Dear Unexpectedly Single Men of a Mature Age: Notes about Dating….Again.

Caveat: Because my experience is with cis-gendered, hetro relationships, the assumptions and words I use reflect that. The hints may well apply across genders and orientations, but I don’t assume that’s true.

Dear Single Men of a Mature Age,

After years of having a partner, you’re footloose and fancy-free…possibly not by choice. Definitely with a couple decades of experience and baggage. And you have realized that there are only so many microwavable dinners you can stomach before you’d like company. Preferably not the same people you see at work or around the neighborhood.

Maybe a friend knows a nice single woman who you meet and click with, and you don’t have to eat meals alone as often. If that’s the case, this note is not for you. Instead of reading this, call her and say something thoughtful to her. You don’t know how lucky you are.

If you’re still reading, here are a few tips. If you haven’t been dating for a decade or two…or three..the world has changed. Unless you happen to get lucky by having a friend who knows a nice single woman, you probably need to change your approach and assumptions, too. Or do you have a fondness for microwave meals and watching the weather channel?

Not all of my tips may apply to you, but before you dismiss them, consider this: what you’ve been doing may not have worked as well as you wanted it to, or you would have stopped reading a couple paragraphs ago. You may have been thrown a hard curveball, and your current life is different than you expected it would be right now. Taking a few moments to think about new approaches might be called for.

  • First, know that you have baggage, expectations, and assumptions. Everyone does, and you’re not a starry-eyed teen just starting out, so you have more than you used to. Take the time to think about what those issues may be — if appropriate, with a therapist — and know that if you are successful at connecting with new people, you’ll find that you have even more baggage, expectations, and assumptions than you thought. That’s ok. That’s a sign you’ve had life experiences and you’re still growing.
  • Learn enough about technology to use a dating app and to text or message. (More about the dating app in a bit) Every mature woman I know texts a fair amount. They text to each other, to family, to arrange social/work/volunteer times. Get comfortable texting a hello and a quick thought — a whole conversation isn’t required, but texting and messaging are how people keep in touch. Even if you’d rather call or email, a quick text to say “good morning” is usually appreciated.
  • Use your words! Ask questions. Clarify, and be open to new ideas or ways of doing things. Find out if texting is appropriate or if they’re prefer you call. Let them know if you like it when they initiate contact, or if you’re from the school of thought that feels it’s too forward for a woman to hit the send button when you’re not expecting it. You’re allowed to have preferences and to express them, but having a discussion instead of issuing edicts (or worse, expecting her to “just know”) is how grown ups operate now.
  • Consider what you’re looking for. Do you mainly want a social companion, someone to go to the occasional event with, to watch movies or eat dinner with, no deep emotional ties or chemistry needed? There’s nothing wrong with that — and you might be surprised how many women would find that to be exactly the sort of relationship they would like. Are you hoping to find someone to marry — or at least intertwine lives somehow? It’s even fine to admit you’d like someone to cuddle (or more), but you don’t want a commitment. Even though situations can change, and you could be open to a combination of possibilities, think about what you are actually hoping to find. Be willing to have those conversations and have them sooner rather than later — especially if you have a strong preference. Don’t assume that every woman is looking for another husband. (I don’t know any over the age of 50 who are, in fact, but my sample size may be too small.)
  • Unless you have an extensive social network, using a dating app might be a good idea. It’s fine to put a picture or two of you a few years ago on your profile, but include one or two recent pictures, too. Have at least a couple pictures that are just you, not you and your kids or grandkids, or you and your ex (yes, I’ve seen that on profiles.) If you have hobbies, interests, or passions, share them. Put some thought into what you write on your profile so it attracts the sort of person you’re most likely to connect with.
  • If a profile hits your fancy, don’t message “hey beautiful.” Ask a question or comment on some info from their profile. Show that you read it and you’re not randomly messaging every female. And respond if someone messages you, even if the response you make is a polite “Thanks for noticing me, but I’m not interested.” Saying things like that on dating apps is acceptable.
  • And — -maybe most importantly — try not to ghost. Ghosting is just disappearing. You’ve been in touch, maybe even gone out a time or two, then….nothing. You realize you’re not interested, or that you aren’t ready to make new friends/have a relationship, or…whatever. Ghosting is not answering a text, not making a call, ignoring an email until it would be awkward to answer — those are all easy outs. If you realize that you’re not interested in continuing, say so. “I’ve had a good time, but I’ve realized that…” is a perfectly fine way to say you’re moving on. There are probably a hundred other ways to frame it. But be a grown up and say good bye, even if your only reason is the chemistry isn’t there. You don’t have to argue your position or earn the right to walk away — that’s your prerogative — but unless there’s a pressing reason to ghost, don’t. And if you feel as if a woman is ghosting you, ask. Be ready to accept whatever she says, but don’t sit there wondering.

