Category Archives: love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.  Don’t assume anything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10.  Love is not a race.

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

Bonus Tip:  You will be okay.

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

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

And yours.

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

saying goodbye to parker

Earlier this year, I shared the story of my relationship with Parker — a young man I loved in my early 20’s who set the standard for me of what love could feel like and how it could affect me.  From that post, I received a few emails from curious readers, wondering whatever became of Parker and why we didn’t try again. True romantics, they wanted to believe in second chances, and urged me to see if I could make it happen with Parker.

But the thing is, we did get a second chance.  And while it didn’t result in a lifelong love, it did give us both closure and reassurance that what we’d experienced had been real and mutual. Which is nearly as good.

It happened this way….

It was almost 4 years after I’d last seen Parker, and I was in graduate school in Washington, DC.  Our mothers had inexplicably continued exchanging holiday cards, despite an almost palpable dislike of each other.  In the most recent holiday card and accompanying Our-Family-Is-Perfect-And-Happy! letter, I’d learned that Parker had moved to London and begun a new job.  No mention of marriage or a girlfriend. The omission sat with me for some months.

Then one Saturday, I found myself in my hair stylist’s chair, spilling the story of me and Parker.  As my narrative poured out, her clipping slowed down, eventually stopping when she stood behind me, looking at me in the mirror, with tears brimming in her eyes.  “That’s so beautiful…” she whispered. She spun my chair around and gripped my arms.

HS:   Listen to me!  You have to find this man!  This cannot be the end of the story!  You have to find out if there is more!  If there is, it will be the love of a lifetime — maybe you both just needed time to grow up.  And if it’s not, then you’ll have your final chapter. It won’t end with you getting on a bus in the pouring rain and never seeing him again.  Please, do this!  You have to do this!

I was stunned by her emphatic words, but also not.  I guess in some way I’d always known that Parker and I had to have another chapter, whatever the outcome would be.

So I wrote Parker a long letter.  I explained some things I couldn’t have explained before.  I filled him in on my life since our parting.  I told him what he’d meant to me and the ways in which he’d changed my life forever.  And I told him that I’d understand if he couldn’t or didn’t want to write back, or if his reflection on our relationship left him with different feelings or memories.  I just needed to say that I didn’t want him walking the earth, thinking ill of me or thinking that I thought anything but the best of him.

Mail to England at that time took about a week. Nine days later, I came home late from class to a voicemail message from him.

The next day, I called him back and we talked.  And then we called and talked some more.  And some more.  We discovered that our experience of our relationship had indeed been shared.  It had been a watershed for him, too.  Taught him things about himself and love.  Scared him to death and shook him up.  So, after talking for hours trans-Atlantically, within a week, he proposed that he should come to the States to see me…. to see what was still there between us.  I said yes, feeling as if I were a princess in a fairytale.  My friends swooned at the mere possibility of meeting my famous prince.

But then, one night, just before he was to book his flight, I asked him what his parents had to say about his visit to see me.  “Well, uh, I didn’t exactly tell them,” he replied haltingly.

And my stomach dropped.  My mouth went dry.  And the fairytale ended.

Parker’s parents had been the biggest impediment to our relationship when I was in England.  They liked me well enough to be best friends with his sister and to live at their house for a summer when I was doing an internship, but when my relationship with Parker went from platonic to romantic, they flipped out.  Nasty, heated arguments ensued, in which I was labeled with all variety of derogatory American stereotypes.  I was dumb.  I was easy.  I probably had any number of diseases.  I watched them tear him down and degrade our love into something cheap and sleazy and unworthy.  And I could do nothing but stand by and hope he was strong enough to withstand their assaults.

But he wasn’t.  In the end, the final straw was his mother’s coup de grace — she arranged a date for him with a young nurse, the daughter of an acquaintance.  And he, weary of battling her, agreed to go.  I was crushed. And that was the end of us.

With the passage of time, I came to realize that he had gone on the date hoping to show his mother that no matter how many, how young, or how English the dates were, they would not succeed in eliminating me from his heart, but at that time, I was simply too crushed to bear it.  I saw his action as evidence that his parents had won in their battle to rip us apart.  And I reviled what I saw as his cowardice in not standing up to them more strongly.

