Monday, February 18, 2013

Smoke and Mirrors (or "My Love Life As I See It")

A friend once told me that being in a relationship is like having someone hold a mirror up to your face. Suddenly there's someone showing you how you appear to others when you say this or do that. In this "mirror," you see yourself from new angles—some flattering, some not so flattering. My friend—who travels frequently for business and purposely stays unattached—confessed to me that he worries about going so long without having someone hold up a mirror to his face. Is he putting himself at a disadvantage by not having this kind of personal reflection in his life? 

I'd never heard it articulated this way, but I understood my friend's concern.

Since getting divorced in 2002, I have been mostly single and mostly by choice. I knew when I left my marriage that I had a lot of growing up to do, and it was going to require some time in solitary. Simply put: I needed to learn how to be alone. I went from one high school boyfriend to another to one college boyfriend to another to a post-college boyfriend who then became my husband when I was 27 years old.

Let's keep my ex-husband out of this and fast forward to February 2002. I was entering my 30s and single for the first time in nine years.

My thirties were a time of substantial self-discovery. I went into business for myself. I bought a home. I traveled solo to places like China and India. I realized I no longer wanted to have children. I discovered that community work made my heart sing. I learned how to appreciate, support and rely on my friendships like never before. There were short-lived romantic relationships here and there, but mainly I got accustomed to living my life for me. I discovered my two feet—just my two feet—were strong enough to support me.

If the first couple years of my forties are any indication, I suspect this process of self-discovery—this rethinking, repurposing, deconstructing and reconstructing—is not a phase to get through, but a permanent condition of being human. It seems with every hard-earned answer, I gain the wisdom to ask more questions.

I write about this part of my life with confidence. I feel tuned in and full of possibility, wise in simply being aware and owning my life. I've grown comfortable out here on the edge, "living the question," as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke put it. The woman I am today feels strong, grateful, blessed, able to lead, willing to learn, full of love, connected to the pulse of life and passionate about serving others. Of course, there are times when I feel stressed and overwhelmed. I get tired. I get really lonely. I've thrown my fair share of pity parties and have been the last to leave. But I've learned to be patient with myself in those darker times. To trust that this too shall pass. I know to take a deep breath and reflect. 

However, this is what I see when I hold up my own mirror.

I've had three brief relationships in the past couple years, and the mirrors my partners have held up for me have reflected many of the positive qualities I named above. But also in their mirrors I have seen a woman who can be critical, temperamental and rigid. A woman whose feelings and words sometimes do not match. A woman who has trouble making time for another and projects her frustration onto her partner. A woman whose quickly drawn defenses prevent her from listening. A woman who can withdraw and disconnect without explanation. A woman whose expectations blind her from accepting or embracing what is. A woman who has more walls, rules and standards than anyone could ever possibly hurdle.

On my weaker days, I fixate on these unbecoming angles reflected in their mirrors and I see them as the absolute truth. I magnify these images at a blackhead-exposing level. I feel ugly and fucked up. I wonder what the hell my problem is.

A sweet man recently told me he could tell I was trying hard to make things work, to be patient, to stay open, to give things time. But he also could see in my eyes every time I was irritated or just not connecting with what he was putting out there, and it hurt him to see that because, really, all he wanted was for me to be happy. In the mirrors he and I held up for each other, we could see so many wonderful qualities between us, similarities too. But the hard truth was that there was a persistent disconnect in our interactions, an underlying tension, that prevented us from experiencing real intimacy. We had to wonder, especially so early in a relationship, should it be such a struggle to just get along? Probably not. I felt something like bittersweet relief wash over me as we agreed to give this budding relationship a rest. It was all so civil. So mature. So bereft of passion, actually, that I had to wonder: What the fuck just happened here? I mean, we did have something, right?

Or was it all smoke and mirrors?

In the years since my divorce, this scenario has played out more times than I care to count. And in the aftermath, I find myself asking the same questions: Have I forgotten how to love? Have I forgotten how to be a partner? Is it true what I sometimes see in their mirrors? Am I too critical and rigid? Do I have impossibly high expectations? Is something wrong with me?

In 2008, after a particularly hard breakup, I saw a therapist for several months. In her mirror, I saw a woman who simply knows who she is and what she wants. Forget being too critical of others; this therapist's observation was that I was being too hard on the relationships themselves. Why was I ladling such big expectations onto every new relationship that came to pass? And why was I so quick to beat myself up when things didn't work out? The way she saw it, most relationships aren't cut out for the long haul. "The thing is, true love—the kind of connection that can last a lifetime—is rare. I don't think it comes around that often, and that's why it's so incredibly special when it does happen. Do you think it's possible that none of these relationships have lasted because none of them were meant to last? Stop for a moment and consider the possibility that everything is unfolding as it should." 

I've thought a lot about that. It's true: Every relationship—whether it lasted weeks or years—has played a role in making me who I am today. And, for the most part, I like who I am today. I suppose none of these relationships needed to last a lifetime, but I needed them nonetheless.

So, as I move forward in this life, I continue to reflect upon the images I've seen in the mirrors of my past partners and in the way I see myself in my own mirror. Deep down, I feel my truest reflection is a melding of images from all of these mirrors. I'm a little bit of everything I see. I am multifaceted. I am lightness and darkness. I am strong and weak. I can be beautiful, and I can be ugly. I have good angles—and angles that could use better lighting.

I think the important thing is that I remain curious, that I remain willing to look in these mirrors that others hold up for me, no matter how disconcerting or reaffirming. Because in each reflection lies an opportunity to dispel the smoke and mirrors and gain a more holistic view.

At least that's how I see it.