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.



Scratching an Itch

It’s mid-July, and I am sitting on a bar stool at the glass-topped kitchen table across from a long-lost friend. She’s a young woman with curly dark brown hair and big brown eyes that are bloodshot and strained from her attempts to share parts of her life that she finds shameful and scary.

What started out as an opportunity to catch up turns into something very familiar to me: she is trusting me to listen to the reality of her marriage or relationship without making it worse.

Here is a short list of typical things that I’ve heard in these situations:

  • Her husband expects her to handle all of the childcare and housework.
  • Her husband/boyfriend lashes out at her unpredictably, for anything (i.e. the way she drives).
  • Her attempts to talk about his behavior fail. He shuts down the conversation by saying things like, “Oh sure, everything I do is WRONG AGAIN! I’M THE BAD GUY!”
  • Her husband/boyfriend calls her fat, stupid, lazy, terrible mother, etc.
  • He drinks too much – it interferes with their lives.
  • He occasionally puts his hands on her.

At some point, she apologizes for getting so emotional and explains that it’s because she hasn’t talked to anyone about this for months.

But I already know that, and I know why.

It’s because, generally, when women confide in friends and family members about being treated like this, most people respond in ways that primarily make them feel better and do not serve the person who was brave enough to share their story.

I call this “scratching an itch” because it is excruciatingly tempting to respond in this way, but ultimately we know we shouldn’t, and it does more harm than good.

Scratching an Itch

Scratching an itch provides us with immediate relief, but it leaves the other person feeling more alone and guilty. For example, when we respond by telling her that she’s hurting her children by staying, we only add to her shame and isolation. Then when the situation gets worse, we shake our heads while explaining to friends, “I told her to leave a long time ago.” We wash our hands of her plight with disdain because she didn’t follow our advice – not realizing we gave terrible advice.

I like to imagine the scene that would unfold if women responded genuinely instead of politely to people who tell them: “You need to leave.” or “Your children are being hurt.”

It would be the most sarcastic rendition ever of: “OH MY GOD. THAT’S IT! LEAVE! MY GOD, I NEVER THOUGHT OF LEAVING! NOT ONCE. YOU ARE A GENIUS.”

Being genuinely helpful means respecting her enough to know that if leaving was an option, she would have done it by now. It means respecting her enough to know that she is doing everything she can to protect her children.

But I am familiar with scratching that itch. I’ve done it, and I still struggle with it today. We do it because when a friend confides in us about painful realities in their relationships, at first, we feel honored that they trust us enough to be that vulnerable with us. We also believe that she wants our help in solving the problem. And we can’t wait to meet our need to feel helpful. But most of us are ill-equipped to identify what is helpful to her.  Being genuinely helpful means putting her needs front and center and setting your need to feel helpful to the side.

Mistakes and Assumptions

Deciding that we are in the role of “helper” or even “rescuer” is our first mistake. Our second mistake is deciding that the best course of action is to get her out of the relationship or marriage as soon as possible.

I can almost hear people yelling at their screens, “What other possible role or course of action even exists outside of helping her leave?!? She needs to GET OUT!!”

This is an excellent question and it has good answers:

  1. When we believe that the solution is for her to leave, we assume that the hurtful and dangerous behaviors will stop. The opposite is true. Asking her to leave is asking her to put herself and her children in more danger.
  2. The most critical resource that she needs in order to escape abuse is the unshakeable conviction that she knows what she is doing. The person who is treating her poorly works daily to convince her otherwise, and we mimic that behavior when we assume that we need to take control or make decisions for her.
  3. The second most critical resource she needs in order to escape abuse are people who will support the decisions she makes. That support builds the most critical resource mentioned above. This is the opposite of taking control of the situation and making decisions for her.

We also find ourselves scratching an itch instead of being genuinely helpful because situations like these look deceptively simple.

For example, we like to think that the partner engaging in the hurtful behavior is the entire problem. If that were true, then wouldn’t we see women successfully leaving partners like that, and going on to have happy lives? Instead, we see a culture that does not support working families, require the court system to adequately handle abuse, or believe women, which makes it very difficult for women to successfully leave. Additionally, we may see her leave one bad relationship for a person who looks like a knight in shining armor, only for him to also engage in hurtful behavior down the road.

