Tag Archives: relationships

was it worth it? (pt. 4)

One of the things that enabled me to finally pull the trigger on my divorce and take the blind leap out of my marriage was the noble idea that someday, somehow, it would all be worth it – that me, my children, and even my ex-husband would someday, somehow be better off for my choice. It wasn’t just a hope, it was a certainty that I clung to fervently. Indeed, had I not convinced myself of its truth, I might never had taken that leap.

The question of whether the pain inflicted by my decision will ever be permanently offset by the benefits realized later, during and after the dust had settled, is one that I have mulled often and written about several times (for a look at those earlier posts, search “was it worth it?”). I realized fairly quickly that my own well-being had most definitely been improved by my choice, but that alone was not enough, because then I would be haunted by the pure selfishness of my decision. No, I needed to see that my children and my ex-husband had grown, improved, become better versions of themselves as a result of our family breakdown.

The question of my children remains to be seen, certainly, as they are still young and the full ramifications of our divorce have yet to have to manifest themselves. Later, when my daughters begin choosing and navigating relationships, then, perhaps, I will have a better sense of what they have actually learned from these experiences. For now I see only that they seem well-adjusted, with friends and decent grades and close bonds to both their dad and me. In fact, one recent morning, my 10-year-old informed me that she thinks our divorce has made her stronger and more compassionate. Huh. So, for now, I check that box as being as good and healthy as I could hope for and remind myself to wait and see what the future holds.

But then there is my ex-husband, Bryce. There have been many, many times since I first announced my intention to leave that I saw glimpses of remarkable personal growth in Bryce – self-awareness and openness I’d never witnessed previously in our 13 years together. Those glimpses offered me hope that our divorce would someday cease to be the worst thing that ever happened to him, and instead would be looked back upon as a fork in the road that led to a deeper happiness and peace in his life.

Have I mentioned that I’m a hopeless optimist sometimes?

Or at least that’s how I prefer to describe this part of myself. Others might label it naivete. Or foolishness. Or plain, old-fashioned stupidity. But I’m going to go with optimism. Faith in humankind. An overarching belief that most people genuinely do want to do and become better.

In one perfectly organized, perfectly courteous email sent to me at the end of October, Bryce revealed himself to me as the same man I stopped loving many years ago. The same man I left without much more than a glance over my shoulder. The same man who prioritized, above absolutely everything else, money. The same man who had tunnel vision on his own wants and needs to the extent that the girls and I simply didn’t factor in at all. At. All.

Ah, yes, I remember him.

When I read his email, with its passive-aggressive insinuations that I was not financially carrying my share of the water for our daughters, my first reaction was fear. Unemployed for 8 months at that point, with my savings running dangerously low and James’ slow season nearly upon us, I was already worrying – okay, beginning to panic – about money. But I hadn’t asked him for additional money during my unemployment, and had cut absolutely all fat from my budget (including decent health insurance for myself), in order to not have to cut back on the children’s expenses. I was doing absolutely everything I could to stay afloat, and he had to know that. So, his professorial tone and implied assumptions made my heart race. And that’s when the angel of Reality showed up and sat me down for a talk.

Alone in the house in the middle of the work day, I sat on the stairs, iPhone in hand, and re-read the email, seeing and absorbing each word carefully, allowing their full meaning to sink in, surrendering to the truth they carried.

“Okay,” I said out loud, “I get it now.” I saw what I had to do: First, I had to deal with the practical and logistical implications of the email. Then, later, I would sit down with the emotional truth within it.

The first part was easy. I called my attorney, discussed my legal obligations and options, and made arrangements for taking the necessary steps to stop the financial nonsense once and for all. They are steps that have been available to me for two years, but I have resisted taking out of my determination to maintain a solid, healthy, supportive relationship with Bryce for the benefit of my daughters. But his email helped me realize that he does not share my goal, or at least his commitment to it ends with financial considerations. I realized that I have been sacrificing my financial security for something that I value far more than he does, and while I would normally say that it’s healthy to follow my own values without reference to anyone else, there comes a point where one must accept that one is being taking advantage of. Being “nice” or “accommodating” can quickly be transformed into doormat status by those too self-absorbed to realize that they are on the receiving end of consideration. And just because he loathes paying child support does not decrease his obligation to do so. Knowing how much he hates it, I have tip-toed around the subject, to my own detriment, apparently. So, legal action may have to commence and I will deal with it as I would any other business arrangement. But, honestly, I have remarkably little anxiety about that.

After I hung up the phone with my attorney and gathered the necessary documents, I made myself a cup of hot tea and sat on my bedroom balcony, contemplating the Rockies spread out before me and wondering at the more subtle message in Bryce’s email.

