This is one of my favorite poems. It is often read at wedding ceremonies. It's from Khalil Gibran On Marriage:
...But let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.
Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other's cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.
Give your hearts, but not into each other's keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow.
I took out about 2/3 of the first stanza. It's not relevant to my point. The idea of creating spaces in togetherness, of opening your hand rather than clenching your fist, of intentionally choosing to be in a relationship rather than defaulting to it--that's the point. This isn't just a quote for married couples. It applies to anyone who is in a relationship with another human. Friends, lovers, family. We cannot put a stranglehold on the people we love. We have to be willing to rejoice in the distance. It's hard. It requires a willingness to let go of attachment to outcomes. That's hard for most people. We want guarantees. We want to know if they'll still be there tomorrow. We want assurances. I get it. I lived in that mentality, as I described in this post about relationship insecurities. In it, I quoted a blog post from February 2006, exactly ten years ago:
I'm deathly afraid of being alone. I don't have enough self-esteem to love myself for who I am, because I have never been enough for any guy I have ever been with. I wasn’t enough to keep Jim faithful, or Ricky, or Adam, or any of them.
I have abandonment issues. As I told Matt last night—good things in my life don't usually stick around. I don't like to hurt people, so I am usually not the one to break up with boys. However, when they break up with me, or pull back emotionally, regardless of my feelings for them at the time, I always cling to them. The best way for a guy to make me fall for him is to be emotionally distant. I convinced myself to fall in love with Paul. I didn't want him to take me back after Spring Break. I wanted to be with Noah. But when faced with a choice between going back with Paul versus losing him completely, I chose to stay with him. When he became distant, all I could think of were all of the times that he'd been amazing to me, and I convinced myself that I would never find anyone who cared about me like that again.
Are we seeing a pattern here? I’m afraid to be alone, I’m afraid of rejection, and I'm addicted to the attention that I receive in a relationship. As long as a guy will give me the emotional things I need, I can forgive cheating, lying, manipulating…just about anything. Even after I found out that Paul had been dating Katie while dating me, there was a part of me that still wanted him back, because I was addicted to the way I felt when I was with him and things were good. I have a terrible habit of only being able to remember the good times when faced with the prospect of losing my boyfriends.
When Jim broke up with me in January, I was sure that he was doing me a favor. He’s not going anywhere in his life, and our trust issues are almost insurmountable. I wanted to be with Matt, he was so sweet, friendly, caring, sensitive…and without the judgmental aspects of Paul. His brain turns me on…he can use the phrase stare decisis in a normal conversation and not blink an eye. He gave me the most amazing Valentine’s Day ever. And yet, when Jim started dating a girl at St. Joe’s…all I could think of was how much that hurt me. Why? Because I was replaced, which means I am replaceable.
I slept with boys in high school because I wanted their attention. I was convinced (and still am to an extent) that my only marketable feature is my body. I told Matt last night, I feel like I'm not worthy enough on my own merits…I have to sleep with a guy, buy him things, make him dinner, do all of those girlfriend-type things because I fear that if I don't, I will be left for someone prettier, smarter, and/or more willing to do such things. I feel as though I'm in constant competition for the males in my life, and I won't ever be able to just relax and enjoy a relationship.
Wow. I can still vividly remember feeling that way. And yet it also feels like I'm reading the words of a stranger. I'm not that girl anymore.
Recently, one of my lovers asked to take a break. Totally understandable. They* have a lot going on in their life and we only see each other every few months anyway. Sometimes we talk/text daily and other times we go weeks in between. So this wasn't entirely unexpected, but I was a little surprised.
You know what was especially cool about this experience? My first and strongest reaction was gratitude, followed closely by pragmatism (How will this work? Are you going to text me when you're ready to resume?). In years past, I would have spent hours days tearfully agonizing over each exchange, trying to figure out what I could have done differently to make them want to stay, and how I screwed up and made them want to leave. That's pretty much the opposite of what happened. I was happy that they asked for what they needed and that I was able to give it to them. I'm thrilled that they're taking care of their needs and setting boundaries that feel comfortable. I wasn't mad. I wasn't even sad. I love them, and I want them to be present in ways that feel good for them, and to take space when they need it. If that means we never get "back together" - that's totally okay. More than okay, honestly. When someone is in my life, it's important to me that they're there because they want to be. Not out of obligation, not because walking away is too hard. And this isn't a doormat situation either. When/if they want to pick things up again, I may or may not have space in my life for our relationship in its previous incarnation. We may end up friends, or more casual lovers, or something entirely different.
When Declan and I started dating in 2011, I literally gave him a "Get Out of Jail Free" card (seriously, from the Monopoly game). I wanted him to know he could walk away at any point. I remember thinking I wanted him to know he could run away if dating me turned out to be too much. Now I realize I don't need to do that anymore. I strive to create fluid relationships (romantic and otherwise) in my life--waxing and waning as situations and inclinations warrant. Where people can feel like they can show up fully as themselves and NOT who they think I need them to be.
As I compare my emotional progress from that decade old blog post to now, I am astounded. I never imagined I would come to a point in my life where I was willing to open my heart to multiple partners and encourage them to come in and out of my heart freely, without tethering. I can pinpoint the shift to sometime in the past year - this is recent stuff. I posted an early draft of this as a Facebook status last night and people responded powerfully to it, thus leading me to turn it into a proper blog post. They said I was a role model, something I never imagined being for relationships. For most of my life, I've been a cautionary tale. Closing out my 29th year, I'm looking forward to seeing what personal growth the next decade brings.
*I'm using "they" as a gender neutral, singular pronoun. Partially because it's a good habit to adopt and partially because the gender of my lover is irrelevant to this post. Try it! Read more about they as a singular pronoun here.