“Use your words.”

“Can’t we discuss this?”
“How does that make you feel?”
If I had a nickel for every time I have used one of these phrases…
And of course, those phrases are pulled out of my bag when there is conflict in the house. When things are threatening to explode or have begun exploding already. But I am convinced that, as human beings, we are afraid of differing opinions and potential conflict so much that by the time we get to this point, discussion is like trying to cut a frozen cake with a plastic knife. Merely surface.
Color me guilty.
For a while now, something has been bugging me. Something about Bubba. I’ll talk to my girlfriends about it. I’ll mention it in some slight, round-the-bend, cloaked in humor or false nonchalance to him, hoping he gets the hint and suddenly decides to change his behavior. What I haven’t chosen to do is say it outright.
And all the while, I wonder. I create dialogue in my head, imagining what he would say if I said “X.” I feel like I know him pretty well after twenty-some years, so I can fill in the blanks, right? And the thing is, I am a native Idealist from the land of Idealism, which means that I want him to change because it is the Right Thing to Do, not to appease me. I want him to feel it in his heart. But I’m afraid. Afraid that he won’t care as much as I do or that he’ll somehow mock me or that he will think the entire conversation is a waste of his time, and so I keep the dialogue in my head. And the more I pretend I’m talking to him about it, the more scared I get to actually have the conversation. Because by now, I have done a lot of assuming.
So by the time I found an opportunity to have the conversation with him, I couldn’t look at him. We had gone to bed with our books, him lying on his stomach and me sitting up against the headboard, pillows propping my head and shoulders up. I looked straight forward and dove in. And I didn’t meet his eyes the entire time we talked. Even when he gave me a perfectly Bubba, absolutely authentic, thoughtful reason for behaving the way he had that caused every cell in my body to soften and round itself in recognition that this was the man I love. This compassionate, loving person who had been missing in my imaginary discussions was, in fact, here next to me, offering a scenario I couldn’t have predicted. And while he wouldn’t have prompted the conversation, he was more than willing to engage in it.
Nearly an hour later, I was left with the solid reminder that these discussions always go better in real life than they do in my head. In real life, Bubba doesn’t belittle me or mock me or refuse to deal with difficult situations. It is my fear and anticipation that creates those stumbling blocks for me.
I wonder if there is a simpler way to learn to talk about difficult issues. Talking it out is something I encourage my kids to do all the time, but I am not sure I have properly taught them how to do that. Perhaps that ought to be the next item on my to-do list.

I know that I am many things to many people: mother to my daughters, daughter to my mother, sister to my siblings, wife to my dear Bubba…I could go on, but you know the drill. And, I suppose to some extent, I rely on that. I appreciate the ability to use those personality traits that fit best in any given situation in order to accomplish certain tasks, and then change when necessary. But I always assumed that I was only one person to me, and that, even if others saw vastly different sides of my personality, at least I always knew who I was at my core.
I have recently realized, however, that it is possible to really dislike who I am when I am in the company of certain people. And I thought I was done with that. Like most people, I tried out different personas in my teen years; I was a smoker with the rebellious girls, a goody-two-shoes with those who eschewed rebellion for a while, and, depending on the stage or year of high school, I could be known as prudish or outlandishly flirtatious. During those times, I often found myself feeling distinctly uncomfortable in my own skin. Asking hard questions of myself when I was all alone in the dark at night. And actively choosing to change my actions or distance myself from certain people. But as an adult, I thought I had all of that figured out. I was pretty sure I had solidified my personality like that cup of bacon grease that sits out on the counter until mid-afternoon. Not so.
There is a group of people in my life whom I love dearly and with whom I imagine I will be associated for the rest of my life. And I decided that I don’t really like who I am when I am with them. While they don’t call me on it (either because they are lovely, compassionate people or because they don’t know any different), I noticed that I am often whiny or defensive or something-not-quite-me when I hang out with them, and that makes me decidedly uncomfortable.
It turns out that when I first met this particular set of people, I put them all up on some sort of pedestal. Although, at the time, I wouldn’t have been caught dead admitting that, I was certain that they were certain I wasn’t good enough for them. And, truly, we couldn’t have been more different. But I was determined to justify my existence and show them just why they needed me in their lives. And I felt righteous about it. Sometimes. Often I felt judged and that made me angry and all the more determined to show them.
And so I established this pattern of behavior that led to me proving in subtle but varied ways that I am intelligent and witty and caring and good enough. Because if they were going to judge me, I was going to prove that I was worthy of a good verdict. And now, over a decade later, when I know they love me and I love them all for their quirks and imperfections (turns out we started out very different but are really much more alike than we all thought), I am still armoring up with my good enough suit and slathering on my 50 SPF judge-screen before meeting up with them. Once begun, it seems that the habit of being “something special” in their presence is a difficult one to break. Only the motivation is that this armor is beginning to feel more like something I’m using to conceal the authentic me than something I need for protection from these people who may or may not hurt me, but who deserve my trust. And so I have decided that it is time to feel good about who I am all the time, no matter who I am with. I know it won’t be easy, but having left a gathering of us all where I felt as though I worked harder at crafting a persona than I ever did in high school, I felt as though I didn’t know the woman I saw in the mirror and that made me sad.

