On Asking (and Listening)
"If equal affection cannot be, let the more loving one be me." W.H. Auden
Last year I made a simple, low risk New Year’s resolution: I would ask for what I wanted. This worked splendidly in restaurants when I spied an unoccupied booth as the server was directing me to a drafty table near the kitchen. It even worked when being discharged from the hospital with only thirty narcotic pain pills. “I’d rather have sixty.” I said, after pointing out that my shattered tib-fib had required twenty-four pills a day. I got what I asked for.
Last year’s resolution was inspired by a TED talk by Jia Jiang, who went on to write ‘Rejection Proof: How I Beat Fear and Became Invincible Through 100 Days of Rejection.’ He chronicles the demise of his big dream to take over Microsoft while still in his twenties. Then, with a new wife and baby on the way, he was let go from his job. In a pit of despair, he challenged himself to ask for the ridiculous, things that included making an announcement on board an airline, getting a “refill” on his burger, and being allowed to slide down a fire station pole. The intent was to desensitize himself to rejection and overcome his fear of setting new goals. And it worked. Along the way, his ‘success’ rate was over 50%. You can read about all his whacky requests here on his blog.
Feeling rejection proof has served me well in my dating life, a world rife with fickleness, ghosting and boy-men who still haven’t figured out why their marriages failed. But there was a downside to always asking for what I wanted: a myopic view of the world through my own lenses without accounting for how my delightful assertiveness might be affecting the experience of another. The last man I dated was always happy to do what I asked, and this resulted in some very good orgasms. However, I rarely asked about his needs and he asked little of me. Until he asked me to leave.
When I was married my husband and I both spent an awful lot of time asking each other to act differently. We were convinced that if only the other person would change, our marriage would be harmonious. Sadly, one of the things he wanted most from me would be that I could remember things he told me. I have a memory like a sieve and could never convince him that, were he to convey his most pressing information by way of a catchy jingle, I could live up to his expectations. Sadder still, this defect of mine convinced him I wasn’t listening.
What I wished I’d come across before I left my husband was the essay ‘How I Saved My Marriage' by Richard Paul Evans who, on the brink of divorce, chose humility over hubris when it came to interactions with his wife. He decided one morning to simply ask, “How can I make your day better?” His wife took him literally and, after cleaning the kitchen, the garage and continuing to ask the same question every morning, he gradually felt the freeze melt between them. His wife admitted she was herself difficult and asked him to stop asking her what she wanted. But he continued the practice, not just for her but for his own transformation. “Right now,” he said. “I need to be the change. You need to know how much you mean to me.”
Hearing this from a partner every day might indeed feel like conjugal nirvana. But how many of us are willing to be the one doing the asking without expecting anything in return? Certainly, we all need to decide whether a partner is subtracting more from our well being than enhancing it. But I’ve been challenging myself to ask if what I believe I need from a lover is something I should actually be offering myself. Recently I told a man, in a voice I hardly recognized as my own,“You are not responsible for my insecurities.” I considered back peddling by following that utterance with, “But telling me I’m hot and texting me three times a day would be really, really nice.” Instead, I sat with it. And this man simply held me close. It was an epiphany and a triumph. And now it’s my fucking mantra.
I have often felt my partners had more control over my happiness than I did. And if I could get them to do what I wanted, we’d both be happy. What my heart and my head finally know is I am the only person responsible for my contentment. I am the true foundation of my own opinion of myself. And if I can’t imagine hanging out on the porch swing in my own company, I shouldn’t expect anyone else to want to do it.
Now that I’m feeling more content with who I am, it’s getting easier to feel generous towards others. Inspired by Richard Paul Evans, I’m starting to ask a little more often, “What do you want?” It has been both empowering and frustrating. By not asking for what I want, I’ve had to allow a lover to reveal himself at his own pace. That has entailed breaking old habits. But isn't that the intent of resolutions? Of course, I still speak up about how I like to be stroked, but I’ve decided not to make an urgency of my own desires. Now I find myself being more present during each moment in another person’s company, less often wanting to dictate the rules of engagement. I’m trying to be more curious about who this other person is rather than teasing out ways they might be more accommodating to me.
This isn’t easy in a post #MeToo context. The sexes feel more polarized than ever. I think a lot of men are holding back, wary of expressing their own desires for fear of offending mine. And the rhetoric around women’s rage and giving no fucks can feel that, by not putting myself first, I might be falling into the submissive woman trope. Granted, anyone who knows me would never pin the adjective ‘submissive’ onto my lapel. Not, at least, before my wrists are tied to the bedposts.
I’m no longer comfortable with single-minded confrontation. I’m happy there are people like Greta Thunberg in the world who are willing to scream at lawmakers for their hypocrisy and foot-dragging. When I marched during the climate strike, the sign I made said, “Business Can’t Thrive on a Dead Planet” and I carried it feeling like a prevaricator is a sea liberal zealots. But that’s just who I am now, seeking middle ground between the stubborn opinions around how the world should operate. I’m asking myself if my own opinions are any more valid than those of the person next to me. Walking this line is less risky when it comes to human relationships than it is in relation to the planet. But I like to be consistent.
We’ll see how this year goes, asking more of myself in service to others rather than asking them to do my bidding. I’ll still appeal for the restaurant booth or the medicine my body needs. I won’t allow myself to be steamrolled by requests that reach beyond my boundaries. But I do plan to ask those I care about, “What can I do to make your day better?” And those I get naked with, “What makes you feel good?”