I’m sure I’m missing crucial tips, especially for those of you who have been blindsided by a sudden divorce or death — I’m so sorry, but the world you’re waking up to isn’t the same as it was. Once you get your bearings, though, you may be surprised by the possibilities surrounding you.

Dear Craigslist: Could You Please Bring Back Your Personals?

Almost a year ago, Craigslist shut down its personals department. I understand why. The Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act has a noble goal. My request that CL reconsider is completely selfish — but a quick web search shows that online sex trafficking is still an issue a year later, so Craigslist closing down their personals section did not solve the problem. There has to be a way that CL can comply with the law while still allowing personal ads, doesn’t there?

Since my divorce nearly a decade ago, CL was my most successful means of making connections with other people. I’ve been on every dating app I have heard of, out of curiosity even when I saw that I was not its intended audience. I have accounts on a variety of social networks as well, everything I’ve run across from Facebook and Twitter to little-known special interest networks. Through it all, Craigslist has been my go-to for making every type of connection.

CL offered something that none of the other platforms do as well: deliberation. Posting an ad could be a couple sentences whipped together at a moment’s impulse or crafted in several drafts with attention to tone, audience, and purpose beyond what a college comp class could ever require. Either way, what a person posted was not a “fill in the blanks” sound bite approach. Pictures could be included, but it was again a choice, it was not an obvious absence if you posted an ad sans smiling face — or other body part.

An ad could be a sentence long or include specific details about what the author was looking for, backstory about the author’s life, and any other random thoughts. There was no specific format or formula. People writing ads could lie, and their motivations could be as murky as mud — but we veterans of the Dating App Life know that’s true for any online interaction. The cookie cutter approach of most dating sites, many even offering checklists to describe yourself and what you are looking for, squelches individuality. Wants, needs, dreams, and identity did not have to fit in an easy to define list on Craigslist.

Deliberation continued when people decided to answer an ad. There was no simple swiping, no snap judgement about someone’s smile or fashion sense. On dating apps, I often get a generic, “Hey beautiful,” the app equivalent of casting a line into the ocean. When I posted a CL ad (which I did maybe ten times in six or seven years), I rarely got a response as lame as “hey beautiful.” Some men took the time to write a paragraph or two response, some wrote only a couple of sentences, but it was clear that most of them read the ad, considered their answer, and had some reason for thinking I might be worth checking out.

Bumble is in the news now, championing their“women contact first policy, claiming that will give women more power to avoid unpleasant interactions. Maybe — but it is still people deciding who they are attracted to based on a few pictures and some cookie-cutter description. Furthermore, my experience with online dating suggests that the more unpleasant, even abusive, interactions take place after a few times of messaging. Finding a bunch of “Hello Beautifuls” in my inbox from men who clearly are just seeing if I answer is not nearly as frustrating or upsetting as messaging someone for several days, only to have them say they don’t really like fat chicks, but if I lose weight, let them know, or some similar, more personal attack. Even though OkCupid’s format allows more writing, and offers questions to determine your “match percentage,” which is some improvement over other apps as far as I’m concerned, even there, swiping and pictures are the determining factors. No app or site that I have found comes close to the depth and versatility that I experienced using Craigslist — and CL was free, unlike all the other apps, which incessantly offer their paid services. And CL’s search options beat any website I have seen, too.

