Tag Archives: reciprocity

Questions Before Engagement

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When I came to Maine in 2015, I had a short list of goals. One of them was to learn everything I could about relationship and connection. I had so many questions. Why did I feel I’d failed practically every relationship I’d ever had? What was different about the ones that did work well? If I was bad, ugly, unlovable and unworthy, why was that? Was it something I could fix? Or was that a false belief, and if so, where did it come from?

Why did it seem so impossible to find the kind of relationships I had always wanted to have with others?

All my life I’ve struggled with these questions.

I realize now that all of us struggle with these questions, at least at some point and to some degree. It’s called being human.

Emotional intelligence training was a revelation, and as I learned about boundaries, needs, reciprocity and many other aspects of relationship, I began to appreciate the complexity and art involved in healthy connections.

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Relationship is a skill, and most of us don’t have great models for how to do it appropriately and effectively. Relating well to others is messy because being human is messy. I learned, and believe, that healthy connection is a primary human need and driver of behavior. I also learned to build and maintain better boundaries and separate what I have power over (myself) from places where I have no power (what others say, believe, think and do).

Over the last years, my partner and I have continued to be fascinated by the way in which we humans interact with each other as parents, family, partners, coworkers and members of the community. We observe ourselves and others and read with interest current research and insight into all the ways humans connect and disconnect, motivate and manipulate, perpetrate acts of violence and hate, build community and parent.

I’m an information junkie on some subjects, so I enjoy all this learning. I don’t want the information so I can speak learnedly or advise or persuade others. I’m not interested in labeling, judging, feeding my fear or getting bogged down in an empathy swamp. I have no ambition to be an expert in anything but my own life.

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What I want to do is see myself and others clearly. I want to understand what I don’t understand. I want to learn how to keep myself safe and meet my needs for connection.

I want to take better care of myself.

My partner and I sat in the sun this morning, watching the birds at the feeders and newly-wakened insects buzz around the rotting wood of the porch looking for summer quarters. I picked up paper and pen and we jotted down a list of things to look for when considering a relationship. I titled the list Rules of Engagement, but then crossed it off and retitled it Questions Before Engagement.

I like questions. I’ve told you that, right?

Does the person you’re interacting with:

  • Accept no for an answer?
  • Demonstrate the desire to cooperate and connect (power-with) or win and be right (power-over)? (Carmine Leo)
  • Consistently treat self and others with respect and kindness in action and word?
  • Speak in either/or black/white terms, or do they appreciate shades of grey?
  • Employ blame and shame tactics or take responsibility for their own choices? If they take responsibility, do they take too much responsibility (a sign of weak boundaries)?
  • Employ DARVO tactics: Deny, attack, reverse victim and offender? Does he/she see him/herself as a victim?
  • Make your life bigger or smaller? (Clarissa Pinkola Estes, How to Love a Woman.)
  • Communicate clearly, honestly and consistently, or avoid responsibility (“I forgot”), gaslight, give inconsistent or mixed messages and refuse to answer questions?
  • Demonstrate consistency between what they say and what they do? Keep their word to self and others? (Chronic lateness, for example, is a red flag).
  • Leave you feeling good about yourself or as though you’re hopelessly bad and wrong and/or completely drained?
  • Have boundaries (even if messy) and respect yours (even if messy)?
  • Present themselves as a whole, healthy, independent person with something to contribute or are they needy and dependent and looking for someone to nurture or “fix” them? (Co-dependency is not a healthy relationship!)
  • Demonstrate a full range of feelings and appropriate expression and management of those feelings? Is their life one long drama and trauma? Do they flip abruptly from rage to affection and back again?
  • Demonstrate flexibility, curiosity and the willingness to learn?
  • Provide an equal and reciprocal level of commitment, time and energy to the relationship that you do? (Carmine Leo) Are you doing CPR on a long-dead connection all by yourself? If so, why?
  • Last but not least: What does your intuition say? Do you feel safe with this person, physically, sexually, creatively, emotionally, financially? Listen/feel for a yes or a no and don’t second guess or negotiate a no! Extricate yourself and move on.

