Because I haven’t been able to write anything in a while (I keep starting and stopping, but mostly just not starting at all), here’s a draft pulled from the archives – this one is from early 2019. I also haven’t checked the hyperlinks. I have no idea as to what they refer; I have no idea if they work. Hope you’re all well.
After a particularly frustrating romantic situation ensued early last fall, I found myself explaining to my therapist how I’d written an email response to a man I’d been dating, who had, unexpectedly, cut off contact after sending a rather vague email ostensibly laying the groundwork for a future conversation, to which I’d crafted a detailed and thorough response, expecting it to assist with furthering the conversation when we got around to it. (Of course, to no one’s surprise, that conversation never came.)
As I was fretfully recounting the contents of my response, concerned I’d misstated something in my communication, my therapist began to get angry. I, of course, assumed that I had done something wrong, as is my usual first inclination when I sense a change in mood of someone I’m near. (Being a mostly empathic human being with an interestingly inconsistent emotional upbringing can be rather challenging as messages are often sharply internalized and distributed incorrectly, pointing fingers at myself first.)
Her eyes blazed with fury as she launched into one of the most passionate tirades I’ve witnessed from her. (Have I mentioned that I love this woman? I have been so fortunate to knock it out of the park with both of the therapists I’ve had in my life, and for that, I am eternally grateful.) This, she said, is not a problem only you face. This is a gendered issue. She continued, saying that she’s found herself writing these emails; that her friends have; that she knows not a single woman who hasn’t found themselves in this position: justifying themselves to men.
(For the purposes of this post, please allow for sweeping generalizations rooted in significant societal structures and do not forget that I am fully aware that there are exceptions to everything I’m about to attempt to lay out as undeniable facts.)
It’s more than just long-winded text responses that go ignored. It’s so much more. I forget her exact words, but in summary, it’s that women feel compelled to “dazzle” men. We must be dazzling in order to attract and keep their attention, and when something goes awry, we feel that it must be that we haven’t been dazzling enough. It becomes about us, rather than them. It becomes that we have failed to be bright and sparkly enough, and that it is us who must work on who we are and our approaches. It is that we haven’t done enough, or we’ve done too much, or we just aren’t right. The burden becomes ours. We are not met halfway; there is often no sense of compromise or communication of expectations. It simply is that we, somehow, weren’t enough. And thus, we then struggle to justify everything about us: our behavior, our appearance, our approaches, our reasoning for being the way that we are.
I was stunned. I had spent many hours crafting an email that I hoped would provide this man insight into who I am as a person, by way of explaining who and how I am. Even as I sat there, with my initial inclination being to argue that of course I wasn’t justifying myself to dazzle a man, the realization settled over me, followed by a sense of moderate frustration.
She was right. I began to justify my actions to her, and she stopped me. It’s funny how now, I am aware of my own justifications, and how often I use them in all facets of my life.
And today, I’m irked again. The dude reached out, after 3 months of silence, and I, being the compassionate idiot that I am, accepted his invitation to lunch, allowed him an apology accompanied by crocodile tears and his own assertion that it had been cowardice that had prompted his silence. But he swore he thought about me every day. I responded: clearly not enough to email me back.
Oh, good. It’s like the dating equivalent of thoughts and prayers. “I may have completely disappeared from your life with no explanation and caused you anxiety and emotional upset, but at least I thought about you. So I’m a decent human being.”
Cowardice is rampant among us all these days. The internet and other means of indirect communication has allowed us to imagine that we are insulated and isolated from having to face the consequences of our own actions. And the wide availability of potential partners that you can meet without having to face the complications of mutual friends only widens the possibility for bad behavior.
I’ve been ghosted twice in my life. The first was after a brief fling with a musician. The second was with the man described above. Both of these stung because of the conversational connections we’d developed and the joy of thoughts unfurling in my brain. They were both quick-witted and funny, and seemed to embrace my irreverent self. And yet, they both evaporated, quickly, unexpectedly, and without explanation.
The musician, in his haste, neglected the fact that we have mutual friends. Thus, the unattached ghosting was ill-advised. And so, I kept his family. Not spitefully or intentionally, but because I love them. One day, last summer, I was in the car with his niece and nephew, whom I babysit with some regularity. From the backseat, I heard, “KatieBarry (they always call me KatieBarry, one word), why did you break up with our uncle?” I answered honestly that one day he stopped calling and I never knew why. And that’s when it happened – the heart-melting-est moment of my life thus far. The little boy piped up, “But KatieBarry, it’s okay; you got to keep us.” My heart broke into a thousand beautiful glittering pieces in that moment, such was the love I felt for them.
[2020 Edit: I later received an apology. It’s curious how healing it can feel to have someone honestly apologize and explain their actions. I am so grateful. I love and support all journeys of growth. It’s helpful for my own journey, too, to have the chance to explore my feelings of abandonment, my own ways of creating and assuming, my own understanding of connection in this world.]
So as I write this, I’m thinking back on another stinging comment I received some years ago, from the man who wished me to change myself pretty thoroughly to suit him. “I love who you are but not how you are.”
