Tag Archives: relationship

Questions Before Engagement

Photo by Alessio Lin on Unsplash

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.

Photo by juan pablo rodriguez on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Bewakoof.com Official on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Evan Kirby on Unsplash

No Is a Complete Sentence

One of my first posts on this blog was about saying no . As I learned emotional intelligence and began applying it to my life, I started to understand how imprisoned I’d been by my inability to say no.

Photo by John Salvino on Unsplash

In the interests of full disclosure, let me tell you that saying no in the context of long-term relationships in which I’ve never said it before has resulted in unforeseen heartache and grief. I rejoice in reclaiming my power and authenticity, but some of my nearest and dearest are not celebrating my growth and healing, and connections I thought were unbreakable have, in fact, broken.

These days, I immediately exit any relationship in which my no is consistently ignored. At this point in my life I’m not interested in connection, intimate, workplace or social, in which no is not an acceptable answer.

In my experience, people who refuse to accept the answer no fall into two camps. The first camp is the controllers. Their goal is power. They view anyone with the ability to say no as an insult and a threat, and immediately react in the form of intimidation, emotional meltdowns, rage, manipulation and constant pressure to change the no to a yes.

The second camp is those who can’t say no themselves and are infuriated by those who can. Their goal is to undermine the power of others so they can feel better about their own disempowered state. They’ve stored up years of resentment around all the times they said yes when they wanted to say no, resentment which they vomit up at once if someone says no to them. They throw around words like “duty,” “responsibility,” “loyalty” and “obligation.” No is a personal rejection, an abandonment and a cruel betrayal. They frequently have all kinds of expectations of others. They use the weapon of shame.

These camps can and do overlap, but there’s no mistaking the resistance to no.

I confess that it still stuns me that long-term primary relationships have fallen down and died right in front of me because I said no. I’ve even checked out my perception, disbelieving my own experience and the words I was hearing.

“So, from your point of view, me saying no is unforgiveable?”

“Yes, it’s unforgiveable.”

So far, I am still unforgiven, because I stood by my no.

Unbelievable.

I ask myself if it’s possible I’ve never said no in the context of these relationships before. It seems unlikely. Perhaps I’ve just never said it about anything that mattered to the other party? I resolved to mindfully practice saying no, and also to observe carefully the effects of such a response.

I immediately discovered that the effects of saying no on me included panic attacks, anxiety, PTSD and extreme stress. All my life interactions with others has consisted of “reading” them in order to please. Any question they might ask was answered in whatever way I thought they most wanted to hear.

Effectively, every question was a test. If I passed the test, my reward was knowing I had pleased and was temporarily safe and tolerated. If I failed, which usually meant I had forgotten myself and answered honestly, the consequence was displeasure, abuse, guilt and shame and/or (worst of all) some kind of a scene.

Photo by Joshua Fuller on Unsplash

Learning to say yes or no based on my own desires meant finding and reclaiming myself, my needs, my authenticity and my power, and trying to ignore what I knew others wanted from me. Saying yes or no became a test of my own courage and honesty, as well as a test of faith and trust in those close to me.

I could hear no from them. Could they hear it from me?

This has been some of the hardest work I’ve ever done.

I’ve been reading an important book: The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker. Every woman in the world would benefit from reading this lifesaving and validating book. Here, too, is a discussion of the universally important red flag of refusing to accept no.

We are shaped by our culture, and in this culture women are taught to be cooperative and accommodating. Men are taught to be persistent. These behaviors are deeply embedded and reinforced in our media, entertainment and arts.

Women are not taught to say a simple, assertive, direct no and stick to it. We weaken our no with explanation, justification, mistrust of our own instincts and the desire to not make a scene, be unkind or hurt or embarrass anyone.

The instant a woman allows her no to be negotiated, she has handed her power over and sent a clear message that she’s prepared to be a victim. Strangers, family members, friends and colleagues who decline to hear no are either seeking control or refusing to give it up.

Sadly, the willingness to say no will not protect us. We may still be murdered, raped and otherwise abused, but the ability to recognize a danger signal like not accepting no for an answer is an important survival skill that can help us avoid violence before the worst happens.

Ultimately, no is about boundaries.  No matter how cherished a relationship may be, it’s not healthy if we’re not free to honestly say yes or no. Those who consistently violate our boundaries or punish us for having them in the first place are those who have benefitted the most from us having none in the past.

