Category Archives: general musings

ashley wilkes was not risk averse

A fellow blogger had an interesting post over the weekend that involved the idea of people being emotionally “risk averse.”  Her post was about the man whom she loves — a married man who has decided to stay with his wife but doesn’t want to let her go.  She sympathizes with his plight.  She feels bad that he is so torn.  She understands and accepts his decision, as well as his waffling, even as she tries mightily to disengage herself and move on.  She wrote of her lover being “risk averse” in assessing his marriage, their relationship, and the options before them.

I wrote a comment to her post and then decided that it was really worthy of a whole post of my own, because I think it’s a concept with which we frequently wrestle, in lots of relationship settings unrelated to infidelity.  It seems to me that if someone cannot or will not make a choice related to a relationship, they are frequently labeled as being risk averse to a potentially difficult outcome.

It got me thinking:  What do we really mean when we say someone is risk averse in an emotional setting?  One professional hat that I wear is that of risk manager, so I fully understand and appreciate and value the concept of weighing costs and benefits, but I think we’ve begun to apply it as a pretty euphemism for a not-pretty behavior…

Remember Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind? Now, I understand Ashley… really I do. I’d probably be great friends with Ashley and spend hours in philosophical conversation with him. He’s basically a good guy and he has some interesting and poetic and romantic ideas.  But there is a reason he is not the hero of the book. This is because, quite frankly, he is a pansy (yes, I know there’s a better word for it, but I’m going with “pansy”). He spends the whole book wringing his hands and saying variations of “Oh my, what shall I do?” while Rhett Butler…. well… Rhett Butler is a man of action, right? He doesn’t dither, he doesn’t over-analyze. He acts. And we swoon. Every. Freakin’.  Time. That’s not to say Rhett isn’t complex, or tortured, or capable of being crazy in love, but just that he’s not an emotional coward.

And what of Scarlett? As strong as she is, she makes excuses for Ashley nearly the whole way through the book. She understands, she sympathizes, she tries to hold his pain for him. Until she finally realizes that it’s not that he’s loyal to Melanie; it’s not that he is such a great gentleman; it’s not that he’s smart; it’s that he’s too scared to do either the completely right thing or the completely wrong thing. So he dithers.

Today, we’d call Ashley Wilkes “risk averse.”

See my point? Now, I’m being kind of harsh here, I know, and I do honestly believe that “risk averse” can be appropriately applied in some emotional situations. When one has been terribly, terribly hurt, natural caution does (and should) emerge to make us much more calculated in our assessment of situations before we leap. But I’ve gradually realized that most people who call themselves risk averse have no greater reason for fear than most of us; they simply choose to hide behind it.

I have a friend who had her heart shattered a few months ago. She is, most definitely, risk averse right now. She is so wounded and cynical and frightened. But she has every reason to be… what happened to her was horrible and mean and she needs time to regain her confidence in assessing risk and her ability to take leaps of faith. And she will. This is a temporary, rational reaction to a very bad experience.

I’m also dating a man right now who falls into the risk averse category. Prior to his marriage, he was fearless (and I do mean fearless; I shudder at some of his stories). But his ex-wife is truly the stuff of a bad Lifetime movie… she is more deceitful and manipulative and calculating than I ever thought truly possible in real life; her diabolical schemes literally shock me.  But he loved her. He sincerely, deeply loved her. Bought her whole Brooklyn Bridge, and paid dearly for it in every possible way. Five years after their divorce, he is still gun-shy. Normally, I’d say man-up and get over it, but the more I hear what she did to him and to men since him, the more amazed I am that he’s opening up to me at all. But he is.  He’s trying.  He doesn’t want to be paralyzed forever by his fears of repeating one awful mistake.

I suspect that some readers might argue that maybe some people are just naturally risk averse and don’t need a specific reason to exercise extreme caution in their emotional affairs.  Perhaps.  But to that argument I fire back:  how is that different from emotional cowardice? Why do we grant this kind of emotional dithering a nice, almost-laudable label?  What happened to the value of decisiveness?  The idea of “strength of character”?  The concept of facing a fear head-on and deciding that we must overcome it and we must do so without a guarantee?  Show me an American hero — male or female — who was risk averse.  Just one.

So, my point to my fellow blogger was that maybe before we grant someone the sympathetic title of “risk averse,” it might be interesting to ask ourselves why.  Why is this person “risk averse”?  How is this behavior different from sheer emotional cowardice?  At what point does prudence become an excuse to wring our hands and say “Oh my, whatever will I do?”

I sincerely do not mean to be harsh toward those who are struggling through understanding their relationship or their capacity to be in that relationship.  What I am taking issue with is the Ashley Wilkeses of this world, for whom ongoing, drawn-out indecisiveness causes pain for themselves and others, and even wreaks havoc with their own life.   At some point, you’ve done enough thinking and it’s time to make a decision.  Or, as my one guy friend likes to say:  Grow a pair.

Because Ashley Wilkes was not risk averse.  Ashley Wilkes was  a pansy.

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was it worth it? (pt. 2)

A new friend wondered aloud recently if I would have the desire and commitment to fight for the kind of love and intimacy I claim to seek, or would I let fear and doubt strangle the possibility.  Because I respect his opinion, I gave his comment some serious consideration.

