Brewing Up a Relationship that Actually Meets Your Needs
Long before Oprah or The Secret, my mother told me that if you can say it out loud, you can have it. I used to think that was too simple. Say what you want and get it? Anything? All the relationship gurus will give you the same advice. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I realized the magic was in the saying it. That’s the hard part–believing you’re deserving enough to speak it out loud with conviction.
In my 30s I got divorced. I had fallen hard, loved hard, and gotten dumped. It wasn’t pretty. After many a heartbroken, single mom, overworked day, I actually did get over the “him” of the relationship. What I couldn’t seem to inch past was the “it” of the relationship. In spite of evidence everywhere to the contrary, I believed my marriage would last forever. I even wore the Disney Cinderella wedding dress. I bought into all of it. I couldn’t get over my forever lasting only a few short years.
Having lost the dream of forever, I eventually ended up in that familiar never-again land. Never again will I love. Never again will I get married. Who would ever do that? Fools, all of them. This is the part where my friends were entirely patient and didn’t confront me too harshly with the stages of grief stuff. But even in that despair, there must have been hope because I began thinking about a new relationship–not with a man, but with myself. I was nowhere near ready to date, but I became willing to excavate why suffering seemed to be my only fate when it came to love.
In every relationship I’d ever had, I lost me somewhere near the beginning. When it ended, I would become incapacitated. Because I started chipping off pieces of me early on, when it was finally over, the experience had laid waste to my life. I had a pattern, familiar and predictable. A pattern so refined that it promised to net me heartbreak over and over again until I broke it. My mother’s words haunted me. Ask for what I want? The thought lingered.
I never received what I needed in a relationship because I never asked. But I never asked not because I was timid. Direct, articulate, bold. That was me. I hadn’t asked because I had no idea what I needed. I was so busy feeling insecure about his love for me that I had no earthly idea what “his love for me” might look like, sound like, feel like.
I started to wonder out loud what a fulfilling love might mean to me. In real life I made a list, but metaphorically speaking I took out the cauldron, filled it with water, and dropped in my needs, saying them out loud, one by one, stirring slowly after each ingredient to make sure it dissolved properly to season the soup. I said each one out loud, turned up the heat and waited for the magic. It didn’t take long for the water to bubble.
Ingredient 1: 1 Cup of Solvency
Solvency is the word I use today. When I dropped it into the proverbial pot, I said it like this: “he not only has to have a job, he has to have a job he likes and is not oppressed by waiting for something bigger and better to come along.” The essence of this ingredient is that a) I would not be the only or even primary wage-earner in the family, and b) he has a purpose to his days that doesn’t drag him down.
I’m all for the dream and the creative venture. But I longed for stability and security. I’ve read this is a woman’s foremost need in a relationship. I know it’s mine. It’s always been mine, although I haven’t always known it consciously. I’m drawn to the poet soul of a person, but my core need is stability.
Saying this out loud and really understanding the primal quality of this need changed everything about how I look at men. I stopped finding men attractive who were unemployed or underemployed creative types who had all kinds of staggering talent but no sense of how to support a family.
It felt like a DNA shift had occurred. I had always believed it was impossible to decide who you would be attracted to. I still think it is on an individual basis, but when you clearly identify a need you have that an entire type cannot possibly fulfill, it does tend to make that type less hot. I need the stability of heart, of mind, of spirit, of bank account. No, this is not about money. But, it’s not not about money either. A steady paycheck at a job you love is sexy as hell to me today. It takes a strong man to have a job he likes. To know what he wants to spend his days doing and to actually do that thing. It’s sexy and trounces all the rebel-against-the-establishment mojo out there. For me anyway.
I wanted a family. I wanted to be the kind of mommy who is emotionally and physically available to her family. Present, in heart and spirit, not harassed by the busyness of the Supermom syndrome. I had spent my adult life denying this. Ultimately it wasn’t my feminist ideals that sent this need deep underground. It was my utter inability to allow myself to be dependent on someone, to trust he would provide for me and our children, and more importantly, that he might want to. I was not just looking for a meal ticket. Far from it. But a stand up guy who finds value in standing up. That’s all. It’s not chic and modern to want this, but I clearly did.
