We were in the car, on the way to Marco’s weekly golf lesson, and Marco was telling me about an incident that had happened at school. It seems he and another boy had a dispute with two girls during recess. The other boy and one of the girls got angry enough that the dispute got a little physical (I guess there were rocks involved), and other kids witnessed the conflict. The teacher, in an attempt to dissolve the tension, encouraged the kids to laugh it off, and made some innocent enough remark like “well, you know what they say when boys and girls pick on each other….” This, of course, triggered snickers and finger pointing, followed by the sing-song “you like so-and-so”. Marco was embarrassed and he didn’t know how to handle it. I told Marco that people crave attention and status, and sometimes, picking on someone is a way to make oneself feel better. If they can get someone else to feel bad just for a second, strangely, it makes them feel a little cooler, tougher, smarter, bigger, stronger. The best thing you can do is demonstrate to them that their teasing had no effect on you. Either ignore or play along. So when someone says “you like so-and-so” just say “okay” and shrug your shoulders. Usually, when they realize that what they are doing doesn’t really bother you, they’ll get bored and move on. “See, here’s the thing, Marc – people only have as much power over you as you give them. You get to choose how much you are going to let them affect you.” Marco is very sensitive and wears his heart on his sleeve most of the time. In some ways, he and my oldest are polar opposites. It’s hard to get our very stoic Nacho to express his emotions, whereas Marco gives us a running commentary on everything he goes through. Learning that he actually has some control over how people make him feel was like suddenly possessing a secret weapon and he was quick to tell me the first time he used his new power (that same day during his golf lesson!).
People only have as much power as you give them. This has been such a difficult lesson for me to learn. I gave so much power to my parents as I was growing up that at times my emotions depended completely on theirs. Much like the little boy, Elliot, in the movie E.T., if their hearts were light, my world was happy, but if darkness fell upon them, I took on their pain as though it were mine. It wasn’t until my late thirties that I began to understand how much power I had been giving to others. I had to spend some time in therapy to get it, but I eventually absorbed it and made it my own. “Maybe, perhaps” became my version of Marco’s “okay”. It was my post-adolescent “whatever”. Ironically, the single most dreaded attitude by adults, the one that they would just as soon eradicate from the entire adolescent population, is the one attitude that frequently saves my sanity in adulthood! But while I’ve gotten pretty good at using “maybe” in most situations, I’m not yet an expert at figuring out when it’s appropriate. If mastery is the goal, I’m still very much an apprentice.
My first husband, misguided though he was, tried to teach me the value of withholding others’ power. I say he was misguided only because for him, if I could just change the way I reacted to things he said, then he would have carte blanche to say whatever he wanted. I, of course, wanted him to change the way he said things so that I wouldn’t have to struggle with how to respond. We were both a little misguided. He did teach me one thing, though, and I have tried my best to live by it: when you lose your shit, you lose your point.
Second marriages are amazing because they give you the opportunity to learn from the mistakes you made the first time around. The second time in, we approach everything with the perspective that comes from having heard and done it before. We’ve seen where it could go, and we learn quickly how to curb our actions and reactions to just about everything. With finely developed filters, we can identify the real message beneath the layered sludge of sleeplessness, frustration, moodiness, anger and anything else that might work its way in. We become experts at prioritizing, nurturing, and focusing. My husband and I always say that everyone should have a practice marriage. Our failed first marriages prepared us well for this one. And while I sometimes joke that I like this husband better than my next one, neither of us have any interest in ever doing this again with anyone else. And because we know where indifference, apathy and passivity can go, we are fully invested. A huge part of that is entrusting one another to do no harm, at least not on purpose.
Recently, Marco was talking about what he’ll name his kids (apparently, he’ll have three). I mentioned that he might want to consider what the woman (or man) he marries wants. (I did actually say “or man” to which Marco adamantly responded “Mom, I’m going to marry a woman!”) I told him “Marco, I don’t care who you marry so long as they love you for you who are, they never make you feel bad, and they make you a better person.” To which my nine year old says with a smirk and the slightest hint of arrogance, “yeah, I don’t know about better.” I explained that I’m super lucky because Dave loves me for all those things I’m good at, but also for all of the things I struggle with. He gives me balance and makes me want to be better. With him at my side, I never feel like I’m “just not very good” at something. In fact, because of his faith in me, I feel like everything is possible.
I am blessed with the kind of love that sustains me through even the darkest of times. Yet, I still find that my insecurities – the very same ones that led me to spend time and money just to learn the power of “maybe” – still creep out now and again. People only have as much power as you give them. And while I have learned to dole out that power carefully to others in general, I willingly and knowingly put myself into the hands of my significant other. And with pervasive love in our hearts, even anger can occasionally move in to lead a conversation. And when anger comes from someone who is not supposed to hurt you, it can make you question not only those things you want to do better, but also those things you thought you did well. The Master of Maybe will remember to sift through the sludge and find the real meaning behind tone and words. She will keep her perspective so as to avoid losing her point behind the proverbial caca. But alas, I’m just an apprentice. And so in the face of losing face, I throw the mud back, hoping it will distract him from my own flaws. How quickly I revert to the childish need for attention and status… I slept in the guest room last night. I think I lost my point.
Sheepishly returning to Marco’s story, I must ask myself about the sequel. People only have as much power as you give them. If you are lucky enough to find someone who deserves your love and trust, then voluntarily giving them that power and allowing yourself to be vulnerable is a gift. That doesn’t mean that you give them the power to do whatever they want to you, including harm – with love, the intention will never be hurtful. But trust and vulnerability has to be mutual. Just as I trust that he will never harm me intentionally, he has to be able to trust that I will look past those moments of anger, when he himself has become vulnerable. My mistake is to take his anger to heart, to receive it as a challenge to my character. Instead of resolving a problem, a new one is created, and the only solution I can see through my narrowed pupils is for him to take it back. TAKE IT BACK, I want to scream, standing at the edge of my imaginary playground. In our early days, Dave told me “there is no forgiveness between us, only acceptance.” If I am to trust him to do me no harm, then I have the responsibility to trust that harm is not his intention. And when we make mistakes in our communication, instead of demanding that he validate me (effectively “taking it back”), I need to accept that he too has been vulnerable and that it is in no way a reflection of his feelings for me.
People only have as much power as we give them…