Phil and I were driving home from a doctor’s appointment yesterday when I saw the sign: “Bat Houses For Sale.”
I was intrigued. “Bats buy houses? I thought they shacked up in haunted attics.”
Phil, always at the ready with an official sounding answer, said, “They need to seek refuge because they are deaf.”
“Bats are deaf.”
“Ummmm, I don’t think so Dr. Doolittle. Pretty sure they are blind. You know, blind as a bat?”
He laughed. “Or dumb as a stump.”
I love these rare moments with a less-than-perfect Phil, because most of the time, he comes pretty damn close. When we first started dating, his superstar resume almost scared me away: 4.0 student, captain of his high school football team, full engineering scholarship to Villanova. Ok sure, that’s impressive, you say. But is he a total nerd? Nope. He’s fun, charming, and 100% likable. Think Ferris Bueller.
As I see it, the downside to this charmed existence is the pressure to be happy, dazzling and brilliant all the time. I, fortunately, do not have this problem. I call it the Beauty of Being Average – no one expects too much. You are not afraid to fail because the bar is set so low. It’s like falling off a step stool vs. Phil’s 10 foot ladder. I was an average student, an average musician, an average athlete. Think Joe Bloggs.*
In high school, Phil was doing advanced calculus while I was smoking cigarettes outside the PathMark in East Hanover, NJ. He ran football drills and led student council meetings. I streaked my hair with Manic Panic while my friend Maureen pierced my ears with a safety pin. He was every parent’s dream and I was an ABC Afterschool Special. At my college graduation from Villanova, my dad said, “Well Jess, I wasn’t sure you could pull this off. But what do you know, here we are!” I’m pretty sure that’s French Canadian for “Congratulations.”
These childhood roles – Phil as Superstar and Jessie as Hot Mess – spilled over into the early years of our marriage, and we worked with a therapist to bring more equality into our relationship. But certain situations trigger old behaviors. My recent health issues, for example, have brought out the
bossy control freak natural leader in Phil. He feels it is his duty to help me, which is nice….if I ask for help. But he tends to take over, acting as if he has everything under control – even though I know he doesn’t. He feels frazzled and I feel like a burden. This creates distance – the opposite of the intended effect.
I tried to talk to Phil about letting his guard down, but these conversations ended with both of us getting defensive. I couldn’t figure out why until I read Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly:
We ask [men] to be vulnerable, we beg them to let us in, and we plead with them to tell us when they’re afraid, but the truth is that most women can’t stomach it. In these moments when real vulnerability happens to men, most of us recoil with fear and that fear manifests as everything from disappointment to disgust. And men are very smart. They know the risks, and they see the look in our eyes when we’re thinking “C’mon! Pull it together! Man up!”
Holy crap. I thought. Is that really true? Do I really do that? The answer, of course, is yes. I am guilty of this double standard. I want Phil to be sweet and sensitive when we are talking about “safe” topics. But when we are discussing issues that make me feel squirmy and insecure – like money and medical bills – I want him to be in control. Powerful. Confident. I want to feel safe at all costs, even if that means being lied to.
But it’s a trap. Because deep down you know when someone is telling you what you want to hear. Then you both retreat to opposite sides of the bed with all that bottled up emotion, and you don’t feel safe at all. You feel alone.
I had to stop this cycle, and find a way to invite vulnerability into tough conversations. But I needed a mental reminder – a tool to keep me from getting defensive or judgmental. Like an electric fence. Or ego taser.
Then, I found this little gem.
When I look at this face – the first face, not the spooky floating ghost-face- my heart softens. Phil is allowed to have doubts and fears just like the little boy in the picture. In many ways, he is still this kid who just wants to be seen and heard and loved. The kid who wants someone to hold his face and say, “Hey. I’m here to help, it’s going to be ok,” when he forgets how to make a slip knot or whatever the hell you do in Cub Scouts.
However, my new approach hit a snag when I started shaming myself for shaming him. What kind of heartless bitch crushes the spirit of an earnest little Cub Scout? Who the hell do you think you are?
I am this person.
This little girl still exists, too. Maybe she feels inadequate, not that smart, a little lost. She needs someone to place a grounding hand on her shoulder and say, “You can do this. You are capable of a lot more than you think.”
Love is not something we give or get; it is something we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them – we can only love others as much as we love ourselves.
A part of me cringes at this definition; the self love things always throws me for a loop. My inner critic has been around for a long time, and that bitch loves a good cat fight. So I will continue to arm myself with baby pictures. Because you would never say:
“Get up and do something, you lazy slob!”
“What the hell are you wearing?”
Go find that shoebox of old photos and give it a try. I dare you.
* Joe Bloggs: (n). Brit slang for an average or typical man. Used by the Princeton Review SAT prep course for the average student prone to choosing the most obvious, dumbass answer.