Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Throwing Books

Being with B has been a romantic journey, an adventure and a catalyst for personal growth. I look back over our five years together and my heart warms as I think of all the times we've giggled in bed, danced together in the dining room before dinner and walked the hills of San Francisco holding hands. But in between a million wonderful moments, there were ones when I wished I could tear my heart out because it hurt so much. There were nights when a giggle felt a million miles away - and he felt even further. I once threw a book across that same dining room we dance in before dinner. I had never felt that kind of uncontainable anger before. After five years, we've both evolved into people we're more proud to be because of each other - but we've certainly done things we're ashamed of along the way too. I only wish someone told me how normal that was.

I've found that one of the most difficult parts of becoming a well-adjusted grown woman is learning to independently identify what "normal" is. Relationships are the trickiest realm in which to do this because our emotions often get the best of us and when we're deep in love we're cloaked in a fog of blissful ignorance that may or may not break up over time. Our judgment is impaired, we feel utterly vulnerable, and yet we're supposed to decide if it’s ok that he drinks wine every night, doesn't want children or is emotionally retarded. Obviously there are issues such as physical/mental/substance abuse and cheating that are as black and white as can be. The older I get though, the more I realize that relationships exist and thrive in the ever-confusing grey area.

My father is a wonderful man- a kind, honest, hard-working patriarch. My mother is a force of a woman - as loving and accepting as a mother might be. Together, they danced in the kitchen as he hummed songs over her shoulder and sometimes she looked up at him like he was her savior. He painted big red hearts in the snow one year on Valentine's Day. There were also times when my mother cried in her room for hours and we didn’t know what happened or how they repaired the rift afterwards. There were periods when my father was quiet and tight-lipped for days on end, the vein in his forehead dangerously close to the surface. He never yelled or shared his feelings though and he certainly never spoke ill of my mother - so we never knew what went wrong or how they fixed it.

They loved each other then - you could feel it in the house - and the love their three daughters and did a good job raising each of us. But my parents' generation was the first to see the American family reconstructed as something more progressive and their parents dealt with a whole different post-war "return to tradition" ballgame. It's understandable then that no one ever sat them down and no one ever sat us down and told us what was par for the course, what wasn't and how to handle all the grey area in between. The dynamics of relationships and the challenges we face in them have been changing so much over the past century, I suppose a recipe for success and "what to do when he..." chat would have been futile anyway.

So where did all this leave me? Like most girls in their early 20's, I was naive, ignorant and stubborn. I had little other than 90210 and Sex and the City; observations of my parents and my friends' parents; my own awkward heart-breaking experiences; trashy magazines and classic novels to work with. All the romantic notions and confusing anecdotes amounted to little understanding of the way two people can come together and build a beautiful, happy, healthy relationship. On one hand I had unrealistic expectations of what an honorable respectful man should be like, (my father set the bar almost too high,) and on the other hand I had useless bits of advice about sex, romance and romantic sex. (I didn't get the memo explaining that Glamour magazine's monthly "how to please your man" columns didn't feature the most complete, practical advice until it was too late.)

For the first few years of my relationship with b, I kept looking around waiting for someone to tell me what I was supposed to do next. I called my sisters and sometimes even my father to ask them how I should label certain differences or react to disagreements. Outside of the obvious, I honestly didn't know what was supposed to be a "deal breaker." I sensed my clarity was compromised by how much I loved him right away and that scared the hell out of me. When I'd ask my mom or girlfriends for advice, they kept saying "trust your gut," which was utterly useless to a former fat kid whose gut got her nowhere but to the corner store for ice cream or candy in highly emotional situations.

When B and I first met and I walked into his messy apartment, dishes piled high I asked myself, “serial killer or normal single guy?” When I noticed he liked a glass of wine with most dinners and a cocktail after a hard day I wondered, “red flag or just a glass of red wine?” (My parents didn’t drink at all, so I had no idea what “normal consumption meant.) When B yelled at drivers who cut him off or threw his hands up in frustration at a Prius driving 45 miles per hour on the freeway I thought, “anger management candidate or minor loss of composure?” (My father never yelled or cursed. He got quiet.) When we moved in together and we had little arguments over how to cut and onion or where to hang our coats, I questioned if it was the beginning of the end. IO had no idea all couples go through power struggles and a serious adjustment period when they first cohabitate. When he did something he knew would upset me a few times over I would think, “he either has no respect for me or he doesn’t love me the way he did in the beginning.” Little did I know that the reasoning behind men’s behavior is seldom so dramatic.

It took me about two years, maybe more, to stop asking people what was normal and what wasn’t. I realized after a lot of wasted breath that I didn’t know the answers to a lot of relationship questions because I didn’t know myself as well as I thought I did. And when I finally figured out a little bit more about who I am, I had the pleasure of realizing many of the answers were in the way he puts his hand on my face when he thinks I’m sleeping or cooks me dinner when he knows I’m tired. Life has a funny way of working itself out like that. When you’re with the right person, you’ll eventually find what you’re looking for together. We all have hills and mountains and road blocks in our relationships and the differences that put them there are more “normal” than a relationship itself can ever be. No one is perfect. No relationship is perfect or perfectly normal. Nothing would be very fun or interesting that way anyway.

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