How to Be Genuinely Helpful and Avoid Scratching an Itch

  • Keep her confidence. 
    • If it gets back to her husband that she told someone, she could be in danger.
    • Scratching an Itch: Calling your friend to gossip as soon as she leaves.
    • Being Genuinely Helpful: Calling the domestic violence hotline to get support for yourself so that you are less tempted to vent your frustrations to a friend who may share with others.
  • Learn more about the complexities of abusive or emotionally neglectful relationships.
    • Keep the hotline number for your local domestic violence agency on hand.
      • They are best equipped to provide safety planning and other resources.
    • Consider becoming trained as a crisis counselor for victims of domestic violence.
    • Visit National Network to End Domestic Violence for more information.
    • Scratching an Itch: Insisting that she leave and go to the shelter.
    • Being Genuinely Helpful: Offering to go with her the first time she talks to a counselor/advocate.
  • Drop your agenda and timeline.
    • Scratching an Itch: Telling her she’s crazy for hoping things will get better.
    • Being Genuinely Helpful: Reminding her that she survived this long on her skill set alone. You know she knows what she is doing.
  • Model healthy boundaries and self-care.
    • Scratching an Itch: Opening up your home to her in an immediate effort to get her to leave sooner than she is ready. This usually goes south.
    • Being Genuinely Helpful: Asking her what resources she is ready for right now.
    • Being Genuinely Helpful: Take care of yourself by using the hotline at your local domestic violence agency when you are frustrated – supporting a person who is being mistreated is very taxing, and they know how to support you too.

So how did I respond to the person at the beginning of this post? I followed a two-step process of recognizing my reactions when I wanted to scratch an itch, pausing to set aside that urge, and then attempting to be genuinely helpful instead.

She told me a particularly devastating account that included her husband accusing her of being a terrible mother and threatening to have her investigated by CYS. So much of me wanted to show my anger at him and tell her, “This is abusive.” But I know that “abuse” is a very scary word and using it as a label is almost never helpful to a person who is opening up for the first time.  It would make me feel better, not her. Additionally, I knew that openly showing that I did not like her husband would cause her pain and only inspire her to defend him. Of course, she wants me to like him – I can understand that! Despite all that he has done, she still loves him and wants her friends to see him in a positive light.

So I tried to be genuinely helpful by focusing on the behavior instead of the person and said, “I want you to know that you are not the first person who has told me something like this. And it’s simply not true that you’re a terrible mother. He only said that because he knows how important being a mother is to you, and he knew it would hurt you the worst. It’s actually evidence that you are a good mother.” My hope was that responses like these would give her information about his behavior in a non-threatening way, and would make her feel like she could always talk to me.

In conclusion, this post is not intended to explain all of the dynamics of neglectful, abusive, or unhealthy relationships. This post’s purpose is to help people pause before giving in to the temptation of scratching an itch. I focused on people who are being hurt by their partners because your response to them carries a lot of weight. It will influence their decision to continue to seek help or to retreat. While it usually takes more effort to respond in a genuinely helpful way, the payoff in seeing how to be truly helpful in these situations is far greater than the temporary satisfaction of scratching an itch.

It’s Not the Critic that Counts

lawn 7.2018Yesterday, I decided to mow the lawn.

This is only remarkable because, for the last seven weeks, I prioritized writing in my free time in order to get back in the habit of blogging. I did minimal housework and opted out of house projects, including most yard work. However, at the end of each week, the result was the same: I did not publish anything.

With each week’s failure to post a blog, I would try a new trick to push myself to do it the next week. Here is a short list of those tricks:

  • Commit to posting it – come hell or high water! No blog.
  • Make it my #1 priority! No blog.
  • Commit to working on it for an hour each morning – did that! No blog.
  • Get up at 4am to carve out that hour – did that! No blog.
  • Go to bed at 8pm to get enough sleep – didn’t do that. No blog.
  • When all of those failed, I took two days off of work to post the blog. Still, no blog.

At first, the failures stacked up. Three weeks in, it felt like my work was snowballing, so I  told myself I had to publish THREE blogs now! Predictably, that approach paralyzed my writing altogether, so I simply committed to working on it for an hour every day.