Every person leaves a marriage for their own, very personal reasons.  I left because I was dying inside.  My ex-husband was not a drinker or a gambler.  He didn’t sleep around or lie or beat me.  I did not hate him or think him an awful person. But there did not exist between us that magical connection that is as fragile as the finest, thinnest silk thread, and as strong as steel.  Our love was not capable of surviving the challenges and punishments inflicted on it by circumstance and time, and no amount of wishing that it was could change that.  That connection, that intimacy simply wasn’t there.

It took me many years to accept that this was the truth… to face it in my own heart and do what was best for both of us… to acknowledge that I could no longer pretend that what we had was enough…. to finally leave.

Divorce sucks.  Plain and simple.  I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, if I had one.  I lived through my parents’ horrific divorce, and I still wasn’t prepared for how painful and wretched my own divorce was.  There have been ample opportunities in the last couple of years to search my soul and re-examine my commitment to my decision, and plenty of dark moments of intense pain and grief that have seriously challenged that dedication.  Lots of tears and lots of peaks and valleys.  And time after time, I have sat across from a perfectly nice, attractive, interesting man and thought, “If I wanted this, I could have it.  But is it enough?”  And over, and over, and over again, I have answered no.

Deep down, in the very core of my soul, I know extraordinary love is possible.  I have felt it and seen it and tasted it in my own life, lost myself in it and surrendered completely to the possibilities inherent in it.  I have also witnessed it in my friends’ relationships, heard their stories, and seen their eyes sparkle with that magical connection that cannot be adequately explained, even after decades together.

Am I frightened of getting hurt again?  You betcha.  Does my flight reaction still kick in with an annoying regularity.  Yep.  But over the last few months, I have finally begun to really push back against these demons.  I know that they could very well rob me of the prize that I seek with my full heart, and I absolutely, resolutely, with every ounce of my Irish stubbornness, refuse to grant them that victory.  No, no, a thousand times no.

I know it won’t be easy to find the kind of love and connection that I want.  And once it’s there in front of me, I’ll have to step up and dig in and commit myself fully to the adventure it presents.  I know that I’ll stumble, that those old fears and reflexes will show up like the party-crashers that they are.  Hopefully my partner in that great journey will have the patience to love me through it as I show the unwelcome guests the door.  Hopefully he’ll understand that beating these demons is simply part of my journey and not a reflection of my commitment to my ultimate goal.

Perhaps I won’t find the kind of love that I seek.  Maybe I’ll reach old age and simply be one of those remarkable old ladies with a bevy of amazing, loving friends and a life full of smaller miracles.  But I hope not, and I intend to keep trying to be open, trying to be brave, for the rest of my life.

I met someone recently who, like a nudge from the universe, reminded me of the profound possibilities that exist in the realm of love.  Against all traditional definitions of what is “rational” and “smart,” I have embarked on a wonderful adventure of mutual discovery with this man.  I have no idea where it is going, and, yes, that scares me a little, but at the very least, I have discovered another kindred spirit who seeks the same thing I do.  We are out there.

I have told only my two closest friends about this new man, and their reactions have told me volumes about my own commitment to the kind of love I seek, because they are both completely unsurprised that, once again, I have signed on for the adventure.  Are they worried that I’ll be hurt?  Of course they are; they love me.  Are they supportive of me taking this risk?  Of course they are; they love me.  They understand that I will never be happy with less, and so they cheer me on as I press forward.

When I first announced that I was leaving my husband, my then-closest friend scolded me, saying, “Well, I sure hope it’s worth it!” I endured her scolds silently, knowing that I could never make her understand how I felt or why I was doing what I was doing.  And what she could never appreciate — not in a whole lifetime — is that it is already worth it.  I am no longer dying.  In the last two years I have learned how to live again.  Yes, I crawl into bed alone most nights, and yes, I am poorer than I once was, and yes, my future is wide open and uncertain.  But there is possibility.  There is a chance.  There is hope.  And there is me, standing in the middle of all of that.

So, yes, it was worth it.  A thousand times, yes.

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the value of pain. seriously.

I read an article the other day that reported that scientists have discovered that social rejection actually is painful.  Apparently, by studying MRI’s and PET scans of the human brain activity, scientists have found that the areas of the brain that are triggered by social rejection overlap with the areas of the brain that recognize physical pain.  So, it appears that scientists have now confirmed what every dating woman has always known:  being rejected hurts.  Literally.

I think we all have slightly different ways of experiencing that pain.  I feel it in my muscles, which ache like I’ve run a marathon, and in my chest, which tightens like the clenched muscle it is.  I had a friend once who got physically ill every time she got her heart broken; it was like she was vomiting out all her pain, until she was empty. It was almost as painful to watch as it probably was to go through.

I think we also process our pain differently.  My mother used to rage when she was heartbroken — slamming kitchen cabinets, pounding fists on the table — the outward manifestation of the violence happening in her heart.   I have a friend who retreats to her sofa and her remote control, watching countless movies and episodes of Sex in the City until she finally tires of her own sadness and gets up and moves on.  Then, of course, there are my guy friends, who self-medicate to forget about it, at least for a little while.

