Kindness Matters

I’ve read the article from The Atlantic three times. Titled “Masters of Love,” it explores the dynamic that research suggests may be key to marital happiness — kindness. Apparently, partners who show an interest in one another, give their partners the benefit of the doubt, and share each other’s joys have a 97% chance of having a marriage that lasts and of being happy in that marriage.

One thought strikes me every time I read this: ALL relationships benefit from kindness. Without kindness, there’s not much hope.

I know I go back to this article over and over again because I keep looking for the answer to my question: How do you turn a significant relationship around when kindness went out the door years ago? I’ve been worn out by one such relationship. I don’t want to end the relationship, but I’ve been treated such contempt and such disrespect on such a consistent basis for so long, I just feel like walking away.

On a good day, there’s cool courtesy mixed with snide barbs. On a bad day, there’s outright hostility. Often, situations escalate beyond comprehension out of nothing.

A couple weeks ago, just to make conversation, I notified her that my supervisor — someone she knows — had resigned. I was sorry to see him leave, but also understood the reasons for his choice. She didn’t; I defended him — and BAM! The whole thing spiraled out of control. When I saw a very familiar pattern unfolding, I tried naming the no-win dynamic and asking her to stop. I tried changing the topic. I tried explaining that I had just received news that a friend in hospice wasn’t doing well, and asked her to show some compassion. The situation just kept escalating.

Eventually, I received this text: “You are a self-centered individual. I can’t believe I have even attempted a relationship with you. You can stop communicating with me. Ever.” It’s a disturbing message, but I find myself wondering if that might not be best for both of us.

Obviously, there’s a tremendous disconnect between the way she sees me and the way I see myself. I don’t see myself as self-centered or narcissistic (another of her favorite descriptors lately). I suspect that what she’s really saying is this: “I don’t get from you what I need from you.” I will openly admit that at my age, I have physical limitations that prevent me from being as active as I was at 30 or 40. However, I don’t believe that knowing one’s limitations makes one either self-centered or narcissistic. I think it’s healthy and appropriate.

I will also admit that I have probably withdrawn emotionally in recent years. I doubt if I’ve had a dozen conversations with her in the last three years that didn’t involve criticism expressed with greater or lesser degrees of contempt. I have to give myself a pep talk every time I’m going to see her. Breathe deeply. Don’t get defensive. Show an interest in her, but be careful with the way you express your interest. Look down and not at her if you have any concerns, because if she reads anything in your face, she’ll jump all over you. Breathe deeply. Breathe deeply. Breathe deeply. That’s not good. It’s hard to be loving and supportive when so much energy is tied up in protective mechanisms like that.

So, at present, we’re at an impasse. I can’t change the way she sees me, and I can’t change the way she speaks to me. I’m sure she would say that I should change, but when I reflect on the choices I have made, I believe they are healthy and appropriate. I’ve established appropriate boundaries. I don’t say in anger what I wouldn’t say over a cup of coffee at Starbucks. I keep showing up and making an effort, even though I have been deeply hurt by some of the things that have been said.

But, now I’ve been told to stop showing up. I could say yet again, “She was speaking in anger and didn’t mean it.” Or I could listen to what she says and honor her request. When I consider what led to this communication embargo, I suspect that might be best. I refused to apologize for her thoughts; she insisted I apologize not for what I said or for what I meant by what I said, but for what she decided I meant; she refused to consider the possibility that I meant something entirely different.

That’s not reasonable. That’s not fair. And, it’s certainly not kind. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the long run, but I do know that unless kindness becomes a key component of this relationship, it will not be a relationship that brings either of us joy or enables either of us to feel loved.

If that’s to be our future, maybe walking away is best.

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Giving Up Nick

I decided to give up Nick for Lent.

Who, pray tell, is Nick? Nick is a man I met a few weeks ago when dining with family.

I haven’t enjoyed a meal so much since  I went out with Jeff for the first time, before I learned he was gay. The dinner Jeff and i shared was leisurely, with good food and even better conversation. At the time, I was a single parent, struggling financially with a low-paying job and attempting to realize my dream of becoming a practicing artist. Still, that dinner filled me with an unexpected longing — not the kind of longing which can be satisfied by an intimate romp, but rather a longing to know and be known. I wanted to see him again and again until we knew one another as well as we knew ourselves.

