I am a bit of a bleeding heart. This does not fare well in choosing a better partner.
Those who know me, or at the very least, watch enough TV with me will attest that ASCPA, St. Jude, Operation Smile, and other such commercials make me weepy, tug on my heartstrings, and just nearly have me picking up the phone and blubbering my credit card details into the receiver. I've been told by more than one person to stop giving money to the people who are sitting on the street with signs because I don't know if those people really are as hurting as they say they are. If ever I make a butt load of money, I run the risk of quickly being without that butt load of money because I'll have donated all over the place.
Being charitable, philanthropic, compassionate, and empathetic are not the worse things to be. Certainly, the world could use more of all of that. And when I am so privileged to earn a ton of money, I do wish to spread that wealth around. Family, friends, community, the world-at-large.
The problem with feeling all the feels for everyone is that my heart is usually open. Having an open heart with the perspective we all deserve a chance (maybe half a dozen) and the ability to find compassion in any heart-wrenching story (made up or not) has meant that choosing better partners has not been a strength of mine.
That understanding, sympathetic, and good-listener kind of way means they can tell me just about anything and if they're convincing enough I'll feel compassion for them. Even if they're handing me a huge load of bull shit - which has happened more times than I can count. I'll quickly jump to their side believing they've been unjustly wronged. Or that I want to champion their potential and success. Fight their fight, shout their worth, kick anyone's ass who's blocking them from their greatness.
They know it and can see it. I'm not sure if I just look like a sucker and sap or I am just that good at cheerleading that I attract all the people who need that.
My good intentions and big bleeding heart are both a superpower and kryptonite.
I've spent a lot of time on my blog talking about my relationships and the fact that they've failed. We know from one post that I wasn't ready or didn't feel I deserved nice guys. We know from another that the stereotypical nice guy isn't anyone I should be with but often ended up with. And we know from a third post that I'm an unconfrontational, people-pleasing, shelver who often aids her own relationship failures by being these three very things.
The conclusions that can be made: I need to make some changes. I need to work on the confrontations. The people-pleasing. The internalizing. And. I also need to choose a better partner. Not because all of the people I've been with have been horrible or horrific, but because for one reason (or several) they've not been the right person for me. Or me for them.
I've had a pattern, a type, really. One that my father could see a decade ago that I couldn't. He said, "I just don't want you to be always bringing home stray cats."
These words came through the phone and landed heavy. I can't remember what prompted the conversation. Perhaps a failed match.com date. Perhaps a complaint about the latest person I had attempted to "see." But I do remember that I was in the living room of my apartment, alone with the two feral cats I had adopted. Actual ones. Not the metaphorical ones he was referring to.
Here it is fitting for a brief aside on my history with cats so you can understand this clever metaphor of my father's.
When I was seven, I went with a family friend to pick a new kitten out of a huge litter of barn cats. She had permission from my parents to consider this cat my own but it would live at her house. My parents weren't open to having pets at the time.
My next cat came a few years later. I was with the same family friend who was going to the humane society to see about a second kitten. While she didn't find the kitten she was looking for there, I fell in love with a beautiful long-haired black kitten. I was convinced that she would die if she stayed at the humane society if not adopted immediately. My parents were still anti-pets at that point. But I just couldn't let it go. I was so crushed by the idea of her being put to sleep.
I wrote a convincing letter to my father and stuffed it under his pillow. While he thought that the family friend had put me up to it, once he realized it was all me, he caved. We went and got the kitten a few days later. This cat was 75% sweet and loving house pet and 25% true hunter and outdoor adventurer. She was a bit unruly. Commanded a certain amount of space and distance though she did have her softer side.
Now following these two it just really went downhill. The two feral cats I mentioned before I took this digression were exactly that. Feral. They were panicked. Skittish. Would not be touched. Only eat when you weren't around. Stay hidden all day in places I didn't even know existed inside of my apartment.
One semester I had them, I also took in a third cat for a friend who was studying abroad. This third cat made the other two even crazier. And now one of them (or more) wouldn't use the litterbox. Now I had to have more than one litterbox, more than one place to put the food. And unlike my two antisocial cats, this one wouldn't leave me alone. While you wouldn't think to have three cats could be all that troubling, it was a very intense living environment. Not to mention, a bit unclean, which drove me crazy. But I had ended up with the two feral cats because of the sob story my friend gave me. I ended up with the third because of the desperation of another friend who was going away for the semester.
