Love is: building a safe space

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For being a person who is pretty open about my opinions, I surprise myself by how private I am. When people ask me about Logan, I can feel all my muscles tighten. It’s like asking about intimate details of your friendship with your best friend—why is it “small talk” for so many people to ask about your significant other?—but I’m learning to roll with the punches.

There are plenty of things I will get on a soapbox for, but marriage relationships are not one of them. Maybe it’s because I’m so deeply skeptical that a one-size-fits-all exists? Maybe it’s because I don’t feel qualified because I’m not even 25 years old? But I’ve been asked by several people in the last few weeks to talk about relationships, particularly about Logan, so I’m going to do it the way I know best—a conversation. Consider this the first of many talks about love.

• • • • •

I tend to think of all relationships as a literal, physical space. From the moment you become friends, you lay the cornerstone, and from there you build. Some relationships are further along in the building than others, but they’re all spaces nevertheless.

Logan and I often say to each other, “this is a safe space.” We say it to remind the other person, and sometimes to remind ourselves of what our relationship is all about: creating a space to know and be known, a space that’s ultimately bound by knowing that the other person is invested and is gonna keep showing up. That kind of safety is built over time, as the walls become more secure and the ceiling holds itself up.

Sometimes those words are a reprimand. I will never forget when, almost a year ago, I confessed to Logan that I had lied about something totally irrelevant because I worried that it would jeopardize his self-confidence. The first thing he said to me was, “I thought this was a safe space.” Those words haunt me still.

Because safe space means that lying is not allowed. Passive-aggressive behavior is childish when you could just grow up and tell the truth about how you’re feeling. Safe space means the other person’s feelings have inherent value and worth, because that person has value and worth. Safe space means practicing a teachable spirit and showing up to do the work. Safe space means that you are ultimately for the other person, their #1 fan, their teammate and coach and best friend. And safe space means that when the other person fails you, you are there to remind them that if it only took one thing to kick them out then it wasn’t a safe space to begin with.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t fight. When you have two people together as stubborn as Logan and I, fighting is going to happen. But we know that at the end of the day, we are for each other and one little fight doesn’t jeopardize that. We built a strong foundation, and we intend for it to last.

Safe space is the other person respecting you enough to call you on your bull****. (The danger of being a writer is that I don’t get called on my B.S. enough—thankfully Logan does that for me.) Safe space is telling the other person if you were hurt, and safe space is choosing to respond with “tell me more” instead of becoming defensive.

The only way to establish this kind of safety is to be willing to walk the tightrope of risk. This is what Brené Brown calls “vulnerability”. Because what if he’s not safe? What if the other shoe drops? The key here—and the key to any healthy relationship—is to love and respect yourself first. Because if you do, and the other person doesn’t prove to be safe, you’ll know that you owe it to yourself to find someone who is. You’ll know that it’s not worth the temporary (and shallow) sense of security. When it’s that early and you haven’t laid a foundation, it is good to walk away. I repeat: it is good to walk away. But if the other person proves to be trustworthy, these little risks land like bricks, building your sanctuary.

If you want a safe space, you have to be willing to go first. Be willing to be the first one to say I love you; be willing to be the first one invested in commitment. (It’s really hard to build a safe space when each person is trying to appear less interested than the other.)
Be willing to give up the façade of “chill”. I have zero chill. It’s very freeing. Be the first one to admit you’re wrong, and that you’re sorry. Remove the stigma of admitting failure: when it’s not a battle to be won, there’s no satisfaction in having the last word.

Building a safe space is hard. work. But there’s a reason why I chose “sanctuary” as a synonym: these spaces are sacred. There is a holiness to all relationships, romantic or platonic, that reflects the Trinity. Relationship should be a verb, because it is an action, not a thing. It is a practice, it is a liturgy, and it is a discipline.

Logan and I are not perfect. At my best I am inquisitive and teachable, and at my worst I am stubborn, uncooperative, and argumentative. I react much more quickly than I wish I did, and I am much more fearful than I want to be. But being honest about my flaws makes space to learn and grow. And Logan and I will always be practicing this discipline—the art of building a safe space.

