Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Perhaps one of the biggest disadvantages to being single at an older age is the fact that you become so reliant on yourself, that you find it hard – and possibly even detrimental – to allow yourself to rely on anyone else. And conversely, allowing someone else to rely on you.

I was once obsessed with the idea of being in a committed relationship. I remember having a crush on a boy named Waylon as far back as Kindergarten and asking him ridiculous questions at lunch.

“If I were about to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel, would you try to save me?” I’d ask.

I don’t remember what his response was, but it seemed to me that at some point I decided a man was supposed to save me in some way if he really liked me. Maybe I never learned how to rely on a guy for much of anything because Waylon decided it was fine if I went over the falls in a barrel.

Things didn’t get much better as I made my way through elementary school. In an effort to woo my crush in the fifth grade, I borrowed a pair of my older cousin’s tap shoes from her dance class. Though they were much too big for me, I wore them over a thick pair of socks and click-clacked my way past his desk en route to the pencil sharpener, pausing dramatically to see if he’d noticed me when I got there. He did not, but my teacher seemed to take issue with tap shoes in the classroom and I was asked not to wear them again.

By middle school I was well into my three-year phase of sporting a bowl cut – something my mother plagued me with for as long as she could before I started to take more interest in my appearance. Many of the girls in my grade were starting to pair up with boys, declaring themselves as “girlfriends” and it became clear to those of us without boyfriends that we were huge dorks. The bowl cut didn’t help, nor did the fact that other girls were starting to get boobs while I began to enjoy the nickname “Flatware” from boys who teased me – and not because they were flirting with me.

In high school I realized that the serious relationship was not something that would happen to me any time soon, and set out to find other ways to become noticed in lieu of being romantically linked to someone who was “cool” or “popular.”

Eventually, I would graduate from high school with a reputation for being a good singer, a humorous girl, and a strong track runner. Though during my senior year I finally got to kiss the boy who sat near the pencil sharpener in the fifth grade, we never became more than friends and I left high school still lacking the experience of a committed relationship. What’s more, the guy that I was probably closest to through most of high school eventually came out of the closet and declared he was gay. Thus, the man issues continued.

As an exchange student the very next year, I finally found love in Italy with a boy, who like me, had never been romantically involved with anyone before. I came to enjoy the idea of being someone’s girlfriend, though I have to admit that experiencing these things with Northern Italy as the back-drop may have set the bar a little high for the rest of my life.

Case in point, my Italian boyfriend and I broke up after I came back to the United States and dating in college proved to be an utter disappointment in comparison. It didn’t help that the very next boyfriend I had was a self-indulgent baseball player from Boca Raton who whisked me away to the Bahamas for a weekend after which his girlfriend from another school found out and made him introduce her to me. I became painfully aware of what a broken heart felt like.

During the rest of my college years I would go through an assortment of awful dating experiences, including another emotional interlude with pencil-sharpener boy from high school, a grown man who still used the word “mommy,” and a boyfriend who I was seconds away from kissing for the first time before we were in a horrific car accident that resulted in several injuries and the death of someone in the car. I graduated college in pretty much the same condition that I’d graduated high school. A well-rounded woman in many areas, save for the long-term relationship.

Through four years of high school and four years in college, I had girlfriends who were always somehow “officially” attached to men. I’ve been marinating in conversations of love, anniversaries and commitment for more than a decade now and only in my late twenties did I finally come to peace with the fact that I was just not having those same experiences. It used to bother me a great deal because I felt that I was missing out on something, that I wasn’t able to truly be a grown up without that strong bond to a man. I had some more serious relationships with a few guys after college, but they proved to be their usual dysfunctional experiences in the end (one guy was reading my journals and hacking into my email, another was a pot-smoking verbally abusive loser, and the other was an alcoholic from West Point who used the word “ain’t” in every sentence. I could go on about him, but it would exceed the PG rating I try to maintain for this blog).

My past has taught me that being in a relationship isn’t always the key to finding stability. While my friends seemed to have thrived and grown as women while in their relationships, I actually was at my best when I was NOT in a relationship. This gave me time to indulge in all sorts of soul-searching activity, the least of which was running and training for triathlon – both things that made me feel strong, empowered and worthwhile. I had an identity: Maybe I wasn’t anyone’s girlfriend, but I was an athlete. I was focused on making myself into the best ME I could be.

Since I could never rely on any of the guys I was involved with for much else than a guaranteed argument and the occasional dinner date, I started to regard men as extraneous entities in my life. They were like chew toys for a dog – if one was hurled my way, it might have piqued my curiosity to play with it for a while, but I’d eventually get bored and move on. If another dog came along to chew on the toy I may have convinced myself I needed it back again, but I always got over it.

