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It’s rare to find someone in life that both loves you and understands you but is also willing to tell you hard truths. I’m a fairly blunt person and someone who often imagines that he’s acting like a jackass with everyone else being too kind to tell him otherwise. But I’m also very stubborn, thick-headed, and occasionally (read: often) I do and say things without thinking, causing me to act like a jackass during rare moments when I think I’m not. I can hurt people, not out of malice or lack of empathy, but through sheer ineptitude.
That is what happened a few weekends ago when I said something I thought was fairly innocuous. It all started when my girlfriend asked me to come over and hang out. I said no because I was tired (read: hungover) and just felt like having a lazy Sunday to myself. At the time, I didn’t realize that I was striking a nerve with her feeling like I didn’t make enough of an effort to spend time with her. My dumb brain just thought “I’m seeing her tomorrow for a date night, that’s enough effort!”
It felt like there was a disconnect whenever we talked about this issue. As if we understood the words the other was using, but for some reason, they had different meanings in our own heads. She wanted me to take initiative, make more of an effort to spend time with her because she felt like I was treating time with her like a chore. I felt like I was making more time for her than I did with anyone, and it was unreasonable for me to devote time every single day to go see her.
Frustrated by how much I cared for this girl but my seeming inability to satisfy her expectations for our relationship, I sought the advice of someone of great esteem, whose opinion I trust and respect. Unfortunately, Dwayne Johnson is still screening my calls, so I talked to my dad instead.
When I laid it out to my old man, all the talks Jennie and I had in the past, all my feelings and frustrations about not feeling heard and appreciated, I expected him to provide me some comforting words and encouragement. Instead, he threw the emotional equivalent of a forearm shiver with one sentence.
“You’re being an insensitive dope kid.”
Of course, being a stubborn, insensitive dope, my first reaction was not to take this opposing viewpoint from someone I trust and respect and consider its validity. Nope, for I am king of the dopes, and my reaction was to immediately counter his blow.
“How am I being insensitive? She knows I like my time alone. I’m making time with her tomorrow. What’s the big deal?”
“Well think about it from her point of view buddy. She asks her boyfriend to spend time with her after not having seen him for a few days and his initial reaction is ‘no I’m seeing you tomorrow.’ That’s not the reaction of someone who values spending time with her.”
“But I do value spending time with her,” I protested. “I love being around her, but I’m exhausted and just wanted a day to myself to recharge. Is that so bad?”
“No,” my father said slowly. “But did you tell her that? Did you ask if you could do a quick check-in, grab lunch with her quickly or something because you’re tired?”
“No, I didn’t,” I admitted.
“And why is that?”
“Because I didn’t want to get into a whole thing with her about not spending enough time with her.”
After a few chuckles at the irony of the situation, my dad pressed on. “Look, I know you value time to yourself to recharge. That’s fine, it’s not something you need to change in yourself, but you have to be better about communicating to Jennie.”
“I have! It feels like when I do she just dismisses it. Like she doesn’t understand how I feel.”
“But it’s the same the other way kid. Do you understand how she feels? She needs some quality time with her boyfriend, and that’s totally reasonable. You have to be willing to give her that, otherwise it will never work.”
“So what? I’m supposed to just give her time whenever she asks?”
My dad sighed before releasing the next truth bomb. “You’re being too rigid in how you see this issue. The key is not that you just spend time with her as long as she wants whenever you ask. Just be better at communicating to her when you want to spend time with her when you want time to yourself, but can spend some with her, and when you’re just too exhausted to be social at all. If all you can muster is seeing her for a few hours in the afternoon, let her know that. She’ll appreciate that you at least make the time and effort for her.”
“And if she gets pissed off that I can’t give her more time?”
With a verbal shrug, he replied, “well then it’s not going to work out between you. You know in your heart when you can spare time for others. If you truly cannot spend enough time with her to make her feel appreciated, you’re not right for each other. But when you care about someone, you’ll each find the time and energy to compromise and make each other happy.”
“But I feel like I’m losing my routine. I’m not working out as consistently, because I’m spending all my time with her. I don’t get to write as much as I’d like, I feel pressured to leave my job earlier than I should. And it seems like if I bring any of that up to her, she thinks I’m making excuses to not see her.”
“Look,” my dad said, “taking care of your health, both physically and mentally, as well as performing at your job has to be the priority. It’s like the air mask in the airplane, you have to put your mask on before you can help others. So absolutely you shouldn’t be making yourself miserable to please her. But those responsibilities don’t completely preclude you from spending some time with her. Like I said if you’re busy at work just let her know that you can only stop by for dinner, or you might have to do work while you spend time together. See if you can work out with her or at her building’s gym. Be more flexible in how to integrate your routine to her life.”
“That feels worse than not seeing her though. Like I’m going to spend the whole night with her on my computer doing work or writing? That’s rude, it’s like I’m ignoring her while we’re together. Wouldn’t it be better to just make sure the time I spend with her I’m focused on her and just take that extra time alone to take care of myself?”
“It might be better, but it doesn’t sound that’s what’s better for her. She feels like when you’re taking time to yourself for self-care, you don’t want to be around her. Maybe she will be okay with you taking care of yourself as long as you’re spending time with her. Maybe just having you around for a little while is all she wants.”
Sure enough, when I asked Jennie if she would prefer that I come over and work from her house, work out in her gym, or mind if I did some writing while we watched TV, she was totally fine with it. In a shocking turn of events, she was thrilled when I started bringing my iPad, books, and other gadgets to entertain myself whenever I spend time with her. She likes that I make myself at home in her house, even when that means bringing things that can distract me from her. Because, and this was so shocking to me as an introvert, all she really wanted was to have me around even if my attention wasn’t 100% focused on her. It still feels weird, to be sitting next to her each doing something completely different, but it’s been incredible for improving our relationship. All thanks to some outside perspective and hard truths I needed.
I was being very rigid and myopic in my thinking. I was trying to fit Jennie into my lifestyle, thinking that was a compromise, when I needed to be altering my lifestyle to fit into our shared relationship. By being so selfish and rigid, I was doing something worse than ignoring the problem; I thought I was fixing the problem but making it worse. My dad did what a good father does: smacked me upside the head (mentally) and showed me why I was wrong.
Tough love is a hard thing to come by because most people can’t find the actual balance between being tough on you, but still understanding and wanting to preserve your perspective. It’s easy to let people take your side and tell you that you’re justified in your feelings, and it’s easy to tune out someone who doesn’t care about you telling you something that would be beneficial. There are very few people who can seamlessly drop brutal honesty on you without making you feel like you’re an absolute asshole for your behavior. They’re almost always dads. .
We love moms and dads. And you know what moms and dads love? The Dadgum Podcast, appearing on Grandex Labs. Subscribe on iTunes. You’ll love it.