As for me, first, I fall into a fog.  I mindlessly move through my day, reaching the end of each one with no real memory of how I got there.  Second, I become restless and antsy, pacing like a caged cat, my mind racing like a mouse in a maze to uncover an alternative happy ending.  Then, finally exhausted, I surrender to the reality of my situation, force all memories and theories and what if’s to the recesses of my mind, and bury myself in work and my children.  This moving on period usually culminates in a date or two with a guy who really wants to spoil me, just to remind myself that such men exist.  Oh, and there’s usually crying.  Lots of crying.  What can I say?  I come from a theatrical family.

But I think, even as I sit in the midst of a present pain, that there is some value in hurting.  As a child, my mother used to constantly remind me that adversity builds character.  “People who have it easy,” she would say, “are boring.”  As an adult, I know she is right.  It is only through our struggles that we truly discover ourselves and our world in any meaningful way.  It just sucks that those struggles have to hurt so much.

I have also realized and come to appreciate that pain is grounding.  There is something profoundly humbling in coming to grips with the fact that someone does not care for you as you thought or wished that they had.  It knocks you down a peg or two, puts you in your place, squashes any hubris that might have been taking root as you basked in the glow of your successful relationship.  I found myself this morning, lying in bed, reviewing in my head my ex-husband’s catalog of grievances against me, examining each one for possible validity, and wondering — for the umpteenth time — if maybe, just maybe he was right about me after all.  It is an extraordinarily painful exercise to move through, but definitely valuable.  Because each new pain peels back another layer of understanding, of perspective, so that some of his complaints begin to stand on their own legs, while others sink further into the morass of crappy, wrong things he said about me.

Some people don’t question themselves at all after a break-up.  They move out of that potentially painful space with the confidence and certainty that they are not at fault, are not flawed, are not to blame in any way for the dead relationship.  Such people leave me incredulous, and I’m not sure whether I envy them or want to slap them.  But I am forced to concede that it must be a nice, easy way to avoid the fog-and-restlessness-and-crying-and-overanalyzing  approach that I employ.

I think, however, that the most valuable part of pain is the clarity that it brings with it.  Sometimes it causes me to pause and consider the choices others have made with which I have disagreed.  Suddenly, I don’t feel so smart and righteous after having my ass handed to me.  In my humility, I must admit that perhaps their way was the better one, perhaps they are the wiser for having chosen it.  Perhaps I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about and should quit spouting off like I do.  Perhaps the choices that I’m making — about who to date and how to date — are the very choices that are giving birth to these painful episodes.  Maybe, just maybe, I’m not as smart as I think I am.  In fact, maybe I’m completely clueless.

A friend commented today that every time I am hurt, it is a moral crisis for me — I re-examine myself, take myself apart and look for broken pieces, trying to identify the culprit that tripped the trigger that caused the pain.  As he said to me, “Not everyone is worth a complete transmission overhaul.  Some guys are only worth an oil change.”   I don’t disagree that, to a certain extent, he is precisely right.  But I do wonder if that isn’t what we’re supposed to do with pain.  Are we not to learn from it?  Am I to be so sure in my self-identity that no criticism leveled against me shall ever receive any credence?  I can only conclude that there must be some form of moderation involved — that perhaps I delve too deeply, too often, as he suggested.

I have noticed that the very issue of emotional pain is somewhat taboo among those who write for inspiration or motivation, and I freely admit that I waffled over whether to even publish this post.  But I have to be honest:  I really hate advice-givers and bloggers and motivational speakers who are perpetually happy and well-adjusted.  I mean, seriously, don’t they ever have any self-doubt or melancholy?  Even Carrie Bradshaw cried once in a while, and she’s fictional.   Besides, I promised myself when I undertook this project that my blog would be real and true and unvarnished.  So, if you tuned in today for a bit of uplifting prose, I apologize.  It just wasn’t in the cards.

As for my current pain, I hope that it doesn’t last long and that I can shortly return to the peaceful and contented place I was before this man reappeared in my life.  And maybe, just maybe, I will emerge from this little episode armed with more knowledge and wisdom and self-awareness than before.  Then again, maybe not.  Maybe the clarity to emerge from this period will be the clarity that I really am clueless and I really am naive and I really am vulnerable.  But I suppose there is value in that information, too.

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discovering the “parallel relationship”

Today, I am pondering the surreal quality of discovering that you have been engaged in a “parallel relationship.”  A parallel relationship, for those of you fortunate enough to not have encountered this particular brand of pain, is when the two people in a relationship are having completely different relationships.  The easiest example of this is the girl who thinks her boyfriend is totally committed and in love, while he’s telling his homeboys that she’s nice enough and the sex is okay.  These two people are not having the same relationship experience.  They might both be enjoying the relationship in their own ways, but they are definitely not on the same page.  That example might be the clearest, but I actually don’t think it’s the most common.  At least not at my age.

