Category Archives: personal growth

the not enough place

There is a very dark place inside some of us.  I think of it as the “not enough” place.  It is a space in our psyche in which we are consistently less than adequate, always falling short of expectations, never quite good enough for the task or person we are striving toward.   This place has no light.  It is heavy, pregnant with expectations never met, people never pleased and ideals fallen away.

For some people, this place was constructed early, as part of some childhood experience — an emotionally distant or highly-critical parent, physical abandonment, or unstable family dynamics.  For others, it appeared suddenly, maybe even overnight, the result of an intensely traumatic experience that shattered their sense of personal safety and value.  Whatever the cause of its appearance, once present it is a difficult place to dismantle.

The not enough place is where all our worst personal demons are housed.  Once in the room, we are treated to a litany of our short-comings, a veritable laundry list of all the ways in which are less than we should be.  Our imperfections, in all their stark, harsh realness are on display, brightly lit for all to see who enter.  It is in this space that we are told that we are now and always will be unworthy, unlovable, not necessary, a human mistake.

Sadly, it is often those we trust most who first thrust us into this place, slamming the door behind us and subjecting us to the torment of our worst thoughts about ourselves.  Parents, extended family members, teachers, coaches, boyfriends, spouses…. The people whose esteem we value and strive for most are the very people most capable of creating the darkest corners of our psyche through their mistreatment or neglect.   Some of them constructed the not enough place intentionally, believing that it would help us to see ourselves more clearly or avoid the pitfalls of hubris or relinquish fanciful self-concepts.

Some people are blessed to travel through this life without more than a cursory visit to the not enough place.  They don’t stay long enough to absorb any of its poison, but instead are strong enough to resist its sirens’ song of denigration.  They blithely move on, secure in their self-worth and sense of place in this world.  They are the truly lucky.

But others are not so lucky.  Some fight a lifelong battle with the not enough place, boarding it up time and again only to sneak back and re-open its dark chamber once more.  Others succumb to its thrumming mantras of self-loathing, giving up entirely on their sense of self-worth and hiding fearfully behind a mask of their own making, hoping desperately that it never slips and reveals their unworthiness to the entire world.  Then there are the few, so ravaged by the beatings endured in the not enough place, that they surrender completely to the madness.  These are the Sylvia Plaths of the world, for whom no amount of external validation can convince them that they are worthy of love, or friendship, or even breath.

The holidays can be a magical time, but for many, they can also be a time of considerable stress, emotional highs and lows, and a readjustment of all kinds of expectations.  I suppose that I am publishing this tonight as an homage to those feeling let down, perhaps most of all by themselves.  If you have a not enough place in the deepest recesses of your heart, please stay away from it this season.  I guarantee you that there is at least one person in your world who believes you worthy, and lovable, and valuable, and irreplaceable to them.

I have, on my bedroom wall, a prose poem called The Desiderata, given to me by my dear friend Caitlyn some 20 years ago.  When the not enough place starts  its infernal pestering, I remember and recite these lines:

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.  You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here.

The trees and stars do not have to ask if they are lovable or worthy or valuable.  And neither should we.

shooting star and tree

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Filed under personal growth, sadness

the perfect day (or defining happiness through little things)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today, I choose to be grateful.

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Filed under general musings, personal growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.  Don’t assume anything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10.  Love is not a race.

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

Bonus Tip:  You will be okay.

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

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

And yours.

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

the spiritual book club

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under divorce, friendships, personal growth, single mom

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

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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be yourself. everyone else is taken.

At the end of my marriage, after Bryce and I had decided to divorce but before I had moved out of the house, we had a conversation standing in our sun-soaked kitchen that might prove to be the crowning achievement of our marriage.  We agreed that we had had a conventional marriage.  We had done everything we were “supposed” to do.  We had lived up to everyone’s expectations.  Except our own.  We vowed that our divorced relationship would be different.  We would make it what we wanted it to be, not what others thought was “right” or “appropriate” or, God forbid, “normal.”  We would craft something that worked for us and our children and everyone else could just deal with it — or not.  They weren’t our problem, and we’d spent too much of our lives living a relationship that had made everyone else comfortable and us eventually miserable.

