Tension Over Time

The summer I turned 33, I was in the best shape of my life. I had gotten into a routine of spending three hours a day in the gym – in which I could do some lifting, cardio, stretching, and have time to get ready for work. And when you spend three hours a day at the gym, you get a baptism-by-fire education of all things “gym”.

Of all of the things I learned, these two were the most important:

  1. Building muscle is simple, but not easy.
  2. Do not make eye contact with men at the gym.

First, all it takes to build muscle is to put the muscle in question under tension over time. You can do this by using heavy weights and low repetition or light weights and high repetition. What’s important is that you put the muscle under enough tension to create tiny tears that will heal and grow stronger. For maximum growth, you need to do enough reps to take the muscle to failure – meaning you cannot do another repetition – you cannot continue. This is simple, but it’s not easy because it takes sustained time and effort, and you will probably be in pain the next day or two. This reality has been captured in memes like the following:

after leg day

Second, as a woman at the gym, just don’t make eye contact with men. There’s something about the gym environment that predisposes men to believe that if a woman is making eye contact or saying hello, they are undeniably into him. There is no other explanation. I learned this the hard way because I’d waltz into the gym, smiling and waving and saying hello to everybody. Inevitably, that led to situations of men “helping me” with my form and then asking me if I had a boyfriend. Then I’d lie with: “Sorry, yeah I do” because that was easier than saying, “No, but I’m not interested.”   Even that graduated into situations responses like, “Well, I don’t see a ring on your finger.” So I had to aggressively avoid those men, which got very awkward very quickly.

Because, you see, I was at the gym for a reason. I had just ended my relationship with a man that I thought was my soul mate. And, on top of that, every romantic interaction I had with men for the past thirteen years fell into two camps: cheap come-on lines that only had one goal, or relationships with men who needed to be taken care of, who lived life from emergency to emergency, who needed me to handle those emergencies. Since those two options seemed like all men had to offer, I had no intention of spending one more minute pursuing relationships with men. Instead, I was on a mission to put my own goals front and center.

In the pursuit of that mission, every time I walked into the gym, I made it clear that I was there with serious fitness goals – not to socialize. I wore huge headphones, kept my head down, avoided eye contact, and looked serious and unfriendly. I developed a knack for scanning my environment and avoiding even the potential for eye contact with men. That is until July of 2013, the year I turned 33.

At 7:15am, I was doing bicep curls on a bench in front of a mirror, because I was serious about having good form. I pushed two fingers into my lower bicep head to ensure that I was focusing the “squeeze” there, and I looked up in the mirror to watch my range of movement, and BOOM: accidental eye contact with the guy I had been ignoring on the bench next to me. Trying to pretend it didn’t happen, I snatched my gaze back down at my bicep, and continued with furious focus to discourage any further connection. But the damage was done.

When I headed to the tricep pulldown machine and set up my weights, I saw that guy approach me. Confident but not cocky, he walked over to me, stuck out his hand, and said, “Hi, I’m Matt. I saw you working out over there, and I’m not gonna lie – I think you’re really pretty, and I wondered if you’d want to go on a date with me sometime.” This was behavior I was completely unfamiliar with. I had never been approached by a man in a manner so stripped of posturing and self-protection. I had never had a first encounter include an innocent “I think you’re pretty” or a bald “do you want to go on a date”, and I certainly never expected that both of them would come at the same time. Inside I was floored, but outside, I was stone-faced. I acted like this happened to me every day, because experiences with men taught me that if they learned I was flattered by their attention, they would use it to work me. And I had no intention of getting worked. So I acted bored while we exchanged numbers, and he said he would call. I wasn’t holding my breath. Plenty of men had gotten my number and said they would call, but never did.

When he walked off, it took so much effort to keep up the charade that this was just another boring interruption in my workout. It was pure torture to do anything but run off to work to tell my friends what just happened to me. Nothing about my day, or even my week, was going to top this moment, even if he never called. As soon as he left the gym, I abandoned my workout and drove to work as soon as humanly possible. My friends listened with bright eyes and squeals as I repeated the encounter, “He said ‘I think you’re pretty’ and asked me out on a date!”

Later that day, he called when he said he would. I hardly knew what to do when I saw my phone ringing and his name on the screen. I just watched in wonder as it went to voicemail. I called him back later, mustering up my very best “bored” routine while we made plans for our first date. We decided to go to Waffle Shop for breakfast. I suggested it because it was in the morning, Waffle Shop was quick, they don’t serve alcohol, and I had to work at 10am that day – so I knew there was no potential for any funny business.

I showed up ten minutes late for the date. I’d like to say that was part of my “bored” routine, but it is actually just who I am as a person. I am either late or early, and being early was not an option in this case, lest I look eager. But he was there, on time and waiting with no pretenses or feelings about my lateness. I wasn’t prepared for the potential awkwardness of the 20-minute wait in line for a table. But to my surprise, the conversation was fresh, honest, and easy. He wasn’t putting on airs or trying to impress me – at least not in ways I could detect. It was just a genuine conversation between two people.

In addition to my personal experiences with men, my career up to this point had been in the field of preventing domestic violence, and those experiences were just one more reason to hesitate getting into a new relationship. I even had a kill line I used when getting to know a man. When they asked me what I did for a living, I would flavor the answer depending on how much I liked them. If I liked them, I would simply say, “I train people on how to prevent domestic violence”; If I didn’t like them, I would give a more raw version, such as: “I work with battered women at the local domestic violence shelter.” Invariably, the words “domestic violence” left men scrambling to behave in ways that demonstrated that they are not abusive. But the trick is, there’s very little a person with an abusive mindset could say that would help them, so I just liked to watch them squirm. It was so predictable. But when I told Matt what I did, he was the first and only man who didn’t squirm. He was really interested and said, “Oh wow, that’s so interesting. You know, I have this friend who keeps finding herself in relationships that are no good, but I just don’t know how to help her.”

So far, he is three for three in presenting with behavior I didn’t know how to handle: a straightforward request for a date with a compliment, actually calling when he said he would, and answering my kill line with a refreshing response. I started to think that maybe I should go on a second date with him, but I had already decided that I had no intention of pursuing a relationship with a man, no matter how promising it looked.

Well, he was prepared for that. At the end of the date, he simply and abruptly said, “Well that went well.  Want to do it again?” And honestly, it was just easier in that moment to say, “sure” than to awkwardly decline.

So we went on a second date, which went well. And then third date followed, which also went well, and pretty soon we were dating exclusively. However, as our relationship grew, it brought me face to face with a reality I’d been able to avoid up until this point. I didn’t know how to BE in this relationship with him. He didn’t need me to wake him up for work, remind him to pay his bills, or solve his problems. He didn’t live emergency to emergency, and if he did have an emergency, he was fully capable of handling it himself. He didn’t need me to take care of him, and therefore I didn’t know what my role was in this relationship.

You see, I failed to mention one aspect about my previous relationships. Those men would never leave me. They would never leave me because I made sure they needed me. As I tended to every problem they had, my hidden agenda was to become so necessary that I would not be abandoned or replaced. In my calculations, the more problems they had, the less likely I was to be abandoned. That logic is faulty, of course, but it felt so secure – and as long as I was tending to their problems, I was too busy to really evaluate the truth of that belief anyway. So here I was, in a precarious and uncomfortable position of knowing only how to be needed and not wanted, in a relationship with a man who did not need me. As the relationship went on, my fear of being abandoned or dumped only grew into a certainty that sooner or later, he would leave me. Why would he stay?

In an act of self-sabotage, I decided to take him to meet my family long before I was ready, a decision I can only explain as an attempt to speed up the inevitable: that he would leave. I don’t exactly know how I expected him to act, I only know that I interpreted all of his behavior as being completely appalled by my family and by me. I felt totally vulnerable, exposed, sub-human, and unlovable. You may be wondering what kind of behavior could make me feel this way. Well, he slouched on the couch and yawned. He seemed less than interested in the cows I was showing him. He didn’t talk much on the way home. For me, showing him the tiny town where I grew up, and introducing him to some family members,  which was giving him a glimpse into my roots – enormous sources of pain for me – was just too much. And, after exposing my past like that without the reaction I had hoped for (what? more energy and enthusiasm?), I could not go on feeling this exposed, so I decided to break up with him. I decided that I would sneak out the next morning and leave my key to his apartment on the kitchen table.

But he caught me. I was trying to carry out the Keurig and other miscellaneous items I kept there when he walked out of the bedroom. He wasn’t prepared for that, and was genuinely confused. And yet again, he behaved in a way I could not have anticipated. He simply asked, “Hey, what’s going on? What’s wrong?” And when I told him that I just couldn’t keep ‘doing this’, he asked, “Well can we talk about it?”  So we talked. It was uncomfortable, and I was shaking with the certainty of rejection, but we talked.

And I learned that if I was going to learn how to be in this relationship, then it required emotional growth on my part. I realized that I had to quit being needed and embrace being wanted. I needed to trust that being wanted would not only be enough, but it would even be preferable. After all, being needed did not ensure love or loyalty, even by my last long-term boyfriend. It only ensured that he would tell me what I wanted to hear if I meant that I kept taking care of him. I realized that I was unlocking a part of myself that I had sealed off a long time ago by venturing into just being wanted.

Through that talk, I realized that emotional growth works a lot like muscle growth. Emotional growth requires experiencing discomfort, much like the discomfort of a muscle under tension over time until it reaches failure. I had long been experiencing small discomforts through the repeated experiences of Matt not needing me – like high repetitions with small weights. But the morning that I tried to sneak out, my emotional capacity had hit failure – I maxed out. I could not go on. My emotional reserves were depleted. I could no longer tolerate the idea that if he didn’t need me, then certainly he would leave me. So I simply decided to leave first to save myself that kind of injury.

However, this state of emotional failure created an opportunity to maximize my growth. Matt emerged as a viable partner in my growth when he asked, “Can we talk about it?”, which launched my recovery phase. As he reassured me that he found me very lovable, despite what I might think or feel, he helped my emotional microtears heal and grow stronger. I began to build the capacity to be wanted and not just needed. After maxing out that hard, I wobbled around on uncertain emotional ground for the next few days, feeling raw and a little weak. But slowly, I started to stand on the broader emotional foundation Matt helped me build.

And, just like building muscles, this is not something I simply decided one day. It is a practice. As our relationship grew, sometimes I would hit failure, and sometimes he would hit failure. We practiced the recovery phase by learning what the other partner needed – sometimes it was a bid for connection gone unmet, sometimes one person needed to be mad for a while before they could accept an apology.

In 2016, we started talking about getting engaged. This was leveling up my capacity to be wanted and meshing it with being needed. An engagement is a partnership – it’s looking toward the future together, and it was scary for me. To continue building my emotional capacity for this, we talked about it for six months. We talked about what kind of ring I would want, how we would pay for it, when we would get married, and what it would mean. And on one cold, snowy Saturday in January of 2016, we walked into a jewelry store “just to look” at engagement rings, and we walked out with a ring I absolutely loved.

On July 3, 2016, we got engaged quietly at the Nature Inn at Bald Eagle State Park, in Howard, Pennsylvania.

On May 27, 2017, we took the plunge and got married under an old willow tree in Bald Eagle State Park.

On February 9, 2018, we leveled up in matching being wanted and needed when we bought a house together.

And in June of 2019, we will embark on the biggest challenge ever to balance being wanted and not just needed as we welcome a little girl into our lives.

Tension over time creates discomfort, and sometimes outright debilitating pain. But if we allow it, it can also be a fertile ground for new ways of being.



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