I had an opportunity recently to sit in a meeting with my ex for sixty minutes. Our meeting was the first time we have interacted since the day she asked me to leave. It was the first time we spoke outside of emails or texts since my ex chose to end the relationship.
The details of why we met don’t matter and will remain between us. I’m not writing about specific conversations now or later, regardless of how it turns or how my ex responds. I’m not interested in creating shame or embarrassment for my ex or fodder for gossip by the ill-intentioned and malicious.
Leaving the details in the vault is essential.
Frankly, this part of our relationship, like the beginning, middle, and end, is between us and only us. It isn’t a team project.
At least it isn’t a team project for me. My ex chose a different tack.
I feel confident that throughout the meeting, I was patient, compassionate, and understanding. I believe I treated my ex as someone I once loved. I did this despite emotionally owing my ex nothing and expecting nothing from her.
However, this approach to living is a practice coupled with reflection and more practice. Rinse. Repeat. Reflection instructs me about where I still am growing, keeping me on my path.
As such, I realize there are two specific moments of tension that I acted dickishly. And by dickishly, I mean I responded with bravado to avoid being vulnerable to a woman I love whose anger still wounds me after all this time.
Certainty and Contempt
My ex is certain I did something. Something I didn’t do.
After she brought it up, I responded defensively, calling my ex a liar. She, of course, responded with contempt.
As I wrote a long time ago, once people strike the bell, the bell cannot be unrung.
On the other side of the ringing, we fell a relationship dynamic the Gottman Institute labels the Four Horsemen of Relationship Apocolypse. A back and forth ensued that had nothing to do with the topic and further amped emotional charges in an already tense conversation. The conflict became a distraction from the task at hand.
One of the truths I’ve learned over the last several years is people imagine evidence for things they already believe. If you think once a cheater always a cheater, there is evidence for that belief. If you believe people can grow and change, there is ample evidence for that too. We pick our poison.
In hindsight, I can see why she is confident I did this thing. Her feelings are defined by certainty. The fact I didn’t do this something doesn’t matter. The reality is I cannot do anything about what she believes is true about me.
Her opinions about her feelings are valid to her.
Regardless of how often I tell myself I don’t care about her opinions, the reality is I do care. I find myself periodically frustrated by this admission. I continue to be moved by what this woman feels and thinks. I continue to let her touch me despite seeing more clearly upon every encounter the depth of her anger and entitlement.
Today I recognize that my bravado is defensive posturing.
“People defend themselves against stuff that overwhelms their ability to cope,” writes Dr. Alexandra Solomon. “Shit that feels emotionally charged. Shit that holds a direct line to a core wound/pain point/historical echo. No pain, no defensiveness.”
Too often, my feelings towards my ex will overwhelm my ability to cope with my discomfort. I emotionally flood. I see my ex, and my heart says one thing while my facial expressions say something else. I want to speak but instead walk away because I committed to never rolling up on her. I have always said, any conversation requires her consent.
The bottom line is on this topic, in this space, my response was defensive and inconsistent with my intentions. I overlooked how my ex felt because of my discomfort. In the process, I aggressively spent resources trying to refute her feeling of certainty.
How she feels is important, and I’m sorry that at the moment, I couldn’t separate my ego from her feelings. In hindsight, I wish I would have listened to what she believes and sat quietly, letting the storm pass or responding, “I know you believe it’s true, and I’m sorry.”
Instead, I reactively called her a liar. After some thoughtful meditation and counseling, I know my ex wasn’t lying and isn’t a “liar.”
Instead, she genuinely believes I did this something. She is wrong but being wrong doesn’t make her a liar. However, at that moment, I was defensive and needed to be right, and that was wrong too.
As such, I took her accusation personally and responded in an equally personal way.
If we were together, I would go to her and apologize for lashing out at her. I would greet her accusation with curiosity and try to understand her intentions. What is beneath her feelings of certainty? I would listen and not be concerned about what is accurate and correct.
I would let go of being right and focus on doing right.
It’s all a practice. I’ll practice where I am.
In reality, I recognize the courage my ex showed by even being willing to show up.
Towards the end of the meeting, my ex turned to me and stated the obvious: “I don’t trust you.”
That makes so much sense, right?!
I lied and kept secrets from my ex, attempting to avoid vulnerability’s discomfort. I selfishly lied and kept secrets from her as I worked to protect my ex, our life, and myself. I lied and kept secrets hiding shame and dishonesty. I lied and kept secrets believing she couldn’t love me enough to accept my failures.
Of course, she doesn’t trust me. At the time, I didn’t trust me either.
Did I seize the moment and validate her feelings as natural, intelligent, and necessary for surviving and flourishing? Did I acknowledge that her lack of trust is reasonable and understandable? Did I thank her for being honest?
Did I apologize for betraying her trust?
Of course not.
I responded like a child: “Yeah?! Well, I don’t trust you either!”
Sadly, when given this opportunity, I didn’t acknowledge my ex’s anger and pain. I’m sorry I didn’t recognize she was speaking her truth at that moment.
In response to her anger, I stopped listening and didn’t hear her at that moment. As I told the Good Doctor afterward, “I am so unskillful. I know what I want to say, and then there is a disconnect where my vulnerability and empathy switch meet my mouth.”
The Good Doctor responded, “Of course, because you love her and are still grieving. She abandoned the relationship when in crisis and chose this path forward. You are still reacting to her approach to her anger. You two share a love, a history, a desire not to be hurt again, and are actively avoiding any connection that might create intimacy.”
Paraphrasing something I wrote to my ex a long time ago and am trying to practice: “If you can’t talk to me like you love me, would you try to talk about me like I’m someone you loved once and loved you? Would you listen to me like I was once important?”
At this moment, on this issue, I failed on both fronts.
It’s a practice.
I am well aware that how I responded was inconsistent with what I am value. My objective is to keep showing up and try again if ever given a chance.
All I can do is keep owning what is true for me. Not because I am pursuing reconciliation but because there was a time when my ex was someone I loved. It matters to me that I treat her that way.
Even if it is.
In those moments too I remind myself: it’s all a practice.