My understanding of relationship has always been somewhat skewed, in part because my mother provided incredibly poor guidance in this area. When I was 12, I was sexually molested as I walked home from a school event one night. I’d taken the path between the grain bins dozens of times, and wasn’t afraid of the shadowed darkness. I wasn’t afraid of the young man who stepped out of the darkness, either. I lived in a small town. I knew the name of every student in my school, including his. However, I was upset when he began to kiss and touch me; I twisted and tried to pull away, but didn’t succeed. 

I did not like the young man; I did not want him to touch me. Increasing my anxiety was my faith; I had learned in religious education that we were not to allow ourselves to be touched, and so I knew what was happening was sinful. When I got home, I went immediately to tell Mom. She was sitting at her sewing  machine. She lifted a cigarette from the ashtray as she turned to me, and took a deep drag as words burst from my mouth, as my experience of being violated spilled from my lips. She  was smiling by the time she exhaled. “That’s how boys show they like you,” she said, and brushed aside my  concerns about sin. I hadn’t done anything wrong and didn’t need to worry about confessing it.

I learned nothing about the beauty of human sexuality from that experience or her lesson. It took me years, and work with a therapist, to truly understand that healthy relationships don’t begin with sex, that no man has the right to touch me unless I want him to touch me, and that my religious scruples are not to be discounted. For years, in a misguided attempt to find a man with whom I could build a life, I allowed boys and then men to touch me, and in doing so, came to loathe myself. I discovered firsthand the wide chasm between genuine relationship and all of the self-gratifying ways men and women come together.

I didn’t know how to bridge the chasm between what I’d lived and what I wanted, so I chose to be celibate. By the time Jeff came along five or six years later, I’d stopped looking for love. I was focused on raising my girls to be healthy, well-adjusted young women, and I had discovered a passion for art which was consuming me. Then suddenly, quite unexpectedly, with that dinner, the desire for relationship was resurrected. I began to fantasize about ways to merge our lives, and began to make decisions which would lay a foundation for this. By the time I learned my dream could never become a reality, our friendship had taught me a great deal about relationship, about trust and faithfulness, about comfort and kindness, about love.

But it also made me vulnerable. Having so much only made me want more; I wanted it all — the kind of friendship I enjoyed with Jeff, physical intimacy and commitment. I began to date again in a misguided attempt to have it all. It didn’t work. I was battered and bruised — emotionally, not physically — when I again chose celibacy. That was 15 years ago — 15 years during which my precious daughters grew into women; 15 years during which my passion for art waxed and waned, only to wax again like the moon in the night sky; 15 years during which I’ve moved six times in an effort to find a place where I can put down roots, a place I can call home.  

St. Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they can find rest in you.” I’ve come to see the restlessness as my calling and my life as a pilgrimage, as a journey of faith which teaches me so I can be a sensitive companion to others in need. I reflect on my life in prayer and in journals, and then when I sense another could benefit from what I’ve learned, I share relevant experiences. My love for Jeff still lies so close to my heart that I rarely share those stories; they are too precious.

Why now and what does any of this have to do with Nick? Dinner with him evoked the same longing I experienced more than 20 years ago when I dined with Jeff, the longing to know and be known, the longing to see him again. I laughed at myself at the time. “I’m too old for this,” I thought. But I discovered longing acts a bit like a red sock in a washer load of whites. Agitator action pulls it down, out of sight, and then it resurfaces unexpectedly only to be pulled down again.

Although my friendship with Jeff is a gift and grace in my life, I have decided to act this time on the “He’s Just Not That Into You” principle — “if a guy wants to be with a girl, he will make it happen.” When the red sock surfaces, I say, “Oh! There’s the red sock again,” and I turn my mind to other things. It’s an odd Lenten fast, I know, but since it is leading me to act differently than I have acted in the past, it feels like the right one.

Only God knows why.