And my last cat, the one I have now, also the result of someone feeding me a story about a cat without a home. Though this one came well after that conversation with my father.
So, my dad was trying to commend me for my compassion and understanding of other people. But he was also kind of begging me to find someone that didn't have so much "baggage."
He told me that I had been taking in stray cats since I started dating. "You can't save them. You can't change them. They are who they are." This was difficult to swallow. We all have baggage. None of us are baggage-less. Some of us just hide it better, completely deny it, or have figured out how to heal and/or cope. Our baggage (or backstory) gives us dimension. Maybe that's the key difference. When you're backstory controls you it becomes baggage. So it's not the backstory but what you do with it. Regardless of where you want to fall on this perspective, from a father to a daughter, seeing bad fit after bad fit, witnessing lies, drama, manipulation - and those only being the things he knew about - I could see what he was getting at.
I hadn't had much luck. I kept putting myself out there but never choosing a better partner.
While we laughed - because that's what we do when we are trying to have a heart-to-heart - there was a terrible amount of hard truth there. Not one I was ready for then. But now I can look back through my relationships, the long-term ones especially, and see that each longer-term partner I chose, brought with them some similar key characteristics that would have pegged them all as being a particular type of cat.
Quite a few of them were possessive, jealous, needy, insecure, hyper-masculine, manipulative, unaware, and/or extremely dependent.
Could have been because of their childhoods (that backstory/baggage). Several had unstable or abusive homes or were below poverty lines. I don’t believe our circumstances define us nor that we can't grow in spite of them. I don't believe we can use our history as an excuse for our present. But years working in mental health and being a survivor of assault, I understand that trauma affects us deeply including how we view the world and how we behave.
It could have been that because I set up a dynamic where I emotionally took care of them more than a lot of other people had, I set our dynamic up to fail. I would always give because I felt they deserved someone to care. But I'd go "all in" with no boundaries set. So, they would always take. When I got tired of that role and pulled away, they panicked and clung. Perhaps a feeling of abandonment triggered. In the parting of ways, some of their worst colors came out.
Regardless of the reasons for their behaviors and personality traits, they were not acceptable.
I was allowed to change my mind. Allowed to feel things differently on any given day. Not required to stay in a relationship that didn't serve me. When I made those decisions, there was a certain level of respect that should have come with that even if that wasn't what the other person wanted. The problem is, those challenging traits had been there from the outset but I couldn't see them.
In the very beginning, they would creep up onto my porch in search of warmth and light and energy, water and food for the soul. They'd share their heart-wrenching tale and I would eat up the details of the underdog.
I would see that vulnerability in their eyes, but some kind of fire that still burned. I believed in their potential and my ability to help them see it. Wanted to help them heal or move on, let go, accept. Whatever it was they needed. I saw champions of their own circumstance. Fighters. Perseverance. Hard work. Determination. Grit. It wasn't until being in the thick of it that I saw all the other things. The "stray cat" qualities that would doom us to failure. The understanding that they hadn't quite made it out like I thought they had. And I just couldn't be with them there in that space. Not long term.
Now I recognize that the cat I'm looking for is one that has emotional intelligence.
Isn't stuck in the position of being a victim of their circumstance and unwilling to work on their self. One that brings to the table whatever histories they have, whatever shades of grey, but isn't defined by them and is certainly a better person for them. They've chosen a victor's mentality. They are kind and strong. Independent. Self-reliant. Secure in their sense of identity and self-assured.
In short, I don't have to emotionally tend to them because they can do it themselves.
We can talk things out. Lean on each other, of course, but the weight of their world isn't strapped to my shoulders. And, if ever I slip into the mode of over nurturing, over caretaking, they can put me in my place and say, "I don't need that. Stop." And when I'm not saying something on my mind but they can tell, they aren't afraid to say, "Talk to me. I know you're holding something in." Because they're not the type to get angry for having an individual thought or a specific feeling, I'll share more readily and internalize less.
This is what it means to me to leave the stray cats behind and choose a better partner.
I know the strays need love. The strays need hope. Guidance. Support. I'll send love and kindness out into the world for them but I'm not letting them in off the porch anymore. I can't.