Saturday, September 6, 2014

Baby Steps

Readers, welcome to my self-therapy session.  I'm hard at work, in a quiet way, at figuring out how I got where I ended up, where I wish to be, and how to change paths if the path I'm on is not the right one.  My life is so amazing right now - many, many things are going right - and yet romantic love is an absolute mystery to me, and I'm trying to figure out how I'm contributing to that lack.

As an aside, I read all kinds of things about love, divorce, relationship, and when I read a blog or a book or whatever that says, "S/he was a horrible person and that is the reason that things ended so badly," I'm more and more inclined to think that it is very unlikely that the "victim" of that relationship is telling themselves the absolute truth.  Yes, it's true that people do horrible things - my ex wasn't exactly a model husband, and I could give you a very long list of his failures in that department - but I think that healthy people don't buy into those horrible behaviors, and stop them or walk away from them.  You know, that whole boundaries thing.  In my case, I'm less interested in why my ex had horrible behaviors (like yelling or lying), and more interested in why I didn't stop those behaviors in their tracks or walk away years ago.  Even more than looking at the past, I'd like to figure out how to stop myself from ever signing up for that type of relationship ever, ever, ever again.

I want to figure out how to put healthy boundaries in place, and keep those boundaries, while allowing myself to be vulnerable.  Right now, I've reached a place with GREAT boundaries, but they resemble the thorns around Sleeping Beauty's castle where nobody could possibly get in, and there's no room for vulnerability.  I want to get away from that dichotomy - neither allowing myself to be stomped on as I was in marriage, nor keeping everyone at a distance as I am now - and live in the healthy in-between place.

I'm working on it.  Baby steps.  Right now, I feel like I'm a toddler with a bit of a drunkenness to my walk: I am mobile, but I stagger, and sometimes in the middle of it I fall with a "plop!" onto my bottom, surprised to feel the ground in contact with me.  I definitely don't feel like an expert walker, but nor do I feel like a helpless infant any more.  I'm starting to figure this out.  Baby steps.


Yesterday I was on the phone with my mother.  We talk regularly, she and I, and if we go a few days without talking she leaves me a series of messages to remind me of the fact (leaving less than subtle guilt messages, mixed with faux worry "I hope nothing has happened to you - you haven't called and I'm worried!" even if it's been two days).  I tend to call her on my commute to work, talking on my headset, because I know she wants my attention, and because it's the only time in my day that I can do so and because I'm a good little girl who wants to please people.  (I know.  I know.)

(I could rant about how she sometimes calls me at 7am when I'm trying to get Katherine ready for school, and I'm making lunches etc., but I'll let you imagine how annoying I find that.  I have repeatedly told her that I can't talk on the phone while I'm getting my daughter ready to school....and she repeatedly calls.  I finally told her to never ever call at that hour unless there was an emergency.  She called the next day, and I answered with concern.  It was not an emergency, it was to tell me about something irrelevant.  Now, when she calls at that hour, I do not answer.  Look at that - a boundary with my mother!  We'll work on more boundaries later...!)

Mom's an at-home wife who never worked full time: she had me when she was a just a girl, pregnant at 18 and had me at 19, and moved straight from high school and her parents' home to becoming a wife and mother (in that order, but with a difference of only six months between them).  She worked odd jobs to supplement family income when I was a girl, and when I say "odd jobs" the word odd certainly stands out.  She was a cable television telephone solicitor, a greeter at K-mart, and she plucked chickens at a chicken processing plant.  (I shudder to think about working any one of those jobs.  My snobbishness shines through, I suppose, but I am incredibly grateful that my education and training and experience mean that I'm unlikely to have to work in that way ever in my life.)  My father was white collar all the way - an engineer who moved into management - but mom took jobs that were convenient to her schedule and didn't require an education or training of any sort.  Mostly, she was an at-home mom.  She's a lousy housekeeper by any standards, but there were home made meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and she was a regular at every school event and volunteer opportunity.

My life and my mother's are very, very different, and we view the world through different lenses as a result of our experiences, needless to say.  But in these near daily conversations, we strive for common ground, almost finding it, but not quite.

Yesterday's conversation was initiated by her as a result of watching her other grandchildren's screen habits: my brother's children spend a lot of time with television, video games, and the like.  Katherine's not allowed screen time during the week, and she's allowed as much as she wants on the weekends.....except that on the weekends, we're often out and about doing things like hiking or meeting friends, so the "trick" of it is that though she's unlimited on weekends there are plenty of weekends where there's no TV at all, or only a bit of TV on Sunday night as we fold laundry together.

As my mom ranted about TV viewing, and I agreed with her, and we both wished that my brother would place more boundaries for his children (who struggle with school and behavior issues) mom kept saying, "Oh, I wanted to tell you about this thing I just heard..." and injecting non-related things into our conversation.  My mom is a bit like that, and mostly I just ignore it, but this time, in exasperation, I said, "Mom, I'm not following this at all.  Why are you bringing up these things now, and what on earth made you think of them?"  Mom breezily replied, "Oh, I'm watching TV as I talk to you and an ad just came on that reminded me...."