I think the most common version of the parallel relationship at my age has to do with the person who is simply looking for someone to pass the time with.  In the post-divorce, middle-aged world, companionship and sex are valuable commodities.  The once-married are used to having those things, and miss them when they’re gone.  So they seek out someone to fill the role, usually temporarily, to meet those limited and specific needs.   It’s kind of like a friends-with-benefits (FWB) situation.  You spend quite a bit of time together, have sex, maybe even meet each other’s friends, but there is no expectation or desire of it going any deeper.  It’s a great system, when you’re on the same page.  When you’re not, frequently a parallel relationship will emerge:  one party is going along, happily thinking that this FWB thing is great and lots of fun; the other party is also going along happily, feeling good about things but unaware that the relationship isn’t really a relationship at all.  It’s more of a friendship.  With sex.  It has a short shelf-life and absolutely no future.  Minimal investment will be made in the relationship — usually just enough to keep it alive.  Certainly not enough to take it anywhere further.

The dangerous thing about the parallel relationship is that you may not even know you’re in one.  When you first start dating, things are always casual.  You gradually spend more time together, learn more about each other, have more fun.  You might start to rely on each other a little bit more, maybe get more comfortable with each other, talk every day, spend time hanging out without having sex.  But here’s the catch:  you still aren’t in a relationship.  This could just as easily be a long-term FWB situation.  And you might not know it until some little action or word clearly spells it out for you.

Which is what happened to me today.

I have been, against what should have been my better judgment, allowing myself to get close to a man who will never truly care about me.  It’s probably not his fault, to be fair.  We can’t control our feelings.  Whatever “that thing” is, he just doesn’t feel it for me, and if I’m being honest, I’ve known it all along.  He has never exactly lied to me.  He has never “led me on.”  But I liked him and I thought that maybe, just maybe, there was some real potential there.  I thought this despite ample evidence to the contrary.  I refused to see the obvious and instead applied my own standards for behavior and engaging to him. I was thinking that we were seriously interested in each other and exploring what might (or might not) exist between us, but I think now that he was simply having fun with me, enjoying his time with me, all the while knowing that it would never really be anything.  We were having parallel relationships.

So now I am in that awful place of having to sort through the reality of what is, versus the dashed hopes of what might have been.  The reality feels heavy and empty and cheap.  The dashed hopes feel like sharp shards of glass that slice me each time I touch them.  But touch them I will.  I will pick up each and every piece and place them in the prettily-wrapped box in which they came.  Then I will take out my metaphorical Sharpie and mark the box, in clear, firm letters, “Nothing.”

And then I will carefully, deliberately make my own way once again, a little less sure of myself, a little less trusting, and a little less open.

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the divorced and the furious

Anger and I have never been friends.  I was raised in a household where the only anger tolerated was my mother’s.  Every one else had to be “nice.”  As a result, I grew up not really knowing how to constructively deal with my anger, so most of the time, I swallowed it.  And it became an ulcer on my soul called depression.  It wasn’t until, as an adult, I had a therapist explain a theory about depression that centered on the idea that depression is anger turned inward.  In other words, it’s anger with no place to go… for one reason or another, the anger you feel cannot be expressed, so you bury it and grow increasingly depressed.  This is a clinical depression, not a sadness or a grief, but a low-energy hopelessness about your situation that usually feels completely out of proportion to the actual facts of your situation.

Once I understood the concept, I had one of those beautiful “aha!” moments when something in your life just clicks into place in a way that completely alters your worldview.  This theory, I realized, explained so much of my life and the intermittent depression I’d struggled with privately.  I wasn’t sad, really, I was just very, very, very pissed off, but too “nice” to do anything appropriate with that anger.

Anger is still something with which I’m learning to get comfortable, and it’s not easy for me.  Of all the emotions, anger seems to me to be like that loud, bawdy, vulgar aunt who drinks too much at Christmas, burps loudly, and laughs at her own jokes.   There is no softness to anger, it is angular and sharp and hard.  It is unforgiving and unyielding, and it frightens me how it can be blinding in its extremes.   I realize that it is a vital emotion, and one that can be cathartic and cleansing when managed properly, but when I’m angry, I mostly feel like a newbie driver behind the wheel of a semi-truck — ill-prepared and dangerous, ready to roll over an innocent bystander at any minute.  So, I guess you could say I’m working on it.

When my parents divorced, my mother was outraged.  I am not exaggerating; there is seriously no other word for her feelings toward my dad.  His primary sin was that he didn’t love her anymore, and for this she was completely and utterly furious with him.  Now, my mom comes from a long line of Eastern European hotheads, and she did her ancestors proud.  She stayed furious at my father for 13 years after their divorce.  Yes, that’s right: THIRTEEN YEARS.  For 13 years, she seethed.  If his name was mentioned, her face and demeanor perceptibly changed.  Those who had anything nice to say about him were banished, and he became this horrible villain in her life story.  Fortunately for her (and all of us, really), an enormous falling out with me followed by some intensive therapy helped her let go of most of her anger.  Thank goodness.

Since my separation, I have dated plenty of guys who were divorced, and, not surprisingly, anger has been a frequent theme.  As expected, some of these men reported ex-wives who were a combination of Medusa and the Wicked Witch of the West, but I became adept at being an active listener and discerning what was real and what was pure emotion.    I learned to avoid the men who had a lot of unresolved anger; my experience with my mom had taught me that anger of that nature is ultimately visited on everyone around the injured person, and that’s a kind of baggage I decided to avoid.