I took a deep breath and willed myself to look back at our history. To honestly assess, as I might for a friend, the give and take in our relationship. I stared hard at the signs of his personal growth and at my own need to be assured of that growth. I examined the bias I had about which direction that growth should take and how it should manifest outwardly. I recognized the heaviness of the guilt that I carried about our divorce, and how desperately I still clung to the hope that Bryce would cease to be all the things that made me want to run away from him, as far and as fast as I could.

And then I realized that it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter if Bryce grows at all from the divorce, or if he grows in direction or manner that is not of my preference. It doesn’t matter if he always harbors anger and resentment toward me for ruining his life. It doesn’t matter if he blames every single unhappiness he experiences on me and the divorce. It doesn’t matter if he clings to his swollen bank account with the certainty that it will bring him peace and security. Not really. Not to me. What he does with the lessons available to him from our divorce is outside my control and responsibility. His choices, his life, and his truth are not mine. Not any longer. I do not need to reference his happiness or growth to justify my own. It is entirely his choice whether to rise above his pain and create authentic happiness, or not. I have no control or responsibility over that. At. All.

Possibly, that is the beauty of divorce. At its very core, it is about no longer being emotionally responsible for or to each other. Your life becomes, again, your very own. I did not do something to him that requires atonement or restitution; our marriage failed because we were badly suited to one another and lacked the love and commitment to last a lifetime. He is not a victim, any more than I am. It is time for me cease to measure the success of my choices by how they affect him. Time to put on my Big Girl panties and approach my relationship with Bryce with the detachment and guarded civility with which he has consistently dealt with me. Time to let go of childish fantasies of friendship and closeness, and time to realize that I don’t actually need any of that.

Letting go of needing that approval from Bryce might be the final step in our divorce. Letting go of feeling that my happiness is undeserved unless it somehow feeds the greater good is difficult for me, but might be the biggest lesson I will ultimately learn from this process.

On the whole, of course, only time will reveal all of the effects of our divorce, but time is a phenomenal teacher, if only you allow her teachings to gently rest within you. That week, she taught me that I no longer need Bryce’s approval or friendship or happiness to enjoy my own.

And that’s worth more than the contents of any bank account.

letting go - kite

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how to write a love letter, by Johnny Cash

In the course of my life, I have been the privileged recipient of many love letters.  Some so tender they are heart-breaking, others so sweet they made me tingle, and still others so suggestive, I involuntarily blushed while reading them.  But the best — always and without exception — were the ones that were short and simple and devastating in their sincerity.

This morning, I was rendered dumbstruck — truly, mouth gaping, breath holding, eyes wide — when I read two love letters written by Johnny Cash for his wife, June Carter Cash.  They were published by Letters of Note, a blog that is something of an altar to the written word, in all of its power and beauty.

You might remember John and June’s love story as portrayed in the film, “Walk the Line,” and you probably assumed that the love story was embellished for Hollywood’s sake, but you’d be mostly wrong.  June Carter blew him away from the beginning and Johnny Cash didn’t stand a chance of getting over her.  Despite being married, despite being a screw-up and an addict, when love hit Johnny Cash over the head, he knew it and he was utterly powerless in its wake.  For a certified bad-ass, it’s especially touching how vulnerable he was to his feelings for this woman.

I think that John’s letter to June on her 65th birthday in June 1994 is so perfect that I hesitate to dissect it too much, lest I disturb its beauty.  I think I would love it no matter what, but I am fiercely attached to it because John composed it as an ode, not to a young woman, unblemished by time or nature, but to an older woman whose spirit and soul continued to shine and entrance him.

Letter courtesy of House of Cash, from Letters of Note.

Letter courtesy of House of Cash, as posted by Letters of Note.

Sigh.

The second letter is bittersweet, having been written just a couple of months after June’s death in 2003.  Its simplicity conveys so much —  grief, and loss, and yearning.

June's an angel

Letter courtesy of House of Cash, as posted by Letters of Note.

John died two months after writing this note, four short months after June.  Their children expressed surprise that he lasted that long without her.

Do you suppose that June Carter Cash knew what she had?  Do you suppose that by the time they got together (he’d been married once and she multiple times), she understood how rare and priceless a connection such as theirs is? Do you suppose that she loved him back just as much?

Looking at this photo, I’d say the answer to all is a definite “yes.”

John and June

Photo courtesy of via.

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the heart wants what it wants (or why love doesn’t always make sense)

I had a conversation with a friend recently about how the heart seems to have a mind of its own.  It yields when we want it to remain strong and resolute, clings when our brain is clamoring that there is no hope, and refuses admittance to some people who seem to be a really good fit.  For centuries, poets and balladeers have struggled to make sense of the unpredictability of the heart, while psychologists and social scientists have attempted to explain and understand its irrationality.  But I don’t think anyone has figured it out yet.