So, that night, all those years later, clutching the phone to my ear, and with tears coursing down my cheeks, I told Parker not to come visit me.  I could see that the biggest obstacle to our being together was not geography, but his parents’ persistent disapproval of our relationship.  And I saw, very clearly, that to start again would not be to turn over a new chapter, but to revisit an old and painful one.  He was silent, and then agreed.  I think we had one more conversation after that, which was sad but cordial. We offered sincere wishes for good fortune to the other, we apologized that things had never turned out differently, we swore that memories would not be forgotten.

Then we went our separate ways.

But that still wasn’t the end….

His mother continued with her Christmas cards and letters until a few years ago.  Through those I learned that Parker had fallen in love with a Canadian girl.  Shortly after that ended, there followed an American, whom he later married and moved to Chicago to be with.  After a child and a divorce, he stayed in Chicago, started his own company, and is now engaged to another American.  So, apparently, at some point, he decided to stand up to his parents and their ill-conceived ideas of American women.  For that, I am very, very proud of him.

I joined Facebook around the time my marriage was falling apart, as a way to reconnect with my emotional support network, which was mostly based on the East Coast.  Parker’s sister in England found me first, and we renewed our friendship.  Then he followed up with a friend request.  We exchanged a few short, friendly emails, which felt nice and right.  It’s good to see photos of him and his fiance and his son.  It’s good to read snippets about his professional successes.  We are nothing to each other but cherished memories, but that is exactly as it should be.  And I am grateful to be able to see that he is well and happy and successful.

Sometimes our fairytales don’t end the way a scriptwriter would have written them.

Sometimes they just end the way they should.

P.S. — This post is dedicated to Dan, who wrote a post that actually made me cry.  I wish him solace and a conclusion to his own tale.

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

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

Read on and consider for yourself….

The OTHER 15 Ways I Blew My Marriage.

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Filed under dating, divorce, love, marriage, men, personal growth, relationships, single mom

to love deeply, we must risk greatly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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cling less, love more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo courtesy of Clinging to the Rock blog.

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Filed under dating, general musings, love, personal growth, relationships

the best relationship advice to men I’ve ever read

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

Yes, it’s that good.

Read it.  Now.  I’ll wait.

16 Ways I Blew My Marriage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19.)  Step lightly around his ego.

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

20.)  Give him time to be him.

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

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

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

Indeed.

Photo courtesy of Dan Peace. single dad laughing.

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breakups are harder on men? who knew?

While reading my Glamour magazine recently,

Blogger’s Note:  I receive Glamour magazine because when my favorite interior design magazine was cancelled last year, the publishing company decided to fulfill my remaining subscription with Glamour.  I have no idea what demographics they were relying on when they made that assignment. I am certain that I am 20 years outside their target audience.  I read it rather than throwing it away because I like a good, trashy dose of brain fluff once-in-a-while.  Anyway, back to the point of this sentence….

I came across an article titled “Why Breakups are Harder on Men than on Women.”

SERIOUSLY?! This I just had to read.  But only after scoffing audibly while instantaneously calling to memory the countless hours I’ve spent crying and thrashing and eating ice cream and drinking wine (sometimes all at the same time) after my own breakups.

Now, if you’ve followed me for any length of time at all, you know I’m a huge, shameless fan of little relationship factoids.  I collect them the way some of my guy friends collect sports statistics.  In my quest to do better with relationships post-divorce, I devour and regurgitate relationship research constantly.  My friends are abundantly patient with me, and I think some of them actually find this stuff interesting, too. But I’ll admit that when I discover some new little factoid that I’ve never heard before, I get a little giddy, kind of like when Separated Dad calls me to wax lyrical about the iPhone 5’s new features.

So, I set aside my skepticism (okay, some of my skepticism) and proceeded to discover why breakups are harder on men.

For those of you without the time or inclination to read the whole article (men should probably avoid the part about why size matters…), here’s the relevant part:

“Sex releases bonding chemicals oxytocin and vasopressin into female and male brains, and it’s vasopressin that helps a man bond with you. For an animal-kingdom example, consider the usually monogamous male prairie vole, a cute little mouselike creature. Larry and his colleagues discovered that without the vasopressin effect, the vole would turn into a promiscuous cad. No vasopressin effect, no monogamy. When a human male is under the influence of vasopressin, as all are during sex, he forms a bond with you that’s kind of like an animal claiming a home; your scent, your eye color, even your apartment all become cues that make him crave you. Another animal example: If you give a male hamster a shot of vasopressin to the brain, he’ll run around peeing like crazy to mark territory—that’s his place, nobody else’s. Release a guy’s vasopressin by having sex with him, and he’ll unconsciously start to view you as the territory he’s bonded to. You don’t have to like it, but this is where much of that famous male possessiveness comes from.”

