My therapist dropped that nugget a few months back in the midst of a conversation we were having about a woman I had dated last year.
The quote is quite possibly the most profound psychological axiom I’ve come across, as it elegantly covers both sides of the proverbial dating aisle—let alone any fledgling relationship. As the words slipped out of her mouth, deep inside of me I knew I had to reconsider the dynamics that had left me feeling amiss.
My immediate reaction to the phrase was completely different. I verbalized to my therapist, “Yes!” as I felt she was validating my frustration with the woman I had dated—she didn’t seem to know herself as well as I wanted her to have, and showed up in ways that were disingenuous to our interactions.
But there’s plenty of room to posit that I may have analyzed her more than I actually listened to or asked questions of her, not providing her the room to feel heard in the brief moments we had together. If I were to have done more of that, it might have provided her with the room to reveal herself at her pace—the she that she had met and known well, which is all that I could ask for while dating.
You know, she even gave me feedback along those lines as we went our separate ways—that I got too heavy about my life (I’m betting I’m going to do it here as well, so buckle up!) and it took away space for her to share her own rich background. I respected such feedback as her truth, but at the time I just couldn’t understand how me opening up, even too much, limited her from doing the same.
For the purpose of this essay, I’m going to roll with the assumption that her feedback was spot on.
So in what ways might I have taken up too much space? Might I have not met myself in the ways I assume I have and could such internal fragmentation bleed into how I showed up for her? If I were more integrated, might I have naturally been more patient and in the moment, holding space for her to present herself?
I’m not second guessing my interactions with her as if this were Groundhog Day—trying to figure out what I could’ve said or done to have made it work. While we started off in a place that felt right and with mutual attraction, we were definitely operating on two different wavelengths.
Regardless, I still find it to be a useful thought experiment—analyzing what went down, and how I showed up, especially when I so overwhelmingly felt there was ‘blame’ to pass in her direction
As I ponder those few months, here at my desk on a Saturday afternoon on the cusp of another much longed for Seattle spring, it seems as though that I just wasn’t present, which is disappointing on a few levels—for one, I thought we had decent chemistry (there was mutual interest at one point), but more importantly, I’ve been working steadfast over the last few years to be more present in many aspects of my life, especially in relationships.
And… I’ve also learned to not be so hard on myself.
Timing for our fling may have just been off in general, as my father had been battling cancer for much of 2021 and had passed just a few months prior to us meeting. After dating for a few weeks with some ups and downs, she shared that my fun to depressingly serious ratio was far too low on the fun side of the equation.
But instead of calling it altogether—which in retrospect would’ve been appropriate, as she wasn’t too empathetic—we agreed to focus on ourselves until after the new year. Between her kids, job and hobbies (and wanting to avoid going too fast and risk ending up with a non-fun dude) and me needing space to focus on my immediate family and process my swelling emotions, it seemed like a smart move.
And then we both failed to keep distance in play and, well, messiness manifested in various forms, leading to a disappointing parting.
Here’s where I’m going to pivot and provide what I think will be useful context into how I ended up here writing this lengthy essay.
When I was young, primarily between the ages of 8 and 11, my father drank after work. Some nights he went light and I made it to bed without a concern; other nights Dad would have one too many vodka Martinis and sloppily move through our evenings while my mother worked one of her three jobs.
I had to become constantly aware of my surroundings; I felt as though I had to keep my father managed, and the only tactics available to me was manipulating him into safe corners. Whether reality mimicked my perception of the situation or not, the stakes felt high—the safety of both my younger brother and I was in play.
We mostly experienced varying degrees of emotional abuse—parental disinterest most of the time, though with incidents of mind fuckery mixed in by my father, such as when he dropped the two of us off on a corner across town on a bitter cold winter’s night, packed suitcases and all, because my seven year-old brother broke his prized thermos.
Growing up in a low key dysfunctional home fragmented my identity in ways I couldn’t even imagine until my marriage was laying in waste.
That separation event took me to an emotional rock bottom, and when I did find support, the trauma I experienced at a young age finally became tangible, something that I could unwind and process as I set off on a journey of self-awareness.