In the last year, several of the women I know – some as acquaintances and others as close friends – have either separated from their husbands or begun divorce proceedings. One night as I snuggled up to Bubba on the couch after he beat me (again) at Scrabble, I said, “Seems like everyone we know is getting divorced.” I was trying to sound casual, but really, I was shocked. Bubba and I have been married for 17 years. Most of our friends have been married as long and have kids, stable jobs, and own houses. Every time I heard of someone in our social circle having relationship challenges, my mind would begin firing from all corners, desperately trying to make connections that would convince me Bubba and I are immune to similar issues. It was very much the same process I went through as a teenager when a parent or teacher would tell the story of someone my age who got pregnant/overdosed on illegal drugs/wrecked their car. “Not me, and here’s why,” my brain would assure me with as many bullet points as it took to bring my heart rate and hyperventilation under control.

As a child of divorced parents, I always wanted to make it about the Worst Case Scenario. Well, they got divorced because there was abuse or someone cheated. I’ll never marry someone who could do that to me, right? Of course, that forced me to confront all sorts of things about my parents that I didn’t particularly want to think about, such as: how could they not know what the other person was like when they got married, or how could one of them treat the other one so poorly, etc.

A few months ago I was having lunch with a friend who was getting divorced after 17 years of marriage. The couple has three children and she and her husband are bending over backwards to make sure that the kids remain front and center in their lives. Theirs will be an amicable divorce. But that doesn’t spare either of them from the stigma and judgment offered from friends, family, and society-at-large. Those who think they are intimate enough ask for details – why? I suspect that it is less out of some sense of voyeurism than a desire to then perform the mental machinations that result in, “Whew! That’s why this couldn’t be me.” Those who don’t outright ask for details either assume answers or sneak about to discover them. This friend of mine said that one of her closest girlfriends, upon learning that the couple was divorcing, said to her, “Congratulations on 17 years of marriage. You guys had a good run and produced some damn fine kids.”

Whoa. Cool. She’s absolutely right.

It’s none of my damn business why anyone else’s relationship ends. Unless one party is a victim of the other one and is asking for my help, I don’t even want to know. Honestly, when I look back at my own life and realize what a completely different person I am now as compared to when I got married, it’s a wonder I haven’t had to change my name to reflect the metamorphosis I’ve gone through. And it’s the same for everyone.

How many of us knew beyond the shadow of a doubt what we wanted to be “when we grew up” at the age of 10? I did. A pediatrician. Or a teacher. Am I either of those things? Not remotely. Who knew what they wanted to be when they declared a college major? I did. A family practitioner in some small, rural podunk town on the West Coast. Am I there yet? No, thank goodness.

There are some fundamental things that have remained steady in my life since I was young; my love for animals and nature, my sense of justice, my idealism, and my constant search for knowledge. But my taste in food, clothing (thank God – I had the 80s rocker-chick hair and parachute pants), books, and nearly everything else has evolved. When I married Bubba, I was certain of a few, core things – I was going to medical school, I was never going to have children, and we would be married until the day we died. Didn’t make it to medical school after spending a few years working as a surgical assistant. That was a game-changer during the first days of healthcare reform a la HMOs. Lasted six years of marriage before waking up one day and feeling a yearning to be a mother so strongly that I couldn’t think of anything else. As for my marriage, it is strong and healthy and I still hope that we will stay together forever, but I’m not making any bets.