I value my power to say yes or no far more than any object, possession, sum of money or relationship. The complete sentences of yes or no allow me to maintain my integrity and authenticity, support appropriate boundaries and contribute everything I am.

Saying no. My daily crime.

Photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash

A Contest of Generosity

As I sit in my attic space this afternoon, the wind is roaring in the bare trees. Last night it rained. This morning on the way to our weekly breakfast date at a neighborhood diner there were snowflakes in the air as we navigated the crumpled, buckling, pot-holed roads.

Photo by Ludde Lorentz on Unsplash

I’m still listening to David Whyte, and he’s still inspiring me. Listening to him speak is similar to reading his poetry. Each repetition unfolds new layers and depths in my heart and mind.

Today I’ve been reading, sorting, paying bills, and taking care of the oddments we all accumulate on our work surfaces and in our technological tools while we’re out in the world working or doing other things.

Outside the wind rocks the trees, which are just beginning to swell with buds, and David Whyte talks to me of friendship with life, with others and with ourselves. He suggests that healthy relationships are a continuous contest of necessary generosity in which we develop a discipline of forgiveness and allowing others to forgive us.

Photo by Ivan Jevtic on Unsplash

I think of forgiveness as a blessing.

It occurs to me that the more I forgive myself, the less I need the forgiveness of others. If I love my choices and decisions, I don’t need anyone else to do so.

Do we need forgiveness for who we are? Sometimes we need forgiveness for the boneheaded choices we make, but do we need forgiveness for who we are?

It seems to me the only reasonable answer is no, yet I’ve spent my life apologizing (and in latter years trying not to apologize) for who I am, what I need, and what works and doesn’t work for me in my life.

I have a dear friend who frequently apologizes for the way she expresses herself and interacts. I understand. We have that self-judgement in common. When she apologizes anxiously for something she said or wrote, or didn’t say or write, I smile to myself. It sounds like she’s apologizing for who she is, but I love her because she is who she is. I have more space for her than she does for herself.

Photo by Jenelle Ball on Unsplash

She has more space for me than I do for myself as well. I hope, with time, our friendship will help us both be less critical of ourselves.

I’m great at giving other people space to be who they are. It’s always been one of my strengths and gifts in relationship.

I’m so good at it, in fact, that several people with whom I’ve been closely connected quickly took it for granted that I would accommodate whatever they needed and/or wanted. Rather than a contest of generosity, such a relationship becomes an endless exercise in trying to please (on my part) and demand (on the part of the other).

The bad news is that the only way I can see out of this loop is to learn to say no and enforce boundaries, two things guaranteed to send any person who expects to control my behavior and choices into meltdown.

I hate scenes.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

Naturally, my history of allowing others to take control in any given situation positioned me to attract into my life people who insisted their own needs and desires trumped mine. They had no interest in the thoughts and feelings behind the choices I made and did everything they could to manipulate my compliance with their expectations.

The wind blows because that’s its nature. Does it ask forgiveness from the trees? As I gaze out the window, looking for nothing and trying to see everything, I glimpse the possibility of living in such a way that I give myself the space I’ve always given others. The wind blows. The water flows. Mice nibble holes in cushions. Woodchucks dig up the Echinacea roots and eat them. None of it is personal. All act according to their nature, and there’s a kind of inexorable beauty about that.

I want to be beautiful like that.

Yet I have often sought to limit and even hurt myself. The twin disciplines of self-forgiveness and giving myself space have been exceedingly difficult to undertake and maintain, especially in the context of relationships with loved ones. My generosity has been for others, not for myself.

When people come into our lives and force us to make a choice between their expectations and our needs, they’re playing to win at any price, and the only way for them to win is for us to lose.

Not a contest of generosity, but a competition for power.

I have no interest in playing power games, and even less interest in “winning,” particularly if it means someone else has to lose. I’ve never been competitive. On the other hand, I’m finally committed to extending generosity to myself, and I love the gentle persistence in David Whyte’s language: “a continuous contest of generosity.”

Can I enjoy my own thoughts, feelings and expressions with the same generosity that I enjoy the boisterous spring wind, or my dear friend? Can I honor myself even when people around me tell me I’m bad and wrong? I fought as hard as I could to protect my children and give them a good start. Now, can I surround myself with that same fierce loyalty and generous love? Will I?

Yes.

My daily crime.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash