How Much of Me Do I Have to Give Up to be Loved by You?
The seminar was for couples, many decades ago in Boulder. All I recall of it is the title. It has stuck with me for thirty years because of its raw truth. The reason it came up for me today was because of an email that I received this morning from my BF back in Denver.
I had written him that I was very ill here in Borneo, just before I headed to the local hospital. His knee jerk reaction — which I find very common among men- was to fix things for me. I don’t need that, don’t want it, nor did I require saving. In this relationship, I’m the world explorer. All I wanted was a kind email from him reminding me he was there and that he cared. That’s mother’s milk. The rest, I’ve had years of experience handling.
His second email told me to get well enough to travel and then stop traveling. “You don’t need to do this any more,” he stated flatly.
I had to suck my breath in on that one. First, who is anyone to dictate to me to stop my passionate lifestyle to make him feel more at ease? Not in a billion years would I tell this man to stop being a code jockey contractor, which he loves, find a nice safe retail job, to make me feel safer. The hackles on the back of his neck would rise.
And so they should.
While I absolutely understand the intent- which was caring- the impact was something else again. This brings up the issue of whether we are friends in our relationships or if there is something else going on, and in this I am not discussing my BF so much as all our relationships.
Sacrificing vs Accommodating
It’s one thing to learn to accommodate those we love. For example, as a veteran, I was achingly aware of what military spouses had to give up in order to move with their loved ones, or to have to live for months and years at a time without their company. While digital devices have helped, they don’t replace another beating heart in the household. However, we make those choices- and with luck, we do so with courage and fortitude. Each of us makes some accommodations for people we care most about, be it delaying a degree or career, or having kids later in life or not at all, or any one of a number of options that allow us to support someone we love. When we make those choices knowingly and with full responsibility for the potential outcomes, whatever comes doesn’t offend. Mind you there are plenty of stories of doctor’s spouses, for example, who worked hard at home, putting their careers on hold while their partners got their MD only to be later gifted with divorce papers when said doctor falls in love at the hospital. It happens. It’s part of what’s possible. You didn’t sign up for that. By the same token what makes us interesting as partners is that we have our own full lives, independent of our partners, and yes of course that includes homemaker for either sex.
What doesn’t work is when we have to sell big chunks of ourselves down the river to earn or keep someone’s affection. That kind of sacrifice creates resentment, often unspoken, and it will explode like Krakatoa at some point. My BF has known me for more than 10 years, but yet he clearly doesn’t know me well enough. Much of our connection he was away traveling while I worked on my career. I got into adventure travel along the way because it has always called my name. Now it is a good part of who I am. And if I had to choose between the two, I’ll take the travel. That may be harsh, but he’s the homebody now. His message is that my throwing myself onto the mercy of the great wide world makes him uncomfortable. That’s not my problem, it’s his. Why? Because he’s implicitly telling me that he doesn’t trust my competence, capabilities and world smarts, which are considerable. There’s no question he doesn’t mean it that way but that’s the message. It’s important to understand the difference between intent and impact.
If he were to decide suddenly that he wanted to do international work and do some exploring on his own, nobody would be a bigger cheerleader. I’d do a happy dance right up to the gate. In part, because he would understand that his fears for my safety are largely unfounded. I would love it if he would join me, just once. But this is not who he is. It is who I am, and that’s not something I’m willing to give up.
Respect for What Makes Us Different
Time away- whatever that time looks like- has taught me a great deal about what makes a relationship work. I can’t speak for anyone else but constant togetherness is extremely difficult for me. What is so charming about courtship is the time we spending considering, wondering, mooning over and appreciating who someone is. Their ideas, thoughts, what makes them intriguing. What I’ve noticed is that over time, I appreciate the distance even more. What each of us does on our own gives us stories and experiences to share. Asking someone to forfeit a great life passion simply because you happen to be ill at ease is a serious boundary breach. This is what I mean: the BF has an opportunity to back off, and simply learn to trust me. I seek support, not a savior. I’m hardly the damsel in distress here. I’m the one in this partnership who skydives, paraglide, kayaks, climbs big ass mountains, cycles and hikes and flies ultralights. It’s in my DNA. If I crash, screw it. I’ve smashed my pelvis, broken my back, holy cow- and this time around I just got the flu. Compared to other trips, that’s a speed bump. I chose to live this life.
On the other hand, the BF has chosen to turn down well paying W-2s because he reveres his freedom from a boss. I am all for that. It has cost him dearly but it’s his choice. It’s not mine to dictate to him how to run his life. He doesn’t financially support my lifestyle, nor I his. That independence is hard earned and it has its costs. I appreciate that an adventure for him is a kindergarten outing for me. That is in no way a criticism. I love his steadiness to my relative insanity. And I appreciate that he has comfort levels that are very different from mine. I wouldn’t have him any other way, but I won’t have him or anyone else dictating to me what kind of lifestyle I need.
It’s Not My Job
Not everyone understands this, but I’ll say it anyway. It’s not my job to make my BF happy, comfortable or at ease. It’s his. Just as it’s my responsibility to make myself happy. When two happy-in-themselves people get together, the results are amazing. I see perpetual issues where someone still expects a husband or wife to be responsible for their state of mind. Not only is this impossible but it’s grounds for an eventual divorce. Making moderate adaptations along the way is understood. But expecting someone to overhaul themselves to fit your lifestyle? Nope. Especially if said partner is deeply happy, productive, satisfied, and as a result, brings great joy to the partnership. When the BF and I am together I delight in dressing up for him, going out of my way to please him. And, I might note, he finds what I have to talk about damned interesting. That doesn’t come with staying home all day — and I am only here referring to my lifestyle, not anyone else’s. I’m interesting to him because of my stories, what I read, what I do.
Boundaries Lead to Joy
Perhaps it’s because I chose an outlier lifestyle that I see things this way. I’ve no idea. However, when I listen to my divorced friends complain about the ex, what I hear is an unreasonable expectation that making this person happy should have been their life’s mission. Um, NO. I have to disagree. I want the BF to be totally happy with his lifestyle and me with mine. That way the time we do spend together (and frankly, he has little of it to give anyway because he’s a workaholic) is out of this world.
Setting boundaries — which is what we do with kids, with pets, with anyone — leads to happiness. Being clear about what pieces of you are off limits and being willing to offer the same to your partner are what allow us to move forward, around and next to one another in confidence. Clarity is power. Control is just manipulation. If someone makes a demand of you and your neck hairs rise, that’s a very good signal that a boundary has been crossed. Time to renegotiate, with respect and care.
Which is what we’ll do. BF will need to decide if he’s willing to accept this. Most likely he will because he’s a terrific guy, and he’s not the controlling type. Which is what makes him a terrific guy.
I already have my ticket back to Africa for most of November. Been there five times already. I know the risks. And I relish the rewards. It’s important to know what your passion is, and even more to have a partner who wants you to be happy living it. I’m not saying it’s easy. But for my dollar, love is about fully supporting what your partner loves, and having complete confidence in your ability to handle yourself. Love is about dusting you off when you fall down, reminding you of your value, and not preventing life from happening but being there when it does.