I Have to Love AND Accept You?
“Most of us have unrelenting longings for whatever was missing from our childhood. Every intimate bond will resurrect these archaic yearnings, along with terrors and frustrations that accompany chronically unmet needs. But this puts us in an ideal position to revisit those thwarted needs, to revive our energy, and to reconstruct our inner world in accord with life-affirming principles.” – David Richo, How to Be an Adult in Relationships: The Five Keys to Mindful Loving
My last relationship, with a guy named Rudi, was a reenactment of a fifth-grade accident: Hearing recess was over, I ran full throttle to the door (art class must have been next), tripped, and flew head first into a brick wall. When I awoke, the sky was above me, as was the school nurse and a rotating circle of cartoon stars.
When I met Rudi, a percussionist/actor/teen counselor, he was shaking a shaker in his samba band while I shook my thang for the first time since ending a five-year relationship a month before. Our eyes met. And met. And met. If it had been visible, the energy between us would have been silvery, sparking arcs of electric light. We chatted. I gave him my card. Three, painful will-he-or-won’t-he-call weeks later he Facebooked me. The rest is unavailable man history: Our second night together, he said he was “retired from relationships.” But then we had three gorgeous, poetic, deeply connected, spiritually enlivening, sexually awakening weekends, staggered over a summer. I reeled through every pre-love cliché – I didn't think it was possible to feel this way again, yak yak yak. By the time I let myself realize that by “unavailable” and “retired” he meant “unavailable” and “retired,” I officially ended things. And proceeded to sob every other hour for the next year.
I got it: My deep grief over a three-weekend tryst was about my ancient history. Rudi was the perfect hot-cold combo pack of love and aloofness, conjuring my soul’s deepest post-daddy, lost-love wound. A zillion friend hours, 50 therapy sessions, three journals, lots of bad poems, many blog posts, a channeler, an acupuncturist, massages, hot baths, and enough tears to start my own sea later, I finally let go. Mostly.
So four months ago, when I took up with Brad, even though he’s sometimes alarmingly available (apparently), I thought it might be sane to walk, not run. I realized that despite all my years of therapy and yoga and meditation and communication seminars, I had never had a grown-up relationship. As in, one where both parties take responsibility for their feelings, communicate directly when happy or sad, and commit to being present and loving – to their own feelings and the other’s. The whole Rudi debacle made me realize how famished I was for better playing-field interactions. The bad parts of Rudi, plus five frustrating years with my previous ex, made me realize how far I had to go.
So, like any good Buddhish-y yogi, I bought a self-help book: How to be an Adult in Relationships: The Five Keys to Mindful Loving, by David Richo, a Buddhist psychotherapist who teaches at self-help hubs around the country. And so far, so very good. First off, the minute I showed it to Brad, he ordered a copy, instantly, on his iPhone. Second, though the five As are as gimmicky as any alliterative path to wholeness, they resonate with me, deeply, like I’m peeling back the lid on some sunshine-starved creatures gasping for fresh air. We’ve got:
So, this week’s lesson, Key 1: Attention. “The core of mindfulness.” This is the one you develop through meditation, something I’m gratefully familiar with through years of sporadically dedicated practice. It requires slowly attuning to each creaky, cranky, often unwelcome feeling, thought, and mental check-out in yourself. Which allows you to observe your partner in the same way, ideally without judgment. And once that skill is rolling, the idea is that you can be more present, and simply listen – one of the juiciest gifts we can give. “In a moment of authentic attention, we feel that we are deeply and truly understood in what we say or do and in who we are, with nothing left out,” Richo writes. And lest we feel guilty for even wanting (or, more likely, wildly, voraciously craving) such a thing, which most of us probably didn’t get enough of in childhood, he adds: “The desire for attention is not a desire for an audience, but for a listener.” In which, he says, “Your intuitions are treated as if they matter.”
Okay, that’s a lot. I’m just starting this journey, but with mostly amazing results. Take the night off the iPhone. Though it’s what led Brad to buy a relationship book so quickly, the black rectangle was also like Brad’s third hand – a very blinky, bright hand streaming work email, chess moves, Wikipedia factoids, and other mid-date distractions. One night he was checking it before and during and after a musical I had taken us to. (Perhaps that was why he was checking it?) As I felt myself fomenting an unwelcome inner rebellion, I remembered: Attention. Back in the old unenlightened days I might’ve made a slightly veiled comment: “Wow, you really love that thing.” Or tried to be cute: “Is your iPod sexier than me?” Or just bitched: “That thing is seriously annoying.” But now, I noticed. First, his behavior: He was checking an electronic device. Second, my reaction: Annoyance.
Later, outside, I said – inexpertly, but sincerely – something like, “So, I’m feeling some annoyance with your iPhone. I don’t want to be, but I am.” He knew. He started slow and patient, but then I could almost see a little army raise its guns as he explained that his job required it. “That’s just the deal,” he said, sounding pretty annoyed himself. A match-to-a-fire phrase for me. Hello, younger version of Dad! Hello, feeling invalidated and shut out and misunderstood!
But by some sort of iMiracle, as we stood in the cold, waiting for a cab, I breathed, feeling profoundly, urgently itchy feelings like a spreading rash. I did not scratch. I listened. I tried to understand. I asked questions. I saw him as likely triggered by a woman telling him what to do, by a woman unhappy with him. I even scraped up an ounce or two of compassion.
The cab ride home talking was stilted, on the verge of a first fight. But I stayed steady, mostly. And then I felt it – sadness, in great choking waves. Annoyance was, not surprisingly, just my own army covering for much more tender feelings. I realized my thought was, “I must not matter to him.” His checking an electronic device was triggering an old grief in me only tangentially related to the present moment. I exhaled a surge of tears and said I’d like to finish the conversation at home.
Which we did. It went well. He talked about his real feelings (whoa!) – having a crappy day during which everyone seemed to be telling him he was doing something wrong. And I heard him. My frustration began to dissolve into empathy. Then he asked me to say more about me (whoa, again). I told him about the sadness and feeling five. And I saw his empathy. It made us both, I think, feel heard. Attended. Not a brick wall – or iPhone app – in sight.
Next week: Acceptance.