Yes, that's right.  My mother was launching on the ills of television and how society ought to get away from the screens and do things that really matter and how if my brother would just pay attention to his children without TV as a she was watching television and reporting to me about the ads she saw.  The ADS!

Dear reader, I am forty-four years old and still sorting out all this business of why I've had the romantic relationships that I have, and why I can't for the life of me sort out love and partnership, and it seems to me that the roots are pretty darned deep.  I am absolutely used to people (both of my parents) saying one thing and doing another, holding me to a different standard than they hold themselves.  (I can promise you that if I was watching TV and interrupting my mother to tell her about the ads she would be frosty in her reply and say things like, "I guess you're more interested in advertising than you are in me!"  I can also promise you that I'd never do that to her, and that if I did, I'd never live it down and it would be brought up for years afterwards.)  My mother didn't see any irony whatsoever in her behavior, was unabashed.


Today I'm giving myself a little break for some of the choices I've made, and for the way my marriage operated.  My family trained me well to be a Good Little Girl and to Do the Right Thing, and they also trained me that people who love me can do whatever they want and not be held accountable.  Even as a child I responded to this, saying "But that's not fair!" or "How come you get to do it if it's the wrong thing to do and you're mad at me for doing it?" and so on, and they managed to avoid answering my questions by saying that my questions were rude and that I should pay attention to my own behavior.  As a young girl I just felt confused and somehow lacking by this behavior; as I aged I often felt a quiet rage about it, and I spent most of my teens and twenties avoiding my parents.  It seems like all of that avoidance didn't actually teach me how to have relationships where I didn't fall into the same patterns.

Today's baby steps are:

I'm cutting myself some slack.  My parents are very different from my ex in many ways, but they taught me to put my own needs last, and I was a good student of that lesson.  I was expected not to make waves, to be a good girl, and to accept whatever misbehaviors they had, holding myself to a high standard and not holding them to any standard.  Unlearning it is difficult, and given how messed up it was, it's not surprising that I haven't totally figured it out yet.

I don't trust people who say one thing and do another.  This is a good thing.  I don't trust my parents: the TV example is small, but it's a good summary of the crazy-making that being in relationship with someone whose words and actions don't align feels like.  My parents judge me (in this case, positively, because I don't allow unfettered television access to my daughter; and because I don't half listen to my mother and interrupt her repeatedly to talk about ads on television) for my behavior, but don't hold themselves to the same standards, and they expect me to do things they themselves will not do.  This is not acceptable behavior, and I won't allow it in my life.  I can't change my parents - I'm learning better boundaries around that - but I will not repeat the pattern with a new partner.  I do not need to accommodate this behavior, I can say "That doesn't work for me" and simply walk away.  The right partner will not practice this behavior, and if he makes a mistake he will own it and work hard at fixing it, identifying that it is his problem and not mine.  (In other words, if I said, "Your words and actions don't align" in response to such behavior, he wouldn't say "What's the big deal?" he'd say "I'm sorry, let me align them now" and take action to do so.  Unlike my parents.  Unlike my ex.)

I am trustworthy.  I'm far from perfect, that's true, but I'm trustworthy, and my words and actions align.  I am worthy of a partner who is the same in that regard.  I believe that when I practice those healthy boundaries, someone with the same boundaries will come into my life, and I will allow myself to be vulnerable.  I will let him in past the thorns, because I will trust him, because his words and actions will align.

It's that simple, and it's that complicated!

Thanks for participating in this therapy session with me.  :-)  If any of this rings true for you in some way, with your own examples or ideas, I'd love to hear it.  Sometimes it seems like I'm such a fool for not figuring this stuff out earlier, and it's always helpful to hear from someone who is struggling with the same stuff, or their own variations of it.


A tiny little end note, more or less unrelated to the above...

On Thursday at gymnastics, I was working hard on my laptop to get a project done.  I saw a very handsome man enter and thought "ohhhhh he's attractive!" - a nice feeling, because I'm not drawn to very many men.  I saw him look around the room, our eyes caught, and he smiled.  What a nice surprise!  He walked across the room, sat down next to me, and immediately started talking.  I swear he was flirting - but could it be?  He asked my opinion about something random but interesting.  He told me about himself (divorced with one child, a daughter in Katherine's gymnastics class).  He told me about his work - he's passionate about it.  He asked me about my life.  He was open and funny and quick, and his eyes twinkled, and he smiled a lot.

I got flutters.

Oh, I can't tell you how long it's been since I had flutters!  I think since Luke, maybe?  That was a year - and a lifetime! - ago.  Flutters are delicious.

I will certainly see him again (every Thursday for the next few months in this session of gymnastics), and I have no idea if we'll chat again, or if it'll ever be more than the casual chats that parents have at these events.  I'm not worried about that, or tied up in it, or anticipating anything one way or the other.  I don't need anything to come of it, because I'm overly busy at work and hard at work getting Katherine launched into middle school and trying to do so many things with my life.

(The lady doth protest too much.  Of course I'd like it if something came of it, I'm just not tied up in that result.)

But it was just so lovely to feel the flutter again.

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