Recently I’ve been recalling romantic relationships I’ve had over my life. Of course, there’s an amount of anger and shame involved as I look back, but I tend to direct blame at myself. That’s what I’ve been trained to do. Anger at others doesn’t come easily when I can beat myself up. I’m learning to be kinder in hopes I can heal, physically and emotionally.
I met my first boyfriend on a ferry. It was quite a momentous day for me even before I encountered Dave, so I had dropped my guard. He sat near me with a sandwich and soda, commenting on the paint I had on my clothes and face. I told the story of how the day started, with me quitting a job in Whistler and hitchhiking to the BC Ferries terminal in Horseshoe Bay. I’d been hired to help paint the BC Institute of Technology’s ski cabin. The team leader was an arrogant twit who never seemed pleased with my work, choosing instead to criticize. (I knew I had an option of returning to home to where I grew up and returning to the phone company. I’d been an operator during the previous summers and they were always looking for help.)
The asshole in charge had the same name as a popular TV funny guy, but didn’t have a single funny bone. He’d given me grief for using too much stain on the exterior of the cabin, insisting that I apply it thinner so the gallons he’d purchased would be enough to complete the job. I tried to explain the stuff soaked into the wood (it’s a protectant, after all) and I had no way of applying less than I was doing. When I moved on to painting the bathrooms, he insisted I be more methodical. I was painting the top half of the stall, then removing the extension and painting the bottom half. He wanted me to move the roller floor to ceiling from one side to the other.
I had enough. I grabbed my stuff and walked out the door. Three kind drivers took turns getting me to Horseshoe bay, each hearing my story and supporting me side of the conflict. I doubt that on any other day I would have opened up and talked to Dave, a guy who shared my brother’s birthday. Dave offered a ride in his Camaro to my parents house, where I took him on a tour of the rocks and beach. We dated for four years, during which he moved from driving a logging truck to buying his own highway truck and working for a Victoria firm that did runs between the Island and California and Arizona. I quit a two-year broadcasting program at BCIT after one year and took a job at a new radio station on the Island. I worked two graveyard shifts on air and three day shifts writing commercials. After six months, my body told me to quit. Flipping between overnight and days was wearing me out.
A year’s unemployment meant I could ride with Dave or stay home in the apartment and look for work. Eventually I grew to dislike the feeling I had that he was supporting me in exchange for sex. He also had a ferocious temper, and scared me with his outbursts. I finally cried at the unemployment office and the agent filled out a form for work in the civil service. I got a contract for 44 days, during which I applied for in-service postings for other work. That gave me financial independence. I didn’t know how to leave the relationship, which had devolved into a dead-end road. I knew for a long time it wasn’t going anywhere because neither Dave nor I knew how to let the other in and achieve emotional intimacy. Every time I thought about breaking things off, I got a stomach ache. I was referred to a psychiatrist who asked me what I wanted to do for fun, and make a list. One item saw me taking a flying lesson for a nominal fee, and realized I had control of my life. I could turn left or right or go up or down. It was all up to me.
I was well aware that I avoided eye contact with people at work. I simply was not comfortable connecting to strangers, even with a friendly smile and, “Good morning, how are you?” Emboldened by my success with the list of fun things, I made a routine out of saying hello to seven strangers each day. Soon it became easier. I upped the list to 14, and soon I was connecting. I’d crossed a barrier. I worked for four years at a federal government electrical shop where there were a large number of electricians, electronic technicians and apprentices. Almost all were males. I dated a couple apprentices but always had that difficulty connecting emotionally. The same issue persisted when I met my husband, who was a supervisor at the shop. He had a way of chuckling and diverting the focus from what he really felt, and I’m sure I was adept at maintaining my guard. We made it 12 years before he reconnected with an old girlfriend and moved on.
I didn’t want to fail at marriage but I didn’t know how to succeed, either. I think the only reason Al and I appeared solid was we shared the same firm boundaries around our inner feelings. It’s almost impossible for one side to break down that wall and divulge fears, anxieties, frustrations. What if the other one doesn’t go there too? You end up feeling shame, and that you’re the only one that’s messed up. If I ventured into emotional intimacy, I’d make my husband angry because he resisted going there. It takes two to tango, and two to make a marriage work. I was not able to succeed as long as I connected with men who shared my resistance to connect on an emotional level.
I dated over the years, often in relationships for a year or more, but didn’t have the awareness that emotional intimacy was vital for a tight connection and good sex on my end. I seemed satisfied that being connected to someone in a social way was enough. When each relationship ended, I wondered what I was missing.
I only had to look at my parents’ relationship for answers. The most affection I saw between them was Dad giving Mom a peck on the cheek as he left for work. I never saw them argue or cry or express true joy. The climate in the house was one of worry. Worrying was encouraged and a way of showing people mattered. It was weird. When bad things happened, we scattered. Nobody came to sit on my bed and see how I felt. Our family dog just disappeared one day with no chance to say goodbye. My mom and brother took him to the vet to be euthanized, with Mom’s only side comment being that Dad was at fault for resisting so long. But nobody talked about the dog’s absence. We all kept the grief inside.
It’s been more than 20 years since my divorce, and I’ve all but given up on dating. The last guy taught me how those rose-coloured glasses can really mess things up. I didn’t recognize how controlling he was. A little control made me feel like he cared. Then he amped up the control and I recognized he was really all about his own needs. I had moved in with him when a winter storm knocked out my power, and he always found a way to make me stay. I kept saying that I needed more space — I was surrounded by his stuff and had spent many years on my own. After a sleepless night, I packed up and returned to my own home. He left messages for a few days on how depressed he was, how much he wanted to marry me. He never asked why I left. I felt better back in my own surroundings, far away from that coercive control.
Again, I reflect on the lack of emotional intimacy in my relationships. I think it takes just one well-adjusted partner to make a marriage succeed. It only takes one to see beyond the bluster and accommodate their partner’s limitations. I’ve been repeatedly dating men who share my avoidance of emotional connection, and the relationships have withered on the vine.
I’m okay with being independent as long as I know who I am. I’ve learned about personalities, conflicts and how we all relate and I understand that I’m not at all alone. It still doesn’t make it any easier to go solo. Humans are always happier when they’re connected. Good thing I have dogs.