Treading in the Deep
Originally written November 2012
The separation was almost a year ago, long enough to feel acceptance of where things have come, but not long enough to avoid periodic surges of emotion triggered by the littlest thing. On the weekends I have with my ten year-old twins, Owen sleeps in the queen-sized bed next to me, and Liam in an air mattress on the floor adjacent. I so seldom see them, at least compared to before, and this way I can fill myself with the breath of my angels when I’m asleep.
On a recent Monday after a weekend spent with me, I set about to fold the blanket and sheets from Liam’s bed. I grabbed his pillow and began to toss it on the bed, but caught a whiff of him and stopped short. Instantly I was overtaken by the sound of the uncontrollable giggling that radiates from his body every morning as he wakes and infects me when he leaves.
A river of tears burst from my eyes. I slumped to the bed, and buried my face in his pillow. I squeezed it tightly and sobbed there, staying with the sadness, until it dispersed. When the tears came to a trickle, I collected myself and casually placed the pillow on top of the folded blankets and sheets. I stowed them away for next time, and returned to what I had grown to dread: the diminished life that had become mine.
This is how it’s been. Peaks and valleys have become the defining feature of my emotional landscape. In the past, I would have fled such terrain by going for long runs, engrossing myself in home-improvement projects, or volunteering for challenging assignments at work. I took pride in being able to smooth over emotional turmoil so easily, as if it didn’t even exist; as if nothing really bothered me.
I was a chronic fixer, given to band-aid solutions for lingering problems. It was my tack for many years. The distractions I’d plunge into as an escape were the security blanket I’d crawl into so I could avoid dealing with conflicting emotions. My spouse and others close to me were left out in the cold to fend for themselves.
Hard emotions can’t be fixed; they are what they are, and must be respected for the force they can exert on the stability of your mind if you’re not careful. Denial allows unresolved feelings to sink to the bottom of your consciousness, where they cluster together and weigh you down until stirred by the ebbing and flowing of a turbulent life.
It was the sheer size and scale of my loss that year – my wife, my kids, my family, my identity – which proved too great for the old habit. Even if I could wrestle my emotions to the ground, I wouldn’t be able to keep them pinned down long enough to make my getaway. I had to turn and face my enemies, and the process introduced me to emotional sensitivities I had been out of touch with for years.
On this particular Monday, my emotions were raw because an evolving relationship with a woman I’d recently met, had just come to a cliff diving conclusion. I had grown attached to her as a friend, but the unusual twists and turns in her behaviour toward me as we began to evolve into something else left my head spinning.
As I clutched my son’s pillow the disparate emotional depths of my former self and the fraudulent tryst I had just extracted myself from struck me across the face like a sledgehammer. I was wracked by what little there was to show for a relationship that consumed so much time and emotional effort.
I was never able to gauge the shallowness of feeling that existed in her, or maybe I mistook things in her actions as signs of something more. It is disorienting for a man who spent so many years cradled in the warm blanket of a stable, loving relationship.
The genuine feelings of connectedness and warmth I had for this woman at the outset propelled me to make an attachment to a relationship that was really just an outline of something more solid. Stepping back, I have to admit to a co-dependency I didn’t realize I possessed, but which is hard to shake when you’ve been in a relationship for such a long time.
I didn’t see it as a bad thing, necessarily, but I see how a person who has lived only for themselves so long might view it as a personality flaw. In my case, I could see how she might come to the idea that I wanted to take something from her she was unwilling to give up.
There were certain features this woman possessed that led me to greatly over-estimate the degree we were emotionally compatible for a relationship. I was wooed by the her extreme intelligence, her spirituality, and ability to disclose personal experience that had left scars.
I wasn’t really testing my hypothesis of her compatibility or really looking at her situation objectively, from her perspective. I didn’t really pay attention to some of the things she said and did – or didn’t do – that might contradict my image of her and I as ideal partners.
I horribly misjudged.
