I remember yelling it out in the middle of an argument, “I DO NOT want to be your camp counselor!”
I was married then, and it was some disagreement we’d had a thousand times over more than a decade together. But it was the first time I’d said that one thing aloud. It was the first time I saw my role in our relationship so clearly.
I had a metaphorical clipboard and it was holding stacks of Post-It note to-do lists and unpaid bills and books on parenting and doctor appointments and retirement strategies and recipes for meals all of us could agree on. I was tired and overwhelmed and the only thing I could do in that moment was blow my whistle. Loudly. And hope that the camper I was married to would step into a leadership role.
That’s harsh, I know. But it was our dynamic. And it was even harsher a year later, well into my divorce, when I realized how accountable I was for promoting myself into the the role of Camp Counselor and then keeping myself gainfully employed there for so many years.
I trashed the clipboard and whistle and dated with the intention of never being the Camp Counselor again.
To some degree, I was successful. However, in shedding my Camp DivorceAMonga t-shirt and plastic friendship bracelets, I didn’t realize I’d be so open to wearing different (and maybe equally as concerning) identities.
I wanted to date different kinds of men, try on who I was with them, see what life was like with a corporate lawyer, a photographer, a much-younger man, someone older. That was good for me, and it stretched out my expectations of relationships. Plus, it was fun. Camp Counselors don’t end up eating a dinner of candy and cheap beer with a 26-year old hipster at midnight. They are too worried about the plan for Sunday morning to stay for the 2 a.m. jazz show at an underground club. Camp Counselors roll their eyes at attorneys on the other side of a pharmaceutical class action lawsuit.
I went with it, and I learned a lot about who I was and wanted to be, both in myself and in relationship. I saw myself evolve, and even when that growth was painful or lonely or frightening, I knew it was critical.
Being open, though, also can mean being vulnerable. Letting yourself shift is healthy, yes. But shape-shifting can be very dangerous. I toddled on that line.
With the Conservative Attorney, I found myself dressing the part more and more. My visor and sunscreen were exchanged for pulled-tight hairstyles and curvy dresses. I felt like Joan from “Mad Men,” concealing my smarts in a cocktail party of men who thought they were the only ones who could move and shake.
With Health Coach Barack-Lookalike, I ramped up the yoga, talked more about high-fructose corn syrup, wondered if I could squeeze in one more run before we met for dinner.
With the Sexy Bad Speller, I set aside my cringes over terrible grammar and focused on his tattoos and strange but interesting photography.
With the Crazy Alcoholic, the stakes got higher and I saw myself melt into an enabler, a woman who defended a man who should have been left at the first red flags, not the 47th sign of dis-ease.
Perhaps you will criticize me for switching shirts and roles as I changed out dates. Some judgment is valid; I have gone over and over it myself. I ultimately didn’t love who I was with these men as much as I didn’t love these men. But I had to find that out somehow, I had to see for myself.
What I get now, years and an amazing partner later, is that being in a relationship means being in a relationship with ME as well as with a HIM. Both are important parts of the formula. The man I love now, fully and with so much bliss, is the first adult I think I have ever been with — I would not have understood that so deeply had I not been who I was with other men.
I also feel completely myself with him. Sure, I want to be my best self with him. Of course, he brings out parts of me that have been quiet for too long. When I stand alongside him, though, I am not a character or a caricature of my bigger self.
That’s a lot of new age-y, hoodoo-guru-y talk. What it means is that I am still a little camp counselor-ish. I do love a great dress, am happiest when I am healthful and active, can slip into caretaker mode to the detriment of my own well-being. Those roles are no longer capitalized, no longer just good or totally bad, dysfunctional or perfect. They are parts of one being that is me.
Trying on new identities isn’t bad. Dating is a good place to practice personas. The trick is knowing when it doesn’t fit well enough and being able to move on. The bigger trick is remembering you have to take YOU with you, so you can’t get too lost in the other person to remember who you are at the core.
Who I am, who we each are, is always evolving, slowly, steadily, and hopefully, minus the whistles.
Who are you with the person you are dating or married to or crushing on? Is it someone you want to be or someone new?
[Thanks to Caitlin Abber at The Frisky for inspiring this post with her honest piece “I didn’t like who I was when I was with him.”]
Read more of Jessica’s adventures as a single mom in the city at Sassafrass.
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