I recently started dating after five and a half years of celibacy—a celibacy that was prompted by the need for self-care, introspection, and recovery after a difficult divorce.
In entering into the dating world, I was somewhat sheltered from the vicissitudes and uncertainty because my first romantic and sexual experience was with a dear friend and former professional colleague. This familiarity cushioned my reentry and allowed me to be relaxed, engaged, generous, and fully available.
After a couple of months of connecting, we decided to plan a week-long vacation together to deepen into our relationship, get to know each other more fully, and explore the process of bonding as lovers.
A week before the trip, this new dating partner decided not only to cancel the vacation but mentioned that he wasn’t really in love with me and needed some space to figure out if he wanted to continue. His reasons were complex, and his own inner process important and primary. In general, I am fully supportive of all beings finding their own true direction in life.
Still, I hadn’t seen this coming and was understandably and obviously (understandable and obvious to some people) confused, shocked, and hurt. When I expressed those feelings, my dating partner said, “I didn’t think this would impact you because you are so strong and appear to be impenetrable.”
At this point in the conversation, I think I speak for strong women everywhere when I say, “What the f*ck?”
I’m also pretty sure I can speak for strong women everywhere when I have to painstakingly explain, not for the first time, that just because I have strength doesn’t mean I lack vulnerability, tenderness, and humanity.
Lately, I’ve actually come to wonder if it’s a slippery form of sexism for people to assume that only outwardly fragile women (or people) are sensitive. Are capable, competent, and strong women never allowed to feel emotions? Is this another insidious way that our culture decides who will and who won’t be seen as human?
One thing I know for sure is that it is no easy task to become authentically strong in a culture that offers an obstacle course of mixed messages about what it means to be a woman. In fact, holistic strength is quite likely acquired from getting knocked around quite a bit. By the time we learn to dodge and weave life’s impossible expectations, discern how to tend to the great needs of the world, and figure out how to dance with our own demons, we’ve pretty much built a mad skill set.
Most strong women I know live lives of multifaceted and dynamic interaction with their inner and outer worlds. The sheer breadth of engagement is mind-boggling. They tend to the health and well-being of their bodies, their careers, their children, their relationships, their intellect, and their inner selves.
Often, this is a huge balancing act. In fact, being so strong for so many is a hallmark of the strong woman archetype. We tend to get things done, take care of others, and move multiple projects forward, all with a baby (metaphorical or otherwise) balanced on our hip.
It’s possible that this strength is generated from the very experience of life pressing down on us harder than it does on men. Women are playing the game of life on the “difficult” setting by having to overcome the obstacles of sexism at every turn.
The extra burden required of us for both survival and success quite possibly may be the pressure that forges us into the badass creatures that we appear to be. Working with the ingredients we are given and turning ourselves into powerhouses is adaptive and creative but also a fairly severe stress response to the trauma of oppression.
Regardless of the origin of the fierceness, it doesn’t negate, deny, or obliterate our softer center that wishes the world were more receptive to our whole selves. Truth be told, it’s actually quite the opposite. In each and every strong woman is a longing to be seen, held, comforted, supported, met, and appreciated. Every woman on Earth is hungry for these basic things. And the collective grief associated with having to forgo them most of the time could fill an ocean.
So when we actually let people close to our hearts and bodies, it’s fair to say that it’s because we trust them to see us as whole people. In fact, due to our own powerful ability to sense what’s needed, we like to imagine that other people close to us will show up with at least some participation, reciprocity, and relatedness.
We like to imagine that we can put down our swords (and rolling pins, and diplomas, and running shoes, and magic wands) for long enough to be fully accepted as our whole selves.
Whole selves doesn’t mean showing up as perfect. In fact, it specifically means showing up as imperfect. And therefore, human.
So many beautiful and powerful women I know bring a ton of treasure into their closest relationships. It’s often a deep and meaningful part of who we are.
Relatedness, in general, implies tracking self and others with care, offering radiance and presence to those we love, and negotiating our needs with respect and consideration.
For me, the path of conscious relating is a central component of my personal and spiritual growth process.
These are the kinds of things I’m attentive to and offer as an unfolding and ever-evolving gift to those I am committed to:
>> Understanding, identifying, and owning my feelings.
>> Monitoring and resolving my projections and expectations.
>> Attending to conflict with care and consideration.
>> Cultivating real empathy and deep listening for those I love.
>> Being present and available.
>> Opening my heart even when things are hard.
>> Taking responsibility for my own mistakes, failings, imperfections, and challenges.
>> Offering integrity, honesty, and clear communication, especially when I know that my actions are impacting others.
These things are the epitome of maturity. They are hard-won and some of the biggest gifts that one human being can offer another. Being mature in a relationship counteracts the childishness that casually and callously hurts others.
Being mature in relating naturally enhances cooperation, minimizes codependence, and encourages a pattern of adult interaction. If someone needs us to be a puddle of need on the floor before they realize we have feelings, they are not someone who is going to be able to navigate the choppy yet rewarding waters of grown-up love.
On behalf of strong women, take my word for this: when we share our bodies with you, it is vulnerable. When we share our hearts with you, it is tender. And when we share our lives with you, we are offering you the imperfect and ever-emerging gold of who we are.
In return, here are some things that we would love to experience from people who want to be close to us, specifically in the context of seeing us as a whole. These are the acts that will build great trust with us:
>> Ask us how we’re feeling, listen, and believe us.
>> Feel into our hearts to see our tenderness and hear our deeper song.
>> Treat us with respect and consider your impact on us.
>> Include us in decisions that affect our lives. Always.
>> And please, don’t ever assume we are impenetrable.
With regards to that last one, how about we all start with the assumption that no one is impenetrable? Because humanity is fragile, hearts are soft, and kindness is an option.
As Brené Brown says, “Everyone has a story or a struggle that will break your heart. And, if we’re really paying attention, most people have a story that will bring us to our knees.”
I’m not sure what it will take to build more empathy in our culture or for us to see each other as whole, complex, and tender beings. I’m guessing we could get a good running start if we taught empathy in primary school. And then continued it at all phases of our education, media, politics, and culture.
Until then, we’re going to have to remind each other. I look forward to the day when all women can be seen in both their strength and their tenderness. A culture that can allow us all to be our full, robust, and complex selves can surely solve any problem.