Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Importance of Showing Up

Relationships are a choice. It seems like a simple statement, but when you are married or even in a long term relationship it is easy to forget this essential fact of life. I often hear people complaining about how they are stuck in their relationship. Maybe they are only staying together for the kids, or because they own a house together and can't afford to live on their own. But the truth is, regardless of your circumstances there is always a choice. You may not like the consequences of making that choice, but the option is always there.

Now, let me pause right here and say that if you are with someone who hits you, hurts you, belittles your feelings or generally makes you feel bad about yourself, then by all means take the necessary steps to get out of that relationship. Today I am talking about the rest of us. Who sometimes can't see the forest for the trees.

Loving the person you are with is important. But if you ask me what the most important component of a successful relationship is, I would tell you that it is not just about loving someone. It is about respecting them. There will be days when your love is tested and as some of my married friends tell me, there will be days when you're not even sure that you love the other person at all. Mutual respect is about how you treat the other person, regardless of how you may feel about them in any given moment.

Now I am far from perfect, as anyone who knows me can easily attest. That being said, the principle of mutual respect is something I strive to live up to in all of my relationships, romantic or otherwise.

I was in the car with my Dad a few months back. He was following behind another driver who was hemming and hawing about making a left turn. Now, there was an empty lane of traffic next to us and my Dad could have easily gone around the other driver, but instead he just patiently waited until they made the turn. As our car started moving again, he said to me "I guess I could have gone around that car. It just didn't occur to me."

I thought it was strange that he was explaining his driving to me. I had noticed we were held up behind that car, but it wasn't really a big deal. "That's ok," I replied. "It's not like we are in a big hurry anyway." My Dad smiled back at me. "It is nice that you are so patient with me," he said. "If I'd been driving with your mother, she would have been yelling at me to get over into the other lane."

I wondered why my Mom was so impatient with him. Couldn't she just let him drive however he wanted? Even though I probably would have gone around the other driver, I wasn't driving at the time. My Dad was driving and he is a grown man who can sit there in the left lane all day if that is what he wants to do. Mutual respect. Seems like a simple concept, right?

Well, I have to admit that my relationship theories were put to the test on a recent vacation with the guy I am seeing (hereafter referred to as the Boy.) I have been dating the Boy for a few months now, but we have known each other for much longer than that. In fact, the Boy started out as a short-lived rebound relationship for me a few years ago, after a very painful ending to a five year relationship. Anyway, I had gotten back in touch with the Boy this past summer and were hanging out as friends when I started seeing the Canadian. As things with the Canadian became more and more uncertain, I found myself spending more and more time with the Boy. After all, he is single and available, lives close by and is always a pleasant escape from my reality.

So recently when I was craving a vacation to get away from my job and the Midwest winter blahs, I asked the Boy if he wanted to come along to Savannah with me. We had planned a four-day getaway, leaving on a Sunday and coming back on Thursday. Before the trip, we both recognized that we had never spent that much time alone together before. For the most part we see each other one weekday night and then a day or maybe two on the weekend. But this was going to be a vacation. How bad could it possibly be?

Sunday was blissful. By Monday evening we hit our first little rough patch. It was a rainy evening and he wanted to go out to the bar. I was cold and tired and just wanted to stay in. But we worked through it. Tuesday morning started out with breakfast. He had coffee and I had orange juice. There was literally one sip left in my glass and he asked if he could have some of my juice. I gave it to him, but was secretly offended that he had taken the last sip.

Later that day, we were driving in the car and we both got thirsty. We found a little spot to grab some drinks. I bought a Diet Coke and he got a water. Back in the car, I reached over to grab my Diet Coke and noticed that he had it in his hand. I have this thing about my Diet Coke. The first sip from a freshly opened bottle is the best part. I lashed out at him "I can't believe you opened my Diet Coke!" Which must have seemed like such a silly thing to him, but I was pissed off. "And you took the last sip of my orange juice this morning too!"

I sat in the car in silence as he drove, totally getting annoyed by every bump in the road. We stopped at Bonaventure Cemetery, which is a series of long and winding little roads. It seemed like every road I wanted to turn down, the Boy would drive the car in the other direction. We just couldn't seem to get on the same page. Eventually we made it back to town and had a really nice dinner that night. Things were starting to look up.

Then the Boy got really drunk. It is not uncommon for us to have a few drinks together to unwind. But on this particular night I was not really feeling it, so I headed over to the jukebox to pick some songs and he just kept on drinking. And saying lots of stupid things, which on a normal night would have been entertaining but that night, not so much. Needless to say, by the time we stumbled back to the hotel I just wanted to put him to bed.

On Wednesday I just needed some time to walk around the city on my own so we parted ways for a few hours and hooked up later. When we got back to the hotel we both realized that we had pretty much run out of things to do in Savannah. And it was only 5:00 PM. I started feeling a little trapped and came up with the idea that we could just fly home that night instead of waiting until the next day. I jumped on my blackberry and started looking for flights, while the Boy stared at me like a deer in the headlights.

As it turned out there was nothing available. "I guess I am just stuck in this hotel," I said. "No, you mean you are stuck here with me," he said. I felt just awful. I explained to him that I was feeling trapped and for me that is the worst feeling in the world. When I feel trapped I need to take action. We ended up going to dinner and driving to the suburbs to find a movie theater. And we actually had a pretty good last night in Savannah.

After the trip I needed a little time away from the Boy, but he kept wanting to hang out with me, which was even more irritating. He and I are both conflict avoiders. I was trying to avoid the conflict by not seeing him. He was trying to avoid the conflict by acting as if nothing had happened.

The next few times we saw each other I kept pointing out little flaws of his. When he stayed over at my place, I mentioned that the bathroom was always dirty at his place. When we were driving in the car, I explained to him how important music was to me and how all the other guys I dated were into music, while he could barely remember the name of a song or a band. I wasn't even sure where I was going with any of it. Maybe I was just trying to assert some independence or put him on notice.

It is easy when you spend a lot of time with someone to magnify all of their flaws and dismiss all of their good qualities. It is also easy to focus on things from your own point of view, instead of putting yourself in the other person's shoes. I am a strong, independent woman who needs a lot of space. I have had and lost two great loves, both of whom have been floating in and out of my life recently. Whether intentionally or not, I put my past relationships out there like a living history museum for the Boy to compete with on a daily basis.

Last night I went over to see the Boy. It had been a few days and I actually started to miss him. When I got over to his house, the CD I had made him with all of my favorite songs was playing in the living room. We went out and had dinner and a few glasses of wine. When we got back to his place I went to brush my teeth and found myself standing in a freshly cleaned bathroom. And when I woke up in the middle of the night after having a crazy dream, he held on tight and snuggled me back to sleep.

This morning I realized that I had broken my number one relationship rule. I was a little bit moody and impatient, and I didn't treat the Boy with the respect he deserved. He may not be perfect. He may not be able to compete with the Canadian or the other ghosts of my past relationships. But he listens to what I say and he does what he can to try and make things better. Most importantly, he keeps showing up.

Thinking back to that day in the car with my Dad, maybe I shouldn't have judged my Mom so harshly. After all, I was barely able to survive four days in the car with the Boy, while my Mom has been driving in the car with my Dad almost every day for the past 40 years.

While we may spend a lot of time thinking about our relationship choices, we often forget that the other person has a choice too. So, I hope you will take a moment and thank your husband or wife, boyfriend or girlfriend for showing up and choosing you every day. As a matter of fact, I think I'll give the Boy a call right now. Just to say hi.

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