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I Will Pay For This When I Get Home: Unpacking the Guilt Trip

Posted by Deborah Huso on Jan 3, 2015 in Girlfriends, Men, Relationships

Society teaches us that guilt trips are the purview of women. I’d like to suggest, however, that there is no gender specificity when it comes to guilt. And while I grew up seeing a lot of guilt exercised by women who felt “powerless,” I must say that my more recent life experience shows a good deal more emotional blackmailing by men than women.

Is this a sea change?  Perhaps.  Perhaps given the fact I tend to associate with professionally and financially successful females, I see a lot more “powerless” feeling men–men who, because their partners and lovers don’t need them as breadwinners and protectors, worry about being ultimately insignificant.

The result, I think, is a strange reversal where women who wish to exercise independence from male partners find themselves in the crosshairs of guilt trips that would even make the proverbial “Jewish mother” blush.

I have enough cases in point to fill a self-help book.

One evening, a girlfriend who had joined me for a night out, advised me her husband would make her “pay for this.”  “It’s totally worth it though!” she exclaimed, reveling in a few hours’ freedom from the burdens of marriage and motherhood.

This is not the first time I’ve heard such proclamations.  How many times have I watched female friends “watch the clock” on lunch and shopping outings, worried their husbands would give them the third degree later for enjoying themselves outside the family unit?

And these are not pathetic, submissive, and dependent women.  They are women who have chosen to be with their male partners out of love, not necessity.

Nevermind that their husbands gleefully go on weekend hunting trips, spend hours watching football with the guys, or spend evenings alone absorbed by their computer screens.  For women, this kind of “independent of partner” behavior still remains unconscionable.

And honestly, I don’t get it.

For all the failings in my own marriage, one thing where my ex-husband and I excelled as partners was in giving each other space to be ourselves and experience life outside the confines of “the relationship.” I never chastised him for weekends spent racing anymore than he begrudged me my wanderlust gene that led me to travel to distant places, often without him, exercising my passion for new experiences.

I am not alone in this experience, though sometimes I feel nearly so.  I have a girlfriend whose husband has actually thanked me for taking her on “girlfriend getaways” because he says it so lightens her spirit at home when she returns.  But this kind of thing is rare.

Plenty of men complain about the resentment they feel from the women in their lives—their spouses’ lack of interest in sex with them, their lovers’ increasing disinterest in spending time with them. As a friend of mine pointed out recently to male colleagues complaining because they’d not had sex with their wives in more than six months but then proclaiming themselves to be such superb lovers, “If you were good in bed, you wouldn’t be having this problem!”

And it’s simple but true.

No one wants to be hen-pecked, male or female. No one wants to be persistently criticized and put down. No one wants to be guilted instead of romantically seduced into sex. No one wants to be made to feel guilty for wanting more than the family unit provides. This is true regardless of gender.  And there are few quicker ways to kill romance than to nag, criticize, and guilt trip.

We first fall in love because another human being sees the beauty inside us, remarks on it, tries to access it, grow it. Love drifts into nothingness when that interest turns to jealous gatekeeping, where we think we can protect our turf by making the beloved feel like less than he or she really is.

I’ve seen it many times, in my own life and in the lives of others.

It is perhaps why, when an older gentleman remarked to me one evening at a restaurant I frequent with my daughter, “I’ve watched the two of you interact.  You are so loving with her.  It is a beautiful thing to behold.”

His comment literally knocked the air right out of me.  No man had ever said anything like that to me.  All I’ve ever known from men is criticism of my failings as a mother, and this has not been reserved to my ex-husband, mind you. Even the handful of men I’ve dated seriously enough to introduce them to my daughter have remarked repeatedly on my so-called failings.

Meanwhile the women in my life repeatedly cheer me on, empathize with the difficulties of being a parent while balancing a demanding career as well.  Is it any wonder I seek their consolation first when faced with the trials of life?

Is it any wonder so many of the women I love do the same?  Going to girlfriends, mothers, and sisters—sources of support and understanding who will gently remind them they are incredible mothers, amazing professionals, grand organizers of life’s mayhem.

And yet so many husbands and lovers begrudge their retreat into the arms of this network of unconditional love, somehow failing to realize that if they could acknowledge these women in their lives as beautiful, dedicated, smart, and nurturing and feed them the easy romance of seeing and speaking these things, no guilt trips would be necessary. Wives would come home without dread.  They would love without duty but with true longing. They would return to that sacred place they once occupied before the men in their lives became hopelessly scared of losing them.

 
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True Love…and Why I Think Mark Twain Never Knew It

Posted by Deborah Huso on Jan 2, 2015 in Men, Musings, Relationships

Originally published January 23, 2013.

One of Mark Twain’s most famous and often quoted lines is “Familiarity breeds contempt…and children.” How well many of us identify with this quip, especially the first part, which actually isn’t exactly funny. Only last week, I was chatting with a colleague who said, “I’ve been married 40 years, and I’m just grateful my wife still speaks to me.”

I suspect many of us who are married (or have been) have asked ourselves if this is just the way things are. We marry, as a friend of mine says he did, as a result of drinking too much alcohol (wife no.1) or “a momentary lapse of reason” (wife no. 2) and hope for the best, thinking if we get lucky our lives might look a little something like a fairytale.

Cautionary fable might be more like it, however.

A friend of mine told me the other night after I found my brain rattled by yet another run-in with love gone awry, “Your life reads like a movie.”  The comment was uttered partly in admiration and partly in an “it’s entertaining to hear about, but I sure wouldn’t want to live it” manner of speaking. You see, I’ve been proposed to six times. That I turned down four of those offers would make me appear wise. The problem is I accepted two. I only wish I had the excuse that I was drunk at the time.

I’m not sure marriage is the problem though.  My friends and I often talk about the poisonous metals present in wedding rings that make the wearer turn into a creature no longer recognizable—a beast who has become demanding, critical, resentful, and likely to take advantage of all his or her partner’s weaknesses. I do not necessarily excuse myself from having been poisoned by 14 karat gold rings. Maybe next time I’ll try platinum.

My ex-husband says marriage sets up expectations where there were none before, and that’s the downfall of us all.

I have to disagree (no surprise there—the poisonous wedding band metals are likely still in my system).

I’m not exactly a hopeless romantic either. I’ve never subscribed to the idea of “soul mates.” I remain unconvinced there is one man out there destined to fulfill all of my romantic desires. That being said, however, I do believe in true love.

What is true love?

Well, I’ll tell you…it’s certainly not what you think.  It’s not love at first sight.  It’s not the passion you feel when the devastatingly handsome man with the sparkly brown eyes kisses you for the first time. It’s not the chest flutters you get when you think of him.  All of that, my dears, is infatuation. And infatuation is fleeting.  Even love is fleeting.

But true love: that is something else entirely, and I guarantee it is not something the father of American colloquial letters ever experienced.

How do I know?

I know because familiarity makes true love grow.  Whereas the love most of us experience and marry into begins as a bright flame that gradually sputters and often even goes out completely, true love can begin tentatively (though not always) and then widens and deepens with time and familiarity.

It does not retreat over time. It builds.

I’ve heard psychologists say the average person experiences true love only once a lifetime, twice if he or she is lucky.  Those statistics are pretty sad. It means when you find it (if you’re smart enough to recognize it and, even more importantly, nurture it) you better damn well hang onto it.

Unfortunately, most of us never find it, or, if we do, we kill it as promptly as we can or maybe even deter it from growing in the first place. That’s because true love is scary as hell.

I should know. I’ve experienced it at least once, a fact which terrifies me to no small degree at the tender age of 37 given that true love experience number one didn’t work out so well. If psychologists are to be believed, I’m on my last chance at this gig.

I had my first experience of true love quite accidentally.  It was one of those “I have nothing to lose” relationships I thought would never last that makes one go full out on vulnerability, risk, and “reckless honesty,” as fellow contributor Susannah Herrada likes to call it. The interesting side effect of throwing all caution to wind is that it connects you with another human being on levels the average romantic relationship never experiences.

I have frequently tried to explain this to people who have never experienced it, and usually, at best, I receive blank looks.  Other times, I find my sanity questioned.  So I’ll make an effort here to tell you what I’m talking about, to tell you what true love looks like.  Maybe you’ve seen it, experienced it. Maybe it’s right there in front of you waiting to happen if only you will let go of all your inhibitions, fears, and resentments.

You know you have a case of true love on your hands, friends, when you not only experience all the usual characteristics of love (or infatuation) like persistent thinking about that beautiful man with the sky blue eyes and persistent longing for him but also the ability to feel that persistent longing (and find it deepening) with time.  And I don’t mean the growth of infatuation over a few months. I mean that two or three years into the relationship you love that person more than you did after six months’ acquaintance, and you find that love deepening with each passing day.  It’s that rare kind of love you might see once in a blue moon when a couple who has been married 50 years is still holding hands and kissing on the front porch at sunset.

Where true love is concerned, you not only love your beloved’s finest qualities but you love his weaknesses, too.  You don’t just accept those weaknesses, you love them.  And you long to protect them, not use them to manipulate and harm.  This is a person whose eyes you can gaze into for hours, maybe days, without boredom.  And again, you still feel this desire after years and years.  There is nothing he can do to deter you from loving him. You may feel anger against him, but it does not diminish your love, no matter how much you may wish it would.

You see, true love is not all wine and roses. In fact, it can hurt to the core, even when it is good. Because when you love someone to the depth that you reveal all of yourself, every last shred of your vulnerability, you make that person a part of you. It’s not living on tenterhooks, mind you. True love is a deeply secure feeling, but it is deeply painful when the beloved is outside your reach. It is the kind of love Pablo Neruda describes in Sonnet XVII when he says it is a love “where I does not exist, nor you / so close that your hand on my chest is my hand, / so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.”

True love is the kind of love that risks all without hesitation.  It says, “I trust you. Take all that I have, and I lose nothing.”

But before you jump up and raise your hand, and say, “Yes! Yes! I’ve seen that! I’ve known that!” examine your love.  I once loved a man so deeply and fully and accepted and adored all that he was, even the qualities others saw as liabilities, that I offered, if need be, to sacrifice all that I knew to occupy a space beside him till death.  I waited for him “like a lonely house,” windows aching, and when he would not come of his own volition, I gave him a hard shove, an ultimatum.

And still he would not take that final leap into space that says, “I will expend the last full measure of my devotion for love of you.”

I found myself facing the hard reality that I felt true love for him, but he did not feel it for me. As a friend of mine once said to me, “Real love does not need shoving.”

The object of my affection, you see, had given doubt a foothold and allowed it to fester until he was overcome with fear, as most of us are, of giving way to full-on vulnerability, the vulnerability that says “be willing to give up all that you know to get something better.”

It’s the same kind of fear, you see, that makes people miserable in their jobs fail to leave them to start the business they’ve always dreamed of owning or that prevents a grand move to another continent when a delightfully tantalizing (if frightening) opportunity beckons.

You have to give up to get. It is a law of nature. Death of one thing is necessary to create life in another.

You may be wondering how I have fared in this grand scheme of true love gone awry.  Well, I can say I have fared better than the man who let me go.  At least I will never need ask “what if?”  I threw my heart into the ring and risked its pulverization, found it pulverized, in fact.  And when the dust had settled, I picked up the pieces, poured them into my pocket, and set about the long, slow process of putting them all back together for round two.

Because yes, there will be a round 2.

That is how life goes.  The lessons keep coming until we learn them.

I often wonder if the man I believed to be the love of my life will ever learn his own. In the aftermath of the end of that relationship, he said to me, “I am a fool.  I will regret this all my life.”

It may be so.

But only if when his round 2 comes, he commits the same error a second time.

I wish I knew the secret to finding true love. I still am not certain if it requires a certain mix of two people.  I am not certain if you can have it with one person but not another. I do know, however, that it’s worth trying on for size.  That person who is in your life right now, that sometimes makes your heart skip a beat, consider taking the frightening risk of being real with him and see where it leads.

Because one thing I do know is that you will never find true love by being anything other than who you are and loving someone else for any other reason than that he is being exactly the same—the person he is and wants to be.

 
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Internet Privacy: Um, No Such Thing….

Posted by Claire Vath on Dec 16, 2014 in Mothers and Daughters, Musings

Physical safety is something we talk a lot about. All too often there are the Hannah Grahams of the world that flash across our news screens. That physical safety—walking through a parking lot alone at night, accepting drinks from a stranger at a bar—those are things we know to be unsafe, unwise.

A more uncharted area is Internet safety.

Do a Google search on yourself. What pops up?

Do a Google search on your children. Or a Facebook search. Now what comes up?

I grew up in an age where scrawled-on cassette tapes were stacked near my boom box. An age where phones had actual dials. And where, if you wanted to record a song, you sat, waiting for it to play on the radio so you could press a button.

But technology has come a long way from see-through phones. It’s zipped past us more than we might ever have imagined.

Forget remembering when cell phones first became widely used. My children will never remember a time when there weren’t iPads and iPhones.

And all these invasions of privacy are right at your fingertips.

Everything is there, in big brother, in the cloud—wherever.

Love letters, passive aggressive Facebook statuses, “sexts,” embarrassing photos, major life announcements—all of these play out in the broader arena of a very powerful technology.

And the ramifications will be huge. If you don’t believe that—if you don’t accept that the technology has gotten away from us, leaving even the policy makers to scratch their heads—look at the hacking, constantly—of naked photos, of classified FBI information, of credit cards at Target, Home Depot, etc., etc. It’s slipping through our grasp faster than we’re able to hold on.

We carry cameras in our pockets. Super powered cameras that, with the click of a button, can broadcast a picture to millions of people. Most of those people are good people. Some aren’t. It’s a powerful weapon we yield, and we often yield it without much thought. We’ve become a society that craves recognition. Through likes. Through shares. The more people who “like” or star something, the more we feel a strange sort of validation, whether conscious or not.

But when it comes to our children, we haven’t asked them what’s OK to post. Haven’t consulted with them as to whether the picture we posted of them sitting on the potty for the first time or going to their first dance with their first high school boyfriend is acceptable. A cute picture of a child splashing in the tub? On Facebook. A child-shaming picture with a kid whose bad behavior is showcased to garner likes? We create a Tumblr about it. We add pictures of our kids, with their school logos emblazoned on their sweatshirts, with our location in our profile. Mommy bloggers pimp out their apple-cheeked kids posing for selfies in a pumpkin patch and garner ad clicks and fan girls.

We don’t feel we need their consent. They’re our children, after all—our creation—so, naturally, we know what’s best. But we leave a trail of breadcrumbs—digital files in our wake. Files that can be shared over and over for ours and others’ purposes—good or bad. We have yet to fully realize the effects of how a life exposed online can shape a person.

The Internet is still a relatively new frontier—a Wild West where things that you’d never let happen in reality may play out virtually.

You wouldn’t let your 6-year-old walk down a road alone at night. Or publicly share the location of your kids’  school with a convicted sex offender you meet in the mall.

But the reality is we live in a world of virtual reality, unwilling to fully realize the effects beyond our computer screen. So before you hit the “post” button, think about how far that information can be shared. It may mean the difference between safe or unsafe, life or death.

 

 
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10 Reasons to Stop Believing in Love…and Why I’m Ignoring Them

Posted by Deborah Huso on Dec 15, 2014 in Men, Relationships

Originally published May 16, 2012.

1)      Pyschological wisdom says the “in love” feeling only lasts 8-12 months, and then it’s gone. After that, love takes work. I’m rather convinced that most things in life worth having take work. Unfortunately, humans, being the stubborn and born for misery creatures that they are, like to ruin a good thing over dirty dishes in the sink. I figure if you’re not having sex with your spouse because he failed to scour the baked on lasagna off the oven pan after dinner, you probably deserve what you get. And if you’re the spouse who was supposed to do dishes, start scrubbing. Give and take goes a long way in any relationship, but particularly one with two people living under the same roof day after day.

2)      It hurts…a lot.  Sure, you could skip a lot of life’s worst troubles by skipping romance, but who wants the pinnacle of their existence to be a rising crust pizza in front of the TV on a Saturday night? No pain, no gain is actually true.  If you want something bad enough, you might have to walk through fire to get it. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did it; so can you.

3)      Finding true love is a pain in the ass.  Between the dates with mindless idiots who do nothing all night but talk about themselves to the letdown of thinking you’ve found “the one” only to discover you were drunk the night you made that revelation, finding true love is usually an ordeal. Lots and lots of failure, boredom, and drama.  But then so is parenting, and lots of people are doing that.  Not that the actions of the majority necessarily mean anything is right. But heck, you’re here, you’re alive, you might as well give it a go.  At the very least, you’ll get a fine education in human nature.

4)      Being emotionally naked in front of another person is scary as shit. And also incredibly freeing.  Ever wonder why little kids go to their moms when they are hurting?  Because Mom accepts them for who they are (at least we hope so).  When someone else does the same, it will rock your world. Unfortunately, you’re probably gonna have to get naked in front of a lot of people before you find “the one.”

5)      There’s no such thing as a soul mate, at least not if your idea of a soul mate is someone who can read your mind. Even Prince Charming needs a guidebook sometimes. If you’d prefer to sit and sulk over all the things your S.O. isn’t doing that you need him to be doing rather than giving him a few heavily dropped hints (or maybe even being downright direct—imagine that!) about just how much it would mean to you if he’d plan a romantic getaway for your anniversary or actually do something besides stare blankly at you when you tell him your latest problem, then I can guarantee finding a soul mate is not in your future. Soul mates are the people who get you after you tell them who you are, not the ones who intuit your every need and whim. The latter is actually your mother, your obsessive compulsive mother who makes you want to jump off a cliff every time you pick up the phone and you hear her voice….

6)      Screwing up not only hurts; it can get expensive. And it might also require you to give up that in-ground pool in the backyard of which you’ve become so fond. (Yeah, I’ve actually had friends who were baffled when women left their wealthy husbands who provided every material comfort known to man for the wild and crazy notion that maybe being miserable was not worth the Lexus and the annual trip to Europe.) Messing up in love can cost you an ugly divorce settlement, or it can cost the sacrifice of a materially perfect life, maybe both. If you have to think too hard about whether or not you love your closet full of shoes more than the chance at a fulfilling relationship, then I’d say put on a pair of Manolo Blahniks and get as drunk as you can. For the rest of you, bury the keys to the Lexus in the yard (just for kicks), and start living like you mean it.

7)      Men are basically jerks anyway. Yes, it’s true, but a few of them actually don’t mean to be—they just need a little tough love.  For better or worse, most of them have been spoiled rotten by their mothers…and by us.  They are so used to the sweet and natural attentiveness of women that they take it for granted.   They know that if they go on that fishing trip with the guys on Mother’s Day, you’ll forgive them.  You always do.  While I’m not an advocate of game playing for the most part, sometimes you need to kick back hard.  Don’t be so darn available.  You’ll find the jerkdom dissipates pretty quickly (if he’s a basically good guy deep down) after he discovers you actually don’t think he’s God’s gift to the universe of women. At least you don’t think so when he’s being a jerk….  And did I mention there are plenty of female jerks out there, too, who take advantage? If you never get a “thank you” for all the times you open doors for her, bring her drinks, or rub her feet after a long day at work, you might want to consider whether she likes you or just your foot rubs.

8)      All men want is sex. It’s close to the truth, but shift your perspective, ladies. Sex doesn’t carry all the emotional sustenance for you that it does for him. (Yeah, I’m serious.)  Call it socialization; call it biology. The reality is it’s between the sheets that guys feel most vulnerable. Reject him there, and you might as well tell him he sucks at life. You can have a less than stellar night in the bedroom, get up the next morning, have your girlfriends tell you you are “fabulous,” have your children kiss you at the bus stop, and have your boss tell you how sharp you are, and all is well.  For him, failure in the bedroom is kind of like what happens to you on a bad hair day. It cuts to his self-worth.  Give him a break. If he bends over backwards to please you in bed, he’ll bend over backwards to please you in life.

9)      Communicating need opens you to potential ridicule. But you’re not going to reach the heights of ecstasy if you sit there being resentful because your S.O. prefers a slam dunk to a long ramble down the court. Speak your mind. If the other party is offended, sure, you’re gonna feel like an idiot, but did you really want to waste a year hoping that person in bed with you would magically hit the right spot? Move out, and move on.

10)  Risk is the scariest thing on the planet. And that’s because whenever you’re talking about risk, you’re talking about uncertainty.  There’s no bigger uncertainty in the average life than wondering where your heart will take you…if you let it do the driving. And plenty of people don’t after a few close brushes with disaster. They toss their hearts in the trunk and hide the key before something else brutally ugly happens. There are plenty of good arguments for playing it safe, no doubt about that. But you only get to drive this circuit once (as far as I know anyway). And what have you got to lose?  Absolutely nothing. Because the last time I checked, the idea that you can control anything, from your kids and your boss to your spouse and the stock market, is complete bunk. You’ve got nothing but time…and maybe not even that. Hop to it.

 
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What I’ve Learned From Loving (and Dating) Men with Baggage….

Posted by Deborah Huso on Dec 11, 2014 in Men, Relationships

Originally published November 23, 2013.

Before I get called out for my blog post title here, let me make an acknowledgement: I’m a hot mess. Not a hot mess on the scale of Rihanna, for example. That’s blazing hot mess. I’m more like a just above luke warm hot mess…on an average day anyway.

Thus, you won’t find me judging men who are hot messes, but I will comment, particularly since men are so darn fond of denial. The first time I ever told a man he was a hot mess, he gave me that famous deer in the headlights look, chuckled a bit, and became thoughtful for a very long time. Uh-huh. Wheels turning. Maybe I AM a hot mess, he was thinking.

Of course, he is! As my friend Sarah points out, “Let’s face it: at our age, there’s gonna be baggage. No way to avoid it.”

So dating and falling in love in one’s 30s and 40s is not about avoiding baggage. It’s more about deciding how much baggage you’re willing to take on…in addition to your own, of course.

“My preference is a carry-on bag,” Sarah says. “I’ll let a man have that one for free. But if he’s got extra baggage, I think there should be a handling fee, just like the airlines.”

I couldn’t agree more, particularly since I’ve had the foolhardy experience of falling in love with men dragging steamer trunks.

The worst part is if you’ve got someone traveling with a steamer trunk, you often don’t know it. That’s because, in this day and age, they disguise the trunk as a cocktail table or other piece of interior decor—an antique conversation piece that they claim is empty. It’s just there to enhance the eclectic design of the room.

Um, no shit.

Maybe steamer trunk is the wrong word. More like Pandora’s box…because women being women, we rarely give up hope entirely. And because we’re naturally more curious than men about the contents of personal baggage, we open the steamer trunks, find them bursting with paraphernalia, but by the time we shut them in a desperate act of regret, it’s too late. The guy’s shit has flown the coop and, more often than not, squarely landed in our laps. (You might want to refer to my post “Emotional Diarrhea” for more on how that feels.)

For better or worse, the two longest term romantic relationships of my life have been with men dragging steamer trunks. The first one at least acknowledged on occasion that there was something in the trunk: twice divorced parents, childhood emotional neglect, parental brutality, etc.

The second one, however, was always sitting on the trunk, legs crossed, looking smug. He was so good at hiding his baggage that he actually convinced me for a time that I was the one with excess checked luggage plus a rather weighty carry-on. (And I will admit, I always overstuff my carry-on. I hate baggage fees.)

One day, however, I gave him a hard nudge, knocked him off his “decorative” steamer trunk, unlocked it, and lifted the lid wide open. I got hit hard with more dirty laundry than I’d ever seen in my life. Fortunately, by that point in my life, I’d learned what to do with clothes where you just cannot get the stains out no matter how hard you try: throw them out and update your wardrobe.

The interesting thing about this last experience of loving a man with excess luggage, however, was that he seemed even more shocked by the contents of his steamer trunk than I was. (I gather he had probably not unpacked it in a long time.)

And right now, I cannot help but wonder if he’s actually trying to launder and repair all those old musty shirts and slacks and torn up underwear or if he’s just locked them all back up in the trunk again and thrown away the key…hopeful that the next woman won’t be smart enough to find it or will at least believe him when he says he’s cleaned up his act…ahem, I mean baggage.

In the meantime, I’m quietly lugging my own overstuffed carry-on. It’s on roller wheels. (It became too heavy to carry via shoulder strap years ago.) I always worry I might have to unzip it and share some small tidbit of the past with another passenger on this trip called life, and that scares me a little because, once opened, my overstuffed bag, is hard to get shut again. Sometimes I have to sit on it. And, even then, the seams threaten to burst.

Which is probably why another friend of mine and fellow contributor, Susannah, is quick to point out the other reason one should never settle for a man with more than a carry-on bag. “After all, you want him to have a free hand to help you with your luggage, too….”

 
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Building a Holiday-Free Zone: Struggling to Go Guilt and Family-Free

Posted by Deborah Huso on Nov 13, 2014 in Travel Archives

Originally published November 15, 2013.

Gelato in Venice on Thanksgiving: I’m in heaven…at least as long as my pants still button in the morning….

A friend of mine whose had some pretty sad experiences over the holidays, ranging from ending her marriage one year to losing her mother to cancer another, told me recently she was making her home into a “holiday-free zone.” “No turkeys, Christmas trees, or mistletoe are getting into this house,” she proclaimed.

I regret to say I fully understand.  I haven’t exactly had the best run on Thanksgiving/Christmas seasons myself. Long married to a man who eschewed much celebration of Christmas because it reminded him too much of being tugged back and forth between divorced parents as a child and having long been a member of a dysfunctional family extraordinaire (i.e. relatives who can sit at the same dinner table for an hour or more and never make eye contact much less speak), the holidays often seem to me more like something to “get through” than to enjoy.

The last couple of years I’ve found creative ways to escape the holidays. I spent Thanksgiving 2011 in Venice, Italy, where there was not a sign anywhere that Americans across the Atlantic were gathering around extended dining room tables carving succulent birds and spooning cranberries onto the fine china that’s pulled out only twice a year. And Christmas 2012, I was so desperate to escape family drama, I opted for taking my daughter to Disney World as an excuse for not showing up to the holiday dinner table.

So far my daughter hasn’t minded…or at least hasn’t noticed.  But I wonder sometimes if that’s because she just hasn’t had much experience with the Norman Rockwell version of Christmas. And honestly, do any of us?  At least since passing the age of 12 when we started to notice that maybe our aunts and uncles really weren’t that fond of one another and that Grandma so-and-so hadn’t spoken to her son’s wife in five years?

Another friend has troubles at Christmas because her mother can’t bear to be in the same room with her father. They are divorced but can’t make nice even for a day.  And honestly, why should they have to? How is it the holidays have become this obligatory family-free-for-all, where if the relatives aren’t engaging in shouting matches over some 20-year-old spat, they are at least sitting there sullenly wishing they were home instead watching football or reading a good book?

I have some acquaintances who hold what they term “a dysfunctional Thanksgiving.” It’s a gathering of friends, not family, over a prodigious feast and is open to anyone who would rather be there than at a family dinner table. Not surprisingly, it draws quite a crowd.

Christmas at Disney World

Christmas at Disney World

I haven’t decided yet how I’m going to establish my own version of a “holiday-free zone” this year. Granted I’ve already started putting up a few Christmas wreaths here and there (though I’m truly debating whether or not to drag the 9 ft. tall artificial fir tree out of the basement and spend 6 hours decorating it while stepping precariously from step ladder to step ladder).

I might just send my daughter off to spend Thanksgiving with her father’s dysfunctional family and curl up in front of the fire with a cup of hot cocoa and a good book. As for Christmas, I found myself eyeing some winter trips to Austria and Germany that, as luck would have it, fall right over December 25.

And in an effort to avoid the over-the-top Christmas cheer already showing up in shopping malls and department stores, I think I’ve figured out a way to order all my gifts online and have them delivered to my doorstep…or someone else’s. Heck, with any luck, I might even be able to avoid wrapping paper, ribbons, and Scotch tape.

Though to be quite honest, it’s not the decorations that get to me so much or even the hours and hours of gift wrapping.  It’s the childhood memories of traditions that will never be again that often make my Christmas blue.

I know my grandmother, who now lives in a nursing home and is suffering from Alzheimer’s, will no longer oversee my creation of Lemon Cloud. Nor will I ever watch her and my mother roll out dough for flatbread and lefse anymore. Dad and I will never sit together competing over who can make the most elaborate bow to plunk on a gift, and I’ll never climb into bed with my giggling cousins and store contraband soda pop in frosted bedroom windows for midnight snack.

And in the midst of all that loss, I struggle with how to shape the holidays for my daughter, wondering if I would even be doing her any favors by trying to recreate the holidays I thought I knew as a child, holidays where my parents and grandparents may have felt just as displaced as I do now.

Perhaps, in the end, it’s better to scoop her off on a Christmas Caribbean vacation or to spend Thanksgiving reading books in front of the fire. These are traditions that can keep going and going, that don’t require loads of extended family, that don’t rely on rituals that will die when the grandparents die, and where the holiday décor and baking isn’t associated with a sense of loss.

Because I don’t want Heidi feeling one day, as I do now, that January 2 cannot get here fast enough. No, I want her to feel confident in celebrating the joys of the season without the guilt-ridden obligations of family or the sense that her life is somehow inadequate if it doesn’t include a spouse, two kids, and a dog.

 
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10 Signs You’re Dating a Man, Not a Boy

Posted by Deborah Huso on Nov 3, 2014 in Men, Relationships

Okay, so to fully appreciate this post, you must first read the semi-clueless hypotheses of EliteDaily.com writer Paul Hudson, who obviously has very little experience with women, as he actually freely admits at the beginning of his post, “10 Signs You’re Dating a Woman, Not a Girl.” I have to forgive Hudson his silliness, however, as I, and most of the men I date, have got at least 20 years on him.

Wisdom comes with experience, but the former does not necessarily follow from the latter, as there are plenty of clueless men out there who have 30+ years on Mr. Hudson. If you’re among their number (or one or more women have told you you are), listen up:

1) A real man makes an effort to continue to impress the woman he loves and shows he respects her even once they’ve been dating for months, even years, or (heaven forbid for Mr. Hudson’s audience!) are married. This means he still opens doors for her and for others. He still dresses up for dinner. He gets a decent haircut on a regular basis…and shaves! He takes care of himself, mentally and physically, knowing that he can’t expect her to maintain her interest in and affection for him if he turns into a hopeless couch potato once he’s won his prize.

A boy, on the other hand, wears gym shorts and flip-flops to dinner when his date is wearing a cocktail dress, regularly goes out with a bad case of bedhead, hasn’t shaved since the third date, and dulls his faculties with hours of video games and/or watching viral YouTube videos.

(Oh, and as an aside, Mr. Hudson, a woman who doesn’t care what she is wearing is one who has lost respect for herself. As a wise friend of mine says, “Just because you’re a mom doesn’t mean you wear sweatpants to the bus stop. For God’s sake, put on some mascara and lipstick!”)

2) A real man isn’t afraid of what a woman thinks or says. Yes, it’s true a real woman speaks her mind rather than expecting a man to know what she needs and wants, but, on the flipside, a real man isn’t intimidated by a woman who communicates. Her forthrightness might make him uncomfortable at times, but he doesn’t bolt for the nearest cave and disappear for two weeks.

A boy, however, is terrified by female expression, particularly if it involves any discussion of feelings. He will do anything and everything he can to make sure she knows serious talk is off limits, including punishing her with lack of contact if she dares to ask him why he’s still stringing along half a dozen old girlfriends.

A man can take the truth and maintain eye contact.

3) A man offers to pick up the check, even if he’s with a woman who is financially independent. This is simple good manners, guys. She may say, “No, that’s not necessary. Let me get it this time.” But a man always makes the offer. It’s a basic signal, ladies, that he was “raised right.”

4) A man doesn’t get a woman drunk in the hopes he’ll get laid. Likewise, a woman doesn’t drink to excess unless she’s with a man she deeply trusts. A real man isn’t trawling the streets for sex. He knows that good sex almost always follows intellectual and emotional sparks, and he’s looking for a woman who will fire his brain, make him laugh, and whose general attitude and outlook is just plain sexy…because it’s real.

A boy is basically just looking for sex, the more the better. Quality, which requires intimacy, isn’t even within his understanding.

(And another aside here for Mr. Hudson: “Women always stay in control?” Who wants to be with anyone who always stays in control? It’s in releasing control and our inhibitions that true intimacy between a man and a woman lives.)

5) Men don’t lead half their social lives on Facebook. A man has real social connections. You know, the ones where people actually physically get together and experience life with one another? A real man spends more time with you, his family, and his friends than he does living vicariously on social media or “chatting” with so-called “friends” online.

If your guy is addicted to the Internet, hands down, he’s a boy.

6) Real men have substance. I don’t care if they watch TV. And I don’t care what they watch on TV. But if a guy spends most of his evening leisure time in front of the boob tube, chances are he is not reading, he is not thinking, he is not engaging in any form of intellectual or personal development, which means that it’s easy for a 45-year-old man to have the same intellectual capacity (or lack thereof) as someone 20 years his junior. If the guy you’re dating doesn’t set your brain on fire, chances are, he’s actually a boy. And yes, I’ve seen boys in their 50s and 60s.

(My aside to Mr. Hudson: I was obsessed, for a time, with The Sopranos and Sex and the City, and I never once considered either a “guilty pleasure.” It was pure pleasure, and I own it, as any real woman would.)

7) A man can talk about virtually anything. He knows how to adjust his attitude, his manner, his outlook for any audience. He can talk trivia if trivia is called for, and he can talk about the origin of the universe or Machiavellian politics, too. A real man respects the people with whom he interacts, regardless of social position, educational level, or financial means. He does not show prejudice and embraces differences of opinion. He doesn’t necessarily agree with what he hears, but he respects it…with graciousness.

A boy dismisses opinions that don’t match his own and fails to appreciate the power of engagement (i.e. he is unwilling to let the diverse views of others influence his perspective on life).

8) A real man cooks and is proud of it. I can’t cook worth shit. And any man who can cook will garner my attention. Men do what they want to do, regardless of social expectations. If he is a wizard in the kitchen, then he assumes the role of family chef. He can probably sew a button on a shirt and change a diaper, too. Any man who has the confidence to perform traditionally “female” tasks and does it with aplomb is sexy as hell, in my opinion.

A boy shies from “gender-associated” tasks because he doesn’t have the balls to go outside either his comfort zone or societal expectation. A real man doesn’t give a shit.

9) A man puts himself out there. He’s not scared to try something new. He’s not intimidated by a woman who knows how to do something he doesn’t (in fact, he admires her for it). And he lives as if tomorrow is his last day on earth. There is nothing sexier than a human being who is eager and willing to experience life.

A boy is afraid of trying anything that might make him look stupid or clumsy. He cannot laugh at himself, and he lacks the courage to be less than perfect in front of the woman he loves.

10) Men admit they need women, in the same way a woman will acknowledge that, in the ideal universe, she needs and wants a man, a real man who doesn’t feel the need to demonstrate his independence from female influence. Instead, he honors the things his mother taught him and values the insights and intelligence of the woman he loves without feeling threatened. He may feel an innate and biological desire to protect her, but he never prevents her from doing what she loves or pursuing her dreams. Instead, he supports her, expecting nothing in return save her support of his visions and her deep kindness when setbacks arise.

A boy walks around saying he doesn’t need or want a woman in his life and pretty much treats women in accordance with those values, meaning he attracts the attention of girls only and girls who typically have low self-esteem and a host of other dependency issues. He’s never able to construct a relationship with a woman who has her shit together and actually likes it that way because he’s threatened by those kind of women. He prefers the company of women who don’t challenge him to grow or inspire him to lead the life he sees in his dreams.

 
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Who Are Your Friends? Unfortunately, Hannah Graham Can No Longer Tell Us Hers

Posted by Deborah Huso on Oct 20, 2014 in Girlfriends, Mothers and Daughters

I can’t say as I’ve ever really had the idea that Charlottesville is safe. When I was a child and my mom was attending evening classes at the University of Virginia, Dad always drove her to class and picked her up again. Neither of them believed walking around Charlottesville at night was safe then. And it’s not safe now. The recent abduction and likely murder of Hannah Graham is a case in point.

Charlottesville isn’t a big city, but it’s still a city with a transient university population that can easily attract predators.

Which is why it pays to be a little street smart.

I hope if any of you have adolescent and college-age daughters, you are having conversations with them about responsibility—responsibility for yourself and for others.  Graham’s case leads me to wonder if parents are failing (because it’s an uncomfortable subject) to say to their kids, “Look, if you’re going to get drunk, at least don’t do it in the company of strangers. There really aren’t that many people you can trust when you’re under the influence of controlled substances. Know who your friends are.”

I remember being on the Downtown Mall once with a large group of female “friends.”  They had asked me out following a devastating break-up of mine that had ended a four-year relationship.  After dinner at a restaurant a block from the Mall, we all walked to The Whiskey Barrel for drinks.

I was feeling like crud and not very sociable.  I wanted out of this scene.

I told one of my friends I really wasn’t up for socializing and was going to leave. I’d ridden with a group of friends and did not have my car. She basically said okay, and that was it.  No offer of a ride, no offer to walk me out to catch a cab.

I wasn’t drunk.  But I was distraught and pretty careless of my own welfare that night when the world seemed like it was going to end. Fortunately, a real friend called me on my cell phone, asked how I was, and when I told him what was up, he said, “Okay, get yourself a cab right now, and come to my house where it’s safe.”  He’s been my friend since I was a kid…for obvious reasons.

Thank goodness for good friends who look out for us when we don’t have our wits about us.

Where were Hannah Graham’s friends that night? Maybe the people she was with weren’t really those kind of friends.

Real friends look out for one another, and they certainly don’t abandon one of their number who is in a weakened state, in this case, probably not sober.

Learning who your real friends are is one of the hardest lessons of life, and most of us don’t really start getting it until we’re well into adulthood when we have that core group that has stood the test of time, maybe decades, and has rescued us when we could not rescue ourselves.

Friends like that could have saved Hannah Graham.

Friends like that have probably saved me countless times.

Do you know who your friends are?

More importantly, do you know who your daughter’s are?

 
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Dance Halls and Cat Calls: The Art(?) of Male Communication

Posted by Deborah Huso on Oct 16, 2014 in Travel Archives

Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville

Originally published December 8, 2011.

Being a good seven years removed from the dating scene, I am perhaps not the woman most suited to commenting on how men communicate with women. After all, once you are married, you’re lucky if you get a couple of grunts of affirmation at the dinner table or a passing glance if you walk through the living room with no clothes on. It’s not a lot to go on for figuring out what the man in your life is thinking…though he will claim, if asked directly, that he’s thinking nothing at all.

But that’s doubtful. While the figure has been thrown out there that men think about sex an average of every seven seconds, recent research has shown that’s just urban myth. Men only think about sex an average of 19 times per day. The rest of the time they’re thinking about food and sleep (but sex still tops the list).

So perhaps it’s true men are simpler creatures than we are when it comes to what’s going on with the gray matter, but still, do you ever wonder just what the heck they want? Because if it’s just to get between the sheets, they have an often complicated (and sometimes downright stupid) way of going about it.

A couple of recent trips seem to prove my point because there is nothing to put a woman in the crosshairs of male notice faster than traveling sans male escort. One gets winked at by waiters, kissed by cowboys, and cat called by British subjects at train stations. Is all of this some form of expressing a desire to take a roll in the hay, or is it just a ploy for bigger tips?

If you know, please weigh in…because I’m still trying to figure it out. And sometimes even more intriguing than trying to determine just what it is the guys are after is trying to figure out what it is they don’t understand about the very blunt art of female extrication.

Here’s a case in point: While a girlfriend and I were traveling in Venice, we experienced a fair share of “Mama Mia!” and “Hey baby!” while walking the streets after dark, but it was not until we sat down to enjoy some live music and gelato at a restaurant in St. Mark’s Square that things became really interesting. Just as we were about to leave, an overly jovial middle-aged Italian male came out of nowhere, and he and his more sober companion began begging us to stay for drinks. We politely declined and began gathering our coats.

“No, no, stay!” he says in remarkably good English.

“I’m married,” my friend says quickly.

“Me, too!” exclaims the accosting Italian as if he has just discovered, with delight, that the both of them play golf.

“I have to go,” she says. “I need to call my husband.”

“Let me call him for you!” he bellows undeterred, and then he grabs her around the shoulders, plants a kiss on her cheek, and my friend begins a disentanglement attempt that looks shockingly like Penelope Pussycat trying to escape the embrace of Pepé Le Pew.

“Check, please!” I cry to the waiter, slapping down a handful of Euros, grabbing my friend by the hand, and hurrying out into the streets, where we begin a brisk walk to the water taxi that will take us, along with a wide array of drunken consorts, back to our accommodations. As an American college student heaves over the side of the boat, my friend turns to me and says, “What was that all about? Did he really think that kind of aggressive behavior was attractive?”

I shake my head, “He was drunk.”

But that still doesn’t answer the question of what the man wanted ultimately—a drink with a pretty young American? A one-night stand? A few minutes of Tom-foolery? A shot in the arm of his deflated middle-aged ego?

Susannah makes a Texas oil man’s night

Some men are more subtle and, in some ways, even more difficult to decipher. While in one of Nashville’s honky tonks on assignment last week, I had no qualms about dancing with anyone who asked. After all, I love to two-step, and my husband is tone-deaf, has two left feet, and wouldn’t be caught on the dance floor if his life depended on it. A woman does what she has to do.

An older gentleman in a beige Stetson and camel-colored leather jacket approached me gallantly toward the end of the evening and said, “My dear, would you do me the honor of dancing with me? I have to go home to Oregon tomorrow, and it would make my night if you would dance with me.”

Well, that’s almost like making a last request before final unction, so, of course, I agreed. But I wasn’t in his arms more than a few seconds before he pulled me as close as if I was his dearest love and had been for years and years. There was no graceful extrication from this tight embrace, so I endured it, grateful there was no rousing in the gentleman’s nether regions, and let myself be twirled around the dance floor for the length of a gratefully short song.

When it was over, he hugged me close, kissed me hard on the cheek, took both my hands in his and thanked me profusely. Then away he went.

What was that?

And what did it mean when the tall and handsome cowboy from the Netherlands who stood near me and chatted on multiple different occasions only inches from the dance floor declined to ask me to dance? And then when I finally asked him if Dutch boys didn’t dance, he grudgingly obliged me on the dance floor with an anxious grin as I made a vain attempt to teach him the two-step. When it was all over, he gave me the obligatory “cowboy kiss” and never danced again with anyone the rest of the night, myself included. It was obvious dancing was not his forté, but did he really think there was any chance of picking up a girl in a Nashville honky tonk while standing on the sidelines with a beer?

All of this leads me to the question not just of what do men want (even though researchers claim it’s mainly sex, food, and sleep) to do they even know how to get it? And I’m afraid, ladies, the answer is a resounding “no.” They have not the slightest clue and are willing to stare opportunity smack in the face and screw it up or turn it down, leaving women struggling to understand.

Because we will struggle. Unlike men, we won’t walk away and shrug and figure it was never meant to be. No, as my oldest friend pointed out to me last night as we sat awake talking, “We decide to punish them for their infractions by not returning their calls or e-mails, and they think nothing of it. We lie awake stewing while they sleep peacefully and clueless.”