The idea then follows that when the man goes through a breakup, he loses not only his girlfriend, but his whole sense of “home.”  Apparently, the bonding chemicals affect females differently, causing us to nurture, rather than protect, our mates, so the breakup affects us differently, too.

Hmmmm….

A couple of things jumped out at me from this description, beyond the fascinating science.  One was the author’s use of the word “crave” to describe a man’s attraction to his woman.  I’ve often used that word in my own head when thinking about how some men seem to truly need that sexual –rather than simply some other physical — connection with me.  I’ve often wondered if their need of me went beyond satisfying some basic urge like hunger.

I also had to acknowledge the male possessiveness thing.  Almost without exception, the men that I perceived having the strongest sexual attraction to me were also the men who were the most possessive.  I had never, ever linked the two until reading this article, but for me, at least, it’s true.  I’m not exactly sure what that means.  Naturally higher vasopressin levels on their part?  Something in me that triggered more release of vasopressin during sex? I don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter.  But I find it intriguing.

But above all, I was captured by his use of the word “home” to describe how the man attaches to his mate.  I have noticed that men — in songs, poetry, and Hollywood declarations of love — frequently invoke this sense of a woman as “home,” but, to be truthful, I’ve never really understood it.  From my female perspective, some men have felt more comfortable or comforting or safe to me than others, but I don’t think I’ve ever described someone as feeling like “home,” nor have I ever heard any woman of my acquaintance do so.  This is very curious to me, since women are supposedly hard-wired to nest, to create a home, to want to feel “at home.”  And yet we don’t seem to invoke that lingo about our partners.  Men, on the other hand, are “kings of their castles” and “masters of their domains,” but hardly ever talk about seeking a home or creating a home or whatever.  And yet, when reaching for a word to describe their soulmate, they settle on “home.”  So now I wonder:  is that because, for a man, “home” is wherever his woman is?  Does he not seek to create a home so much as to find one in a mate? Does her scent, her hair, her possessions become that home for him?  If so, that is a positively lovely and precious and wonderful thing.  And if it means that he hurts more when it’s over, then that is sad, to be sure.  But also kind of wondrous.

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the smile in my voice

Last week, I was on the telephone very late one night, when Sabrina came into my room to tell me she was nervous about some things at school and so couldn’t sleep.  I briefly interrupted my conversation, reassured her and told her to go back to bed.  I would come tuck her in and check on her when I finished my conversation.

The following morning, as we were in the kitchen preparing breakfast, the following conversation ensued:

Sabrina:  Who were you talking to so late last night?

TPG:  Hmmm… Who do you think?

Sabrina (spoken with authority): Well, it wasn’t Pete.

TPG:  Really? How do you know?

Sabrina (shrugging):  Because you didn’t have your smile in your voice.

As often happens in my parenting moments, I was struck dumb.  Dumb by her wisdom. Dumb by her perception.  Dumb by her ability to so beautifully and succinctly capture in words the happiness I feel when I am sharing time with Pete, even over the phone.

But later, reflecting on the conversation, I was also aware of how profound that moment probably was for Sabrina, albeit unconsciously so.  What did she learn in that small moment about dating, how a man should make you feel, what falling in love might look like?  I often forget that I am constantly on stage for my daughters — they are critics in the front row, taking subconscious notes of my behaviors, my values, my choices.  My actions and words broadcast messages and lessons to them all day and in every way, and most times I am thankfully unaware of their scrutiny.  But every once in a while, it hits me.

I want my girls to have relationships with men who treat them so well and enrich their lives in ways that I cannot.  I want them to feel accepted and valued and safe.  I want them to fall in love without fear of that love being returned.  I want, someday, to overhear a conversation between them and their guy, and hear a smile in their voice.  And if I do, my heart will sing.

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Filed under dating, happy endings, love, pete, relationships, single mom

sure you’re in a relationship, but do you know how to “have” one?

My independent spirit, natural reserve, and aversion to needy men has often led me to men who are emotionally unavailable in some fashion or another.  Nice men, with one notable exception, but not really ready or able or willing to truly sink into a relationship, embrace it, and let it naturally evolve.  Sometimes these men were badly damaged by previous relationships (romantic or familial), sometimes they were shy to the point of being closed off, and sometimes they were just fun guys who had no real desire to go deep emotionally.  Whatever the reason, I have spent a lot of time in relationships in which I reached for my partner, only to have my hand close on nothing but air.

