How I found StandUp Woman and made love stronger
I lived with a boyfriend who had a group of three friends, two men and one female, who came around about twice a month, sometimes apart, sometimes together.
I liked his two buddies and they were always nice and respectful to me. They had grown up together. They sometimes made me laugh, telling stories about the adventures that got them into trouble with Boyfriend when they were kids. They affectionately called each other “Cuz” and there was some complex marriage/blood relationship between all of them, as there is in extended families that grow up together over generations.
By themselves, the guys were fine. But they sometimes came over with a female “Cuz.” I was ready to like her too. But the personal and family stories never stopped when she came over. She only said hello to me coming in. After that, I didn’t exist. I didn’t grow up with them, didn’t go to school with them, and when they came as a group, suddenly my boyfriend was her “Cuz” and I had no name.
This was a fairly new relationship for me, my first one after a three-year drought. My record for relationships was not good. They all seemed to implode somewhere around the three-year mark, and I could not understand why they all seemed to devolve into me as doormat, and ultimately taking back the key to my house. The “my house” pattern was a choice I had made early on. If it was my house, and someone had to leave, it was not going to be me.
If younger me had read anything about “fear of rejection” I may have had an easier time of it from the beginning. A child of divorce, listening to my parents fight, I tried to avoid conflict in my love relationships. With the inevitable result that I let a lot of things go. I had a blind spot. I never realized I had “trained” my ex-husband and subsequent boyfriends that my “boundaries” were a constantly moving line. One day it was OK if I picked up his socks from the floor, and the next day it triggered an explosion around why he thought I was his mom. I never, even once, at the beginning, said “If I have to pick up your stinky socks and put them in the hamper, we will end up arguing about this.”
This ended in “grownup” me piling a week’s worth of stinky socks on his pillow. “Grownup” me had not laid down the house rules or set boundaries when he moved in, and I was frustrated over actions I felt were disrespectful, ones I thought he should “know.” Even though he was a long-time bachelor and a marine electrician who had been deployed on ships for months at a time, one who borrowed a couch between jobs, and had been living out of a suitcase for years. He was no longer “house-trained,” but I expected him to be a fully functioning housemate whose love would let him “see” my needs.
Psychologist and author Dr. Lisa Firestone says “Nothing awakens hurts like a close relationship. Our relationships stir up old feelings from our past more than anything else. Our brains are even flooded with the same neurochemical in both situations.”
After three failed love relationships, it only took a little stress or exhaustion to trigger resentment. Being an analytical person, I tried to “reason” my way through my new relationship. Were socks that big a deal? I let the “why am I doing all the housework?” question go. I was trying hard not to be controlling, or clingy, or demanding. I was an independent woman. I tried to prove to myself, or to him, that I didn’t really “need” him, even though I loved him. I was doing it all before he came along, so what were a few extra dishes, or a little extra laundry? I wanted him to feel “cared for.” He was kind, he paid his own way, he made me laugh, and we were in love. So when it came to boundaries, I was slowly reasoning my way into my old pattern early on in this new relationship. But deep down I was becoming very uneasy.
You can’t “reason” your way through a relationship. Love is about feelings. I was not expressing my feelings, or giving him a chance to hear them. If we argued about socks, it was about “facts.” Facts were not emotions, especially negative emotions, therefore they were “safe.” Stinky socks made the room and the carpet smell like a locker room. Stinky socks were not about resentment or frustration. And they were certainly not about “fear of rejection.”
Wild horses could not drag from me the sentence “I am afraid to tell you how angry it makes me to pick up your socks, because I am afraid you will think I am a nag and reject me.” And since I wasn’t telling him about my feelings or my boundary lines, he tripped over them frequently. We had begun to argue more often, me on the attack, him on the defense. That scared me. I kept telling myself “this isn’t that big of a deal” until there were a lot of things that “weren’t a big deal.”
In Daughters of Divorce Terry Gaspard, MSW and author, talks about daughters whose fathers left the family carry that fear of rejection, and how the marital fights that precede them are associated with the father’s absence. In our family’s divorce, my father moved three states away, taking my other brothers and sisters with him. This mostly was a financial decision for my older siblings, who knew something about money and pay disparity. My decision was to stay with my mom. Like my mom, I was fed up with dad’s shouting and table-pounding, enough to choose, twice, to stay with mom. So my fear of rejection included the hurt of losing my daily life with my siblings.
Those dirty socks held a whole bag of fear about losing this man who I was so in love with, one who had become part of “my family.”
Because I hadn’t set boundaries, the problem compounded. I couldn’t see his actions or inactions as a lack of respect, but then, it spread.
I became the outsider when female “Cuz” came with his buddies, and every time she showed up she laid it on a little thicker. I found myself going about my business, bringing out snacks and offering drinks, just once, then going back to doing whatever I was doing before they came. Boyfriend didn’t try to include me back in either, but to his credit, he took over the host duties. Even Polite Minnesota Girl wasn’t going to play Waitress.
Female “Cuz” ground it in a little more every time she showed up with Boyfriend’s pals. I suspect she had been my boyfriend’s girl at one time. I never asked her, and I never asked him. I refused to participate in anything that might look like jealousy. I was independent, I wasn’t afraid. I knew our love was strong. I applied “reason.” If he wanted her, he would be with her.