That’s not to say that I don’t get pissed off at my ex or that I wouldn’t be in a relationship with a guy who didn’t have a fairytale happy relationship with his ex.  I’m not talking about the guy who still gets annoyed at his ex or thinks she’s a crazy bitch.  I’m talking about the guy who is seething.  The guy who has so much anger in his heart toward his ex that there probably isn’t room in there for anyone new.  That guy is, for all real intents and purposes, still in a relationship with his ex, as much as if he were still sleeping in her bed.  He is engaged with her, consumed by her, negatively infatuated by her.  And for any woman who is good enough to try to love him, he is a dead end.

The most obvious example of this kind of man was one of my first match.com dates.  We’ll call him Chris.  Chris and I met for coffee one morning and talked for over an hour.  He was handsome and interesting and seemed to smile easily. But as the minutes ticked by, I perceived that, despite his relaxed Colorado demeanor, inside he was clenched tight as a fist.  I asked about his ex-wife, and, at first, he claimed no hard feelings and enumerated some of her wonderful qualities.  I sat back and listened and, as often was the case, he kept talking.  And I saw that his smile, while easily worn, had a tightness about the edges, a sharpness to it that belied his inner anger.  He pulled at the napkin in front of him with a kind of controlled fury that I noted with apprehension.  He talked of her egregious behavior and how she had failed to honor her commitment to a life together until death did they part.  I finally interrupted him and asked how long they had been divorced.

Nine years.

They had been divorced nine years and Chris was still raging over her and the fact that she had left him.  Wow.  Needless to say, I got the hell out of there as fast as I could.

Of course divorce makes people angry.  It might even make them rageful. A lot crappy things are done and said when a marriage is dying and a divorce is being born.  But what the two people do with those feelings and how much control they surrender to them and how long they hold onto them are all very telling.  Does their anger color their world view?  Are they aware of their anger or do they deny it? Do they ever consciously let go of that anger in order to make a new life?  Or do they allow the anger to consume them, so that they are living a life in the shadow of a relationship long over?

Last week, my ex-husband disappointed me.  In a big, big way.  And I was shocked at how quickly my anger and resentment toward him boiled up again.  I spent a few days telling all my friends (not our friends, but my friends) what an asshole he was.  I had bad dreams and journaled furiously about how perfectly this latest offense encapsulated my reasons for divorcing him.  I avoided this blog, lest it become a repository for my negativity. And then, after a couple of days, I was spent.   So, I turned away from him and my feelings about him and back to the life I’m creating for myself.  And in the last few days I’ve hardly thought of him at all.

I’m sure there isn’t only one right way to deal with the anger of divorce, but I know that this is the way that I’m dealing with it.  I’m trying to allow my anger to speak when appropriate, but to do so constructively and without malice.  As with any new skill, I’ve had mixed results.  But so far, I’m just glad it hasn’t become the centerpiece of my life.  Because anger held too tightly for too long creates a barren and harsh landscape, inhospitable to compassion and love and empathy and intimacy.  I learned this early and I learned it well.   Thank goodness.

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sex as communication

I had dinner last week with a good friend of mine who is worried about her marriage.  She and her husband have one of those marriages that I admire.  Not that they don’t have their ups and downs because of course they do, but their relationship —  after 18 years — is still based on a deep love and admiration.  I can see it when she looks at him, and I can see it when he looks at her.  Unfortunately, they can’t see it very well when they look at each other.

They are facing a crisis precipitated by a lucrative job offer she has received in another state, and decisions must be made, including the decision of whether he will be accompanying his family out of state, or staying here.  She is frightened and sad and stressed, because she loves him and doesn’t want to lose him.   Their main problem seems to be communication and emotional intimacy.  She wishes he’d communicate more, be more affectionate, and share more of himself with her.  He, I believe, wishes she would appreciate him more, spend more time with him, and focus more of her attention on him.

But for now, they are at an impasse, staring at each other across a divide carved deep and wide by their mutual retreat.  Each is waiting, it seems, for the other to make the first move.  And so they eye each other warily.

As I listened to my friend, I was reminded once again of the differences in how men and women communicate, bond, and reveal themselves.  My friend’s husband is a reserved man of few words, a former farm boy with a broad chest and good heart, and not a trace of metrosexual in him.  My friend is a strong and beautiful woman, a feminist who doesn’t exhibit her vulnerability easily, but admits privately how much she loves her husband’s masculinity.  So what can two people who are so guarded and self-protective do to close the chasm between them?

Get naked, I say.

Get naked and have sex.  A lot of it.  Often.  Be playful. Be flirtatious.  Be sexy and coy and freaky and free.  Talk and laugh and tease and admire.  Make love and fuck and cuddle and kiss for hours on end.  Walk around in your underwear — often.  Sleep naked.  Get reacquainted with the look and feel of each other’s body.  Be shameless and vulnerable and open.  Sure, at first it’s going to seem a little awkward, even stilted maybe.  And that period may last longer than expected, but gradually, very gradually, I wonder if the walls will slowly come down and the tenderness they have for each other will fill the chasm between them.  It’s sure worth a try, right?  What the worst that can happen?  A few good orgasms?