My therapist likes to talk about how some people simply “don’t know how to have.”  I refer to them in my head as “Have-nots.”  They basically are incapable of embracing and being genuinely happy with a new, healthy relationship, so they find ways to sabotage it.  These people often feel, deep down, that they are not deserving of a truly amazing relationship.  Guilt, shame, regret, or fear can cause them to pull away from anything that feels genuine and authentic.  Have-nots are hesitant to be really known by anyone, out of fear that rejection will somehow follow, and they worry that they won’t be able to sustain a real relationship.  Some Have-nots hide behind being “too busy” or “too hurt” or some other “too” to avoid really digging deep and creating something incredible.   It is easier and safer to be in something with clear and distinct boundaries and limits, so a deep and sincere intimacy isn’t ever really possible, but neither is heart-breaking pain.  When Have-nots encounter someone who is open and giving and loving, who attempts to create something real with them, they often react with irritability, confusion, or even anger.  Usually, their own inability to get close is blamed on the other person, who is often characterized as too demanding.

I think, like most emotional issues, this “inability to have” is a spectral thing, and I know that I have vacillated along the spectrum at different points in my life.  There have been definite and clear periods of my life when I have not been certain of what I deserved or able to give much, and other times when I have been open and loving and discovered myself involved with someone who was not.  Sometimes I have figured this out on the first date; other times it has taken months (or even years — yikes!) of mixed signals and roller-coaster emotions before I finally realized it.  Sometimes I’m the one sending the mixed signals, but more often I’m the one trying to decipher them.  Either way, it’s exhausting and unproductive and sad.

In fact, I have spent so much time in relationships like this, that I had pretty much forgotten what it feels like when it’s not.  I’d forgotten what it feels like when it flows easily.  When I don’t feel insecure about anything.  When I feel free to raise uncomfortable subjects and have them addressed.  When there wasn’t something hanging out there, like a dark thunder cloud in the distance, leaving me wondering how we’d handle that when it was overhead and whether it might do us in.

But I am, apparently, learning.

Somewhere in the darkness of my recent depression, when I wasn’t consciously analyzing anything, my subconscious was working out some really big questions.  And when I emerged from that darkness, I carried with me a quiet certainty, a soulful knowledge of what I wanted and deserved.  I didn’t feel like I needed to chase it down or apologize for it or worry that it wouldn’t show up.  It simply was, as much a part of me as my red hair or the freckles on my nose.  And then Pete appeared.

Pete could easily be a Have-not. The stories from his marriage, divorce, and subsequent life upheaval are epic and sad.  I can only figure that he survived them because he had two little girls depending on him and a strong core of integrity around his own actions and decisions.  He could easily have become bitter, resentful, and closed off.  But he didn’t.  He is open and present and available.  Steady and unwavering.  Patient and kind.  He has even, for his daughters’ sakes, negotiated a courteous relationship with his ex-wife; something for which I really admire him, especially given her behavior.

I think Pete’s ability to have — to truly, happily embrace our new relationship — is indicative of his strong sense of himself.  His unconscious sense of self-worth, of knowing that he deserves someone amazing and that he can be amazing, too.  He isn’t gun-shy about us, he doesn’t back-pedal or run away or over-analyze or freak out and blame me.  He doesn’t get defensive when I raise something touchy, and he goes out of his way to show me that I’m special to him, that he respects me and likes to spend time with me.  In turn, I don’t worry about anything — where our relationship is going, whether he cares about me, whether we can handle the challenges of four young girls while still carving out time for each other, and on and on.  I just know that we’re both here, happy and excited and wanting to see where it all leads, and applying our best selves to the effort.

I love that I can be every version of myself around Pete.  I love that he constantly surprises me by showing me more of himself that I wouldn’t have guessed at.  I love that we share an optimism about our relationship that allows us to playfully imagine lots of fun things in the future.  But I think the thing I like best is being able to finally be kind and loving toward a man and him wanting to have that, without reservation or holding back.  There is something particularly beautiful in telling someone how much you value them and seeing their face light up with delight, or doing some small thing for them and seeing them appreciate it without attaching some negative connotation to your motive.  These are simple things, but they are also the things that create trust in each other and faith in the relationship.  And I believe that those are the things that sustain you later on, when the initial blush of the new relationship fades.

