Sunday, March 23, 2008

Things I Learned from my Exes: Don't Be So Defensive

You shouldn't judge a relationship's success based on whether or not it lasts forever. If that were the only criteria we'd each only have even the possibility of one "success" next to lists and lists of failures -- a depressing prospect. In reality, each relationship should be assessed based on how well it went during its lifetime -- if you pay attention you can get insights from every single one of those "failed" relationships.

I dated Tommy for several months when I was 18. The entire relationship is summed up in one moment in the dining hall at college. I was talking to him while filling up a glass from a soda dispenser. As I talked, he got distracted for a moment and then began to laugh. I looked down to see my glass was filled and the soda was now overflowing everywhere all over my hand.

I hadn't even noticed.

That was how much I liked him. Enough to not even notice soda flowing everywhere.

He didn't like me as much as that. He had a little more experience than I, and was capable of behaving like a normal human being around me. As opposed to, say, my not even being able to eat in front of him. (Lest he think what? That I was a person who ate? Thank goodness I've moved beyond this stage of my romantic development.)

For a variety of reasons -- I'm sure partially due to the fact that I never once relaxed around him -- we started to drift. One of those bad kinds of drifting where you don't discuss that anything's wrong and he's perfectly nice when you see him at parties and he still calls occasionally, but not really all that often. . . and well, you know it's almost over but you keep hoping it's not. ("He looked over and smiled while he was talking to that other girl. See, he does still like me.")

I became reduced to a waiting person. I waited for him to call. Waited for him to visit. Waited for him to come over and talk to me at a party. If he was going to pull away, I figured I better not ever make a first move and show him I was still interested. Of course, that meant I was spending a lot of time waiting. And spending a great deal of time figuring out just where to wait -- at home so he could call, by his dorm entrance where I'd bump into him, by the keg where he'd surely see me.

I was, however, somewhat consoled he didn't know I was doing all this waiting. He didn't know how much I still liked him -- at least I had my self-respect.

Finally, I realized it was time to break up with him. At least if it was over, I would know where I stood. And since I would be the one to do the ending I would retain some dignity. I just had one huge fear -- that after I told him he was being demoted to friend, he would simply say "ok." If he didn't at least ask why, that would prove this little breakup scene was superfluous and he'd broken up with me in his head long ago.

He stopped by that night. One thing led to another and, well, by the time I remembered about the breaking up part, we were in bed. But I pulled myself together and said, "I was planning on breaking up with you today." Pause. I held my breath. A beat later he asked, "Why?" I exhaled. Thank goodness. I explained the relationship wasn't what it had been and he responded with a pretty good argument that we should keep trying.

Somehow, however -- and I've never been quite sure how this happened -- he convinced himself we shouldn't. Somewhere in the middle of his speech, he changed his mind. He started with "we should stay together" and ended with "I think we should just be friends." I could not believe what had just happened. He'd reeled me back in completely and then broke up with me instead.

Determined to maintain what little pride I had left, I said "ok" and turned away.

It wasn't until he, somewhat wounded, asked, "Aren't you going to ask why?" that I realized what I'd just done.

I would like to tell you we stayed together or even that we ended up as friends. We didn't. (In fact, the conversation ended with my saying, "Get out of my bed!" which was something I'd always wanted to say and was so wonderful an experience that I almost felt completely better. Almost.)

But the lesson has stayed with me. Sometimes letting down your guard can seem like the end of the world. It never is. Looking back, I can't figure out why I ever thought asking him the simple question "why?" would have seemed like an admission of weakness. Asking that question was the thing I most needed him to do -- and he complied. Yet it never occurred to me to do the same when the situation was reversed. It's far too easy to let pride blow everything out of proportion until you clam up completely and appear, unbeknownst to you, as cold and unfeeling.

We all need to know when to hide our emotions; but we also need to know when to show them. Hey, if you never showed them you wouldn't get to do things like slam doors, throw plates, and kick people out of bed -- and where would the fun be in that?

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