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The day after I Do: A love letter to my for-real future husband

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Dear Logan,

Today was a hard day. Maybe it was because I started going to counseling again, maybe it was how overwhelmed I feel with this semester, plus fundraising for my trip to Lebanon this summer, plus, you know, getting engaged last week. Whatever it was, it left me an emotional wreck all day. I had been running at an unsustainable pace, and it finally caught up with me.

You know this, because after a series of very emotional texts you met me in the science building at 11pm. I talked a little, I cried a little, but mostly you held me together and reminded me to be gentle to myself.

I told you how grateful I am that you are a thoughtful, emotionally intelligent man, to which you replied with a laugh, you taught me well. But my words don’t amount to your teachable spirit and eagerness to dive deeper with me these last two years. And as I walked away, I had a moment of clarity: I am marrying the right man. And that truth spread over me, warming my toes with the cozy feeling relief brings.

In that moment, I said my second yes to marrying you. And I plan to keep saying yes, through the fights and wedding mishaps and when we wake up the morning after we said I do, bleary-eyed and shocked that there’s a life for us on the other side of the curtain.

I will say yes in the unemployment, in the miscarriages, in the postpartum depression and the 7-year itch. I want to do the work. I want to keep leaning in and asking questions. Because if there’s anything I believe about the beauty of marriage, it’s that I have the privilege of knowing you better than anyone else. And there is nothing I find more beautiful than the act of knowing and being known.

You ask for conversations at Taylor about men advocating for women, and you tweet about male privilege, and you’re learning how to say tell me more, and I tear up every time because there’s nothing sexier than a man who advocates for women. And I know it all comes from that place in your heart that pushes you to show up and be on my team.

So I will plan the flowers, the colors, the dresses, the food. And you will agonize with me over invitations and websites and caterers, and you’ll make me laugh until I cry (as you always do). But know that my eyes are on the day after I do: when we lay the first stone for our life together. I’m waiting for the infinitely more important moments that will come long after the wedding dress, the cake or our first dance.

I said yes to a life with you. And in case you didn’t know, I’m really glad you asked.

Breaking up with my future husband

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Dear future husband,

I started writing to you when I was 12 years old.

I had never been boy crazy or interested in dating at my age, but I was fascinated by the future. I always dreamed of college, of moving into a tiny studio apartment in New York after graduation, of graduate school.

And I dreamed of you.

I wondered what you looked like, whether you were short or tall, whether your voice was light and cheerful or deep and rumbling. Whether you and I would like the same TV shows, whether or not we would fight, whether or not you were saving yourself for me.

I was always saving myself for you.

I didn’t know better, really. I was handed books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye and When God Writes Your Love Story, telling me I should write you letters and knit you scarves whenever I felt the urge to date someone. Because if there was anything worse than not saving your body, it was failing to save your heart.

“Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life,” I was always told. So I obediently tucked away my letters, listened to Rebecca St. James and dreamed about how one day you and I would be together forever.

Somewhere between the driver’s tests and college applications, I started to get impatient. I tried to project you on each boy I met, wondering does it fit? Is he you? But each time I was disappointed. And when I went off to college I put you on the shelf, vowing that you would come along after graduation, in the real world.

And then I met him.

He sits with me when I’m weary. Sometimes he has things to say, and sometimes I have things to say, but when we don’t we sit in companionable silence, just grateful to be near each other. He does silence so well—it fits him like a comfortable sweater. He is the most loyal and caring person I know.

But he’s not you. And I know why.

Because you’re not real.

You’re a figment of my imagination. A straw man built for me to believe in. You don’t actually exist. You’re too good to be true, and a sweet fantasy is no substitute for the rich bittersweetness of reality. You, a one-dimensional trojan horse, cannot bear the weight of who I am. You were created to keep me obsessed, to keep me hesitant and second-guessing and I’m done with you.

 

I don’t miss you.

I pulled out the journal the other day. The one written for you. I thought it would be sweet and meaningful, and it wasn’t at all. It felt hollow, and kind of embarrassing. I couldn’t believe how much time I’d devoted to a person who doesn’t actually exist, instead of loving people who actually do exist.

I wish I hadn’t feared giving my heart away, because that’s not even possible. There is no heartbreak that hasn’t been worth the pain; no lost love that hasn’t been wisdom gained.

 

This is the last letter I’m writing you.

I don’t ever plan on writing you again.

I’m respecting myself and others enough to know that perfection is not a fair standard to hold. So if settling is accepting that people are broken and messy but still worthy of love and connection and belonging, I guess that’s what I am.

 

But I don’t mind. I actually kinda like it here on the ground.

The loyal kind of love

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They broke up for their families.

That’s what you told me over the crowd, as an afterthought while the group behind us laughed loudly. They broke up because they fell in love, but they were both married so they decided to go separate ways to save their marriages.

The conversation moved on quickly and nothing more was said about them, but this image haunted me long after talk shifted to celebrities and other scandals. Two musicians, making art together, fell in love over the art, but didn’t let their emotions stop them. They were stronger than what they felt. And they decided to choose differently.

– – – – –

I am afraid of marriage.

There. I said it.

I spent years dreaming about the ceremony, the colors and the dress and the flowers (gosh I love flowers), and whether I would serve dinner or just hors d’oeuvres? But the part that comes after “I do”. I have woken in cold sweats at 3am over dreams of divorce. Death. Or worse: boredom. Discontentment. The 7th year itch.

I’ve heard them all. The warnings. Don’t marry him for who he is now, because he’s going to change and you’ll wake up next to a stranger. Don’t marry him for who he could be, because you need to love him for who he is right now. Don’t marry him for what he could give you, don’t marry him for how he makes you feel, blah blah blah. All the advice has turned into one big pile of crap and I am left with major commitment issues, feeling like Snoopy – I think I’d rather just crawl under the porch and die.

I have never gotten very good advice about marriage, and it’s not because I haven’t asked. I had to put down the marriage self-help books because of the waves of anxiety that would wash over me every time I picked one up. I wish nothing more than to sit down at the feet of someone I admire and plead, tell me your secret. Tell me how you still glow.

But no matter how many books I read, how many blogs I follow, I find myself still yearning for some secret I haven’t yet learned and that is when I discovered something: we all want the answer to an unanswerable question. We all want the guaranteed “3 steps to perfect your marriage”, and there are plenty of people who are willing to put their ten cents in on the topic. But that 3-step formula doesn’t exist. There’s no how-to manual for doing life with a completely one-of-a-kind human being.

I’ve never been married – I can’t tell you what it’s like. But I do know that there’s no finish line. I know that every day is a choice, and it’s a marathon, not a sprint. I know that being honest about when I’m scared or doubting is the best way to relieve fear and doubt. I know that love is more than a fleeting emotion, but a skyscraper that you build brick by brick.

And if you seek out a wise man, he will pace himself. He will show up in the unspoken moments, the quiet hand in yours, the steady shoulder you lean your head on. He may not write poetry, but he’s the kind of person who always has to check the oil in your car before you drive, just in case.

Beware the man who tells you you’re the prettiest girl in the world, because you’re not. There will always be someone who is prettier than you. But choose the man who tells you that you’re the prettiest girl in his world, because he just might be telling the truth.

– – – – –

There’s only one kind of love that’s cool anymore – the passionate kind of love. The kind that kisses fervently in the rain and tells someone “my feelings will not be repressed”.

But the kind of love that says goodbye to a man you’ve fallen in love with to choose the man you’ve stayed in love with just isn’t cool anymore. It’s not flashy or glamorous. But it’s romantic because it’s loyal. The loyal kind of love is the kind that lasts.

They broke up to save their marriages – that’s what people say. I don’t know if the story is true. But even if it’s not, I hope I will be the kind of woman who says no to what’s convenient to say yes to what is lasting. Because loyalty might just be the secret I’m hoping for.