I have fond memories of people I emailed, messaged, and met via Craigslist ads. I have a few close friends who started out as people who either posted ads or answered them. For small town older women, meeting people new friends — or if you’re lucky, lovers — can be difficult. Dating sites skew younger, and they offer many more connections if you are near a bigger city. For me, older and in the middle of nowhere, CL personal ads were a life-changer.

So please, Craigslist, I miss the odd little hyperlinks, the notices about safe sex, and the barren white screen with basic black type. I miss the thrill of a trickle of emails from possible new friends as we see if there is a possible connection. Please, pretty please, figure out a way to come back.

Why I Did–And Didn’t–Change: A Tale of Metamorphosis

In the past three years, through all the events and changes in my life, there’s one that I’m most stunned by, one that reminds me that it’s not over till the fat lady sings — or not. I’m more than 60 pounds lighter than I was about three years ago.

For over 1700 days, I logged everything I ate without fail, stopping when I hit a specific calorie goal. In that time, there were a handful of days, usually special events, when I took the easy way out, designating it an “no clue but a lot” day. Since late last fall, though, I’ve had trouble summoning that degree of habit — and I’ve put on a few pounds, just enough that I notice when I’m wearing my most close-fitting jeans.

That has led me to consider the circumstances when I first committed to changing my life. I was the heaviest I’d ever been, but my eating hadn’t changed; I was simply sitting a lot more due to a new job. A gain of about 10 pounds (and going up one pants size) led to the epiphany that it was time to do something–and I finally had the conversations with myself that made me focus my energy to changing, one step at a time.

Here’s an important part: no one made me do this. No one was my Jiminy Cricket or my personal food cop. Even more importantly: no one shamed me into this, and no emotional or logical arguments convinced me to limit my calories, log everything, or to make exercise a regular part of my week. (Important note: I did consult with my doctor, and we did a full examination and testing to determine that I did not have any physical conditions causing or exacerbating my weight. For me, lifestyle was the issue.)

Why did I succeed in losing? I decided it was time, and I accepted that every day was a new chance to make decisions. Not living up to my plan one day was not a failure; it was a combination of choices I made that day. The next day was a new opportunity to make different choices. And through trial and error — lots of error — I found what worked for me.

A few friends and family claim credit for uttering the words that finally tripped my trigger, but they are deluded if they believe they said anything that I hadn’t been hearing since I was twelve (or younger). They had not said anything that I hadn’t said to myself. The list of things that people have said to or about me in my hearing in the mistaken belief that it would motivate or shame me into change is long and appalling. I was young when I learned that the social guidelines for what constitutes polite behavior are different when you’re interacting with someone who is fat, especially if you “care” or “are concerned.”

In the years before I resolved to change, I had gotten letters and emails from friends who were concerned about my “health”–and they managed to include a few words about how much more likely I would be to find dates/relationship if I lost weight; people discussed in my hearing range whether a makeover would be worth the effort if I didn’t care enough to lose weight so I’d “be hotter” (I hadn’t asked about a makeover or anything similar–I was enjoying a holiday when others started freely offering their opinion). I had even hit the point where a random person in a grocery used me as an object lesson to a young girl about what happens if you don’t watch your weight, complete with pointing out that I didn’t have a wedding ring, so I must be one of those sad, lonely cat ladies (yes, I was buying cat food for my cat).

Variations on all of those happened more than once–and I’m not mentioning the micro-comments like students asking me if I’d always been heavy, students telling me about their single uncle who likes “thick” women, or comments made by men online. The popular “You’d be pretty if you lost weight” doesn’t scratch the surface of what heavy women regularly hear. I felt shame, but not motivation.

I also had more than one doctor not check me for actual injury when I went to them with issues with walking. Both my hip replacement and my torn meniscus could have been identified and treated much more quickly if I had been taken seriously instead of dismissed because “well, you can’t expect to feel like dancing at your age and weight,” as one of them said.

All of that was just part of life as I knew it prior to losing weight. The comments, the judgement, those simply showed that people didn’t know “the real me,” the part of me that has always mattered far more. My mind, my ideas–insult those and I’d react, but talk about my physical being — I could shrug that off much more easily than most people might imagine. Besides, even though I didn’t own a mirror (true story–except over the bathroom sink), I knew the truth: I was heavy.