The strength in recognizing these questions and their answers does not derive from judging or labeling others. The power is in our own ability to navigate intelligently through the world of people we all live in. I myself have communicated poorly, been codependent, been self-destructive, made myself small, and had poor boundaries. I’ve also worked hard to learn to be more effective and heal. Now and then we’re all inflexible, or disrespectful, or unkind.

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Perfectionism is a black hole I refuse to get sucked into and certainly don’t expect from others. We need and form all kinds of relationships in life with all kinds of people. Certain behaviors from a colleague or roommate might be acceptable; the same behavior from a lover could be a deal breaker. There is no one size fits all in terms of relationship. We have to figure it out for ourselves.

We all have good days and bad days. This list is intended to specify red flags that might occur intermittently or consistently across time. A pattern of red flags is a sign to go carefully and stay present and aware with our interactions. There are millions of well-meaning people in the world. There are also millions of narcissists, borderline and other Cluster B personality-disordered people, psychopaths, sociopaths and other predators and vampires. It’s up to us to figure out how to spot them and avoid or free ourselves from them. Failure to do so wastes our time, energy and love.

Questions before engagement. My daily crime.

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Big Enough For Blessings

Once I lived with an avid outdoorsman who fished and hunted. He frequently spent his weekends camping during spring, summer and fall. I knew how much pleasure he took in this time away from the rest of his life, and always saw him off with some variation of “Have a great time.”

It never failed to make him mad.

He said it “put pressure” on him when people wished him well.

I felt both dumbfounded and amused by his attitude. I couldn’t imagine feeling insulted because someone who loves you wishes you a great time.

I’ve been remembering that man this week because I’ve been thinking about giving and receiving blessings.

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Traditionally a blessing was an important social exchange. If one was lucky enough to meet an incognito god or goddess on the flanks of Mount Olympus or in some other lonely place and received their blessing, they were broken open to receive it fully, their deepest and most private hopes, fears and pain exposed. It took courage, strength and humility to receive such a gift.

The poet David Whyte suggests we must make ourselves large for the exchange of blessing. To give such a favor is an act of generosity. To receive it is an act of growth. In the last several days I’ve thought a lot about making oneself big enough for blessing. I’ve remembered specific words and ways in which I’ve blessed others, including the simple blessing of my love.

Sometimes I’ve felt that the love I gave another in words and actions was recognized, appreciated and fully received. Other times I have not, and I’ve always made that about me. My love was unwelcome and had no value. Now I wonder, though. Perhaps it wasn’t me at all. Perhaps they were not big enough in that moment to accept my blessing.

That thought leads me inexorably to wondering how many times I have not been big enough to receive a blessing from someone else. I’m forced to admit there have been plenty of times; probably many more than I’m aware of.

Am I big enough to be loved hugely, or receive a large sum of money or have my creative hopes realized?

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I’m not sure I am. I’m big enough to be loved moderately, but hugely? No, that feels like too much. I can feel myself tensing, rounding, drawing my knees up and wrapping my arms around my body as I imagine someone trying to give me huge love. I’m not worth that. I’ll be sure to disappoint. They’ve mistaken me for someone else.

I’m too small for such abundance. I choose to be too small. I’m afraid to stand up straight, open my arms and heart wide, and accept huge love. I choose to limit what comes in. I’m afraid of the pain of being broken open. I can make myself bigger in spite of my fear, but I usually don’t in order to accommodate a blessing.

Therefore, I impoverish myself. I have people around me who love me. Perhaps they love me as deeply as I love, and they long for me to receive it as I long for my love to be received, but my own inability to be large enough to allow their blessing into my life makes the energy of their love impotent and weakens our connection. My fear and choice to be small, hard and rigid, like a rolled-up porcupine, not only limit me; they limit others as well.

