

Finding that person that we each believe to be perfect for us is truly a miracle.  The world is large, and growing.  To realize, just for a moment, that the two people before us somehow managed to find each other and recognize in each other a specialness, a “rightness,” a “fit” that surpassed what they had found or encountered previously… it is truly awesome.   The story of how they met, got to know one another, fell in love, and began a journey that brought them to this place on this day is no doubt one of life’s most amazing little miracles.  Whether simple or complicated, mundane or extravagant, it is a testament to the universally human desire to love and be loved.

Love brought them here, but love will not be enough to sustain them.  It will have to be joined by respect, compassion, empathy, support, and patience.  It will need constant nurturing and attention.  It will need each of you to recommit, every single day, to its well-being and good health.  And in return, it will sustain you and comfort you and enrich you.

Are you prepared for this commitment?

[Couple responds, as one, ‘”We are.”]

As marriage is necessarily the joining of two individuals – with separate identities, personalities, and ideas, I now ask each of you:

Do you, __________________ and _______________________, promise, to each other and the world as a witness:

  • To love one another and show affection to one another and prioritize the physical and emotional connection you have with one another?
  •  To comfort one another without criticism or negativity, but from a place of love and support?
  •  To honor and respect one another’s feelings, concerns, beliefs, opinions, talents, and needs, whether you share them or not?
  •  To hold as sacred whatever aspects of your relationship you mutually agree should be so?
  •  To banish sarcasm, cynicism, and contempt from your arguments and debates, so as to cultivate respect and courtesy for one another?
  •  To support each other’s personal growth and self-awareness as being necessary components to the growth and sustainability of your union?
  •  To be even more patient, more kind, and more loving to one another than you are to the rest of the world?
  •  To be one another’s soft place to land when the world seems hard and unyielding?
  •  To strive to make one another feel special and desired and important?
  • To be the one person in the whole world that each other can count on unconditionally and without reservation?
  • To nurture and protect and guard your love from the stresses and pressures and temptations of life, such that your union grows stronger and more powerful over time?

 [The couple answers, one at a time, “I do,” and exchange rings, if desired.]

[Optional: The couple has expressed the desire to each make a personal declaration.

The couple takes turns making their declaration, if desired.]

By virtue of your love for one another and the commitment you have just made, I now pronounce you husband and wife.  You may seal this bond with the eternal symbol of a kiss.

[The couple kisses, if they so choose.]

Now go forth and share this wonderful journey of life together.  Congratulations!

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