People change. There is no such thing as “grown up.” The reasons we fall in love with someone and get married are often perfectly “right” at the time. And over time we learn and evolve and grow. And our partners do, too. But we don’t always do this in syncronicity.

The divorce rates in the United States went up sharply from the mid 1960s to the early 1980s. They have since leveled off some, and even dropped a bit after 2000. I don’t claim to know the reasons for this, but I do know that as long as marriage is around, divorce will be around, too. According to a website called Divorce Guide, these are the top 10 reasons people get divorced:

1. Infidelity
2. Lack of communication
3. Abuse (emotional/physical/sexual)
4. Money issues
5. Sexual incompatibility
6. Religious/cultural differences
7. Boredom
8. Parenting issues
9. Addiction issues
10. Priority differences

I’m pretty sure that the entire list could be boiled down to two things – communication issues and priority differences. And the fact is, those are the things that change most within individuals over time. When we are in our 20s, most of us are beginning to figure out how to communicate effectively with others. Introduce children to the mix and you start all over again. As for priorities, mine shift slightly with every new life experience I have. When I think about it this way, I begin to understand fully why my friend’s girlfriend said what she did. It is hard work to maintain relationships with people. And choosing to end a relationship is always hard, regardless of whether it is a co-worker, close friend or partner. But sometimes it is necessary. So instead of feeling sad for my friends who are getting divorced, I choose to compliment them on their success in navigating the tricky waters of marriage for as long as they were able, and support them in their efforts to find happiness in their lives as they move forward.

Lola is making a scarf for one of her teachers. She found some thick, alpaca yarn in our craft box one day and remembered that, once upon a time during a quiet moment in class, this teacher taught her how to finger crochet. She decided it would be cool if she put those skills to use and, after polling everyone in the house to see who could help her, she settled on me, whose yarn-craft skills are limited to, well, scarves.

She set about crocheting a long chain of warm, fuzzy wool and when she figured it was long enough, she came to me and asked how to turn the corner and double back. Tough to do when finger-crocheting. Even tougher when this seemed like good idea because it wouldn’t take long and now you’re realizing that the days are getting longer and sunnier and what you really want to do is go outside and shoot baskets instead of picking at yarn until your fingers cramp. She stuck to it for several days, though, and I was pretty excited.

This morning, she discovered a knot in her yarn. The scarf is nearly done and Lola was looking forward to being free of this task that has taken on a life of its own, so her frustration tolerance was pretty low to begin with. Monday mornings are not her strong suit, either, given that they require lots of transitions – weekend to weekday, getting dressed and eating on a schedule, deciding what to pack for lunch, ensuring that all the homework you did way back on Friday is actually complete and in your backpack, etc. So this knot was a problem. She pulled and tugged, gently at first so as not to rip out all of the stitches she has done up to this point, and then with more gusto as she realized this knot was stubborn.

In the beginning it wasn’t much of a knot and I tried to step in and caution her not to pull it tighter, but she brushed me off, determined to do it herself. I watched with mounting frustration, my bottom lip thrusting up and the corners of my mouth pulling down in that universal look of, “Oh, no!” as the knot itself became smaller and smaller and tighter and tighter. By the time she had reached the end of her patience it was in there good.

The last time I got really mad at Bubba I did the same thing. Instead of treading lightly and reaching in gently to unravel the issue, I pulled. Without yelling or screaming, I moved away from the knot because it made me uncomfortable. At the same time, I mortared my resolve to be mad by justifying my anger in my head, ticking off all of the reasons I was “right” to be upset. Tugging, tugging away at that knot. Even though I know that moving toward the issue and looking at it from all sides was the only way to undo it, I pulled away. Instead of trying to get those two opposing ends to come together and work around, under and through the problem, I cemented that knot in there.

Try it. Get a piece of string or ribbon about ten inches long and tie a loose knot in it. There is no way you’re getting that knot out by pulling the ends in opposite directions. But if you gently reach your fingers in there, between the strands, and loosen them, all the while pulling the disparate ends closer to each other, you’ll soon have your string back. Now, I know there are all types of different knots, some much more complicated than others, but I tend to think that the vast majority of trouble we get ourselves into with each other is of the garden-variety, regular old knot type. No matter how complex it seems, the best way I know to get that knot out is to move toward it with the intention of using our wits to unravel it. I’ve never met a simple knot I can undo with brute strength.

