When I married my husband in August, 1986 at 22 years old, it was because I had issued an ultimatum. Looking back, it’s clear it was, in fact, the ultimatum that poisoned the entire 17-year marriage, leaking its horrific toxins with side effects such as resentment, anger and neglect, into the cells of the relationship. The result was a slow and painful death in 2004.
When I first met my ex-husband, Rob, in 1984 I was living in Scottsdale, Arizona. I was spending the summer after my sophomore year at Tulane University visiting my cousin, Kathy, who worked with Bob as a sales person. In between dips in the apartment complex pool, trying to survive the 110-degree heat while driving my grandmother’s 1976 beige Chrysler Cordoba, a car in which the air conditioning was most always malfunctioning, Kathy found time to introduce me to her boss, Rob, just nine days before my 19th birthday. When he declared after just a few weeks of dating that he wanted to be in a “serious” relationship, I leapt at the prospect.
We fell into a relationship quickly during college. Living in separate cities during the five months I went to Washington, D.C. to complete an internship made for a strained long distance relationship. That and my mother’s 50-s era warnings about men “never buying the cow when they get the milk for free” lead to me issuing an ultimatum, ultimately signing our marriage’s death certificate. He agreed, and unenthusiastically followed through with the wedding.
It took 17 tumultuous years for this marriage to die. While the specific cause of death listed on the divorce certificate is not “ultimatum,” it was, in fact, the ultimatum which was the poisonous seed that took root. These roots spread into a tangled web of twisted cords pulsating with negativity, hurt and resentment.
The residue from this ultimatum lived inside me for years, even after the divorce. Next came my one-year, off-and-on again relationship with Johnny Rock. Even when I should have issued him an ultimatum, I was too afraid. I suffered from Post Traumatic Ultimatum Syndrome and I couldn’t do it. I should have said something like, “Leave your wife.” Or, “Come home before 5am, or don’t bother coming home.” But I had taken a vow, swearing off ultimatums. I didn’t know then there might be a way to live in some shade of grey, a place where it was appropriate to lay down the law. Or, that there was a place where I could speak my truth yet understand the needs of the other person. Live with compassion, self love, and kindness.
In September, 2006 Johnny Rock broke our monogamous agreement, spending several nights with a born-again Christian, blonde, TV game show host. This deception was more than I could handle, as I realized that there must be some middle ground between ultimatums and the persona I had developed during the relationship with Rock. With Rock I was forever saying words like, “It’s cool. It’s ok. No worries,” trying to convince myself that being treated like shit could somehow be translated into something resembling appropriate boyfriend behavior. I refused to issue ultimatums. It had destroyed my marriage. My lack of righteous anger, however, with Rock destroyed me. It was then that Rock’s ex-wife suggested I go to the one-week spiritual boot camp that forever changed my life. During this nine-day retreat in St. Helena, California, I participated in the Hoffman Process, which helped me to uncover the self-love that I had lost somewhere between marriage, divorce, and disgrace.
Throughout the next five years I learned to enjoy my life, to speak my truth, demand respect, and date with dignity. I learned to say no, say yes, and have fun exploring what I wanted from men, and what I didn’t want. I finished graduate school and met new friends. I built and led a thriving community of Hoffman Graduates in which I felt loved and loveable. I took trips with my children. Taught them to camp, to ride the subways of New York and to smile even when the flights are delayed and the airport is closing down.
And then, in May, 2009, five years after my divorce, I met The Brit. I had been dating him seriously for two months. I had never been so blissful. It had become clear that, after five years of being single, I was starting to fall for him, hard. When we began to discuss the possibility of moving into an exclusive relationship, The Brit hesitated, his grey eyes red-rimmed.
“You mean so much to me,” he said, looking into my speckled eyes. “I don’t want to lose you. I don’t want to be with anyone else. It’s just… I’ve only recently divorced. My shrink says I shouldn’t, that I should think about it.” His voice trailed off, the last words barely perceptible. He knew it wasn’t what he felt in his heart. He knew he wanted to be with me. It was clear. His eyes were pleading for me to somehow see behind the words, to see his truth, his authentic self.
We were laying on the faded green couch in my living room, and while we had not consummated a physical relationship, I knew that if we were to move forward it would require some sort of exclusive arrangement.
“I feel the same way about you, you know that, right?” I whispered back, sitting up now, pulling away from his embrace. “I care about you. It’s just that, well…. I know what I want, and I don’t need practice holding back my feelings.”
He answered slowly, knowing that his words might result in me telling him to leave. Something he didn’t want to happen. He didn’t want to lose me. He didn’t want to take his Nespresso machine from its new place in the kitchen. He didn’t want to miss movie nights with my three daughters. He was falling in love, yet his intellect kept batting down his emotional self, trying to convince me, trying to convince himself that it wasn’t socially acceptable to leave a relationship and then move into another one so quickly.
“I have no interest in dating anyone else,” he said now. He looked into my eyes more intently now. Willing me to see what he wanted to say, the phrases behind his eyes. Words like “love,” “happiness,” “fun,” and “joy.” “I don’t want to be with anyone else. This is all bullshit, I know. I know.” He sighed.
I hugged him then, smelling his scent, rubbing my cheek on the soft bristle of his ten-day-old beard. Its softness comforting, me despite what I knew would come next.
“Then, we need to slow things down,” I said, turning away from his searching gaze. “We can date each other, spend time together, but not like it has been. I need to create some space. It sucks. But it’s what I need to do to give you what you need.”
“Can we still see each other tomorrow?” he asked. “Our dinner in Laguna with…”
I interrupted. “Of course, it’s a date we had made. A plan. And then when it’s over you will drive me home. Kiss me at the door. It will be difficult, but it’s what we need to do.” He sat up then, smiling, hugging me tightly, his relief at not losing me strengthening his resolve to never let me go, despite the decision he had made.
It was difficult to leave him the following night. We had dinner in Laguna with friends, sneaking in kisses between the banter. I leaned into him, walking back to the car after dinner, planting bittersweet kisses on his neck. We kissed for nearly an hour in the car outside my house, my heart ricocheting off my ribcage as I wrestled with alternate feelings of elation then sadness before forcing myself to walk inside, alone. Waking Saturday morning however, I felt proud of my belief that if I held on to what I felt was right in my gut, whether it was in the form of The Brit or not. Either way it would be the perfect outcome for me.
Throughout the next day I spent time with friends at a Bat Mitzvah celebrating their daughter’s 13th birthday. It was then, watching husbands and wives snuggling together in the cold summer air that I realized for the first time in five years I was ready to be in relationship, whatever label it might wear. I wanted to huddle, snuggle and laugh with the Brit. I wanted someone next to me, to share memories with, to be mine. I wanted a partner. Not in the Jerry McGuire, “you complete me,” sort of way, but the way in which I had imagined it might be in a healthy, functional relationship. A way in which a man might add new dimension to my life, invite me to grow in new ways, and share myself. It was crystal clear. I was ready.
And then, it struck me;
I wasn’t single.
I was in a relationship with The Brit. We could call it whatever we wanted, yet The Brit’s words, actions, eyes and heart screamed relationship. Couple. Us. We. Our lives had become intertwined in the two months we had known each other. I was, in fact, one piece of a half.
After dropping my daughter at her dad’s house, I returned home that evening to the kitchen table where my papers, computer and unopened mail lay waiting for my attention. I had just been working on developing content for a seminar, and office supplies littered the long butcher-block table. I picked up the phone, dialing Kathy, the one person I knew who would to listen to my emotional gore.
“I’m done being single,” I said when she answered. “I’m ready to do something different, to take a chance.” My voice intensified, lifting as I uttered the truth of this realization out loud. I told her the story of my realization in Malibu, that despite the fact that The Brit felt it wasn’t proper to be in what modern 21st century culture would call “a relationship,” we were, in fact, in one. I knew things were different than they had been 25 years ago when I had given Bob the ultimatum. I hadn’t given one to The Brit, yet unlike what I had done with Johnny Rock, I had taken care this time to examine what I wanted. To look closely at what I was getting from The Brit. And then determined that it didn’t matter to me if he was ready to “x” the “in a relationship” box on Facebook, or not. I decided I didn’t need to hold The Brit responsible for Johnny Rock’s mistakes, or the mistakes of all men who make bad choices. Instead, I had compassion for his feelings. Understanding. I knew he wanted to honor himself. Yet I also knew there might be some compromise that would enable us to further explore the relationship. I picked up the stapler near the computer, tossing it back in forth in my hand, its weight steadying.
“You know,” I said, holding the stapler now firmly in my right hand. “If The Brit doesn’t want to call what we have a relationship, he can call it….a STAPLER.. or whatever he wants to call it. Truth is, it’s the best relationship I’ve been in. It’s the best stapler I’ve ever had. The Brit tells me how he feels. He’s affectionate, passionate, attentive, loyal, kind and loving. He tells everyone who will listen that I am his woman. He plays with my kids, gives them rides, listens to their stories and watches the movies they create on their Macs. His actions show me how he feels every single minute of each day. That said, why the hell should I push away the man who cares for and adores me? If we need to call it a STAPLER, instead of a….a…relationship…or whatever we want to call it… then it works for me, for now.”
I smiled, listening to Kathy’s encouraging, supportive words.
“Exactly,” she said. “Marn, just because a man calls it a relationship doesn’t mean it won’t end, or that you won’t get hurt. The chances are the same whether you are in a STAPLER, or a relationship. Enjoy this. Let yourself be. Let The Brit be. Just be together.” I smiled. This felt like my truth. It felt right. I knew I could not just live with the STAPLER, but that I would thrive in it.
I had made plans to have dinner with a friend that night, but agreed to see Terminator with The Brit after dinner. I rehearsed what I might say to him while walking down the street from dinner to meet him at the movie theatre. It was good to see him, to laugh and to resume our partnership as if nothing had changed. The movie ended, and we agreed to have tea at our favorite hotel set on the water’s edge in Santa Monica. The Brit and I always had important conversations while we sat side-by-side on the soft beige couch which lined the walls of the lounge at Casa Del Mar. I squeezed more lemon into my tea and then sighed, turning towards The Brit, ready to explain to him that I wanted to be with him, that it didn’t matter what we called it.
I told him of my “ah-ha” moment: that whether or not he was my boyfriend according to my relationship status on Facebook, he had been a perfect boyfriend. He smiled, pulling me towards him as I twisted on the couch to lean into his chest. Feeling his arms around me, I knew it was the beginning of something new, a STAPLER. But this stapler didn’t feel like the cool, metal, heavy object I had held in my hand earlier that day. It felt warm. It felt safe, like easing into soft cool pillows at the end of a long, tired day. It felt like a relationship.
Three weeks later The Brit and I celebrated my 43rd birthday at Casa Del Mar. He rented a hotel room, inviting the children to swim for a few hours with us at the hotel, before dropping them at their dad’s house for the evening. As the sun began to set, we headed up the Pacific Coast Highway to eat dinner at Geoffrey’s, a romantic Cliffside restaurant in Malibu. Sitting at the intimate table overlooking the sea, the moon rising in the sky, The Brit pulled something small and grey out of his breast pocket.
It was a stapler, made of shiny steel and light brown plastic. Written on it was an inscription, its small cursive lettering gentle, inviting me to look closely at the words. It said, “You are amazing. Love always, Jem”
It said “love.” It said “always.”
I have been in a relationship with Jem since mid-June. In early July we changed our Facebook profiles to read, “In a relationship.” We’ve taken several trips together this summer, most with the three kids in tow. Jem makes killer pancakes that my kids love. He brings me coffee each morning, in whatever kitchen we find ourselves.
Having been first to say “I love you” in each of my previously failed relationships, I had first-hand proof that being the one to bring love into a relationship can send ripples of pressure, ick, and panic throughout the testosterone-filled core of a man. The words had been sitting in my throat for weeks, but I was determined to let him say it first.
So, I waited.
Sometimes I waited patiently, sometimes not. There were times when we were traveling together in July that I thought those three words so loud, I could swear Jem might hear. Then one night in August, laying face to face in the soft down pillows of my bed, he said it.
“I love you.” His eyes, so close to mine, were serene, filled with peace.
It had been worth the wait. It had been worth living in a stapler. Exploring the possibilities.
“I love you too,” I said, wrapping my arms around his neck, practically leaping from my space in the bed into his chest, furrowing my head into his warmth. “So, so much.”
This is a relationship. And while the “Stapler” is gone, the silver stapler on which the inscription is written sits on my desk to remind me of what is truly important. This relationship did not come from an ultimatum. It came from love. Love for myself. Love for him. Love for each other.