When I was engaged I felt that I’d finally found a path away from dysfunction because my fiancĂ© was everything that my previous boyfriends were not – he was polite, responsible, professional, and respectful. I finally felt like I was with someone that I could rely on – someone I even started to rely on, until it became apparent that there were some hurdles in our relationship that we couldn’t get over. Tempting as it was to ignore those hurdles and continue on with the bliss of being a bride-to-be, I am not trained to stay in a relationship for stability’s sake and I had to end it. I’ve never had a rock, but I’ve always had myself.

I realize that I have had to be my own rock, and maybe that’s not always a great thing.

The allure of going through with my wedding and living happily ever after was hard to walk away from. It felt like a diss to the girl that has cried herself to sleep so many times since grade school when nobody would come to find me during the slow songs at school dances, when I went to the prom with a friend instead of my crush, when holidays came around year after year and my friends shared stories of their significant others’ gifts and family get-togethers and travel plans. Each time I wondered when it would be my turn, and then it was…and then it wasn’t anymore.

While some women find comfort in their families – their husbands and children – I still turn to the tried and true miles that wait for heavy shoes to find them as I move silently over the terrain to find my rock. Running brings an inner peace that slowly makes its way through my core, diluting my worries with a simple, “Shh…” as I feel myself unwind from within, relaxing to the realization that I can access this kind of stability any time I want to, and it doesn’t require anyone but me.

I’ve started dating someone new and the relationship has been moving into more serious territory, the kind where we should “be there” for each other.

It’s come to my attention, that I might have work to do in that area. It’s not that I’m selfish and don’t think of what someone's needs might be, it’s that my relationship experience has never required me to be someone’s rock.

I’ve never been in a relationship with someone where we are both willing to share our inner most thoughts and feelings, and have conversations that require each person to really try and authentically understand what the other person is saying.

I’m not sure if this is part of being someone’s rock, and them becoming yours, but it’s the first time that I’ve ever been able to discuss raw emotional feelings with someone with such ease – and I need that in order to trust someone enough to ever rely on them. The absence of this ability in my engagement is what caused me to end it and move on. I don’t feel that two people can be truly connected if they withhold some part of themselves from the other – no matter what that part is, or how painful it may be to share it. I think of it like the Carfax services…how are you to know how a vehicle will run and the maintenance it may require to be at its best if you don’t know its history and what you’re dealing with? What may seem like a minor detail in the car’s history may come back later to cause engine failure and then nobody is going anywhere. But if you’d known about it sooner, things could have been done to prevent that from happening.

It has been more than a year since my wedding date was postponed, and nine months since the engagement was officially broken. It has seemed like a long and impossible road to travel and many of my closest relationships were tested during that time. Some of them didn’t survive and it has made me even more aware of how much I’ve come to rely on myself for stability in this world.

I know I have to learn to let go a little bit, and trust that there is someone in the world that wants to be there for me who believes I am equipped to be there for them. My relationships won’t always feel as one-sided and dysfunctional as they have in the past, and while it’s good that I can be my own rock, I don’t think I need to continue fighting the opportunities to experience what a truly healthy relationship could be like. I never thought of being there for myself as a bad thing, until I realized that it just might be getting in the way of letting someone else be there for me too.


Anonymous said...

Wow Lisa! You need to be writing for a magazine or newspaper or something! You are a very talented and gifted writer, you had me at 'Perhaps...' and I was hooked. Very authentic piece, just reminds me that it's ok to be vulnerable sometimes... even in times of uncertainty. :)

kz said...

authentic and real. you continue to amaze me girl! love you

The Singlutionary said...

I too am my own rock. My relationship history is very similar to yours. I think there is a moment where people become rocks that lean on each other because it is kinda nice and fun and makes life better. But you're still your own rock. If the other rock rolled away, it might take a little while to get your balance back but you'd still be your own rock.

I am taking this whole rock thing WAY too far. But I LOVE this post. Its great. I am so glad I am not the only person who didn't have a serious relationship until well into adulthood.

Shilo said...

I loved this post. I can relate in terms of still waiting to find a relationship where both people canshare their emotions equally. I either find people who want me to be their rock---or who won't open up at all. Still waiting for the happy medium. Dating is so hard! Congrats on meeting someone!!! How do you meet people in Syr???

Clever Elsie said...

I'm right there with you. Although open-hearted communication and soul sharing have never been hard for me to find in relationships, commitment has. And that lack of commitment forced me to be my own rock when most of the other women I knew were used to relying on their men.

Sometimes we're told that we need to soften our stony stance in order to give someone the chance to love us, but like Singlutionary said, that doesn't have to mean that we lose the strength to stand on our own. In fact, I think it's important to maintain that strength because, really, we never know when or how people will come in and out of our lives, sometimes not of their own free choice. I have to think that if we were meant to be fully reliant on another person, we'd be born symbiotes, not individuals.