I was drawn to men who were soloists. They would love me deeply and so would try to act like a couple, but in their hearts they planned as though they were living life alone. This is not a slam on them. It’s simply a recognition of a type or maybe even a stage of man I would fall for. Trusting a man to earn a living and partner up in raising a family because he wants to starts with him being satisfied with his job. If I have to worry he’ll quit today or next week because he has no investment there, it leaves me vulnerable to distrusting the ultimate investment he has toward his time with me. This leads to the next crucial ingredient.
Ingredient 2: 1 Cup of Independent Interest
He had to be independently interested in having a relationship, not just interested in me personally. The idea of a relationship had to be in his blood. I was all done convincing men it
was a good idea to couple up and love deeply. I am a coupler by nature. I did single well after
the initial drama of a break-up but the couples life of snuggling by a fire watching Raiders of the Lost Ark for the umpteenth time on a Sunday afternoon or attending a friend’s wedding and dancing at the reception and actually having fun or hosting the 4th of July picnic in our backyard that we’ve spent the week mowing, weeding, and sprucing up fit in my psyche like well-worn fuzzy socks.
The idea of a relationship had to be in his blood. I was all done convincing men it was a good idea to couple up and love deeply.
Finding someone who independently found value in the same idea of togetherness would significantly increase our chances of making it into the newspaper section for the golden anniversary celebrators. I needed someone who was invested in the relationship as much as he was in me, measured in equal parts. That way, I wouldn’t have to fear that if I didn’t behave perfectly, he would leave because he always secretly felt crushed by the weight of us. I could finally let the guard down and see if there was someone out there who could take me, the sexy, back-rubbing, nesting, laugh-out-loud-at-sitcoms, pmsing, alone-time-needing, snarky sometimes me. And I needed that person to be strong enough to hold his own while I spent some time figuring out who I was in a relationship. I’m a handful, but as I’ve found out, no more so than anyone else.
Ingredient 3: A Dash of Heartbreak
He had to have experienced a broken heart, preferably by a partner he loved leaving him. Sounds cruel, I know, but something happens when someone you love leaves you and then you find the innocence and heart to love again. It’s a feeling you can’t explain that just makes it all important on a different level. I wanted someone who would share this insight.
Ingredient 4: A Generous Handful of Genuine Intimacy
He had to know how to express intimacy outside the bedroom so that I could express intimacy inside the bedroom. I was never going to try to teach this lesson again because in the end I think it’s entirely unteachable anyway. No one ever taught me, but I did learn it. I watched people, read articles, books, asked friends whose relationships I admired. I listened to what they said about their loves. I knew how to give but I didn’t know how to get. I never demanded to be attended to. Pretending I didn’t have needs was my disguise of being low maintenance. I believed if I expressed how many needs I had, I might be judged as high maintenance and high maintenance is unseemly. We all know that. Of course, I did have needs and when I started to realize they weren’t being met, I got angry and withdrew. Those needs are going to come out somehow, somewhere. I hadn’t yet realized that my partner was unaware of them because I had never expressed them.
Dropping this ingredient into the pot stirred up a two-fold wish. I wanted to receive intimacy so that I could express intimacy. For most of my dating life I started every relationship cute and perky. Dazzle ‘em, hook ‘em, give ‘em what they want so they’ll want me back. It was a subconscious move on my part to secure love at any cost. But I needed real intimacy, the kind that made me feel valuable and validated, seen and heard. The casual neck massage without a trace of expected reciprocity. Absent-mindedly toying with my pony tail on a long car trip. Downloading the music to my favorite song when he’d never before heard of that song and doesn’t even like that kind of music–and then learning to play it for me.
He had to know how to express intimacy outside the bedroom so that I could express intimacy inside the bedroom.
Listening to me and sharing in my troubles, offering insight I hadn’t thought of. Participation. Attention. These are all ways of expressing intimacy that are objectively sexy, if they’re done without the goal of getting me into the bedroom. Getting these needs met, I believed, would allow me to feel open to heating up.