My most frequent prayer on behalf of others is that they might experience the greatest good. I use that specific language because I know I don’t know what the greatest good is for any of us. Sometimes what we want the most in life is not in our best interests. Sometimes the hardest experiences are the most useful to us. Sometimes what we long for is what we most need. I don’t know. I’m not big enough to know. I can’t see far enough down the road to judge the value in any experience. All I can say, along with everyone else, is what feels pleasant and what feels uncomfortable to me in the moment.

Oxford online dictionary defines blessing as “a beneficial thing for which one is grateful; something that brings well-being; a person’s sanction or support.” We all can make a list of crises in our lives that later turned out to be blessings in disguise. Maybe it’s all a blessing – each breath, each heartbeat, each tear, each drop of blood and sweat, each moment, each life and death. Gratitude is a practice that could encompass all our experience.

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To receive a blessing is to allow an expression of support, affection and maybe even love touch us. It’s an act of trust in the intention of the one who blesses us, as well as faith in our own worth. We need one another in this life, and healthy reciprocity makes connections stronger. It’s not enough to be the strong one who maintains safety by extending love and support while accepting none; we must also be willing to be down and out, to be lost and confused, and to receive help and encouragement in our turn.

Last weekend two friends and my partner helped me empty out my flooded storage unit, chip ice, sweep water, put down pallets (transported in my friends’ truck), and put everything back again. We were ankle-deep in mud, slipped and slid on ice and splashed around in water as we worked. It needed to be done and I wanted to do it. I know I needed help. Yet from the beginning I was blocking the support and caring around me. I fussed about my friends using their Saturday to undertake such a messy job. I felt bad about using their truck. I was worried somebody would hurt their back heaving my wet mattress and box springs around. At the same time, I was deeply touched and uncomfortable because I could feel their caring and concern and I didn’t know how to take it gracefully. I wanted to be big enough to accept friendship and love from these dear ones, but it was really hard. I know, however, that I’m not good at receiving and I want to be better. I also know, had our positions been reversed, I would have greatly enjoyed helping out a friend on a windy spring Saturday morning.

I endured my discomfort. Now that it’s done, what I will remember is not what was damaged and lost, or even the mess. What I’ll remember is that the four of us tackled a necessary job, worked together and had a good time doing it.

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It was a blessing. I stretched as wide as I could to receive it.

I need more practice.

When I tell someone I love them, or wish them a great day, or the greatest good, I mean it. It’s not just words. My heart is in it. When I light a candle and reach out with all I am to a loved one who is far away, I’m offering the best I am as a blessing, a candle in dark times, a comfort in distress. I want the gift of my love and support to be received and used.

Probably the best place to start is to learn to receive with more grace myself, to expand, and to humbly accept whatever blessings come my way, whether plainly visible or in disguise.

Have a great day, readers. Greatest good to you. Blessings.

My daily crime.

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All content on this site ©2019
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Late Harvest

What does it mean to make a home? I wonder if it means something different to everyone, or if we have a common vision.

All my adult life homemaking has been a top priority, not so much for myself, but for others. Creating home has been my labor of love and one of my greatest contributions to relationship. Few things give me as much satisfaction as establishing a place of peace, beauty, security and clean, well-ordered efficiency in which to relax, play, share life and be intimate. In the past I didn’t count the cost in emotional labor, physical labor, time or energy. I didn’t expect reciprocity. I only wanted to be allowed to make the offering of a home.

It never occurred to me the enormous gift of creating a home would be largely invisible and mostly unappreciated.

My disillusionment was gradual. I realized one day that cleaning the bathroom meant nothing to those I was sharing it with. It gave me a lot of satisfaction, but was rarely even noticed by others. That was the first time I grasped that I wasn’t going to get thanked or validated for cleaning. If I wanted to clean, I needed to make sure I was doing it for myself and have no expectations that anyone else would pay attention.