When “Pete” and I broke up last month, he (and other, well-meaning, male friends) attempted to convince me of the reasons why we belonged together.  These reasons consisted primarily of apparent similarities in our present lives, family structures, and goals.  They were concrete, they were rational, and they were the kinds of similarities on which online dating algorithms rely heavily.  I listened quietly to Pete (and those friends), and noticed that how I felt did not seem to enter into the equation.  The fact that my feelings toward Pete had changed as a result of the natural evolution of learning more about him and us seemed almost irrelevant.  The facts and evidence of our suitability were there and acknowledged and so, it seemed, should trump any reservations my heart was expressing.  In fact, at one point I even said to Pete, “Love is a matter of the heart, not the mind.”  To which he replied, “I don’t think that’s always true.”

I had a more visceral and emotionally aggressive reaction to his words than many people probably would, because, for me, that was an important and clear demonstration of how differently we approach relationships and think about love.  I do not expect love to be practical.  I do not expect love to be a matter of adding a column of numbers and reaching an immutable conclusion.   I see dating as gathering qualitative, not just quantitative, data about how we fit (or don’t).  The greatest loves of my life were amazing qualitative fits and seemed completely wrong for me quantitatively.

I think of quantitative similarities as the kinds of things you might find on someone’s “life resume” — cultural upbringing, religious background, education, relationship experience, socio-economic status, parenting style, geographic proximity, level of professional attainment, etc.  Qualitative elements might include outlook on life, values, dreams, physical attraction, curiosity about the other person or the broader world, or a sense of relating to someone on a “soul” level instead of or in addition to an intellectual level, etc.  When couples share quantitative similarities, they seem to line up and “fit” in ways that are obvious and identifiable to almost anyone.  These couples make sense to us.  Successful couples who do not share quantitative similarities are often considered “opposites” and we lump them into the “Opposites Attract” adage.  I would argue that they are likely not true opposites, but that they share commonalities that are not as easily perceived to outsiders.

But the heart doesn’t always make sense, and I would argue that no one falls in love –truly, madly, deeply in love — with their partner’s quantitative traits.  I do understand that most people are attracted to people who are similar to themselves in these ways, but I don’t think those similarities alone constitute love.  They contribute to comfort, companionship, understanding, and ease.  But you can have all those things and still not have love.   I think that people who have both similar life resumes and a deep and abiding love often point to the quantitative data to show their compatibility because that is more easily explained and understood, even though it is actually the qualitative elements that bind them so tightly.

But regardless of what is true for others, my heart knows what it wants, and I have learned the hard way that to allow my brain veto power over my heart is disastrous for all involved.

I have met many, many men in my life whom I’ve wished I’d felt more for.  Men who were good, practical, honest men but whom I absolutely did not want to wake up next to every morning forever.  Sometimes, my heart will play along for a while, seeming to appreciate or warm to a guy who appears to be a good fit on paper.  And my brain cheers and crows victoriously.  But soon enough, my heart sheepishly admits that it simply isn’t real, and my brain rages at the heart’s apparent unwillingness to get with the general program.  But my heart persists, unfazed by my brain’s tantrums.

I’ve also spent many sad moments begging my heart to relinquish its attachment to men with whom a future is not possible.  As I’ve written before, it took me 4 years to get over Parker… to stop using him as the measure for every other man I dated.  Four long and mostly lonely years when my heart whimpered and pouted and cried out for him, even as my brain forced us on lots of dates and through a couple of meaningless relationships.

I guess I simply do not believe that we can force ourselves to love someone anymore than we can force ourselves to stop loving someone.  We love who we love, whether we should or not.

I think, to a very large extent, this is true for most of us.  Our heart wants what it wants, and then we cite the quantitative data to support that decision so that it feels more rational and right to us.  I also think that, for many people, the quantitative data lines up more neatly and more consistently than it does for me.  For instance, I was a lawyer.  A lot of lawyers enjoy relationships with similarly educated and/or employed mates.  I’m sure this is because most of the people who choose my profession are somewhat similar in nature.  But here’s the kick for me — not one of my close friends from law school is married to anyone remotely similar to them in profession.  In fact, my two best friends from law school are married to a Broadway producer and a sales manager, respectively.  This is not surprising to us because we three were very dissimilar from most of our law school classmates.  We were slightly odd, slightly different.  And it is those differences that speak loudly in relationship contexts, I think.  On the flip side, I have friends who are much more representative of their chosen fields of endeavor and they do seem to select people who quantitatively match them.

So, when someone argues with me over why I should or should not love someone, I find it pretty perplexing.  Am I not an intelligent, emotionally-aware woman capable of understanding and expressing my feelings and desires?  I am not particularly impulsive, nor overly judgmental of minor faults, but I do know what I value, what my dealbreakers are, and how I want to feel in a relationship.  Are those not a good enough basis to make a decision without facing an appeal that is, to be honest, a bit patronizing? And furthermore, I would absolutely, positively never want to be with someone that I had to convince to be with me.  Sure, it’s tempting to make those arguments, but if you persevere, what have you really won?  Reluctant love? Love by forfeit?  Don’t we all deserve more than that?