After seven weeks and two uninterrupted days set specifically aside to publish this blog, I still hadn’t pulled the trigger. I started to suspect that this wasn’t about lacking time or discipline. I suspected that I was choosing not to publish the blog – I just didn’t know why. Patterns of behavior fascinate me, and I can usually root out my own hidden motivations. But this time was different – I had no earthly idea why I was spending so much time on one blog that I repeatedly decided not to publish.

After seven weeks, I couldn’t keep dodging the yard work with nothing to show for it, so I decided to walk away from blogging and mow the damn yard.

As I mulled this over, I remembered something from yoga that I found to be true in my life: “How you do one thing is how you do everything.”  Given that, I wasn’t terribly surprised when the pattern that dogged my blogging showed up when I started mowing the lawn too.

In a nutshell, the pattern has six parts. First, there’s initial excitement about the new, fun project. That’s followed almost immediately by a fear of the unknown or frustrating parts that threaten to make the project feel daunting before I’ve even started. Third, I strategically pick the hard parts to do first and the most fun parts to do last to help me finish the job. Fourth, after completing some work, I experience a deadening loss of excitement for the project coupled with overwhelming frustration for the difficult parts. Fifth, I decide to keep working, but turn away from the frustrating parts and instead do unproductive but soothing work. Finally, when the project is almost complete, I hit a wall. In blogging and mowing the lawn, I would find any reason to leave the project incomplete rather than finish it. The last steps were intolerable, and I didn’t know why.

After spending five hours mowing a lawn that takes two hours to mow, I ran out of gas. I was elated! Liberated! It was a godsend – as if the universe gifted me with a divine intervention. No one should be this excited about getting out of mowing the lawn they have already mowed to death. This was my first clue that this wasn’t about the lawn. But whatever! I was looking for a way out, and I found one. What a gleeful feeling!

That glee struck me. Not everyone rejoices when their work is interrupted by forces outside of their control. That glee was odd enough to make me realize that I had been in a holding pattern for hours. I was choosing not to finish.

Why? Why did I delight in a job left undone?

I knew that the best way to answer that question was to force myself to finish and find out what I was avoiding. I estimated that I had ten minutes of mowing left to do.

Once I got started, I mowed the remaining patches, which was far easier than I imagined. Then I found myself pulled right back into focusing on inconsequential details. I mowed circles around and around trees. Then figure 8’s. Then ellipses. I went over the mailbox area forward, backward, and sideways. Twice.

I was genuinely concerned about how much longer the neighbors would tolerate this.

After an hour and a half, I finally stopped. At 7:30pm, the project that I started at 11:30am was finished, despite my efforts to abandon it.

Matt knew how much I was struggling, and he asked how it felt to be finished. He said some encouraging things, like, “Look at the lawn! It looks so great!” But it did not feel good. It felt wholly unsatisfying. It would have felt better to have left it incomplete. Knowledge of the imperfections nagged at me. Knowing I could work all day and the grass still wouldn’t be even was discouraging. Knowing there are stray blades of grass around the trees and mailboxes that I didn’t cut down felt like my efforts were inadequate.

Honestly, I just spent 8 hours doing lawnmowing overkill, and instead of celebrating, I was thinking about individual blades of grass??? Stepping back a bit, I was talking about a lawn that gets mowed once a week. What was this really about?

Then it hit me. This all made sense.

I avoided finishing the lawn because the moment I proudly announce, “It’s done!”, I become vulnerable and open to criticism. So when Matt said it looked great, I made sure to tell him about the imperfections before he could notice them. Does that sound familiar to you?

It sounds like: “No one can hurt me if I show them I’m willing to point out all of my imperfections before they do, right?”

Ah. There it is. Something as inconsequential as the quality of my lawnmowing job had me doubting my global worth.

No wonder I wasn’t posting any blogs. Writing is a vulnerable act. It is the choice to allow yourself to be imperfect and seen. I was choosing not to publish any blogs to avoid being vulnerable and seen, and the potential to be hurt.

Once I realized that I was just avoiding vulnerability and criticism, I knew I simply needed to rip the band-aid off and start publishing. So this is my first blog, and I am so damn proud of it.

I’m sure some people will read this and not like it or me. That’s their business.

I’ll leave you with the quote that gave me the courage to write this icebreaker blog:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”