There are lots of important things I was never told about relationships. Not told by popular depictions of course, which are really a strange way to learn about what relationships are like (although a lot of us do learn primarily this way).
But also not told by my parents. Or anyone else, really.
People didn’t really talk about relationships much when and where I was growing up. For me this was the 1980s in the Maine woods. My parents in particular were both introverts. Sensitive. My dad didn’t say much at all. When he was home, he was typically tired. He worked long hours and traveled a lot for his job, so home was more of a place he recharged than really socially interacted.
My mother talked all the time but never about anything of substance. It was always about neighborhood gossip or what was on TV. Even as a small child, I had a habit of asking big existential questions that made her uncomfortable. She’d respond to this by yelling my name and giving me the look. That look. You know the one I’m talking about. The one that tells you if you don’t shut up right now, your life is going to take a turn for the worse.
She has always loved the surface. Wants to stay there.
It’s probably a better way to be. But I’ve always found myself falling into the depths easily.
Anyway, relationships were largely a mystery to me. Every now and then, I could see glimpses into real life adult relationship moments that I thought were terribly romantic. Friends’ parents usually — and at moments when they didn’t know they were seen:
A couple of absent-minded zoology professors who spoke to each other in a different tone of voice than they used with their children and their kids’ friends (which included me). Whispering softly as they lie beneath the covers in the morning.
A nurse diagnosed with her second cancer, this one terminal. She was frail and bald but beautiful still. Her husband took showers with her while they sobbed, thinking the falling water would block out the noise of their tears, not understanding that their son and his girlfriend (i.e., me) could hear them as they walked past the door but would say nothing later.
What I picked up most intensely was that when you were in a deep partnership, the other person would see a completely different side of you than others did.
It was funny then when I entered my first marriage and my husband decided that seeing a different side of me meant that there was something inherently bad about me. Something false, immoral. He thought the fact that I was a different person when I was alone with him meant I was duplicitous. That I was fake.
It never occurred to him that vulnerability could bring out a different side to you. Well, I don’t know if it occurred to him. If it had, he would have rejected that premise.
I remember how it peaked before we eventually parted ways (after a decade of complete co-mingling of our lives). When he said: “The only reason people like you is because they don’t know you like I do. I’m the only one who knows the real you. And if the others did, people wouldn’t like you.”
For many years, that idea stayed with me. It was in a kind of limbo — where I didn’t exactly want to accept it (since it was a deeply depressing idea). But then again, I didn’t want to reject an idea simply because it was uncomfortable. What if it were true? What if I were actually that in deep denial about myself? And what if he were in fact doing a great favor to me by being the only one who cared enough to tell me the truth that others wouldn’t? (Something else he insisted as he told me this; that he only said this out of great love and wanting to tell me difficult truths.)
So even after our relationship fell into ruins, after we both went our separate ways, the idea sat in the periphery of my emotional life. Like a guest who is overstaying but I can’t bear to kick out, fearing regrets.
And then over time, I found a middle path re: this self-belief that he’d introduced to me: A place between accepting and rejecting this idea outright — I would instead test the idea by being more open with people. By hiding less and less of who I actually was. I’d start showing people more of what I’d reserved for only those closest to me.
There would always be some things I held back of course. And very few people would get into the very deepest levels. But I’d gradually open up more and see what happened.
And what happened was this: People didn’t shun me or think I was a monster. Opening up more to other people had quite the opposite effect. I built more friendships and the ones I had were deeper. The more people knew about me, the more they actually liked me.
My inner self wasn’t some horrific reveal. A deep dark secret that I must guard at all costs. I found that in general people liked me more the more they got to know me. It was completely the opposite of how my ex said it would work. This tells me one of two things: Either he wasn’t being honest about me and said that in order to make me feel and act a certain way (y’know, dishonest manipulation). Or it was said in earnest and was true but only for him — and if so, all that meant was that we were a very bad fit.
In any event, it was clear what I had to do once I’d explored this idea and found different results than I’d feared. “Okay,” I said to this troubling self-belief he’d directed to my door, “You can leave now.”
This post is part of a recurring feature called Confessions of a Recovering People Pleaser. To see the full series, please click this link.
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