Relationships

Intimate Strangers

The primal craving for emotional connection can't be satisfied until you know who you are and what you want

Photograph by Getty Images

The very first guy I dated after my divorce — if you can even call it dating — was a bear of a man with a big heart, a big brain, a big mouth and a gargantuan sense of his own importance. I liked the big heart and the big brain.

The rest? Not so much.

We typically spent our time as follows: I listened to him talk about work; we ate together at his favorite restaurant; we sat in his rec room as he plucked on one of several guitars; we hung with my kids — he was great with my kids; and we watched films (if you can even call them films) on his big-screen television — primarily, martial arts and car chases.

The food we ate was his decision; the eateries we frequented were also his decision; the movies and music were (I'm sure you’re sensing a pattern here) his decisions. As for the unsolicited remarks on my parenting, they flowed as freely as his commentary on everything else.

Don’t get me wrong. Back then, I was delighted to escape my life under almost any circumstances. There were good moments of pleasant company. Besides, my boys found him entertaining.

Sure, he was the classic narcissist — complete with the overblown ego, overestimation of his talents, disregard for my opinion and determination to own the spotlight. But beneath the bluster, I could feel his emotional hunger, his piercing loneliness and desire for family, impossible to camouflage in the wake of his second divorce.

Still, to say he was needy is an understatement. Then again, I was needy in those days, too. But my desire for non-threatening male company was situational; his bottomless pit of requirements was a permanent condition.

When he started dishing out ultimatums over decisions that I was making for myself and my family — and remember, we weren’t “dating,” much less in a committed relationship — his directives were a little too reminiscent of the last years of my marriage. He was incapable of real listening, incapable of fathoming the “other’s” ownership of self, incapable of the trust and respect that is part of any functional interaction.

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In other words, he was clueless when it came to the nuances of real emotional connection. His final ultimatum was so ridiculous that it left me no option. I said goodbye to the friendship. I wised up and moved on.

This wasn’t the first time I’d dealt with those who demand attention in extremis — my mother was the 1970s poster girl for narcissism — and, while her embarrassing antics thrilled strangers, color me mortified and looking for the nearest exit.

I’m also recalling an old friend, not only charming but breathtakingly beautiful. She thrived on the attention of men. And by God, she certainly got it. Her social life seemed sparkling from the outside, but in the parade of suitors, I saw cracks in the veneer, wondering why she couldn’t sustain any happiness. Whatever it was that she craved so desperately, during the years I knew her, she never found it.

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One of the most painful kinds of disconnect comes from the gulf that can grow inside a marriage. It’s a special sort of isolation; you’re an appendage, a convenience, an afterthought.

So what do you do when you find yourself with a partner who rules with an iron hand? What if he or she lives for the attention? What happens when you realize you’re barely in the picture? Do you try harder? Fall back on magical thinking? Confront the issues and hope for the best?

As for my one trip down the aisle, my spouse rarely raised his voice, though it was certainly he who ran the show. I was a second-class citizen in our marital arrangement. Naturally, it didn’t start out that way, but it’s what we had become though I could never pinpoint how.

And the elusive emotional connection? I spent years in search of it, trolling for treasure that didn’t exist, starving for acknowledgment, silent on how painfully I lived in want.

Remarkably, something has happened in the decade since my marriage ended. I’ve come to bask in my own company, feeling utterly at ease keeping my own counsel, and whatever neediness I may have once felt, those days are past. I’ve known love of various sorts — each enriching in its own way. I’m more certain of what works for me, more aware of what works for someone I’m seeing and as a result, more balanced in my approach to relationships.

I’m also clear on an important distinction. There are times when everyone feels vulnerable, dismissed or insecure. We may need a little extra TLC. There’s a difference between perpetual neediness and seeking solace. The former results from an ongoing deficit and the latter is human, a path to reassurance.

I’ve also come to realize that the craving for connection resides on a time-sensitive and situational spectrum. There is no single version of yearning any more than enjoying solitude means you’re a loner.

Though it took me many years and a few heartbreaks, I’ve learned what I want — in part by living through what I know I don’t want. No one should have to beg to be heard. No one should be given ultimatums. We all deserve to be seen for who we are and valued for what we bring to the table.

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