Relationships don’t have to involve two people abandoning their past lives or their identity for a new, singular one they share. It’s a sharing of lives, an experiencing of things together as two unique individuals. It is an emotional attachment that isn’t so much different than other ones in our lives with close friends and family, but because of the heightened level of intimacy, it can have a deeper effect on your sense of well-being and security, for better or worse.
The truth is, you can become reliant on your relationship as a security blanket when life takes its toll. In a healthy relationship with a loving, supporting person, to a small degree that is fine. In an unhealthy relationship, it can be disastrous. Whether in a relationship or not, however, the true source of happiness can’t be had by looking to others. That has to be cultivated within ourselves and constantly tended without interruption, whether in a relationship or not.
Those on the hunt for relationships need to look for aspects of a person that demonstrate emotional intelligence, or at least that an active pursuit of growth toward that path is underway. Most of us haven’t arrived yet, but the effort is the key; it suggests self-awareness to the blind-spots that may have caused problems in the past. Two people can work together on that. But without the constant effort the path to personal happiness may be hindered by an entanglement mired in emotional dysfunction.
For a person more accustomed to being alone than romantically involved, the fear that a relationship entails a surrender of their identity, the mantle of our ego, is difficult to overcome. The hallmarks of happiness in our culture are varied but share a common theme: it is something that can be acquired outside our selves. The common idea for most is that happiness comes from a prestigious career, having lots of money, a family, a nice house, a fancy car, and a relationship. The risk of losing oneself is greatest when we look too intently into our relationships to fill a perceived gap in our happiness.
What’s missing in all this is an intrinsic idea of happiness; there’s no inner well to turn for refuge when outside sources of sustenance run dry. This makes it difficult to mollify the fear of being consumed by another. Many people deal with this fear by actively resisting intimate attachments. Such a tack makes sense until you’ve managed to find an internal oasis to cultivate happiness, or when you dispense with the belief that it can be sourced in a partner or anywhere outside yourself. That freedom allows a person to enter into relationships without the weight of such lofty expectations, which can mar things from the outset.
Those who are intrinsically happy when dating will do so with eyes wide open. Others are drawn to happiness, and happy eyes will more easily suss out those who are drawn into your constellation for the right reasons. Happy people are not so reluctant to give a version of their real selves to the world, and are okay with the risks inherent in doing so. They are okay with their flaws and confident in their self-worth. Their perception of things isn’t distorted by the weight of negativity and cynicism, an outlook which can sabotage a relationship.
The mind has to get out of the way to start the process of self-reflection needed for an honest appraisal of our emotional blind-spots. This increases the odds our relationship will be healthy through any upheavals. We also need to harbour realistic ideas of what to expect from a relationship. If you harbour delusions about these things, when a relationship gets off the ground it will fly on tattered wings.
This is where our adult egos get in the way. Our identities are comprised of alternative narratives of past reality; those which have a tendency to project our fears and anxieties onto others. This minimizes the impact of our own behaviour in our past misfortunes. The moment a hurt arises, the inclination is to blame others instead of engaging in a process of appraising your feelings from an honest standpoint.
Our egos keep us in denial of the childish notions we harbour about the level of bliss to be expected of a good relationship. Anyone who has been in a long-term relationship knows there are country miles of bumps along the way that don’t necessarily send the car off the road. It all depends on how you navigate that road: together or separately. But it will never work if you go in expecting that the mark of a good relationship is the absence of difficulties and complications. If you do, your tendency will be to immediately blame the other person for the problems that arise.
In reality, sometimes it is the circumstances that can strain a relationship. A job loss, a death, a health crisis; these are normal stressors that put our coping skills to the test and can wind the tension in a relationship to its outer edge. Other times, we ourselves are the problem, especially when a relationship hits a crossroads or a milestone that entails a deeper emotional commitment. At these moments, the direction of things is more dependent on your concerted, intentional actions than by the inertia provided by force of novelty and mutual attraction.
It is typical for most adults to attribute relationship foibles to others’ flaws. Nobody wants to admit they’re a jerk; or too co-dependent; or prone to verbal abuse or detachment when threatening emotions run amok. These aren’t features of ourselves that easily sustain a positive self-image, so we often look away from these self-reflections when they are right before our eyes.
