Keep Fishin’, Keep Swipin’

I’ve had “Keep Fishin’” by Weezer stuck in my head all morning for exactly one particular reason: there’s this seemingly universal analogy that compares fishing to dating. Haven’t we all heard the phrase, “there are plenty of other fish in the sea”? There’s even a dating website called “Plenty of Fish” and in fact, a quick online search tells me that the “more fish in the sea” idiom (or similar iterations of it) dates back as far as the late 1500s, so clearly this is something deeply ingrained in our culture.

I’ve tried to fish a handful of times and only ever caught weeds and rocks, which was both frustrating and highly unsatisfying. After these experiences, I feel like I’m able to understand why we try to console ourselves, both about catching fish and about finding love, by promising that a better catch is just another cast away. Because, as I attempt to meet a partner, I’m metaphorically casting my fishing line out again and again, hoping for a decent catch of some kind. But, to continue with the fishing metaphor, despite the bait I choose, or the way I throw my line, I always seem to end up with an empty hook or a fish so puny that it needs to be thrown back.

And this is my point: there seem to be plenty of single people looking for someone to be with, but few are actually willing or able to do what it takes to make that happen and, in general, they seem to treat other people like a stinky boot they just pulled out of the water.

Why are we all making each other feel like shit when we should be trying to make each other feel more connected? I mean, you want to be happy, I want to be happy; you want to connect, I want to connect… There’s no way to get to know someone without having a conversation. And just because it may turn out that we’re not compatible as a couple, it doesn’t mean that we should be dicks to each other.

Dating pokes at all my insecurities; in fact, it puts them all on high-alert. That’s because dating is, at its core, an exercise of making yourself vulnerable over and over again. And when you come from a history of abuse, you’re far more tender and raw than people who haven’t. It’s so much harder to allow yourself to be vulnerable when you come from relationship trauma and the sting of rejection, or betrayal, or even just a perceived threat or slight, is far more potent than it would be otherwise.

I actually loathe the expression “there are plenty of other fish in the sea”. No, seriously; I hate hearing it. (And I hate that this stupid Weezer song is stuck in my head, pounding its catchy pop hook against my brain.) When someone says that to me, I feel like I’m being consoled as a 17-year-old who’s crying after a breakup. Except that at 17, you knew (c’mon, you did know!) that your relationship probably wasn’t going to be “the one” because breakups are part of growing up and we pretty much all go through them in our younger years.

The difference between those breakups and breakups now is that the ones in our youth came with a promise: that you would move on and meet someone better and not feel sad for very long. At that age, most of our friends were going through the same shit and most of them were living lives that pretty closely resembled ours, so you didn’t feel alone and you had plenty of opportunities to meet someone new at school or the mall or wherever.

As you get older, finding love gets a lot harder, and I say that as a person in their early thirties, so I can just imagine that it will become exponentially harder if I stay single into my 40s or beyond. But it also feels like if I have baggage like a history of abuse, a shitty ex-partner,  or a dependence on psychiatric meds to keep me stable, then other people my age must have similar experiences that could help them be compassionate. I accept that these are not the things that we should put in the front window of our dating storefront displays, but I also feel like it’s these experiences that have likely led us to be single, so shouldn’t there be some understanding?

Why not be kinder to each other as we float around in the dating ocean? Let’s allow our fishing lines to get tangled, even if only briefly, and then carefully unwind them with decent behaviour and a shred of integrity. There’s enough trash in the world’s oceans; why add more shit to the pile?

As I wade back into the waters of 21st century courtship, I think I’ll adjust Weezer’s lyrics to reflect our modern times and my own experience…sing it with me, people:

“Oh yeah when they keep ghosting you
keep swipin’ cause they’re not for you
there’s nothin’ much that we can do
to save us from ourselves.”

xxJ

Boundaries, People! Boundaries!

I recently had someone ask me, “How do you get people, women in particular, to recognize [emotional abuse] for what it is early enough in a relationship to drop that person like a hot potato?”

This really got me thinking; if we understand what emotional abuse is (the categorical and intentional manipulation of someone in an effort to create a significant imbalance of power and a strong codependency), how can we avoid getting caught in it? What early warning signs can we look for?

Again, I somehow managed to get my thoughts about this down to a single word: boundaries.

Boundaries are, I think, the fundamental tell-tale in the beginning of a relationship. And what I mean by that, is that people who respect your boundaries tend to be people you can trust. Those who repeatedly push or challenge your boundaries in ways that make you feel confused or hurt are people you need to be wary of.

In all my unhealthy relationships, a lack of boundaries has been key to the relationships’ failures. Both myself and my partners didn’t practice maintaining and respecting healthy boundaries and that got us into heaps of trouble.

A healthy boundary is one in which your needs are met and you feel safe and confident. For example, using a tool like Our Family Wizard to manage communication between me and my ex-husband is a way of keeping a safe boundary between us, especially when there’s conflict.

Safe boundaries are ones that keep you feeling secure and they can be used not just with former partners, but in all our relationships.

Here’s another example: Many people feel overwhelmed after giving birth and having excited friends and family show up to meet the new baby right away. Asking your loved ones to wait a few days, or until you contact them to say you are ready, is setting a healthy boundary.

Telling someone you need time to process a difficult conversation is setting a healthy boundary.

Saying no to unwanted sexual advances is setting a healthy boundary.

Stepping away from a close-talker is setting a healthy boundary.

Doing anything that preserves your sense of safety and self-worth is establishing a healthy boundary and this is a reasonable thing to do, no matter what someone else might tell you.

Okay, but how do you actually set up those boundaries?

Again, my answer to this question is also only one word: assertiveness.

