By Catherine DiMercurio
On a recent frigid Saturday, I gave myself permission to write all day and to not have to worry about anything else. I planned on it all week. I looked forward to it Friday night before I drifted off to sleep, the puppy snuggled against my legs. I woke early, made a big pot of coffee. I threw on some sweatpants and shrugged myself into a sweater. Hours later, when I happened to look in the mirror, I had to laugh at how I’d buttoned it, all askew. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve buttoned my sweaters this way. It started me on down a path though, thinking about alignment, because I can’t unsee metaphors when they jump out at me that way.
Clearly, my desire to write, my writing goals, my writing life—none of that feels aligned with the day-to-day structure of my life. At present, there’s no way around it. Maybe one day there will be away to live differently, where a full-time job with benefits isn’t so necessary, but I’m far from that now. As it is, I’m lucky to have a job where I’m interacting with books for a living. There are worse jobs a writer could be doing.
But I was also thinking about the idea of alignment in terms of relationships. As I’ve discussed here in recent posts, I find myself no longer clear about what it is I want, which comes as a surprise to me. I keep asking myself, do I even want to be in a relationship now, ever again? I saw someone on social media saying that men think they are competing with the top ten percent of other men for women’s affection, but they are really competing against the peace a woman feels in solitude. I know a number of women for whom this is true, and it definitely struck a chord with me.
Whenever I test the waters, start exploring how I might be feeling about the possibility of trying dating again, I invariably think about past relationships. One of the things I have prized most when I’m in a relationship is sharing a deep sense of connection with my partner. I’ve heard myself saying this to friends, whenever I dip into lonely and maybe, that it is this, perhaps, that I miss the most. Connection. I’ve said it so much that I have finally started asking myself what I truly mean by connection. I think, in a romantic relationship, it has several components. Chemistry is one. That feeling you get when you meet someone and feel like something instantly clicks. But that is only a small, shallow part of it. There’s also the intense bond that begins to grow as you share more and more about yourselves, your beliefs, your past. I find the tenderness of vulnerability to be deeply appealing. I have always been more attracted to vulnerability than confidence. In many men, you can see it underneath a surface bravado, like bright, beautiful, curious fish swimming under a surface of thin, clear ice. And I have romanticized this, the idea that I will be the one to tap into that. I think Gen-X women in particular were taught to do this in pretty much every teen movie that came out in our youth, the sweet guy lurking beneath either the bad boy or the cool kid image. The thing is, a lot of men were taught to be this way too, to hide part of themselves away. Maybe some of them believe the “right” person will be able to see them for who they are, maybe some of them just kept building up layers and not letting anyone in.
Still, as I thought about this more, recalled conversations where I believed a connection to be building and deepening, I began to understand that my desire for this type of connection was something that could be, and had been, easily manipulated. While I was opening myself up, ready to share honestly and deeply, the men I dated were more spare in what they shared of themselves, doling out confidences in doses designed to keep me interested, and themselves in control. It’s hard to say what was intentional and what was simply a learned but unconscious behavior, but it created an imbalance that always left me wanting more. And I thought that was the point, that energy, the craving, I thought it all meant we had this intense connection. But, I think that everything I believed connection to be, everything I wanted it to be, was standing in for something that I truly hoped for but have never found: alignment.
I don’t know if my understanding of alignment actually aligns with how the word is sometimes used in some pop psychology/relationship circles. It’s often discussed as shared values and having the same vision for the relationship. I think there’s a little more to it than that. The notion of shared values is a tricky idea. If you’re really into someone it is easy to interpret behaviors as evidence of a shared value, or to think, “close enough!” and shove that square peg in a round hole and call it aligned. What I’m thinking of goes a little deeper. What I hoped for in relationships, what I allowed a type of connection to stand in for, was a common way of being.
I got this wrong too, in the past. I thought after marriage to a mostly extroverted person, that dating mostly introverted people, people like me, meant that I was finding people who approached the world the same way I did. And again, I allowed that to confuse things, allowed myself to believe that there was a connection that was deeper than it truly was.
But those things are different than my way of being in this world. I’ve been trying to pin down with language the way I would describe how I see myself interacting with the world. Where does the “too sensitive” label that was always attached to me arise from? Is it empathy? I do think of myself as an empathetic person. I was the type of kid who felt personally injured whenever I knew someone else’s feelings to be hurt. But, that wasn’t quite exactly the full story.
I’ve been drawn to men who seem to possess qualities compatible with my empathy, men who wanted to make the world a better place, or who had a gentle way with animals, or who were deeply loyal to their friends or family. But as I got to know them better, I also saw other things. It wasn’t that they didn’t behave in kind or empathetic ways. In fact, it was glimpses of those traits that made be attach myself more eagerly to them. But something was missing. It was different for each of them, but I think as I look back, I can see that they all shared some similarities, a conviction of their own rightness in how they looked at the world, as well as some kind of determination to keep a part of themselves closed off from me. There was a lack of curiosity about the way other people, myself included, approached the world, and a lack of openness to other perspectives, to me.
Yes. Openness. And here we are. I feel like I’ve just come full circle, writing this. No wonder I named this blog Chronicles of the Open Hearted. This is it, how I approach the world. My way of being in it. Openness. Empathy is a part, but not all of what I’m talking about. I am not guarded, though I have tried to be. In new social situations, though my introvert self feels quiet, and easily overwhelmed, my empathetic self is eager to find something in common, to make the situation feel less awkward, and invariably, I feel like I’m a little too much myself, too open, sharing too much. Ironically this tends to make things more awkward because people don’t often know what to do with someone that seems incapable of being glib and guarded until you get to know someone better.
I guess what I’m realizing now is that I want to see those bright and beautiful fish right away, without having to glimpse them through a layer of ice. I want heart-on-your-sleeve. I want true vulnerability and earnestness, not a performance of it. I want curiosity and openness, to me, new ideas, the world.
So, what is your way of being? Are you and your partner aligned in this way? If not, how do you make it work? If so, how does that feel? What challenges do you face? If, like me, you’re unpartnered, have you begun to realize, like I have, that you have built friendships with people who share aspects of your alignment?
I can see now how all the things I attributed to connection—chemistry, heady conversations, emotional vulnerability—all these things felt good, but they also created a cloud of sorts, a fog that kept me from seeing what was missing. I was hyper-focused on developing the connection because I believed that to be the foundation of a good relationship. It certainly doesn’t hurt, but both partners must be trying to build it. Still, it shouldn’t be standing in for alignment. At least, not for me. That’s not what I want. I’ve tried it over, and over, and over again and it does not work.
But, it feels good to have arrived at a better understanding of myself. And five years in, I’m understanding this blog a little better. It is about me wanting to connect with you, and always has been. It’s about wanting both of us to feel less alone. But it’s also about openness, because I don’t know how else to be, where to put all these ideas that crowd my brain. It’s my own curiosity, an exploration of ideas as a way of (hopefully) starting conversations, maybe even just the one you have with yourself in your own head.