It was kind of killing her, I could see. She didn’t have a partner, just her “cousins.” So I let it go. I was alone for a few years before Boyfriend, and we were in love. I knew what being alone was like, and what love-envy felt like. But I was missing that her disrespect was another violation of my personal boundaries, because of my “blind spot.”
I was in love pretty bad, the kind that is a little embarrassing when you are in your late thirties and have been in love before and hurt before. Grown-up love, not making -out-in-public love. Wary, loose.
I had been letting it go, again. She was being a jerk, but formerly lonely me gave her that much room. Boyfriend was being a jerk. His buddies were being jerks. Plus, I was raised to be polite, in true Minnesota Lutheran hospitality style. Guests were guests, and you could not be “rude” to guests.
I was also raised that men would step in if the play got too rough. Men enforced the house rules, and the man was supposed to move guests to the door when the time came to leave. Right?
But Boyfriend didn’t, with this lady. I noticed that they all stayed later when she was around. She was constantly pushing and violating the social barriers just a little at a time, a little more every time. And the men were going along with it. Their rudeness, especially hers, taught me something important.
One night they had far overstayed their welcome.
It was past midnight and I had to get up at five in the morning to leave for work by six a.m. They ignored my hints. They ignored my cheerful, “Hey, I hate to kick you out, but I have to get up at five in the morning for work.” Boyfriend ignored it too.
They were sitting around my living room laughing and joking, busy tipping beers and telling stories about people I never met or knew.
Then, just like that, I was done.
For the very first time in my life, I sent Polite Minnesota Girl to a closet in my head and found StandUp Woman inside there.
Suddenly my guests noticed it was getting pretty cold in the living room. It was getting cold. Because it was winter, and because I was standing at the door, holding it open, wide. So wide the inside handle almost touched the wall.
Making sure it was all the way open, letting in the night.
They all look at me stupidly. I was standing there, holding their jackets in my hand. Boyfriend looks at me just as stupidly. What happened to Polite Hostess Girl?
I pick them off, one by one, with my eyes. The men first, because they were easy. They knew manners, and they knew they were in violation, because they were all raised by women. Their eyes drop, and they start to get up.
Grinder “Cuz” is surprised, because she thought she had me down. I was Polite Girl, Passive Girl, who wouldn’t say shit if she had a mouthful.
I get to her eyes. She is still sitting. What just happened? I don’t say a word, just keep looking her in the eyes. Seconds tick off in silence. She can’t take it and pops off first.
“I don’t know why you’re being so rude!”
I pop right back. “And I don’t know why you’re still on this side of my door.”
You see, it was still my door, because I had never really let Boyfriend in.
Her mouth opens, then closes and finally, slowly, she gets up. Boyfriend is shuffling toward me uncertainly, mouth hanging open a little. He looks so confused it is hard not to laugh, but I keep my face. I could see him thinking, what happened to Passive Girl?
He almost looks like maybe I am hiding her behind that door.
When he reaches me, as I was waiting for him to do, he looks through that wide-open door, into the chilly, empty night.
The sky is as wide open as my door. It looks lonely. Sounds of distant traffic drift into the silence. He swings his gaze back to my waiting eyes. I meet them, and this time his gaze follows mine, both of us looking out that wide, wide open door. He searches my face, and I answer by raising one eyebrow.
The door is open.
I hand him the pile of jackets and he moves to me, close enough to be body-to-body, shoulder to shoulder. The warmth of his solid body, which has rounded a little since he moved in, feels good against the chill.
The men begin to take their leave, politely, thanking me and Boyfriend, apologizing with their eyes. I smile, letting Friendly Woman out for them.
Grinder Cuz makes a show of packing up her purse, putting in the pictures she had brought, none of which include me. Chapstick. Keys. Zipping. Tries and fails to put her offended look back on. She mumbles something as she ducks through the door, fishing her keys back out, something not loud enough to be heard, and doesn’t look at me.
Their feet crunch the gravel, and they pile into the car.
A weak but defiant “See ya, Cuz!” floats from the driveway.
But she didn’t. Not in my house, anyway.
Later, a holiday call from her to Boyfriend elicited an invitation from Boyfriend, but I negatived it loudly enough for her to hear. I didn’t ask him to say “No” to her, but leaned in to say, “You are not welcome here anymore.” I held my hand out for the phone, just in case he wanted me to expand on that personally.
He just grinned and shook his head. “We’ll probably drop by to Auntie’s” he tells her.
Maybe it was my refusal to be jealous that made me let that woman, and the men around me, walk on me. I was irritated with Boyfriend, but not really angry. Because a life lesson had been percolating inside me. I wasn’t sure what it was at first, and when I’m not sure I tend not to act.
Demanding respect, I learned that night, was something I had to do for myself. After I did, something surprising happened.
We didn’t fight about it. I waited for it, but it never happened. Not that day, or in the days that followed. What I didn’t know about him was that in his life before me, his mom, his sisters, his aunties, all the women he grew up with, who came before me, stood up for themselves, made their boundaries clear, and enforced them.
It wasn’t a big deal. All the things I had been stewing over, all the times I didn’t open my mouth. That was my baggage, not his. Maybe that was the day “my” house became “our” house. Maybe he had not come all the way in yet because deep down, my insecurity infected him with doubt, too.
I tried not to overanalyze it, back then.
All I knew, something I could feel, was that he liked this new person, StandUp Woman.
He respected her.