It’s highly possible that while processing my father’s passing, which has been filled with grief, animosity, forgiveness and resentment, I may have subconsciously brought my interactions with the woman I was seeing into that fold—my confidence was shaky; I couldn’t enjoy the moment; I was second guessing our fledgling intimacy; I wasn’t holding room for her to simply be.
So yeah, not quite as cut and dry of a scenario as I presented to my therapist.
As I alluded to above, much of my perspective for how to live and navigate life was birthed within a lack of foundational nurturing during my early childhood and pre-adolescent years. My experience was mostly devoid of communicated values, with unhealthy modeling and non-fostered discipline forming the edges of my identity—neither of my parents were consistently present or available, either physically or emotionally.
I day dreamed often.
I had to figure out much for myself about life through trial and error—from what healthy love looked like between two adults to how being healthy wasn’t the equivalent of feeling good.
This very dysfunctional environment also gave birth to positive traits, such as my imagination, creativity and raw leadership qualities, all of which I leverage in my career and my artistic and intellectual pursuits. Other traits that I employed to help me survive as a child—manipulation, perfectionism, etc.—morphed into negative adult behavior, all beginning with the autopilot that I leaned into during my teenage years, which I flooded with alcohol to drown the emotional complexities that brewed beneath the surface of my consciousness.
I’ve experienced broken work, romantic, friend and family relationships over the years—pushing people away like picnic litter dropped from Don Draper’s Cadillac. Thankfully, I’ve found program to assist me in transcending the emotional intoxication that formed through the elixir of shame, bitterness and resentment that my childhood had bestowed upon me.
I’ve evolved from day dreaming to taking responsibility for the me I put out into the world, and my relationships have improved across the board.
While I’ll never be perfect, by truly listening to people as we engage—as well as feeling and understanding the emotions that result from such interactions—I’ve become discerning in my resulting words and actions.
I’m digging deep into my past because dating has been an emotional challenge. Not too unexpected, I suppose—finding a partner is a much greater investment than any other potential relationship and being out of the dating game since 2004 feels like I’ve walked into the Matrix of first impressions.
To be fair, while it’s been difficult, the last two years of dating has also provided me with life affirming human contact and an invaluable set of repetition, full of learnings.
Disassociation vs Presence
Ok, so let’s talk about what dating me might actually look like.
Skipping over the tiring chats prior to meeting in person, if even the slightest bit of chemistry is in play, I’m present and engaged—anteing up with my attempt at intellectual, witty and flirty banter. If there’s enough of a connection, first and second dates seem to go well, but… in retrospect, within the flow of the conversation, possibly at a real inflection point for her, she might say something revealing that simply passes me by.
As though I’m day dreaming, but with eye contact.
The elusive share could’ve been something that she had deemed important enough to put on the table early on in our potential journey together, but my inbound translator hadn’t processed the words within the context she delivered nor applied a grading of relative importance.
For me it feels similar to what the mind does when blocking traumatic moments from our memory banks in order to protect us, such as in a car crash.
Let’s use the familiar dating statement, “I want to take this slow,” as an example.
I may align with or have a perspective on such a sentiment and my conscious self may even be willing to reply directly if it were presented differently, say, in the form of a question. But if it comes out of her mouth in the form of a shit sandwich—meaningful subject matter surrounded by fluffy trappings of verbose ‘bread’—regardless of the content, my mind may process the lot as potentially harmful.
In this example, the phrase might get tagged ‘abandonment‘ as opposed to ‘opportunity to get to know one another before making a mistake‘ and I may not respond at all, as if she had never uttered the words.
To be clear, I don’t do this consciously; I’m not aware of it in real time.
What’s even more interesting is that when I’m processing the details of the date the next day, I can actually hear the phrase in question with both clarity and within context.
Maybe that’s what people refer to as ‘slow processing,’ but what’s the initial glitch called? I care because, shit, that might have been a vulnerable moment for her in the midst of first impressions of one another—a moment for two people to begin understanding each other, building momentum of chemistry beyond initial physical attraction.
Instead, it may become a missed opportunity with me coming off as emotionally unavailable, rude or worse—like being broken.