The spark was always there at the beginning, hot and heavy, full of performance and dazzle, then faded to nothing when true intimacy was supposed to take over but never did. I wanted this experience to grow and deepen, not fade to black. Over my cauldron, I was prepared for the first time to demand my time, but I needed to trust someone enough to feel vulnerable, to the core vulnerable, no performance. To let him attend to me, demand it in fact.
Ingredient 5: 1 Well-Rounded Cup of Care
He had to be able to take care. Take care of his own life. Take care of me. Call the insurance man without having to be told. Feed the dog without having to be directed. Offer me insight into a problem I was wrestling with (this, for me, may be the deepest expression of intimacy there is). Cook full meals when I was sick and when I wasn’t. Book a vacation. Bring me a present when he’s not in trouble. Know how to have a relationship with a grown woman that would not include him being “in trouble.” Know how to dress. Take care of his body: know that some exercise is good for his body and indulging in too much of anything is not.
When I got divorced, there was a song by a boy band on the radio with the lyric “I don’t care who you are, Where you’re from, What you did, As long as you love me.” I remember sitting in my car one day listening to that song and sobbing with the full realization that that’s how I had approached every relationship in my life to that point. Knowing and respecting the person I’m chemically drawn to is important and I was tired of accepting so little as long as he said he loved me and sometimes less when he couldn’t even say that much. The fact is: I did care who he was, what he wanted, what he believed, what he did. I wasn’t out to be judgmental but rather to exercise judgment about a compatible partner for me. I had exercised no judgment with respect to what I wanted. This is not to say I loved losers. Quite the opposite. Talent, brilliance, soul, and even deep and intense love. Just not a vision of a life with me. Not a lot of time spent thinking, what would she want? What could I do to lift her up? I could not blame them for not knowing or attending to me. I led by example.
So, there was my list. My ingredients for a safe and sizzling match. All I had to do was drink from the brew, which is to say I had to believe a man like this existed. A distinct change came over me as a result of this work, and although it’s neatly packaged here, it wasn’t necessarily easy to identify these patterns. One might say downright painful. But the result was a profound letting go. A shift in focus. The very next man I looked at with swirly eyes was this man. And without this brew, I would never, never have found him attractive. In fact, he was a platonic friend I’d known for years and whom I adored because he was such a stand-up guy but never once considered someone I could fall in love with. He was the man who knew me, not the dazzling me. He even knew me during my year-of-the-purple-sweats when I happened to be wearing these unflattering silky, slush-sounding purple sweatpants every time I ran into him.
Well, I did get married again. My man from the purple sweats era. I tell him all the time that I bubble, bubble, toil, and troubled him because I am still amazed so many years later that he is spiced with all of my ingredients. He walked with me while I figured out some stuff about me. And I remember the day I knew I would marry him. We lived two exits down from each other on the New York State Thruway. After a year or so of driving back and forth to see each other and paying the minor tolls, he surprised me with an E-Z Pass, which is like an electronic credit card for toll booths. The miracle here is not the present itself. It’s the fact that he ordered it, received it, attached it to my windshield and attached it to his credit card so I would never see a bill. The gesture utterly floored me. And perhaps most important of all, he thought nothing of it. It made sense to him so he took care of it. He wasn’t looking for praise or even a pat on the back. I knew right then and there I had fallen and I couldn’t get up.
Of course with any wish let out into the universe, one must be careful to be specific with the ingredients. Today my husband works a little too much at a job he finds fulfilling. He is a marrying man, not at all relationship phobic, but his burn on his first marriage went bone deep so he was reluctant to take that legal step with us for quite some time. He absolutely did learn “Higher” by Creed on the guitar, but I still cannot convince him that Tower of Power is not music you admit to liking in the 21st century (although we do agree on Journey. Rock on.). And he takes care of his life so much so that sometimes I wonder what on earth he wants me for. And then I remember. Oh yeah, because he loves me and I deserve that.