I was on my own with the cleaning thing.

I was also on my own in evaluating a new home for ease of maintenance and housekeeping as well as suitability for pets and kids. I was the one who thought about clotheslines and their proximity to laundry facilities; flooring in entryways, bathrooms and kitchens; and outside and inside wood storage for the woodstove. I was the one who thought about how to deal with trash and recycling and where to put the litter box and store the dog food.

Not every woman is a natural homemaker. I think many perform as such because nobody else will and the culture expects it of them. I’ve always loved that kind of work, even knowing it’s unpaid and undervalued in the larger world. I assumed, in my innocence, that homemaking was an investment in a healthy and happy family, and that was the only payback I needed.

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The thing about being young is that we can’t imagine how decades of unappreciated and invisible work and support grind us down and polish a thick shell of cynicism. It turns out I did want some degree of appreciation and acknowledgement from my family for making a home. I couldn’t pull off the perfect wife/mother/housekeeping role with a clean white apron and endlessly abundant nurture, energy, patience, organization and efficiency with no return. I especially couldn’t do it while working outside the home, going to school and single parenting.

Fulfilling cultural expectations turned out not to be very fulfilling, after all.

Eventually I found myself alone. Children grown and gone, a file folder labeled ‘Divorce’, and freedom to make a home solely for myself at last. Complete and total control. Bliss! I had a wonderful time giving myself exactly the kind of home I’d always dreamed of. All my efforts were on my own behalf. I didn’t care what anyone else thought and I didn’t need anyone to appreciate the home I made for myself. Housekeeping was uncomplicated, easy and filled with joy.

I concluded that homemaking wasn’t, after all, a gift, a talent or an adequate offering. It didn’t translate as a declaration of love, support and commitment. My loved ones didn’t value my contribution. It was a meaningless use of my time and energy and put me in the vulnerable position of looking for validation and appreciation from others.

I felt like a fool, and it made me bitter. I promised myself that never again would I try to make a home for anyone but myself.

I never imagined, even as a teenager, that anyone would make a home for me. I wasn’t that naïve!

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Here in the tarnished and somber season of late fall and lengthening nights an amazing thing has happened.

I noticed it when I began coming home in the dark after work. My partner leaves lights on for me so I can easily negotiate backing into the driveway and navigate the steep cellar stairs. When I open the door at the top of the steps and enter the kitchen, the dishes are done. The house is warm and the wood stove glowing in the living room. The cat is fed. The kitchen smells of beef stew, chicken soup or baking.

Home. My home, but this time not created solely by me for someone else. This home is a collaboration, and it’s incomplete without me. I’m not invisible. My presence has worth. After all these years, all the meals and baking, all the housework and candles and welcoming lights in windows, the clean clothes, the fresh beds, the cared-for animals, the countless cords of wood for various stoves, all that invisible and unnoticed love, I’m reaping a late harvest.

Someone makes a home for me now, and waits for me to return, not to maintain it but to be part of it.

At the end of my workday, I’m actually at the end of my workday. I don’t have to unload the car, fumble my way into a dark house, turn on lights, get the woodstove going, make a meal, take care of pets and/or kids and/or adults, shut curtains and lock doors. My partner doesn’t meet me at the door with roses, wine and sweet talk. He gives me far more enduring and authentic gifts of a place and relationship to come home to. I discover those offerings are every bit as worthy as I imagined when I was a newly-married 21-year-old. All my work over the years was real. It was valuable. It was loving and important. It was a beautiful contribution. The fact that no one noticed or appreciated the home I made for them did not, after all, define the value of my intention.

I suppose it’s just one of life’s little ironies that now, at this late date when I’ve completely given up expectations and fantasies that others will perceive homemaking as an expression of love worthy of acknowledgement, someone in my life finally gives back to me what I’ve given in such abundance to others.

It’s a late harvest, but well worth the wait.

Being welcomed home. My daily crime.

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All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted