I’ve never been one to believe in the idea of finding your soulmate, and it probably has a lot to do with the fact that I stumbled into my relationship with my wife based on dumb luck rather than on any calculated plan. We met 28 years ago in a time before Internet dating, so luckily we escaped having to sit down and write an online dating profile.
Over the past year, since disclosing I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, our marriage has weathered another turbulent period fraught with all the anxiety and emotions associated with both of us learning to assume new roles in our partnership. It’s often said that hindsight is 20/20, so with that in mind, I thought it might me enlightening to compose a checklist of what I would like to find in an my ideal partner based on the qualities I’ve often taken for granted in my wife. The following is my love map—a practical GPS of interests, preferences, attitudes, and behaviours that I would hope to discover in a prospective partner.
1. Questioning not genuflecting
The quality that I have always appreciated most in my wife is her strong conviction—an ability to stand up for what she believes is right no matter how much opposition she may take from me or anyone else. I placed this trait at the top of my list because I believe it to be the bedrock of any enduring relationship. We can be easily swayed and lured by someone who may simply mimic what we want to hear, but having someone by your side who is not afraid to tell you the truth is invaluable.
2. Embracing being perfectly imperfect
I recently heard an interview with billionaire George Soros in which he said he’s not wealthy because of his shrewd investments, but rather because he recognizes he will make mistakes, and so he watches for and learns from those mistakes. I can’t imagine living in a relationship in which I would have to walk around on eggshells being terrified I might screw up or say the wrong thing. Allowing your partner the space to be fallible provides an opportunity for growth in a relationship and the possibility to “turn down the volume” when potential arguments ensue.
3. “Being with” not “Being for” each other
It took my wife and I almost 27 years to figure out that when one of us shares a problem or concern with the other, related to our relationship or something else for that matter, having the other person simply listen and not offer advice on “how to fix it” goes a long way to providing a safe outlet to share our feelings. In a sense, we’ve made a distinction between the active behaviour of “being there for each other” and the more nurturing support of “being there with each other”. There is an incredible loving power that is generated by simply bearing witness to your partner. Like a cat purring on your lap, no words need be spoken—your presence is enough.
4. Leaping before we look
My wife and I have stewed over the most mundane decisions for hours, yet when it comes to life’s bigger decisions, deciding to start a family or picking up and moving house, we have embraced the idea of jumping right in and feeling confident that as long as we have each other, everything will work out fine in the end.
5. Giggling our way through the muck and mire
There’s no denying the increased endorphins and dopamine brought on by laughter, but having a partner with a sense of humour is like carrying a magic wand that de-escalates conflicts and helps remind you not to take life too seriously.
6. Not ignoring the elephant in the room
Denial is a powerful force, and if left unchecked, in can fester and lead to self-absorption and avoidance. I am blessed, even though at times it feels like I’m cursed, with a partner who is not afraid of having the difficult conversations. If I were to put this practice into words it would be, “If you let things slide, you let things die.”
7. Acknowledging that love is a moving target
My wife and I got married at the ripe old age of 21. Over the years, we’ve done a lot of growing up together, and I would even venture to say “growing into each other". The person we are married to today is by no means the same individual we married 27 years ago. I don’t believe in trying to “change my partner” into the person I want her to be. Instead, I try to release the reins and embrace not knowing where this incredible person will take me.
8. Watching each other’s “6”
When it comes right down to it, life can be a relentless battle, and having someone who is always “watching your back” is like wrapping yourself in a warm security blanket, knowing that no matter what the situation, your loyal partner will be right beside you dodging life’s bullets. Just as in any war, I want the person I trust most to be in the foxhole beside me.
You may have noticed that none of my desired characteristics in an ideal partner is a physical attribute. I’m not going to lie to you and say that I’m not swayed by outer beauty, but I’m waging my effort on enduring qualities that sustain long-term relationships. I’ve heard it said that you better be careful if you think you’ve found your “knight in shining armor” because he could wind up being an “idiot wrapped in tinfoil”. When it comes to falling in love, I like to focus on the aspect of “falling”—and I’m reminded of the Buddhist saying: “The bad news is that you are falling through the sky. The good news is there is no ground.”
My wife was giving a television interview yesterday and she said: “My husband is the bravest man I know.” Just writing those words makes me cry, but hearing them coming directly from her shook me to my core. It’s ironic that for most of my life, I’ve walked around feeling weak, vulnerable, and directionless, but here’s the person I love and trust most in the world telling me the complete opposite is true.
When I asked her why she felt this way, she told me that I was doing what many people aren’t able to do—“Live their story.” Now would be the perfect time to put my ego in check and to come right out and say that for over three decades, that was not the case; in fact, it couldn’t be further from the truth. You see, when a child is sexually abused, two things invariably happen: the trauma careens the child off the natural path of development, and the seed of shame is imprinted on the innocent fragile mind. It’s this shame that germinates into self-loathing, fear, and sexual uncertainty, all of which ruminate throughout adolescence and adulthood. Now when I look back on my life rife with addiction and mental health issues, I see the genesis of this disconnection in the childhood trauma.
Throughout the past year, little by little, I’ve been going back to the place where that young boy was knocked off course, and page by page, I’m trying to take ownership of my life story. When it comes to taking stock of our lives, just as in art, perspective is everything. Because I’m so deeply enmeshed in it, what I’ve always railed against as an apparently endless onslaught of battles with addiction and depression, those around me, who witnessed my weathering the storm, have seen as an inner strength I never had the perspective to acknowledge.
The older I get, the harder it is for me to deny that if I quiet my mind for a little bit, I allow the space required to really accept what and who is before me.—And if I pay close enough attention, I might be able to go back and pick up another page of my “story”. Something magical unfolded when I put my trust in the chorus of voices around me that through so many dark periods, has enveloped me like a warm hug.
Today, because of all the support I’ve been given and all the love that I feel flowing through me, I was able to do something I never thought I’d be able to do. I walked into a police station and gave a sworn video statement detailing the childhood sexual abuse I lived through. As I sat across the table from two detectives in a small, claustrophobic room, my heart was in my throat and within the tentative, quivering words that came out of my mouth was the voice that I hadn’t heard since it was taken from me in my childhood.
To be honest with you, I don’t know how I’m feeling, or even what I’m feeling, but I do know that “I AM FEELING”. It’s going to take me a lot of time and a lot of professional help to train myself not to retreat to my natural default position of numbing any uncomfortable feelings. I’m reminded of something I heard recently on the CBC podcast Under the Influence. The Disney Corporation drills the following mantra about customer service into all of its new employees. “It’s not my fault, but it’s my problem.” For me, the childhood sexual abuse I experienced was “not my fault”, but I’ll never be able to move through it unless I look it directly in the eye and acknowledge that “it’s my problem.” Maybe this is what my wife was referring to when she said “owning my life story” is brave.
If you’re reading this and you too are suffering out there, in an unhappy relationship, or in a soul-destroying job, or coming to terms with past or current trauma, take a step back and trust that you might find some perspective. For the first time in my life, I wholeheartedly believe that we can make meaning out of the meaningless—that we can make tragedy into a trajectory.
One of the saddest ironies of life, is that we have a tendency to bide our time waiting for our lives to begin. On how many occasions have you said to yourself, I just need to…, and then everything will be better? When we do finally get to that place, it’s not as though our life magically kicks into gear and hums along peacefully. Life is what happens in the little spaces between those landmarks—It’s the time we spend in the sea waiting to get to the shore. I would even go so far as to argue that the time we spend thrashing in the water is where all the beauty of life exists. It’s when we often feel alone and when our mettle is tested.
There have been some unifying strands in my writing over the past six months as I’ve struggled with trying to be more present and to build more authentic relationships with people I care about. One of the things I’ve discovered is that I’ve brought these two themes to a lot of what I’ve read during this period. However, it wasn’t until I was working my way through Arianna Huffington’s book Thrive that I started to feel as though all these thoughts percolating in my mind finally coalesced.
Ms. Huffington raises a thought-provoking question early in the book when she asks: "Have you noticed that when we die, our eulogies celebrate our lives differently from the way society defines success?…Our eulogies are always about the other stuff: what we gave, how we connected, how much we meant to our family and friends, small kindnesses, lifelong passions, and the things that made us laugh.”
There is so much packed into those few lines that I not only identify with but also feel immensely anxious about. To be perfectly honest, I have a knot in my stomach when I think about all the time I’ve frittered away trying to get to that “shore” instead of acknowledging the presence and weight of all that water around me. What really hits home is how I’ve subjected myself to my own distorted definition of “success”. With the value I place on acquiring possessions, status, and praise, it’s no wonder I have such a difficult time quieting my mind. There is a lot of misspent frenetic activity wasted in the pursuit of transitory happiness, especially when I accept that none of this will be my legacy.