It’s where boatloads of compassion needs to be directed at oneself: most of us learn from the models of our upbringing. Some of us weren’t so lucky in that regard. We do the best we can with what we were given. It means most of us have thrown a lot of fuel on the flames of our past relationship burn-outs. Being honest about one’s own role in bringing that about will lessen the degree your emotional blind-spots will stoke the flames of hurt that linger and undermine your subsequent relationships.
Sadly, most of us end up presenting the worst version of our emotional selves to the world and to our prospective partners. We are attached to the self-preserving denials at the heart of our identity. Compassion and understanding are difficult to muster when feelings of hurt begin to emerge. We too often arrive at the doorstep of a new relationship with a list of demands we emotionally extort from our prospective partners without yielding any concessions of our own.
When I was a detached outsider, I’d hear friends and colleagues lamenting the dating scene and I learned the heart of the adult single is a tough shell to break through for all these reasons. It is understandable. Nobody really wants to come out of a relationship feeling they’ve borne the sharp end of the blade. So most come out wielding their knives, poised to strike. It is all very sad, and dismally futile.
She cooled so quickly once the attachment between us started to strengthen. It seemed too easy for her to detach at will, which made me feel disposable. I began to question the inherent goodness I thought I had sensed in her.
The week before the fateful break, I could sense she was pushing me away. She started to slap labels on me, calling me a “womanizer” – a guy who had been in a relationship for almost nineteen years! There were profound doubts about my intentions for taking things deeper, I suppose. She was picking fights, and I sensed resentment and hostility in her voice where none had existed before.
Hostility was all-too-familiar terrain for me; the end of my marriage was not all that long ago. These were a manifestation of an emotional making of amends for hurts of the past. In a marriage, for the ones you’d caused; in a fledgling relationship for those of the past that have left scars. In either case, the inability to resolve those feelings spells doom for the future.
Something is seriously wrong, I thought. Maybe we should scale back, so she doesn’t feel so threatened. She’s been single a long time, and things did start moving fast. At the same time, she’s closed off and not really disclosing her feelings. She’s just behaving in a way without context. It seems like acting out to me, because she seemed so comfortable discussing feelings when we were just friends.
Since I don’t know her emotional habits I don’t know what to think. If she wants me to understand and overlook twists in her behaviour she needs to give me more information to fill in the gaps. I do not like what I am seeing. She’s not telling me why I am seeing what I am seeing. The room for error is widening as the lines of communication begin to narrow.
It’s not even a year since I separated, I am feeling wary of emotional upheaval so early in a relationship. I am changing my view of her. She seems to prefer avoidance and conflict to deal with dicey emotions. I have an aversion to female anger that runs deep and puts me ill at ease.
I text her in the morning to say we should meet that night. I want to tell her how the about-face makes me feel, and discuss where we should go. I am willing to be friends, if that’s what she really wants.
She calls spoiling for a fight. My exasperation grows. Enough already. She’s pissed off and I am the one making her this way. This, I have learned, is my deal-breaker: I will not be a lightning-rod.
I am sorry if some other guy in your life hurt you. I am not him, so don’t take it out on me. At least not in this way. Maybe you aren’t ready. I am suddenly enlightened about what it means to be “emotionally unavailable” – a term singularly ascribed to men in all those ‘chick-flicks.’
“I don’t think we should see each other,” I say. She doesn’t try to talk me out of it, as if it’s what she wanted all along.
I am still raw; my identity is in total disarray from my separation. On reflection, I was deeply turned off by the way she chose to react with her emotions. Perhaps I sub-consciously was pushing her there to see how she’d deal.
We were compatible in many ways, except emotionally, which is a big obstacle. Something in her mind had shut the engines down. I understood her reasons: she was not from here, and had plans to do what it took to get closer to her roots, which was far away. Nobody can take issue with those intentions, even if it hurts a little to accept it.