To our credit — and my astonishment — we have kept that word to each other and ourselves.  Some people in our wide circle are uncomfortable with our situation.  How do we get along so well?  Why do we sit together — with our partners, even! — at school functions for our children?  Are we actually — gasp! — friends??? But fortunately those individuals are pretty rare.  Most of the people in our wide circle applaud us for fashioning something that is different from the standard divorced relationship paradigm.  I think they can see that it’s good for our children, but I also think that they can see that it’s good for us, too.  We are still, in many ways, a family, even though we are most definitely not a couple.  This makes us happy, and that’s really all that matters.

It has not always been an easy task — this concept of carving out a new relationship through the jungle of established habits, familial expectations, and emotional scars.  There have been times of post-divorce conflict, when one of us has had to remind the other of our shared vision for a healthy divorced relationship that works for all of us.  But those reminders have always successfully steered us back on course, which is, in and of itself, amazing.

It has been my experience that most of the dramatic change we experience in ourselves does not last.  We try on a new version of ourselves, wear it for a while, and then it loses its novelty and fades away.  And pretty soon we’re back to basically the same person we always were.  It’s as if our essential nature is some kind of homeostasis to which we return after a short disruption.  I am so very glad and very grateful that Bryce and I have remained strongly committed to that vision we shared that day in the kitchen.  And it has taught me that I am capable of making something different than what is the norm in our circle, and having that work for me. That lesson has been rolling around in my mind this week as I have unpacked the emotional shifts and “aha!” moments that occurred within me during my short visit back East.

And let’s just say, it’s been a busy week.

I’ve settled back into my Colorado life, but with some new understandings of what I want this life to look like and who I want to be in it.  I keep coming back around to the idea that the relationship model that works for so many around me is not going to work for me, and it is entirely likely that the romantic relationship that makes me the happiest might not make sense to other people.  And that’s okay.  Other people don’t have to be comfortable with it.  As long as I’m not hurting anyone else, I just need to be happy being me.

When I was much younger, I knew this about myself.  Katrina and  I used to half-jokingly say that she would be the school-teacher with 2.3 children and a house in suburbs, and I would be the cool “aunt” who would jet in from some far-flung end of the globe, bearing wonderful gifts and fun stories.  There was no judgment inherent in either path; we loved each other too much and too purely to have judged each other harshly.  It was simply an acknowledgment of our different approaches to life.

As it turns out, I did far more of the white-picket-fence experience than anyone ever expected or could have predicted, including me.  And I don’t regret a second of it.  Truly.  But I also see now that the choices that I have been making since my divorce were subconsciously guided by my need to create something different.  Those choices have made sense to some of my friends but not to others, who have offered well-intentioned advice shared with love.  I think I felt disapproval and internalized that in a way that left me confused about my vision for what I wanted my life and romantic relationships to be.  My friends wanted me to be happy, and so they encouraged me to be happy in the things that make them happy.  This is logical and kind and I treasure their good intentions.  But in my post-divorce state, I think it only served to confuse me.  Unlike in my endeavor with Bryce, I felt alone in my journey and I lost my clear vision of who and what I am and want to be as an individual.

But now I remember.

I have lately felt that I am my truest self again.  I feel at home with who I am and what I want and the understanding that it might be different from what others want from me or for me.  But the honest truth is, what they ultimately want is for me to be myself, whether they fully know it or not.  Because when I am most myself is also when I am most sought after by my friends.  We all naturally gravitate to people who are truly comfortable with themselves, who are real and present and open to the world. Whatever version of ourselves places us squarely in that description is truly our best version of ourselves.

Each of us must steer our own ship.  Only we command the helm.  The waves of opinion and expectation may buffet us, but if we hold a true course, we will reach our destination safely and triumphantly.  That is our challenge, every single day.

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finding myself, alongside a high school mascot

Joke:

What’s the difference between a hockey game and a high school reunion?

At a hockey game you see fast pucks.

Sometimes, I turn around and run smack into myself in the most unlikely of places. It is in those moments when I see myself clearly – the good and the bad – and make my best peace with who I am.