There is that moment when our brain strikes a flash, “I’ve seen that person before.” “I know that woman.” “What is his name?” We pass by them at the bank or see them in the frozen food aisle of Trader Joe’s or catch sight of them at our daughter’s basketball game. Who is that? It takes a few moments, or sometimes we can’t reel in the reference at all because it’s out of context.

Our brains, these wonderful computers that enable us to process information and put together bits and pieces of sensory input to make sense of the world, like context. They like to be able to put like with like. This set of people belong to the PTSA at Junior’s school. These other folks go in the category of co-workers. God forbid you run into the medical assistant in the lobby of the cinerama, because that doesn’t make sense. Our brains don’t like well-rounded references. The medical assistant belongs in scrubs at Dr. Steeke’s office. Period. He doesn’t have a life beyond that. Does he?
Sunday Eve and I headed to the office supply superstore for more binders and just as my head was deep in a debate of the relative merits of dividers with pockets versus those without, I heard my name called. Turning in response, my eyes took in the tall blonde woman a few feet away. The fluorescent lights reflected off of her John Lennon glasses and she wore an enormous smile, clearly pleasantly surprised to see me. Her head tilted to one side and next to her was a cart full of notebooks and pencils, dry erase markers and post-it notes. It took me a minute.
In that minute before I “placed” her, what I saw was a lovely woman, about my age, who was relaxed, open, and ready to engage in conversation. As soon as my brain caught up with my senses, I was able to recall exactly where I knew her from, but my experience of her narrowed. Not in a bad way, but suddenly there were parameters around her: she does ‘x,’ likes to do ‘y,’ and knows ‘Sally, Jesse, and Rafael.’
Two weeks ago, Bubba and I went out to the movies together. As I stood in line to buy tickets, a tall, handsome gentleman popped out of the lobby to call to a large group of people waiting on the sidewalk. He waved them over, embraced a few of them, and they all headed inside together. It took me a few minutes to realize that he is the girls’ pediatrician. Not only have I never seen him out of his lab coat and giraffe stethoscope, but I’ve never seen him after dark. Or with his family. As someone who isn’t there to serve my needs.
All too often we let our brains trick us into thinking that we know more about other people than we really do. While it is indisputably useful to be able to recall information as sets of data that fit together, I wonder whether we might be well-served to occasionally see people “out of context.” Setting aside our previously constructed containers for the people in our lives may help us to broaden our understanding of each other. The first time I ever saw Bubba in a work setting I was completely floored. The first time I watched him draw with our daughters I was brought to tears. Despite the fact that we have known each other for over twenty years, I have new things to learn about him as well. There is no doubt I can learn more about the rest of the people I think I “know.”

Ahhh, the holidays. That magical time of year when all of the family dynamics, good and awkward, are laid bare and magnified. For years, it began before Thanksgiving when Bubba and I would square off to pitch our respective holiday preferences to each other. My family or his? Or neither – should we just stay home?

Over the last fifteen years the discussion has evolved from a careful, quiet waltz to a quickstep. We know each other well enough now that we can state our case without hurting feelings and we know when to offer compromise and when to dig our heels in. Whew! Some things do get easier with time.
Others, not so much. Like the inferiority complex I get when I begin to envision the holidays with Bubba’s family. This year we are hosting Christmas dinner at our house and, while I have had an enormous amount of fun decorating and planning the menu and shopping for gifts, when I woke up this morning, that same old feeling sprouted in my gut and took hold. I have 24 hours to feel it, acknowledge it, and yank it out, roots and all. In the past, I would have eaten Christmas goodies to bury it and watered it with wine and coffee and mulled cider. In the past, all I got for my efforts was an acid stomach and a sore jaw. This year, I’m trying something different.
I’m going to spend some quiet time listening to all of the reasons I feel as though I don’t measure up. I will anticipate certain gestures or phrases that I know very well fertilize that seedling of self-doubt in my gut and think about how to shield myself from them. I will do my best to remember that this is my Christmas celebration, too, and that while I am now part of this family, I am under no obligation to do things as though their blood runs in my veins. My house, my rules:
1. Gratitude
2. Honesty
3. Love
4. Generosity of spirit
5. Openness
6. Self-respect
Those are my rules for this holiday. Anyone who wants to break them is welcome to step outside until they can honor them once again. My gift to myself this year is to take the time to get right with me before everyone comes to celebrate with us. I have a good feeling about it.
Happy holidays!