I feel gutted when I think about my father—a man who battled addiction, a man who raised two children on his own after my mother left, a man who was incapable of sitting still and having a conversation—Cancer took him at the age of 60, and right up until his last breath, he was convinced that his legacy had everything to do with his financial net worth, his ability to claw his way out of a poor French Canadian household and build a middle class life in Anglophone Toronto. I had just turned 20 when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and as is the case with most young adults, I was too self-absorbed and utterly incapable of telling my father what he meant to me. The shame that he felt having his wife leave him, I as a young boy saw only as courage and commitment. His fear of alcohol that brought him to his knees when he was younger and his eventual abstinence left him feeling socially awkward. Today, now that I too am 17 years clean and sober, I don’t see a legacy of fearful man, but one of a man with character and fortitude that few in this world ever get the opportunity to demonstrate.
I need to remind myself that it’s never too late to build my eulogy today! I have to get better at acknowledging the pockets of wisdom hidden in the relentless torrent of the mundaneness of a life punctuated by fleeting moments of bliss. Instead of possessions, I want to chase passions. Instead of consumption, my goal will be connection. As the Buddha said, “In the end, only three things matter: how much you loved, how greatly you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.”
I was watching Jane McGonigal’s Ted Talk in which she presented the five most common deathbed regrets, and her unique spin on this was how the simple act of playing video games might address those regrets, and as an added bonus, make you live longer.
Regardless of whether your last breath is taken from you suddenly, or is whispered after a prolonged period of palliative care, chances are entwined in that breath, will be regrets of a life somewhat unfulfilled. The Oxford Dictionary defines regret as “feeling sad, repentant, or disappointed over something that one has done or failed to do.” The word itself most likely has its etymology from the Anglo-Saxon “gretan”—meaning to weep or lament. Morbid as it may be, I can’t seem to get the image of my father as he lay dying from a cancer that mercilessly consumed a once powerful man right before my eyes. Like many people who have watched a loved one die, I was left with an aching emptiness because not only was my father not able to express his regrets but I too, left so many things unsaid. It is from this place that I decided to draft my own list of regrets as they stand today.
1. What was the one that got away?
For some, it was a missed opportunity; for others, a lost love, but for me, it has been the futile attempt of a wasted life chasing happiness. I’m quick to forget that happiness contains a time bomb that creates a voracious desire for more. It’s human nature to adapt to any circumstance in which we find ourselves. Whatever I have relentlessly pursued and eventually acquired may have made me happy yesterday, but today leaves me a little less satiated. I would like to rewire my brain so that I remember that the antidote to my “got to have more mentality” always lies in gratitude. If I could learn to live in the moment and nurture the gratitude within me, I would no longer view the world as a series of “missed opportunities”, but rather as a vast night sky made a little brighter by the light shining from within my gratitude.
2. What did I too much of?
A huge part of my story is that I am a recovering addict, now 17 years clean and sober. What I “regret doing too much of” is numbing myself for so many years with drugs and alcohol. The regret comes not from numbing out the pain but from numbing out all the good that was around me at that time—What we addicts often forget is that it is impossible to selectively numb out certain feelings we are sitting with. In other words, my numbing behaviour just pushed me further into isolation and disconnection. In his Ted Talk entitled “The Power of Addiction and The Addiction of Power”, Gabor Mate suggests that in order to understand addiction, we need to approach the issue from a different perspective. He says that we needn’t ask ourselves “what is wrong with the addiction”, but rather “what is right about the addiction.” This reframing of the question allows us to interpret what the addict is getting from the “addiction” that (s)he doesn’t have naturally. Addicts get a release from pain, a sense of inner peace although temporary, or possibly a sense of control.
3. What I would do over?
Of all my “deathbed regrets”, this was by far the easiest one to identify. I’m blessed to be the father of an incredible boy who has grown up to become a self-assured and loving young man—and for that, I am thankful. The longing, or the regret, comes from not being completely present for him when he was younger. I would love to have those years back so that I could be less self-absorbed, less rigid, and more appreciative of what that fragile being was teaching me with his presence.
4. What do I wish I left behind—my legacy?
One of the things I fear most is that I’ll be remembered as the man who was “good at not doing something”. The strength of my character and the conviction of my actions are intricately woven into my decision not to use drugs or alcohol and my ability not to let the sexual abuse I experienced in childhood destroy the remainder of my life. Granted, these are both noble pursuits in and of themselves, but I want my legacy to be something I’ve built rather than something I’ve not done.
5. What advice, distilled into one sentence, would you leave your child(ren)?
What I want my son to take forward into his life is something that took me 47 years to figure out--Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s strength without wings.
My hope is that you too find a quiet place and a grounded mind so that you can write your own answers to these questions. Think of it as a kind of “To-Do-List” turned on its head—the ultimate chance for a do-over and an opportunity to live the life you are meant to live. In the immortal words of Bob Dylan: “People seldom do what they believe in. They do what is convenient, then repent.”