Category Archives: personal growth

the last dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

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

withdrawals from the love bank

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

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

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

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

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

And watch your love bank account balance take off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We want our love banks to be full.

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

jinx

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

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

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

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

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

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

Really, really.

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

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ashley wilkes was not risk averse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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was it worth it? (pt 1)

Sometimes people ask me if I have any regrets about leaving my marriage, and I can only assume that lots more wonder but don’t ask.  To those who do, I always say no.  But that’s not entirely true.  I often wrestle with the ubiquitous “what if’s” that lurk in every dark corner of my decision to divorce.  I think this contemplation, reevaluation, reexamination is normal, and good.  There was real value in my marriage — it wasn’t an all-bad situation — and I think my “what if’s” are my way of staying real with myself and not getting caught up in the polarized ideas of good guys and bad guys that seem to be the standard paradigm of divorce.  I don’t hate my ex, and he doesn’t seem to hate me, and I think the utlimate question of whether my decision was the right one will only be known at the end of our lives, when we look back on what we created separately after I left.

I want it to be worth it.  Really, truly worth it.  I want to know that the pain I inflicted with my decision somehow gave birth to goodness in our lives in other ways, and not just my life, but my ex’s and my children’s.  I want us all to emerge from the shattered ruins of my marriage as better, more well-developed, self-aware, happier people.  Is that too much to hope for?  Maybe, but I am damn determined to try.

Something happened recently that put my dedication to this ideal to the test.

One of the small injuries that accumulated over time into a real wound in my marriage was my ex’s apparent indifference to me when I was ill.  You know how sometimes you’re just so sick and you need to sleep alone so you can barf or cough or toss and turn all night?  When my ex was sick like that, I’d offer to sleep in the guest room if he wanted me to.  Not because I was afraid of the germs, but because I didn’t want him to be concerned about bothering me when he was that sick.  So, when he was sick, I slept in the guest room.  But when I was sick… I slept in the guest room.  It was a very, very small thing that became associated, in my mind, with all of the other ways that he seemed not to care for me when I was vulnerable.   In the midst of one of our vicious post-separation, pre-divorce fights, I hurled that example at him with the power of the pain that was behind it.  He physically recoiled as if I had slapped him, and I saw my own pain played out on his face, as he realized how broken we were and our mutual culpability in getting us there.

It was never mentioned again, directly or indirectly…. until a few days ago.  My ex delivered our daughters to me for my week and explained that his girlfriend had, for the first time, spent the night at his house while the girls where there.  Before I could say anything, he offered the explanation that she’d been sick and he hadn’t wanted her to be home alone at her place.  He further explained that she’d slept in the bed, and he on the sofa, so that she could get a good night’s sleep.

Ouch.

As the final words left his lips, we had the same realization at the same moment, and the next moments were excruciating:  me fumbling through a reassurance that I was fine with it; him over-explaining that he only mentioned it in case the girls were uncomfortable or talked to me about it; me mumbling agreement; and then us awkwardly saying goodbye as he retreated, and I was left standing alone in my foyer.

In that moment, the fork in the road was clear.  I could resent him for giving her, in those small, caring gestures, what he had denied me all those years.  I could rail against her as undeserving and some usurper who was now reaping the benefits of all my pain.  I could hate them both for being what we could not be together.

Except that I couldn’t.  I want him to be a better person.  I want him to be happier than he was with me.  I want to know that my leaving meant something,  I want to know that I meant something — enough to cause him to pause in who he is and possibly reconsider his fierce certainty, through the latter part of our marriage, that he was fine and justified and right, and I was broken and selfish and unreasonable.  And everytime I see glimpses of the new man he is becoming — and believe me, this was not the first glimpse — I am proud of him.  I am proud that he is making this worth it, finding value in the pain that we created and I blew wide open.  He is using this experience to become a better version of himself.  It is what I wish for all of us.  That, and possibly that alone, would make me feel, at the end of my life, that this decision was indeed worth it.

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