First, a short primer for anyone who has never met a man or a woman:  Women are verbal creatures.  Most of us communicate through words and expression and sharing our ideas and experiences and dreams and fears.  We can talk about the same issue or problem for hours with our girlfriends, turning it over like a puzzle piece, examining every possibility.  We feel grounded and rejuvenated and energized and connected after we’ve had “a really good talk” with someone we care for.

Men, on the other hand, are physical or tactile creatures.  They bond with their friends by sharing an experience together — being on a team, playing poker, attending a sporting event, getting drunk and rowdy.  They don’t usually tell their guy friends that they love them without simultaneously  slapping them or punching them.  And when they are with a woman they care about, they often struggle with expressing that.   I am forever amazed at how even some of my most articulate male friends fumble and stammer when explaining their feelings for a woman in their life.

It took me many years, and many patient friends and boyfriends, to understand that sex is often more loaded for men than for women.  For a lot of men, it is their primary — maybe even their sole — avenue to intimacy with the woman in their life.    These men convey a million emotions and thoughts and needs and desires in how they touch and connect with a woman in bed.

If you’ve had sex with enough men, and you’ve been paying attention, you can tell that how a man is with you is usually about more than his technique or his level of sobriety or his ego.  Many candid conversations with men have taught me that men really are different in bed with different women, and not always in the ways we women might expect.  Sure, maybe their technique is basically the same, but — just as in other forms of communication — it’s the little things and the body language that speak volumes.  The eye contact.  The way he touches you.  How much of his body he connects with yours and for how long.  How he behaves as you lie there afterward.

Women know all of this, of course.  We can all tell when someone is emotionally absent in bed, when they are “using” us purely for pleasure and nothing more.  Every adolescent girl comes to understand very quickly that not all sex is created equal.  But what I think escapes a lot of us — me included sometimes — is that if we’re not paying attention to those little things, we can miss some really big messages.

Last spring I was dating a  great guy, who also happened to be a serious player.  Really.  We had been good enough friends for long enough that I knew exactly how much of a player he was and, truly, his escapades were pretty extraordinary.  Shortly after we finally had sex for the first time, he did something that hurt my feelings, and when he asked me what was bothering him, I told him that I wished I’d never slept with him.  He acted like I’d run him through with a dagger.  I swear.  He got so upset, I was terrified that this big, muscular, hard-ass was going to cry.  I hadn’t said it to hurt him, honestly.  I just figured that I’d been one of his many conquests and, especially because we were friends, I didn’t want to be that.  When I explained that, he exploded.  How could I think that?! he demanded.  And then he  listed off all the things that had happened between us that night, all the ways that he’d tried to communicate to me that I was special.  And I’d missed them all.  Pretty much every single one.

That was perhaps my starkest lesson in sex as communication, but there have been others.  Most of us have dated a guy or two for whom sex is the only form of communication.  These men can be frustrating because they have often gotten away with using sex as a means of smoothing things over, and have never had to develop their other communication muscles.  When you try to talk to them about an issue or problem, they typically resort to kissing you or caressing you.  This is sweet, but it can also be maddening.  I mean, really, a little of both worlds is necessary, don’t you think?  Otherwise, the woman ends up feeling like the issue has just been swept under the rug, with the expectation that the orgasm wiped the slate clean.  This can be seriously unfulfilling in the long run.

Then there’s the sad experience of trying to reach a man through sex, only to discover that he’s not actually that interested in reaching you.   This is the sexual equivalent of screaming at a deaf man, and leaves you feeling just as foolish.  Remember:  you can’t connect with a man, through sex or otherwise, if he doesn’t want that connection.  This is the more mature version of the warning issued to teenage girls:  he won’t love you just because you have sex with him.  It was true then, and it’s true now.

As for my friend and her husband, I sincerely believe that they both desire to be closer, more connected.  And, as I reflect on our conversation over dinner last week, I wonder if her husband has ever tried to reach her, to create intimacy with her, to express something to her, and she has mistaken it for simple passion or kindness or consideration in the bedroom.   I don’t know if sex is the key to improved intimacy and communication for them, but I do hope they try.  Because whatever key unlocks that precious door can only be a good thing.

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if you need absolution, see a priest

Last year, a friend of mine betrayed me in a fashion that was so hurtful to me, it left me numb and shaken.  When he first revealed to me what he done, I thanked him for his honesty in telling me (although I would have found out eventually anyway), and explained that I was hurt and surprised and needed some time away from him.  He had, in earlier times, been a good friend and supported me through some of the darkest days I’ve faced, so I tried to get my head around his betrayal and find a path to forgiveness.  I did not want to lose his friendship and over the next several days, I genuinely struggled to find my way back to a place of trust and security with him.  But then he decided that I was taking too long, that four days was an excessive amount of time for me to be upset by his actions, and that I was making a big deal out of things just to make him feel bad and punish him.  We spent an evening exchanging emails in which he became more defensive and antagonistic, and I became more aggrieved and less sympathetic to his claims that I was mistreating him.  He accused me of withholding forgiveness just to be controlling and told me that I wasn’t be sensitive to his feelings.