I’ve learned how to take daily inventory of such ‘off’ interactions with friends, family, colleagues, etc., and approach them soon after with either an apology or more nuance to continue the conversation, but applying this to the ‘off’ moments extracted from a date has been tricky.
I mean, how exactly do you text someone you barely know the next day with, “Uh, last night I think you said something about wanting another kid and I don’t think I said anything.”
This isn’t where I want to be nor is it representative of the me that I’ve met, and based on the work I’ve done to date, I’m confident it’s not where I’ll end up, either. I’ve moved far beyond the denial I was in for most of my life regarding disassociation, so there’s only one thing left for me to do.
Keep On Tinkering
So here I am, spending an entire weekend to get this topic on the table so that I can find the edge pieces to this jigsaw puzzle because it’s the only move I know to make—my focus, energy, words and actions are all that I can control.
While I’ve seen a wealth of emotional and spiritual growth from just after my divorce to today, the absolutely valid self-care measurement of “compare yourself today to the you of yesterday” diminishes in returns when someone with their own fortified standards for a partner enters the fray on their hunt.
While we all have standards and desires regardless of how flag spotting and checkbox checking compels our exact interactions and decisions, my needs don’t necessarily present as… intentional.
Ok, that was insightful; that’s a few edge pieces.
Regrouping around the issue of me not holding still in the pocket of conversations—or how might I listen with intent, convey what most closely represents my truth and process responses in return so that I can assess a situation more consciously—seems like solid framing for reflection, definitely more writing and a new round of test drives on the dating circuit down the line.
Why not now?
I have enough self-awareness to know that my emotions are still getting out of sorts when the possibility of becoming involved with someone I find alluring is in play. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, “that’s the buzz of attraction!,” but as a fully grown man unit, no, it’s coming on too early.
Such an over-investment of interest becomes a slippery slope for losing myself within the unknown context of another, skirting on the edges of codependency and creating situations such as the aforementioned messiness.
I need to ground intentional stoicism more deeply within me.
So the design prompt becomes: how might I bring the healthy engagement patterns I deploy daily at work and within society—chasing clear goals and following my agenda to reach said goals—to the chaotic realm of romantic entanglements?
How might I provide more space for a more grounded understanding of who I am in the context of partnership, and what I want in a lover, to be clearly conveyed within conscious, respectful, fun, and intellectual banter, providing similar space in return?
Now that’s a design challenge worth undertaking.
A decent evolution that I’ve made in this direction over past few years of dating is that I consciously understand and no longer hold the unrealistic expectation that each woman I meet can check off most of what I might want in a partner.
In the past, even with only basic physical attraction present, I’d create a full narrative of possibilities, losing hooks into the present and skip all due diligence into the personality of her.
It seems to figure that the more I maximize being present, having patience and being forthright in my interactions—honestly representing my met me with her—the statistical results of dating will undoubtedly lead to an overwhelmingly majority of women organically disappearing from view due to mismatches in self awareness, personality and chemistry.
Hm… this is real fucking progress.
Upping the clarity of my needs and being more direct in conversation will lead to more instances of me ending things cleanly, which is a huge emotional and self-confidence win. There might even be a bonus when I’d welcome a new friendship (in as much as new friendships ever truly form from mismatched men and women at my age).
This focus of intent could easily keep me steadfast, ready to meet the woman who wants to understand me, has similar interests, desires to make room for me in her life as I want her in mine, and who enables me to become stronger and more known to myself each day.
You know what, maybe I’ve had enough repetition; maybe it’s time to step away from the dating apps and just live my life, doing what I normally do, such as a trip to S.A.M., where maybe I’ll share my thoughts on the Pollock hanging in the modern gallery with an attractive woman pondering its purpose and intent.
Using the language of the original quote: I’ve just begun to meet myself over the past few years since my divorce. It’s been a process of introspection while receiving feedback through mirrors held by so many others—it’s been the best kind of work.
At the end of the day, the more I develop me and more psychologically align what excites me to get out of bed in the morning with what I do each day, the better chance that when she and I meet, she will have the space to fully be her met self, regardless of the romantic outcome of we.