And I still am. I can buy clothes in the junior section now, but in the bigger sizes. The last few months, I have become aware of how easily I could go back to the mindset and lifestyle from before my changes. Right now, I’ve perhaps become too comfortable in my skin. I haven’t been deciding to make better decisions one day, then again the next, then all over the next day. That takes a level of belief and focus that I need to rekindle soon.

I’ve thought about what finally triggered my commitment to losing weight, which involved a whole web of other changes. The conversations that hit me hardest about my weight and lifestyle didn’t deal with my weight at all. My weight was a symptom of a life out of balance. I was seriously burnt out at work. I was overextended physically and emotionally. I never learned the joys of physical exertion, so all my escapism and stress relief took place in my head, in sedentary ways. I could list factors contributing to my life being out of balance, but it’s a universal story; only the details differ. I can rationalize how my life and my weight got skewed, but that’s child’s play for a wordsmith. The truth is simple: instead of dealing with the imbalances, I ignored, compartmentalized, and rationalized.

The letters, the buddy plans to lose weight together, the helpful “chats,” the pointed looks, the “God has put a burden on me to talk to you about your weight” (another true story, again more than once)–how often do those succeed? From my experience and observations, never.

The reason I am sharing all this, as embarrassing and personal as it feels to me, is simple: if you don’t feel comfortable having a conversation with someone about how they are doing emotionally, spiritually, professionally, and personally, don’t feel entitled to start a conversation about their weight or health, either. Regardless who or what you are to a person, you are not automatically entitled to have those conversations. Your need to feel as if you’ve “done something” is self-serving–get over yourself. Furthermore, if the person you want to change is a child or teen, my advice still applies.

So far, I am the only one who has noticed my weight gain. I am also the only one who knows about the emotional, spiritual, and physical imbalances that are contributing to my current poor decision-making. Breaking through the ennui that has me in its oh-so-comfortable grip is my challenge, and through trial and error, finding a system that again invigorates me and holds me accountable — with a joyful look to the future — is something that I can do, but I am the only one who can. And for me, probably like many other people. it is not about the food. That is what I need to remember.

This is an updated revision of a piece I published two years ago on my personal blog; this reflects my mood, situation, and musings as of February 2019

My Husband Weighed 500 pounds: Explaining My Enabling

“That was good,” my husband said, finishing the last of the two pound meatloaf…before I had gotten the kids settled and begun eating my own supper. I foraged in the cupboard, finally opening a can of soup instead of getting to enjoy the food I’d prepared. At least this time the kids ate before it was all gone.

That wasn’t the scene every night, but in a month, five or six times my ex-husband would scarf down our family supper before I could get seated, sometimes even before the kids did. He’d come in the kitchen while I was finishing up and start eating directly from the pans. Telling him to wait, ordering him to a different room–those directions, later pleas and fits, rolled off his back as he ate stir fry or scalloped potatoes or whatever he could reach, often using a serving spoon. “I’m too hungry to wait” and “You should have made more,” he’d answer when I got frustrated that I was again eating a lunch meat sandwich or heading for fast food after having made a meal for my family.

Why I’ve Written This

I’m not writing this to defend myself. I’m not writing this for expiation of my sins or to be told how I could have changed my ex-husband. I couldn’t change him. After two decades married and more years entangled but divorced, I understand that. I have no interest in other people’s judgement–no matter how kindly phrased—or their insight about how I could have handled the issues. This snapshot of my life doesn’t attempt to include every nuance and factor, and I’ve started and stopped writing this or similar pieces many times over the last few years. Everytime, I’ve decided against penning it.

Then last month, in a discussion with a friend who is in recovery (again), I explained why I enabled my ex, opening up a whole world of issues and opportunities to this friend as he tries to rebuild a relationship with someone who refuses to enable him any longer.

In another discussion that same week, someone new to dealing with my ex’s dysfunction explained to me why she was frustrated and giving up, and she apologized for not believing the distress signal I’d been putting out for years.  Welcome to the monkey house–everything she told me she was fed up with has been true for 30 plus years, but no one in his family would believe me. Now they do. My reason for writing this now is simply this: my explanation of my thought processes may help someone else understand something that they currently refuse to see.