The whole situation still has me a little confused. I give her a couple weeks and clumsily try to patch things up so we can be friends. She is cool and I need more friends. I guess I hurt her feelings. I thought this is what she wanted, even if I was a little harsh in how I approached it.
The idea of that makes me feel really guilty, so I reach out again. And again. She’s having none of it. I’m trying to do the right thing. Man, this shit is hard.
Such is the realm of the dating world. It’s another universe altogether in the eyes of a once-married man. It strikes me as devoid of honesty, wracked with emotional brinkmanship, and lacking integrity.
It’s everyone for themselves. If I am honest, I’ve just crossed the threshold of atavism in the way I unceremoniously dumped her. I didn’t think I was capable of that. I am a Buddhist. I’m supposed to be compassionate. Does that mean tolerating angry outbursts and being happy about it? The rules are kind of hazy for me.
I wonder what kind of person I will become with more experiences like this. I am anxious to a degree about the possibility that I too will become cold and detached in the interest of self-preservation. I will lean on my spiritual practice to prevent becoming jaded and cynical. That energy will just attract similar energies and repel the converse. That’s my hope, at least.
The sharpness of the decline in things with this woman contrasts remarkably with the demise of my marriage. There was distant, early warning for the impending doom, which took years to materialize. There were scientific, easily explicable reasons it occurred, we just couldn’t figure out how to alter the course of events once things had gained momentum.
When the tsunami eventually did come I was on high ground, so I lived through the onslaught. I just didn’t have a manual to deal with the disaster left behind, and am still cleaning up all this time later. But I am still here under the rubble, I didn’t get pulled away into the ocean. I am not flotsam.
The lid had been blown off all the insecurities I had locked away since the last time I was in a relationship in its infancy: nineteen years ago, with my ex-wife. I was twenty-two then. That’s a long time ago. Whatever I had learned in being in loving relationships with my wife and children were of no use to me in this new realm.
I feel like fresh chum tossed in a school of sharks.
The experience shakes my faith in the wisdom of opening my heart in the tenuous ground beneath the early stages of a new relationship. When two people are getting to know one another and things are going well the mutual twinge in the hearts unleashes a process of evaluating things with eyeballs that are a far more hairy than before.
On looking back, I always sensed her door had been shut a little tight, but figured people used to being single take longer to trust. It wouldn’t last, I figured. It’s a leap of faith you have to make at some point in a relationship; that the other will let go of their apprehension as willingly as you.
Instead of letting go she started to cling more tightly to an idea of the future envisioned as a single woman. Everything I thought was going on, wasn’t going on. We read everything differently because we saw the present and future with completely different eyes. That’s fine, and that’s fair. It’s just mutually incompatible.
When I thought of my giggling son, it made me angry and anxious that the friendship I had with this woman – that could have turned into something else – would serve as a surrogate for a relationship countless times over again until I found the right fit. I dread how long that might take, how many scenarios like this one will come and go.
If I look hard at myself in the mirror, the way I seemed to attach may have won me the label of ‘needy.’ That’s the epithet I recall hearing often as a married man socializing with singles. I didn’t have the heart then to say how the cruelty in the judgement was the easiest explanation for their relationship status.
It isn’t neediness, it is a discomfort with being in shallow relationships. It betrays an unwillingness to waste time in wading pools filled with curiosity and intrigue, only to find when you enter deeper waters, the apparation of a long-term partner turns out to be a person who really can’t swim. Or maybe they learn they just don’t want to.
My friends have been friends for twenty years. My last intimate relationship was nearly nineteen years. I am a father of little children who really need my love, care, and attention for their well-being. There is a habit, a naturalness, and a necessity to the depth I instil in my personal relationships that isn’t easily undone.
So I will just have to stay out here treading in the deep, being vulnerable, being real, and accepting the consequences. I won’t dig my heels in and watch so many possibilities drift away for fear of leaving my familiar shores, like so many others. One needs to court fear and let the tears come; they signal an open heart, a necessity if the aim is to experience love, either in a companion or in life itself.