I get it, but I think I disagree with the underlying concept of that statement. I am the sum of my parts. I am both who and how I am. They are mutually exclusive, to a certain extent. I get the counterargument you’re likely formulating now – such that patterns of behavior might be subject to change but core is unalterable. And perhaps the counterargument is correct. But perhaps not.
We are exactly who we are in any given moment, and the goal is not to love an idealized version of another human being. The goal is to accept that human being and love them for the things that are fantastic and in spite of the things that make them human. In that respect, and in the present, the who and the how are intertwined because both states are existing simultaneously. How I am may be subject to change, but cannot be extricated from the current state of identity, and that’s the who/how combination being presented by anyone at any given point. Hence, the cautions against falling in love with potential.
This is not a digression, but rather, the point of the whole thing.
I don’t believe in dazzling. I am wholly myself, and I am blessed with the chameleon-like ability to discuss nearly anything with anyone. I clean up nicely, I look good at galas, and am happiest at home in pajamas on the couch. I am intense from the beginning; I am not going to spend 8 dates with you pretending to be this perfectly pulled-together woman. You will get me, wholly me, but also a wide diverse array of what constitutes me. And look, here I am, justifying.
So, I think the rooted indignation I’m feeling about this whole cowardice/ghosting/justifying thing is at least two-fold. The first fold is that I know who I am, and I get insanely bothered when people pass judgment without having the full context of what comprises the definition of me as a human. Don’t make a series of assumptions based on a small data set. It’s a law of legitimate science and it should be in law in all things. The smaller the data set, the more likely it is that there are variables still yet undiscovered, unconsidered, as yet unknown.
The second is that people who won’t face difficult conversations are cowards. [2020 Edit: I’m currently avoiding having a difficult conversation – not of a romantic nature – and I’m terrified, so my previous statement is landing and I mostly completely disagree with it. I should modify it to read: “The second is that people who won’t face difficult conversations in dating/relationships and instead choose to just abandon the situation while knowing that it’s causing distress for the other party are cowards, even if they’ve got mitigating circumstances like significant emotional baggage themselves.” And yet, we are all human, fallible, fragile creatures. How can we expect so little and so much at the same time from others? I imagine it’s because we should all expect so little and so much of ourselves, too: curiosity, compassion, understanding, and acceptance. But all of that comes from being able to be honest and open with ourselves. It is perhaps that vulnerability has become nearly impossible to attain authentically.)
And perhaps one more fold is that it’s frustrating to expect a certain amount of honesty, or to provide compassion and understanding and openness only to be met with bullshit behavior. It’s downright disrespectful.
And lastly, co-mingled with the honestly/openness issue, there’s the issue of omission/the unsaid. Assumptions are problematic, we all know that, and while honest communication can be difficult, I also think that at times, there’s a massive gap in the experiences between the parties that creates chaos.
There was a time when I was flying to another city in the Midwest (tulip tress! old stone everywhere! amazing plants! barbecue!) to visit a love interest with whom I saw a future. There was so much unsaid between us, no clear definition of intention, and now, after some reflection, I believe it was a mishap caused by me going on a date in Denver with someone who was ill-advised and particularly unpalatable that led my love interest to inform me that he would never feel safe with me.
I was gutted. I had intended nothing by the date, had hoped that we would eventually have the “what are we doing here?” conversation (and thinking back now, perhaps I subconsciously mentioned the date and the weirdness therein in order to passive aggressively prompt that conversation instead of handling it like a mature adult; I don’t know, it’s all lost to time), and rather than keeping a friend by concluding together that we should not pursue a romantic relationship that was going to be difficult to navigate or gaining a partner, all was lost. Even now, I wonder how my experience of that time differs from his. I wonder how I could have communicated better and been more open and honest. I guess it’s a point of continual growth for us all. Introspection is important.
Life is hard. Life is scary, and it’s complicated. You don’t have to fall in love with everyone you meet. You don’t have to reciprocate feelings. You don’t have to do anything, except that you do. It should be well understood that undertaking any attempts at romantic entanglement, be they purely coital, purely intellectual, or anything in between, comes with the assumption that both parties are expected to be clear, to communicate, and to act with respect for the feelings of the other person.
Perhaps you aren’t feeling a romantic connection, or are irked by some behavior that has presented itself. You don’t just run away and dodge it. Have a conversation. How much is lost in the unsaid in-betweens of assumption and experience? Far too much. You just say, Hey, it’s not you, it’s me. (That’s a lie, but at least it’s closure commentary that will give the other person some peace.) You are obligated to clearly conclude the relationship, even if it’s an undefined relationship. It’s compassionate and intentional. It shows integrity.
[2020 Edit: You can see why this post remained a draft – it wandered on and was left unfinished. I have skimmed it and have nothing to add. I don’t know how I’d sum it up. I know that when I began it, I had some grandiose point, and now it’s petered out. Perhaps it’s best left unfinished, as I am thinking that all of this was more a rumination upon the state of things than it was to draw some final conclusion. Life is messy. Love is messy. Communication is messy. We’re all out there trying to do the best that we can without losing too much.]