Background facts

My ex was a stocky but not heavy 19 year old when we met. He had a reputation at our college as being brilliant but unsociable and awkward, often harsh to people who he thought were untalented or unintelligent. “Once you get to know him, you’ll see that’s not what he’s really like,” a mutual friend assured me when I was dismayed to have to work with him on a summer job. “He’s really sweet and pretty shy. And so smart that sometimes he just doesn’t know how to talk to people.”

If this were a movie, this is the point where the ominous music would start. This is where the voice-over would hint that the noble heroine, me, was about to make some big mistakes.

All that was true. When we started dating, I believed he was a shy genius, one who needed love and support.  He might be odd, but a functional, happy, excellent-fit-for-me odd. The first year or so that we were together, it was easy to believe that. The depression that haunted his teen years abated, and stories his high school friends told me about his “bad times” seemed like history. A bit of love and understanding, and the bad days would be far behind him.

Even now, he is astonishingly articulate and  very well informed. The way he tells it, he is a victim of a tug of war between Gods. Whatever psychological stew he has brewing has left decades of destructive patterns, a trail of evictions, bankruptcies, and fractured relationships in his wake–none his fault, as he explains if cornered.

And I stayed through all this for nearly three decades. I believed I was helping, and eventually, I’d hit the magic combination of words and actions needed to heal him.

Priority: Normal

My ex  wasn’t overweight when we started dating.  Our wedding pictures show that he was a tad heavier after our two years of dating than he was when we met, but it was easy to shrug at a few extra pounds. He wasn’t fat, just stocky. I’d gained some, too.  The weight was only a symptom, albeit a very obvious one. The potpourri of personality disorders impacting his weight were not diagnosed until a decade into our marriage.

As the years passed, I thought our family life looked fairly typical from the outside.  On good days, maybe. Depending. There were entire months that I was grateful if he showered every few days.  And buying him new clothes in increasingly huge sizes was not that much of an issue since he didn’t leave the house often. Mentioning that he was on the edge of outgrowing the largest size the online Big & Tall outlet carried caused him to disappear to the bedroom for days at a time–which was true with most uncomfortable topics.

In my mind, I was doing what I could to support him through a rough time, one that I hoped and prayed would end soon. Therapists were trying to help him, and I was quick to notice every positive sign. If my ex went to one of the kid’s soccer games–good for him.  If he took his dirty dishes into the kitchen–that had to be a sign of progress. I was doing what I needed to so my children had a fairly typical childhood. That’s not how any of them describe their childhoods now, of course.

Down the Rabbit Hole

The list of ideas I accepted without question that let me live in that bubble of self-delusion include the predictable hits.  As a child and teen, I was active in a church youth group that championed the idea that God is Love. 1st Corinthians 13 is the Enabler’s Creed: Love is patient, Love is kind, and so on. Earnest discussions about true love not keeping score and giving 110% surrounded me. Doing anything less than everything I could was literally unthinkable.  It did not compute. I was capable and loving. Of course I’d work all day, take on summer jobs, and do 99% of the childcare and housework. He couldn’t; everyone could see that he was going through a rough time.

When we got married, I promised “in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer.”  While we were dating, I saw hints of his issues and I still took on the responsibility of caring for him. I could not have guessed that our marriage would skew almost entirely on the “sickness” and “poorer” sides of the equation, but marriage vows don’t come with a sliding scale. The depth of responsibility I felt was strong long after I lost any feeling of romantic love or connection. There was no one else who would be responsible for him, and I promised. In my growing up years, promises were broken as easily as uncooked spaghetti, leaving me with plenty of baggage about fulfilling promises. I don’t make promises often, not even jokingly.  Even a decade after our divorce, a small inner voice occasionally reminds me that I broke one of the biggest promises I have ever made, and knowing that other people, especially our children, have had to deal with their father’s issues because I refuse to any longer sometimes reinforces that whole thought cycle.

That leads to one of my biggest factors in enabling: guilt.  My guilt about many things was such a deeply buried assumption that I was honestly baffled when a therapist asked me why I blame myself for…well, pretty much everything difficult or bad that had happened to me or my family my whole life.  I’ve spent hours identifying the extent of that belief system that weaved its way into my head as a child and discussed it with a few people who were part of those scenarios–but even now, guilt is occasionally still my gut response to specific types of events.  