So, I think being able to really have a relationship must also be important to its long-term sustainability.  I think that knowing that you and your partner both value what you have is huge.  And being able to look at each other and agree that you’re both lucky is priceless.  The rest I’m still figuring out, but that I know for sure.

Me and “Pete” 🙂

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target date

Last night, after I attended two Back-to-School picnics with my daughters, Pete and I stole away for some special, quality time alone.

At Super Target.

That’s right, folks.  We went grocery shopping together.  I helped him pick out a new shower curtain, and he stood gamely by while I picked up a new blush compact and some bagels.

This is what passes for romance when you’re both single parents of two small children each.  Sexy, no?

But, to be honest, it was really nice.  We strolled along, him pushing the cart, me holding his arm.  I poked around through the handbags (I can’t resist handbags anywhere) and he weighed in on the ineffectiveness of using 3M Command Strip hooks to hang up towels.  We kicked off our shoes to test drive the bathmats, and he made jokes about what a shame it was that the bedding section didn’t actually have any beds to, you know, “try out.”   Weaving through the aisles, we chatted aimlessly about the kids and work and various bits and pieces that I don’t even remember.

What I do remember is how nice it felt.

When my marriage was in shambles, I read a book that very plainly laid out, in question form, whether your marriage had the necessary ingredients to re-establish a good union.  One of the points that struck me — hard, in the gut — was the question of could you do nothing with this person and still feel that you passed the time pleasantly?  Without the benefit of a fun schedule of activities, the company of friends, or expensive toys or vacations.  Could you, quite simply, just be with that person and still feel fulfilled?  When I read that section of the book, I felt my heart sink.  My husband and I had long ago reached the point where, without some pleasant distraction, the air between us was heavy and sad and tense.   It seemed like it had been ages since we had been able to just be together — just us — and enjoy each other.  I didn’t know where we had gone wrong or how we had gotten off track, but when I looked over my shoulder, I saw that the road behind us was thick with overgrown problems and resentments.  There was no going back.

But from that sad moment, I extracted a valuable lesson:  to cultivate and nurture the simple times.  When a couple is first together, everything is fun because you’re still learning about each other, hearing stories, exploring your relationship.  But later, after the first few months or years, it is all too easy to begin to disengage.  To begin dividing chores and duties, spending less time together and more apart, developing common interests and experiences with people other than your partner.  Until one day, you have traveled so far away from each other down divergent paths, and the road behind you is too thick to find your way back to each other.

One of the gifts of divorce, if we choose to embrace it, is the chance to be more mindful in our choices and our patterns; to make different mistakes than we made the first time; to recognize how patterns established early on will influence and direct the course of the relationship in the long-term.  We can do things differently, and hopefully find a different result.

I’m not talking about being hyper-vigilant or over-analyzing everything and suffocating the natural evolution of a relationship.  What I’m getting at is recognizing and acknowledging the good stuff you share and protecting it because you value it, making course corrections as necessary to preserve it, and not allowing the noise and stresses of life to distract you while the relationship goes off the rails to crash and burn in a fiery divorce.  I get that this isn’t easy, but I don’t think it’s supposed to be easy every day, all the time.  I know that when my ex-husband and I married, we understood that there would be “hard times,” but we imagined them to be akin to the struggles we faced with my daughter’s health, and the financial scares of my husband’s lay-offs.  We congratulated ourselves on weathering those times quite well and solidly as a couple.  But we didn’t fully understand that perhaps the hardest part of a relationship is just keeping it healthy.  Healthy bodies can sometimes withstand even a severe, acute illness, but unhealthy bodies can be laid low by simple viruses.  Our divorce was definitely precipitated by lots of small viruses, rather than one, massive heart attack.  I believe the same is true of relationships —  and it is far harder to restore them to health once they are unhealthy than it is to maintain their health in the first place.

So, I am busy noticing the easy things and the simple times and remembering that it’s important to nurture the aspects of a relationship that you love and value; to not take them for granted as somehow being inherent in relationship, unchangeable and constant.  Because even those wonderful elements that come so easily in the beginning can fall away over the years like sand through our fingers unless we are conscious and present in our attempts to keep them full of life and energy.

I know that some days will surely suck — we’ll argue, we’ll be sad, or we just plain won’t like each other that much.  But the only thing I can do to protect us from those days’ damage is to celebrate and reinforce all the awesomeness we’re creating now.  Even when that awesomeness happens in the aisles of a Super Target.

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