What is assertiveness? Well, I’m glad you asked! The Cambridge Dictionary defines “assertive” as this: “Someone who is assertive behaves confidently and is not frightened to say what they want or believe.”

So this means that assertiveness is when you act confidently and say what you need. And I believe that in order to establish healthy boundaries, you have to be assertive.

But wait! Let’s be clear that “assertive” is vastly different than “aggressive.” I think lots of people get these two things confused, so I want to dispel the notion that being assertive is a bad thing! Aggression is forceful and angry; it doesn’t respect boundaries and it can be violent and driving. Assertiveness doesn’t undermine other people and it isn’t nasty. It’s confident. It’s honest. It’s authentic. It’s the middle-ground between passive and aggressive (don’t even get me started on passive-aggressive!) and is also the only healthy way of expressing your needs and getting them met.

If you’re passive, you give your power away to other people. If you’re aggressive, you take power for yourself. If you’re assertive, you respect other people’s space and power, while maintaining your own.

What I’m saying is that the key to recognizing potentially abusive behaviour from others is to notice whether they have healthy boundaries for themselves and if they also respect your healthy boundaries. And the key to maintaining your boundaries lies in being assertive—not aggressive or passive—about what you need.

Sadly, there’s is no magic method for avoiding narcissists, abusers, or shitty people. I do think, however, that tuning into how someone responds to you setting up or maintaining boundaries can be fundamental in helping to avoid unsavoury or overly needy people. It may seem like you are pushing people away when you act assertively and put up your boundaries, but in the end, you’re not responsible for how others respond to your behaviour and those who stick around are much more likely to be the authentic, quality people in your life.

It can definitely feel scary to place boundaries around yourself, but remember, these aren’t walls; they’re boundaries that can stretch and grow, change and shift. You get to set them and you get to decide who comes in and out of them. You also get to choose how you respond to other people setting their boundaries and if you can succeed in creating a balance between getting your own needs met and meeting your partner’s needs (or your friend’s/family’s/children’s/whomever’s) then you will be poised to succeed in a healthier relationship.

xxJ

Boundaries, Kara! Boundaries!

Damn, I Wish It Was Easier.

Grief is a tricky, messy feeling. It manifests in many different ways and goes at a pace that is unique to each person who struggles with it. I’ve personally experienced the death of loved ones and I know what that grief feels like.

I still carry with me a sense of loss for those people I no longer have in my life, but I’ve learned that grief can also be a response to things other than literal death. In the counselling I’ve done these last few years, I’ve come to realize that I am living in a cycle of grief. Not because someone I loved has died, but because the life I thought I would live ended.

Just as it does when we grieve the death of another person, my grief ebbs and flows; it changes, but it still persists. Some days are easier than others, but last week, when I wrote about struggling at Christmas time, my grief was very present. The holidays bring out all the symptoms of my grief because this time of year highlights many of the difficult and lonely situations I have to face in my post-divorce/post-abuse life.

I’m not sure how many people consider the experience of a break-up, or divorce, or another significant life change, as something to grieve, but I now believe that part of what makes these break-ups so difficult is that in these situations, we have to learn to accept life without the person or things we thought we were going to have. The plans we made, the future we envisioned, the expectations we created; these are all things that may contribute to our sense of grief at the end of a relationship or during a big change in our circumstances.

The grief I am living with now is for losing the life I envisioned as a mother and the life I thought I would have as a wife. It’s also because of a deep sense of injustice that I haven’t been able to get over yet.

Imagine being away from your kids every other weekend and committing to this schedule until your children have grown. Consider for a moment what it would feel like to wake up on Christmas morning and not see your own kids. Imagine how it feels to answer phone calls when your child is with their other parent and tell them, as they beg you to let them come home, that you can’t come and get them (because a court order says they have to be with your former partner). Pretend for a minute that your baby is sick and you can’t hold them because you can’t be with them during their other parent’s access. Imagine that you have to explain to your kids over and over again why you and your partner have separated, but at the same time, you can’t say to them that the reason for this is a long-standing history of domestic abuse. 

This is how I experience life in a family of divorce and I will readily admit that it has been a devastating change for me to try to accept.

I once had someone tell me that giving up Christmas mornings and living through those teary phone calls are “necessary sacrifices” in order to save ourselves from an abusive or unhealthy partnership. It’s become a small comfort to tell myself that and I’ve looked for other ways to help assuage my grief. For example, soon after my separation from my husband, I wrote a little sentence that has become somewhat of a mantra to me, and I keep it in mind whenever my grief bubbles up and I feel guilty, sad, or angry about my circumstances.

I tell myself,

“I would always rather explain why I left, than why I didn’t.”

These words offer a little assurance when I start feeling triggered, but my grief is a constant in my life. It is present all the time and every day that I miss with my girls, every Christmas I don’t wake up to their happy faces, every birthday when we’re not together, every time they call and ask to come home, every time I am surrounded by friends and family in loving, intact relationships, I am reminded of my loss and reminded that this is how it will always be from now on.

Always, in the corner of my heart, I hold my grief.

Always, I feel it in my gut.

It is always there.

Much like how we need to acknowledge and accept that mental health can be just as debilitating as any other disease, we also need to see that grief is a reasonable response to loss and not just to death. As I said before, I used to think of grief as something we only experience when a person we care about dies. Now I see that grief really means experiencing profound loss of any kind and trying to come to terms with it.

So I allow myself to acknowledge my grief and I know that’s the best way to deal with it. I also know that I need to give myself permission to feel shitty sometimes; grief has no timeline, no schedule, no checklist and I need to make space for it on the difficult days. The only way to move through grief is to live through it.

Damn, I wish it was easier.

xxJ

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“Some pain is simply the normal grief of human existence. That is pain that I try to make room for. I honor my grief.” – Marianne Williamson