The difference is that now I can (usually) identify the feeling, determine if it based on actual facts, then act accordingly. Much of the time, that process  stops me from enabling. Recognizing and acknowledging my guilt gremlins is one tool that stops me from enabling–and as simple as it sounds, I didn’t understand that until almost a decade after the divorce. My ex had been able to play on my guilt to keep me emotionally entangled long after we had no legal bonds. (Note that the question enablers are sometimes urged to use to consider their behavior has a built in problem. Asking “Should this person reasonably be expected to do X” has the Catch 22 that the enabler has already decided that the person in question can’t be expected to do X. There are situations where it may be a good litmus test, but when the person is mentally and physically ill—reasonable expectations involve grading on a curve. )

And I believed, truly believed, that I was helping. However extreme it looked objectively, I thought it was for the greater good and the way people who loved supported others. Note that friends and family who saw our situation didn’t say, “Hey, he’s a manipulative SOB and I don’t know why you’re staying.” I heard, “You’re so strong. You’re an example of selfless love. You’re holding the family together.”

In a weird, unhealthy way, I got positive strokes for enabling, especially from friends at church and my ex’s family.  That’s not what they were saying to each other, I found out later. If anyone did attempt a serious conversation with me about my role in continuing and aiding my ex’s dysfunction, I totally missed it. I have no memory of anyone broaching the subject. Now I’m curious if anyone did, and if I was so ensconced in the dance that I couldn’t hear them. Honestly, I don’t believe anyone tried to have that discussion. What I remember clearly are the people who pointed out my selfless actions as the way true love should look.

If I’m the protagonist of this story, it has a fairly happy ending. My life is completely different now, and I’ve looked hard into the mirror to identify flaws and potential that I never saw before.  If I’m honest, though, the usually dormant voice of my enabler within whispers that I’m not the protagonist of my story–that is the insidious secret about enabling.

I Am Not “The Other Woman”

Long, long ago–during the 1970s–my church group enthusiastically sang a song called “Magic Penny.” The first verse went like this:

“Love is something if you give it away, give it away, give it away,

Love is something if you give it away, you end up having more.”

The chorus affirms that love is like a magic penny, and the more you give, the more you get. As a virginal teenager steeped in “God is Love” quasi-hippie Jesus-joy, that made perfect sense.

Now most of the people who sang that song with me are grandparents, and based on their Facebook pages and whispered comments when I chance upon them at the grocery, they are appalled at all the love in the world. Gay love, trans love, polyamorous love–there is an exclusionary clause in the song that I apparently missed while strumming a D chord to start the chorus.

I’m a closeted poly woman. For professional reasons as well as because my metamour insists, almost none of my friends or family know I’m poly. They know my partner, know that he’s one of my closest friends, but that’s it. Because he’s married, because I’m older, our friendship is (apparently) accepted at face value.

However…there are exceptions, and that’s what prompted my current musings. One of my few friends who knows I’m poly told me recently that if he were to get a serious girlfriend, she would get to decide if he and I remained friends. His reason? The hypothetical girlfriend “would have the right to know that (I’m) a cheater and decide if she would be comfortable with me around knowing that.”

The man who said that, Jay, introduced me to kink. We’ve been friends for the better part of a decade, and sexually played a few times. The chemistry isn’t there for us to be a romantic relationship, and we’ve acknowledged that. I’ve known that Jay is hoping to find the whole idealized romantic relationship in one person, and I support that. As a man in his 60s, my experience suggests there are plenty of women in his acceptable age range available, and I wish him well in his search. I’ve even offered to be his wingman.

Jay is well aware of what poly is; he’s enthusiastic about his kinkiness and enjoys discussing sex and society at length. When he told me that his hypothetical girlfriend could veto our friendship because I’m a cheater, we talked about it. He had previously said that he does not believe poly is a sustainable lifestyle and that the frequent discussions and negotiations his poly friends go through to maintain healthy relationships is more work than he is interested in. I’d known that he would not consider being poly. I didn’t know that he was judging me for it.