And what of our friends who are still aching for a love that is no more?  Why do we expect them to simply “get over it”?  Why do we value the ability to forget so easily what we once thought so special? Maybe we, as outsiders, don’t value their love as they do, but does that even matter?

Time and experience are great teachers.  They have the power to guide us gently and tenderly into great love, and they have the power to eventually guide us out, as well.  They alone influence our hearts, I believe.  Not our minds, not our friends, not our life resumes.  They abide by no rules or algorithms.  They follow no trend or dictate.  And if it were any other way, love would be far less special, far less rare, and far less magical.

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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 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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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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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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the best thing I can say about thomas murray? he has a lovely daughter….

Today, as I was juggling getting Bryn off to soccer and Sabrina off to her dad’s with the nanny, I heard a familiar ping on my iPhone.  To my shock, this is the comment that I was being asked to approve on my post “thomas murray, epilogue”:

hi…my name is alexis and this man you continue to blog about is my father. though this is very hard to read it is very believable. im aware of the actions of my father but hopefully this will change your mind of wanting to marry a man like this. i love my dad dearly and he is an active person in my life. i am very aware of everything bad he has done to you women and i am so sorry i couldnt apologize enough and me being a girl my self my question would be would he want a man to do this to me? luckly my mom has raised me using my dad as an example.

In a week during which I have traded multiple emails with yet another of Thomas’ victims — this being the worst I have yet heard from — this comment really choked me up.  Thomas Murray is like the anti-George Bailey — everything he touches makes me want to cry.

Here is my response to her:

When Separated Dad read this comment, he immediately texted me, and my response to him was “Wow. Just wow.”

I stand by my words.

Alexis, you are a remarkable young woman to have the courage and poise to post here and I applaud you passionately. How in the world did you find me? I am sorry that you had to witness the intensity with which I believe your father is a class A schmuck — less for what he did or tried to do to me and more for what he actually did to countless other women. I have no interest in hurting you or any of his family. I am of the firm belief that he, and he alone, is responsible for his actions. You need never apologize for his behaviors. They are his alone.

I am enormously angry with him for not providing you a better role model of a man. It is a father’s duty — and HONOR — to be the best man his daughter has ever met. I wish for you that you had that role model. (Are you listening, Thomas? This should be your moment of greatest shame. What you have done to the women you have played pales in comparison to how you have failed this young woman in your opportunity to provide her with a proper role model of a good man. Shame on you! That you should ever — EVER — put your lovely daughter in the position of having to apologize for your behavior is simply atrocious!!!)

I blame your father for not being a better man, but I do not fault you for loving him. He is your father, and it is only understandable that you would love him. But I am incredibly proud of your mother for having raised you to see your father for the duplicitous creature that he is. Every child, particularly nearly grown ones, deserves to comprehend his or her parents as fully flawed humans. And in warning you of his behaviors, hopefully your mother has insulated you from the age-old tendency of girls to seek men like their fathers. In your case, it would not be a wise decision.

Again, I am sorry that you had to read my words. You are likely young enough that I would not have wanted you to have seen them, but I suppose that the universe had other plans. Please just know that now that I know of your existence, I will include you in my prayers and hope that you never lose the amazing grace you have demonstrated here.

Good luck, my dear. xo

And her incredibly sweet reply to me (cannot you feel the sweetness and youth in her words??):

Well thank you! I promise everything will turn out for the best thanks so much for your interest and replying to me! Means a lot that you took the time and again I can only apologize for the hurt he has caused all of you young women if I could change what happened I most definetly would! I wish you all the best. Thank You, Alexis Murray

Even after all I have heard about him and all that I know from personal interactions, these comments from Alexis moved me more than anything else I have received.  That any young woman should ever be called upon to apologize for her father is nothing less than heartbreaking to me.  The men in my life have busted their ass to show me how a woman should be treated and what integrity looks like.  I absolutely hate that Alexis has not had that experience and I pray to God (quite literally) that whatever subconscious psychology is at play never tempts her to entertain a relationship with a man like her father.  Even from a few paragraphs, I can see easily that she deserves so much more from a partner.

For those of you following the saga, Jenni recently wrote another post, capturing the latest developments.  As you’ll see from her post, neither of us blogs fully about the emails we receive, as the writers are frequently humiliated and/or frightened, and ask us to protect their identities.  But we will both continue blogging in general terms.  It keeps our blogs high up in the Google search engines when his name is searched.  And really, that’s the  only point.

No more, Thomas.  Grow up.  Be a real man.  Give your lovely daughter a father she can be unequivocally proud of.  Because she absolutely deserves it.

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