At first, I was confused.  Was I being a royal bitch?  Was I some unforgiving, controlling shrew who allowed no room for mistakes or missteps in my friendships, as he said?  Was I really this awful person??

And then it dawned on me:  He knew that he’d done a terrible thing.  He had at first concealed it from me precisely because he knew that it would hurt me.  He felt guilty and bad about his actions, and he wanted me — needed me — to make it better for him.  Which is all fine and well, except for one thing: that’s not fair or right or appropriate.  It wasn’t my job to make him feel okay for having hurt me.  It wasn’t my job to absolve him of the guilt he was feeling for doing something he knew was wrong.  It wasn’t my job to pretend that I wasn’t hurting, just so that he could feel better.

I had every intention of forgiving him, and I made that clear from the beginning.  But I needed some time to process my feelings, to cry privately and care for my emotional wounds away from him and what had happened.  When he contacted me the night of the emails, I told him straight out that I hadn’t been in touch with him because I hadn’t wanted him to see my pain, because I knew that it would only make him feel worse.  He was my friend, I told him, and I had no intention of punishing him by making him share the space I was in.  But concealing my ache from him while I worked through it apparently wasn’t enough; I was simply not allowed to feel it.  I was supposed to be okay with it all, for his sake, and on his timetable, so that he would no longer feel like the jerk he’d been.  He didn’t want eventual forgiveness; he wanted immediate forgiveness.  In fact, he didn’t want forgiveness at all.  He wanted absolution, a complete clearing of the slate wherein we would never mention his action again, and I would go back to being his loving, trusting, caring friend again, without reservation or hesitation.

Absolution is a beautiful thing.  The mere idea that we can completely eliminate our sin and any consequences thereof is a comforting and idyllic concept.  Which is why devout humans look to a deity to receive it — because we simple mortals aren’t really capable of it.  The best we can achieve is complete and sincere forgiveness — the chance to move forward through our hurt and create a new tomorrow, leaving the scars of yesterday to heal over.  The expectation of anything more is, quite frankly, unreasonable and unrealistic.

None of us likes how it feels when we hurt someone.  We want their pain to be over as quickly as possible, and a sense of normalcy re-established.  But to demand it according to our needs and timeframes is unreasonable and unfeeling.  For instance, if I have cheated on a boyfriend and informed him of my infidelity, it is okay for me to then demand that he “just get over it”?  To accuse him of making too big a deal of it  just because I want it be over, past, done?   Do I get to dictate the breadth and depth of his pain, or did I relinquish that opportunity when I knowingly damaged our relationship?

Please don’t misunderstand: I don’t believe that a bad action grants the injured party the right to intentionally punish the bad actor through emotional or physical abuse, or to engage in vengeful retaliation, or to seize the mistake as an opportunity to gain on-going control and manipulation of the relationship.   In the wake of a serious injury to the relationship, it is certainly incumbent on both people to do no further harm to the relationship or each other.  Indeed, in that space, tenderness and compassion must be the guiding doctrines if the harm is to be repaired with the greatest speed and success.  But it is not okay, in my very humble opinion, for the injuring party to dictate the progress of the healing.  So long as progress is being made in a very real and sincere manner,  that should be enough.

A good friend of mine is currently going through something similar with a man she deeply cared for.  She is in pain and sad and grieving the relationship, and, merely 24 hours after breaking her heart, he is accusing her of being mean for withholding her friendship and “not getting past it.”  Seriously, dude?

Like I always say, if you need absolution, see a priest.

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happy meal for one

A few moments ago I made a vow to never again feed a man.  No more picking up the restaurant tab or stretching my limited culinary skills in order to prepare him a meal.  Because every single time I do, it ends badly.  Sometimes I end up crying; always I end up feeling foolish.

There was the guy who, after I offered to buy him lunch, informed me that he was still “emotionally involved” with his ex-girlfriend.  Or the time I dropped large coin on seafood only to be notified later in the date that we were dating other people.  And who can forget the time I watched the man I loved sit at my dining room table and suggest to me that we go back to “just fucking around” because “that was the fun part, before things got all serious”?

Tonight was pretty standard for my track record:  invited my guy over for dinner, fixed something that didn’t come out of a box or a cookbook, had the fireplace and candles lit, and as the night progressed, a chasm opened up between us that I can’t comprehend, let alone explain.

It is peculiar how food and men seem to go hand in hand with disappointment for me.  I can’t begin to understand it, and, as far as I know, for all the mountains of books that have been written about dating problems, this one has not been addressed.  So, I think it best that I steer clear of the combination.

At least with a Happy Meal I’ll get a toy.

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two years

This weekend will mark an anniversary for me: two years to the day since I loaded my earthly possessions in a moving truck and formally separated my life from my husband’s after 11 years of marriage.