I am returning from four days in my hometown, having cashed in some frequent-flyer miles to make the journey back for my 25-year high school reunion. It was a two-day event, and during that time, I luxuriated in the warmth and acceptance of friendships nearly as old as me. I observed how quickly we all fell into the easy understanding that comes from spending a whole childhood together. I laughed when a classmate spilled her red wine on me and apologized profusely; I reminded her that it was hardly the first glass of wine she’d spilled on me, and hopefully would not be the last. She laughed, too.

Along with my high school reunion, I also spent many hours reconnecting with college friends and even bumped into a treasured friend who has known me since infancy. My weekend was rife with intimate moments – trading parenting challenges with a college sorority sister, sharing a quiet moment of giggles with the man to whom I’d lost my virginity, walking into a Starbucks and discovering a former neighbor who’d done everything from babysitting me to lecturing me on safe sex as a teenager. These are people from whom I could not have hidden myself, even had I wanted to. These are people who knew me long before I’d perfected any masks or defense mechanisms or means of deflecting the truth. I could see, in their faces and their dealing with me, the clearest reflection I’d seen of myself in a long time.

I also discovered, as I stood amidst my classmates, how very right and included I felt. In my adult life in Colorado, I frequently feel a bit out of place… different… odd. I am often very aware that my sensibilities and independent spirit separate me from many I know. I realized over this past weekend, as I watched my former classmates and their partners, that my particular form of independence is partly a function of where and how I grew up. In junior high school, my friends and I were hopping on the Metro to spend the day in DC without a chaperone. Classmates left and then reappeared after a parent’s assignment to an embassy in a country on the other side of the world. Nearly all my college friends studied and/or lived abroad. Most of them did not marry until their late 20’s. There was an expectation that one would explore and know the world to some degree before settling down. The couples I talked to this weekend all (literally all) had hobbies and interests of their own, as well as ones they shared with their partners. Girls’ weekends and guys’ weekends away were common, even expected. Lives were shared, not enmeshed. These conversations were vastly different from those I have with my friends in Colorado.

By the end of the weekend, I realized how starved for this I have been. I moved to Colorado as an engaged woman and nearly all the friends Bryce and I made as a couple followed in the paradigm I thought he preferred and seemed comfortable with: the couple did nearly everything together, all the time. Hobbies, including sports, were shared together. Most child-rearing responsibilities fell to the woman and financial support to the man, and family life revolved almost entirely around the children and their activities. And within a few years of living in this paradigm, I felt stifled, suffocated, and sad.

Well, no wonder.

That’s not to say, of course, that this particular marriage model is unique in any way to Colorado, nor that it is the only model present in our town. But, for whatever reason, this is the model that I found myself surrounded with and from which I rebelled when I left my husband and broke up my family. And, for whatever reason, it is still the primary model I see around me as a single woman now. But it is a model that still chafes at me, leaving a raw, red patch on my soul, requiring attention and adjustment, lest it fester and infect my sense of myself once again.

Half-way through my weekend, my friend Ryan asked me what I had discovered so far this weekend. With hardly a breath’s hesitation, I answered, “Me. I found myself again.” And I really meant it. After high school ended, and over the course of many, many years, I slowly lost sight of myself. I watched as the parts of me I liked best became obscured and diminished. At times I fought hard to secure those pieces, but other times I surrendered them with little protest. But this weekend, I felt fully and completely whole again. And what a beautiful feeling it is.

Annie and I have often noted that the people who seem happiest post-divorce are those who achieved whatever they left their marriages to pursue. In some cases, that might be a more robust career, or to escape a controlling or abusive spouse, or to find peace from a high-conflict relationship, or to find love beyond what they had in their marriage. This weekend has caused me to re-think why it is that I left and what it is that I am seeking. I am seeing more clearly how the choices that I have made since my divorce belie my true heart’s desire. How funny it is when we realize why we have been doing what we have been doing…

As I was leaving the reunion, my best friend from the 6th grade gave me a long hug and whispered in my ear as we both fought back tears, “You’ve been away for so long. I hope I see you again.”

I hope I see you, too, my old friend. And I hope you always see me.

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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