“But hey, I haven’t found her yet, so we’re still good,” he assured me. No. No, we’re really not still good.

Because I am closeted, I haven’t previously dealt with feeling personally judged for loving a married man. His wife and I are friends, I have met his other partners. I give his kids rides home from school sometimes. This is not a clandestine, furtive affair. We have almost a decade of history, and all the ups and downs, joys and confusions that characterize a close relationship. But I’m still “a cheater,” someone who a girlfriend should be warned about.

I told Jay as clearly as I could that I don’t accept the idea that poly equals cheating. It’s a lifestyle that relies on honesty and communication. Consent and discussion are primary, and navigating each relationship so that all other relationships are honored is essential. Cheating involves lying and denial, sins of omission and commission in most cases.

Perhaps I was too impressionable when I sang “Magic Penny” as a teen. Silly me–I believed that love is something that you should give away, and you’ll end up having more. I’m a lover, not a cheater. I love my partner and his family. I choose to believe that all of our lives are richer because we share them. We do “end up having more.”

Translating “I don’t want to hurt you”

A short list of phrases people don’t want to hear: “We need to talk;” “You have the right to remain silent,” “There’s nothing we can do,” “I hate to be the one to tell you;” and “I don’t want to hurt you.” In each case, the phrase itself is innocuous. The fear of what follows it is the killer.

Several times recently, I’ve been on the receiving end of “I don’t want to hurt you.” At least once I’ve said it, and I’ve thought it other times in the midst of conversations. Each time, the nuance was different. Each time, understanding what was behind the formulaic “I don’t want to hurt you,” could have–or did–make a difference in how the conversation resolved.

Most of us don’t want to cause our loved ones pain. The caveat “I don’t want to hurt you” signals that they have already considered what they are doing or about to say, and decided that we will be hurt. They may be right. They might not be. At any rate, they hope to soften the perceived blow by saying they don’t want to hurt us. Regardless what comes next, we are braced for something bad. Depending on our personalities, we get in a mentally in a defensive position, pulling back emotionally to distance ourselves from the potential hurt and the person causing it, or perhaps we brace ourselves to argue back, maybe hoping to change the hurtful information or action.

Does the person saying it believe that I’m not strong enough to deal with whatever ill wind is being heralded? Is that phrase a signal that I’m too sensitive,  “I don’t want to hurt you, but…” can imply that there is a doubt about my emotional or spiritual strength. It’s a power phrase: someone in a weaker or less powerful position wouldn’t use it. The person who uses it is the person with the power, which can come with the implication that there is a concern that the person hearing it is too weak to deal. That subtext is not always there, but the person saying it is always the one who has the power–at least at that moment if not always.

Perhaps the subtext is that I am the source of the issue that is about to be revealed, whether that’s expressly pointed out or not. The older I get, the more aware of my foibles, downfalls, and mistakes I’ve become. I’ve recognized unnoticed strengths, too, and earned my scars–but I now see how even in situations where I wasn’t causing the issue, my choices compounded it. I’m not as innocent or as victimized as I’d like to believe or about my ability to recognize and accept my fallibility. “I don’t want to hurt you” can preface a statement explicitly or implicitly pointing out my role in creating a problem–and that’s often what I hear, even when it’s not intended.

Or it could mean that the person saying it questions whether the relationship is strong enough to have uncomfortable, hard conversations. “I don’t want to hurt you” can precede information or actions that end a relationship, or that at least throw the previous definition of it up for discussion. Generally, people don’t begin a relationship by saying “I don’t want to hurt you,” but how many breakups include those words? Of course that could be the opening to a productive, open, honest conversation full of a range of emotions–that’s best case, and I would burn candles and wave sage around if I could ensure that was what happened every time I was in a conversation with those words. But using that phrase instead of simply introducing the topic carries with it the idea that maybe–perhaps–the relationship isn’t strong enough in some way to overcome what comes after that phrase. “I don’t want to hurt you” is a sideways check point about the commitment both people–or all the people–have to the relationship or situation involved. What comes after that phrase may be less important that the fact that there’s doubt or fear about how the information will be dealt with.

