I once dated the nicest man in the world. Truly, he could have written ‘The Universal Syllabus of Kindness’. He was engaging, smart, funny, creative, and tactile. He made me dinners and brought me flowers. Pretty soon kisses on the cheek became kisses on the lips became nights spent in the same bed. He declared his love for me with an unselfish patience, but I had just broken up with someone else and didn’t think I was ready. Then, not long after his declaration, he left for a holiday in New York, and I had a moment of panic. What if his plane goes down? I imagined myself as a film cliche where the short-sighted protagonist suddenly realises what she’s got and runs miles through sleet and hail storms only to show up at her beloved’s door and realize…he was gone. Even though my man was was well over the Atlantic, I texted him to say, “Alright, alright. I fucking love you, too!”
I hadn’t initially thought him my type. For one thing, his bum was almost half the size of my own and I slept concerned that a roll over in bed might crush him. But he was steadfast and kind and I came to adore him. I loved who we were together and how I felt with him. I fell in love for all the right reasons, and I let go of the fantasy that my lover would be able to hoist me into the air and fuck me against the wall.
Then he got called back home to care for his ailing mother. He was gone for as long as we had been dating, though we kept in contact every day. When he returned he sent me an email and, in the nicest way possible, told me he’d done a lot of thinking while sitting in the hospital and I just wasn’t the right fit for him.
Now, like most of us, I’ve been through my fair share of breakups. But I hadn’t seen this one coming – not by a longshot. I cried and wailed and gnashed my teeth. About two hours later I started puking my guts out. Fortunately, the virus that struck at the same moment I was being dumped, rendered me so limp and lifeless I didn’t have the energy to get mad at him. And that gave me a few days, with my head next to a bowl, to think about how I would respond, without sounding too pathetically despondent.
He apologized the next day and the day after that for what he’d done. So I swallowed my pride (when I could finally keep things down) and told him it was OK. You’ve got to go with your gut. And besides, I was probably better off with someone who had a body mass index close to my own.
This relationship was the first I’d had that felt close to Unconditional Positive Regard, a concept developed by the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers, and which focuses on the acceptance and support of a person as they are, regardless of what they say or do. It’s the ultimate ability to not take things too personally. It’s not blind to bad behavior, it’s just not going to get antagonistic about it or try to bend the other person to change.
People nurture our growth by being accepting—by offering us what Rogers called unconditional positive regard. This is an attitude of grace, an attitude that values us even knowing our failings. It is a profound relief to drop our pretenses, confess our worst feelings, and discover that we are still accepted. In a good marriage, a close family, or an intimate friendship, we are free to be spontaneous without fearing the loss of others’ esteem.
Since I wanted to stay friends with this man, not only because he was lovely but because I admired him professionally, I turned my cheek and held out my hand. We got together for lunch, recalibrated our expectations of what we were to each other, and parted on good terms. I don’t know if we’ll stay friends through the development of new relationships, but I value what I retained by not losing my shit. And I finally felt grown up.
There are all sorts of good reasons not to stay friends with an ex. Very few relationships break up without resentment and anger. In fact, men have told me, they don’t break up with women, they just become such assholes their women break up with them. I have a friend who joyfully told me she’d met the man she would spend the rest of her life with. And then he abruptly cut off all communication. No explanation whatsoever, after months of what she took to be mutual bliss. That’s plain and simple cowardice on his part and if it’s your own strategy for leaving someone who’s just not right for you, make yourself an appointment straight away to get your chicken shit attitude exorcised.
In hindsight, I considered getting dumped by this man to be a great lesson in love. I think we spend too much time experiencing the world and other people through the prism of what we want them to be for us. Conflict arises when we tell ourselves it’s them who needs to be or act differently, when really, the only thing we have control over is our own perceptions, actions, and reactions. If I had railed against my lover for not being what I wanted him to be, I wouldn’t have been able to love him platonically, and he couldn’t have remained open to me. I had to accept his truth. And he was as kind telling me I wasn’t right for him as he had been telling me how wonderful I was. His was true maturity. How could I stay mad at that?
Being rejected with dignity is a big step on the path to discovering how to be truly loving, and is an exercise in self-respect. Oh, I spent plenty of time on the phone with a friend sobbing and claiming my ex-lover was insane for giving up on us. But I didn’t burden my lover with my angst – not too much anyway. One of his misgivings about me was that I was an over thinker and he preferred life to be less debate and more wonder. But instead of feeling like I needed to change myself, because over thinking is essentially what I do for a living, I accepted that he wanted to be with someone who wasn’t as intense as I was. Fair enough.
I feel grateful for what we shared. And I learned a lot about what I truly want in long-term love. That’s part of what I relish about dating; you keep practicing how to love and eventually, through trial and error, you start to feel as though you might finally be getting it right, choosing a good partner, and moving beyond the need to be loved and learning how to wholeheartedly give love. It will hurt sometimes when things don’t go the way you want. You will occasionally feel that you’re face down in the arena, bloodied and bruised. But as the champion of vulnerability, Brene Brown says, “When we make the choice to [love and] dare greatly, we sign up to get our asses kicked.” Read her ‘Manifesto of the Brave and Brokenhearted’ and discover that no breakup, no matter how painful, need diminish you. It may, in fact, make you realize just how brave and gracious you can be.
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