And then when we break up with them, they are surprised. They have no idea anything was wrong, oblivious to the mixed messages they have been sending—their expressions of desire and then their pulling back from it—intent only, apparently, on what’s for dinner, when they get to sleep, and whether or not they’ll get sex the next day.

And we envy their simple-mindedness at first, wishing we ourselves could be satisfied with so little. Until we remember, of course, how tragic it would be to stand on the sidelines of life with a beer for company, to never dance again, as many times as we possibly can, to every song the band is willing to play, before the dance hall closes for good.

 
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Circle the Wagons: The Powerful Love of Women

Posted by Deborah Huso on Oct 13, 2014 in Girlfriends, Relationships

Originally published March 10, 2012.

 

Sarah and me, friends since birth

Sarah and I have been best friends on and off again for nearly four decades. So closely did we grow up together, our mothers trading back and forth sleepovers and marching band pick-ups, that we are perhaps as close as sisters, closer perhaps. When life separated us for several years and we fell out of touch, it was that sisterly, almost clairvoyant love that drew us back together again.

I had suffered a devastating break-up. Sarah e-mailed me the day after the split. Only, we had not been in touch for around five years. To this day, we both believe she had somehow, across time and space, sensed my need of her. And our lives have been thus for years, one of us walking in just as the other is about to break.

This is no ordinary connection.  That is not to say, however, that it is uncommon. Women, at least those among us brave enough to love fully, have an uncanny ability, so it would seem, for knowing just when to circle the wagons.

I have not always benefited from this love. Raised to be independent and distrusting of others, I was always reluctant as a girl and as a young woman to lead myself into vulnerability, particularly the vulnerability that comes of the deeply connected relationships that women often share.

It is no small surprise to me that men resist this kind of all-encompassing love. Some think it is smothering. And it can be. Women learn, over time, not to call on too many friends at once in times of crisis, or they will be overwhelmed with attention. How many nights have I found myself fielding phone calls and texts from half a dozen concerned females all at once after announcing to them some recent family tragedy?  Even worse though is when, in recognition of this, I share a crisis with only one or two to be chastised later by the others for not letting them in to offer succor.

Susannah and me: friends and troublemakers

Circling the wagons is something of a professional calling for us, and it transcends the intimate relationships of tried and true friends, those who have followed us through high school and college, through marriage and divorce, childbirth and death of parents.

I belong to a community dance troupe made up of girls and women ranging in age from six to 60. Every week we engage in what we refer to as “group therapy”—a couple of hours of pulse-pounding dance accompanied by excessive tom-foolery. This is where we (the adult women anyway) let go, beyond the eyes of spouses who may know nothing of this side of us—the practical jokes, the tongue-in-cheek commentary on marriage, sex, and child raising, the posturing in front of dance studio mirrors, the banter over who has the curviest figure, the thickest thighs, the most perfect hair. We are so wild at times that new members to the group often aren’t quite sure what to make of us at first, but we convert them eventually to this gathering of “footloose” women. Here we are girls again, more than girls…because most of us were never confident enough, brave enough to be so ridiculous and fun when we were younger.

But this is also a space of deep camaraderie. When one among us lost a foster child back to her biological mother, we circled her with embraces, then turned her tears to laughter. When we prep for performances, mothers and daughters gather to braid each other’s hair, mend dance shoes with duct tape, and coax one another out of nervousness. Here we find the space to be members of a family where expectations are much lower, where we all recognize the staggering responsibilities of work, marriage, and motherhood, and give one another leave to be silly, irresponsible, and mindless…if only for an hour or two.

My dancing friends on “weird sock day”

I do not know what I would do without these women…any of them…from my most intimate friends to the women with whom I dance each week. They fill my life with laughter, and they prop me up when I am too worn down to stand.

They have been there for me when my family has not been. And they have done all this unconditionally.

Sometimes I lie awake at night wondering why, what it is I have done to deserve the love and kindness of all these women, feeling the powerful blessing of knowing there is this invisible circle of support around me always.

When I feel I have erred foolishly in this life, I turn to my old college friend, Susannah, from whom I know I will always get a refreshingly honest and straightforward assessment of the situation…in addition to ice cream or cheesecake. Yet when I fail to take her sound advice and find myself in a fix, I never fear abandonment. “Friends are not the people who are there only when you do things right,” she tells me on a regular basis.

Retail therapy in Venice with Dorothy

Yet I often wonder how many of us know this, how many of us are brave enough to test the true depth of our friendships, to be who we are without fear among the people we love. It is no easy thing. We are all guilty of holding back, playing games, pretending all is well…even among those closest to us, fearful of the depth and vulnerability we might discover should we let go…and fearful, too, of finding nothing, no depth, no connection, no unconditional love.

Humans are social creatures, and abandonment is one of our greatest primal fears.

It is one reason we are so lucky to be women. It is easy for us to look at men and their easy friendships with other men, their perception of “depth” as an intense conversation about politics, and their ability to compartmentalize pain and fear and envy them. And it is so easy for us to be angry with them, too, for failing to connect with us as our women friends do.

A friend of mine said to me recently, “I cannot help being angry with my husband because he does not know me as well as my best friend does.”

This is not so much a failing in the guy. It’s a failing in expectation. He does not know how, most likely, to know that woman as her best friend does. It is outside his comfort zone to go so deep, as it is with most men. They don’t live in a world of women the way we do. They cannot count on their male friends to protect their weaknesses, honor their strengths, and be there for them no matter the errors they make. It is not the way men are socialized, and it is why they need us so much more than we need them. For most men, it is their wives who serve as their only emotional centers, the only place where they can freely be themselves.

Imagine having only one person who offers you safety. Imagine having none.

New partners in crime in Savannah

I made a new friend recently, as I often do on travels, and as we walked back to our lodgings one evening, discovering, after only a couple of days’ acquaintance that we had much in common, including a similar painful life experience, she said to me with a laugh, “Can I marry you?”

I understood the message behind the joke. Because it took me a long time to stop looking to romantic partners to provide the kind of emotional depth and support that female friends do. I will not over-generalize and say that men cannot provide it. But it is rare to find such a man. As a rule, they retreat into their caves when hurting, confused, or troubled; whereas, women sound the alarm, ask for aid, and let the wagons circle. And when those wagons lock around us in times of trouble, there is no getting through until the danger has passed, chased away by the arrows of shared and recognized grief and the awareness that, with friends, just about anything is survivable.

 

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