There’s an assumed “but” after the phrase. “I don’t want to hurt you, but..” However, I’ve used it as a statement of stubbornness. I won’t do something–whether it needs done or not, whether it hurts me or not–because I don’t want to hurt you. When it’s used that way, the person saying it has already decided a course of action or silence, has determined to be a martyr in the name of not hurting someone else. It sounds noble, and it can feel noble, but it’s disempowering to the other party and kills a partnership or relationship in record time.

Of course, all those situations only occur if the phrase is spoken. Perhaps the worst, the hardest to understand or recover from, is the unspoken “I don’t want to hurt you.” Best case, that leads to conversations that begin “I didn’t want to hurt you,” and those come with their own baggage because of the timing, but the previous reasons the information wasn’t disclosed in a more timely manner still apply.

The introductory crutch of “I don’t want to hurt you” is a formula we know, a trope we fall into. I’m sure I’ll use it again, and I’m sure I’ll hear it again. Beware, though: if a conversation ends with that phrase, the relationship may be on life support. Being hurt is part of being alive and being connected with others. Continuing the conversation, more than once if needed, to understand the beliefs behind “I don’t want to hurt you” or “I didn’t want to hurt you” might lead to more understanding, honest, and open communication. Of course, your mileage may vary.

Lessons I Should Have Learned Earlier: The Nice Girl

You probably know me. I’m a nice person. I’m the responsible one who does what needs done, who generally puts others’ needs first, who usually defers my emotional responses until a convenient time. I was raised believing love is patient, love is kind, love doesn’t keep score, and all you need is love.

That made me an easy target. I was drawn to the men who needed me — often angsty intellectuals who I thought were deep. I found it easy to pick up the lost socks of their daily lives because they obviously were focused on less superficial things. I could handle the bills, do the cleaning, and in fact, earn almost all the income — love didn’t keep score, and being patient and kind was a trademark of love. Of course a relationship took work. I accepted that I was the one doing all the work — emotional and physical — without question.

I defined myself by how I could serve. My upbringing and my church encouraged that: Servant Leadership was a buzzword that I heard in weekly church services, and the professional culture surrounding my day gig, education, reinforced it even more. “Whatever It Takes” was the mantra for my life. It took years for me to see that I was a helpfulness-junkie and even longer to begin to change it. I was the accommodating committee member who took on the extra responsibility, the friend who almost always said of course I have time for whatever you need.

When I finally left my two-decade marriage, I was shocked that all my friends and family were happy. Relieved. They were surprised that I finally realized I could walk away. They knew I was the nice girl.

The first lesson that I should have learned earlier was this: Nice girls — and nice boys, too — need to keep score, to yell “No” and “I’m done.” We need to know that any relationship we lose because we refuse to do the lion’s share of work, emotional or physical, is a relationship we’re better off losing. I’ve always been able to champion causes or people I cared about, but I rarely advocated for myself. I had a hard time telling anyone what I needed or wanted because I didn’t know. It was (and still is, usually) nearly unthinkable to inconvenience anyone else, even when I have missed sleep or emptied my pocket fulfilling their needs.

Lennon and McCartney were wrong. Love isn’t all you need, regardless how sincerely they sing it. It may be wrong to keep score of every action every day, but a regular check in to make sure that no one is freeloading in the relationship is essential, especially if one person is prone to enabling.

Today I was talking to an acquaintance, a woman slightly older than myself who had spent a great deal of time and energy arranging an event for a group I’m part of. There had been some complications with the event, and she tenaciously fought to make the event turn out well. It was wonderful, and as I thanked her, she said, “Well, I’m a nice girl, and I didn’t want to let anyone down. That was my fear, you know.”

I know. And in my friend’s situation, being tenaciously nice worked to my group’s advantage. If I had been in her place, I would have done exactly what she did. But that was for a weekend, not for a lifetime. Lesson one that I finally learned — and sometimes have to relearn — is that it is fine, even better than fine, to be not-nice. Now, if people sing “All you need is love” as they expect me to put their dirty socks in the hamper, I do my best to turn my inner channel from The Beatles to Nancy Sinatra. If my niceness is being taken advantage of, “These Boots are Made for Walking” is my new theme song.