“When someone tells you who they are, listen,” she said from across the table, a pitcher of mimosas into a brunch that had quickly devolved into an intervention–a congress of friends all waiting to weigh in on my poor romantic choices. I struggled to articulate just why I was in my current predicament, the actual details of which were irrelevant to the teachable moment upon which my friends were trying to capitalize: LISTEN. Why was that so hard?
Perhaps it is difficult to listen because we can become so preoccupied with what we want to hear, even when our desires defy our reality. Or, maybe we are so distracted by what we need to hear – so as to feel loved, accepted, whole – that we get locked inside our own echo chambers, severed from those with whom we so desperately want to connect.
It happened with Phillip, my beau of a year and a half who was as funny as he was sexy, and as emotionally unavailable as he was honest about it. But I did not listen. I focused on how much we enjoyed eachother, how intensely I fell for him, and more critically, how we seemed to balance one another in important ways. My life can be all too serious at times: raising four year-old twins, navigating the co-parenting minefield, battling among the sharp elbows of corporate America. Phillip brought some much needed levity and a healthy dose of passion into the mix. A jokester with a laid back style, he helped me to take myself less seriously. As he got to know me, and eventually my children, his fresh perspective helped me to address challenges that I was just too close to to see clearly. And, after the novelty and giddiness of our initials months together passed, it gave way to something truly comforting: our standing Friday night date, our ritual long weekend morning breakfasts, the way he made me laugh until it hurt, how his passion for the arts encouraged my own creativity, and the way he began to deeply love my children. It brought me such comfort to know that confronting the demons of my own internalized homophobia could bring me to such a loving place with a man. But I got so caught up in that comfort–in the ease of who we were as a couple, and in my ideas about who we could become together–that I heard what I wanted, and did not truly listen to what he needed. These things were not the same.
Phillip, of course, sent every signal that there were impossible conflicts between our needs–physically, intimately, emotionally. But I did not listen. I wanted to hear that we were building toward the same place. We weren’t, and there were a lot of reasons. We were at very different points in our lives: me a somewhat settled dad climbing the corporate ladder, him a starving and determined artist unsure of his next steps, both of us carrying baggage and trauma that the other was not quite equipped to deal with. After a few months of our needs and limitations slamming up against one another in all the wrong ways, it was clear that we had exhausted ourselves (and each other) and that we needed a break–and as it turned out, a permanent one. And so, I found myself reeling from a breakup that I knew was inevitable, yet it still caught me by surprise. Why? Because I did not listen.
At first, the break was just as miserable as the slamming and in an effort to distract myself from the grief, I made the questionable decision to try dating again. Low and behold, I quickly met a nice guy: kind, sexy, down-to-earth (mostly). There was some good chemistry and I think we truly enjoyed one another’s company. He was very attentive, and it wasn’t long before Nice Guy began sewing the seeds of a future. His overtures, while romantic, were not what I needed. I hadn’t let go of Phillip, wasn’t sure I was ready to, wasn’t sure I could. This was clearly not fair to Nice Guy. I was in no place to receive what he had to offer, but I let it charge on for a few months. I heard what I wanted to hear: We were having fun together. It was light. We were taking our time. It wasn’t too serious. But, at some point for him, it was. He told me who he was: the full-throttle commitment guy. And sure, he was a bit “too much, too soon,” but the point is that I did not listen, even when he showed up with the U-Haul.
I feel bad about hurting Nice Guy’s feelings. He did not deserve to be caught in the crosshairs of my grief and ambivalence. But what I feel worst about is not listening–and not just to him or to Phillip, but to myself. What I needed was to grieve, to learn from the love I found and recover from the love I lost. And so with some time–and hopefully some perspective–I’m ready to listen. Tell me who you are.