The day of my departure played out like a suburban melodrama. I had scheduled my move for a Friday, so that my children would be in school, but that morning we awoke to find my youngest running a fever and generally feeling rotten.  So, my five-year-old spent the day numbly watching her mother extricate herself from the family home. Feeling her eyes follow me around the house that day was agonizing. My husband stayed home from work, ostensibly to watch my daughter, but subsequent events suggest to me that he would have been there anyway. That morning, he alternated between standing with his arms crossed, surveying the moving men as if insuring that I didn’t take anything to which I was not entitled, and whistling as he moved through the house taking care of small things with a kind of forced nonchalance that I found grating, but would have gladly suffered all day, had I known what was to come.

A month earlier, my husband had made it clear that, other than tossing all my clothes into trash bags and depositing them in the guestroom (“Was Daddy helping you pack, Mommy?” “Yes, dear. Wasn’t that nice of him?”), he was not going to lift a hand to assist me. So, I hired two strong Mexicans with minimal English and a truck to do the heavy lifting. They were kind and by the end of the day were offering sympathetic half-smiles of encouragement. They could see how much I needed them, I think, because my child and my Mexicans were witnesses to possibly the most hurtful moments of my life that day.

Of all the acquaintances and friends I knew, of all the women and men whom I reached out to during my 12 years in our town, only one friend offered to help me move that day. She arrived, despite her husband’s opposition and the disapproval of our mutual friends, in ready-to-work clothes and with a can-do attitude. Within moments, she had plunked herself down in my living room and was busily packing my china. Had I been less numb, her gesture of compassion and kindness would have likely reduced me to tears, as they did later when I was able to fully appreciate that day.

Next to arrive were the couple that my husband and I had been closest to during the last year or so of our marriage (we’ll call them Brooke and John, because those are their names). John came first, and joined my husband for a beer in the living room, as I bustled around them, removing items and apologizing (yes, seriously) for disrupting their conversation. And then later Brooke came sweeping in, right past me without a word, my former best friend who hadn’t spoken to me since I told her that I was leaving my husband. Just as I finished in the living room, the three of them followed me to the den, standing casually in the middle of room, and I was again reduced to shamefully collecting my belongings as I shuffled around them and tried to be as small and inconspicuous as possible. Even in that moment, I understood their need to punish me for daring to break a covenant that we’d all held so dear, and the nature of my guilt was such that I bore their condemnation with alacrity.

Like most people my age, I have suffered my share of intentional acts of meanness directed at me, but the memory of leaving my home under those circumstances currently surpasses all others. It was a cut so deep and painful that I could barely process it for months. Were it not for my Irish stubbornness and determination, I would likely have fallen apart, truly. Even now, it takes my breath away.

It was a long day. My friend had to return to her familial duties after a few hours, but my Mexicans and I worked until after dark. At the end of the day, I offered them each a beer from my new fridge, which they accepted ruefully and drank quickly. As they left, the older one turned back to look at me and ask, “You be okay, yes?” “Yes,” I replied, but I don’t think either of us was convinced.

That horrible day mostly seems very distant now. Within days of my move, a few kind couples offered various assistance and support, every single one of which brought me to the verge of tears. In those dark days, I saw the true character of many of the people around me. The people who surprised me pleasantly will never know the indebtedness I feel for their small acts of kindness. As for those individuals who were so certain that I was making a huge and horrible and unforgivable mistake, I have thought recently how perturbed they must be to see me now. They say that living well is the best revenge. I hope that’s true. It’s the only kind of revenge I really believe in.

I have often thought that how we feel about a milestone is more about where we are in our life and how our previous expectations fit with where we are, than actually about the date or occasion we’re marking. For instance, my 25th birthday – when I was broke and un-coupled and struggling through graduate school – was far more difficult for me than any birthday since, primarily because I was unhappy with where I was and frustrated that my life didn’t match the expectations I had for myself.

This anniversary is oddly sweet for me. The initial elation of freedom and blossoming possibility that I felt during the first year has passed, but so has the loneliness and doubt of the phase that followed. I feel like my new beginning actually commenced within the last three months, not two full years ago, as if I had been previously in a holding place, a benign purgatory of sorts, over the last two years.

One of my more colorful friends likens my recent history to a difficult birth. She invoked this analogy not long ago to explain to me that leaving my husband and the home we’d made was like detaching from the uterus and beginning the painful journey through the birth canal.  I pushed my way through, gradually, until recently, when I finally emerged, damp and blinking, into the new world I’d created for myself. In some ways, her analogy is a bit graphic, but I appreciate how vividly it captures the struggle one encounters when separating from that which is safe and warm and secure and embarking on a world that seems wrought with uncertainty and newness.

Of course I had certain ideas about where I’d be two years hence from my separation, and I can honestly report that not much of my life looks as I’d anticipated it. There have been losses, and regrets, and stumbles, but there have also been insights and gifts and love. I cannot honestly say that I would change much. True, I’m not where I thought I’d be, but I think there’s a strong case to be made that where I am is even better. And for that, I am truly and completely grateful.

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an ode to being alone

This is a poem, set to music and filmed, called “How to be Alone.”  It was written and performed by poet/singer/songwriter Tanya Davis, and filmed by filmmaker Andrea Dorfman.

And it is tender and beautiful and true.

How to be Alone

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