Active Choosing: The Art & Craft of Finding True Love

After mentioning the 31st anniversary of my husband’s and my first date (Disneyland: he fell in love on Splash Mountain, for me it was his hand on my forehead after Star Tours queasiness), an interviewer marveled at the longevity of my marriage and asked: “How’d you do it? What advice do you have?”, making me feel like a 100-year-old woman with “wisdoms.” But still, I appreciated the awe and wonder because I remember feeling just as awestruck around long-marrieds back before I figured it out/got lucky myself. So I decided to honor her query with the reply that follows. And it’s just that: my reply, my experience. We all have different journeys, theories, and views, so take this for what it is and if/how it may inspire you.

When I was charging headlong into my early adulthood with all its intoxicating freedoms, particularly around the mating rituals of the young and libidinous, I arrived at that inevitable rite-of-passage fully and completely unarmed, lacking useful (any?) parental guidance, and boomeranging off religious repression that had overwhelmed my personal and sexual development.

See, my parents were so busy keeping me from sex I was never taught anything about it, other than to avoid it at the hideous cost of my eternal damnation. Which, when you’re a reasonably attractive, wildly hormonal young person faced with the reality of BOYS (or GIRLS, as the case may be), even threats of endless inferno hold no sway. But the problem is without guidance, without meaningful comprehension of the intricacies and nuances of how to approach and manage this seminal arena of life, it’s too easy to develop bad habits, move forward with misconceptions and rules that don’t always apply and can lead down thorny roads of heartache, breakups, and, when you’re all grown up, divorce.

I know. I’ve been there. Lots of heartache, bad boyfriends, really lousy choices, and far too many relationships that should have never happened in the first place. No divorces, but only because I didn’t marry any of them. Had I married any of them there would have been divorces. I at least had the good sense to know that marriage was to be avoided until I figured it out, which, in my case, required the tutelage of much life experience and excellent therapy. By the time I met the man who was to become my husband, we were lucky enough to have both learned the secret:

Active choosing.

If you want a partner (as opposed to an undefined whatever let’s just see how it goes thing), it’s about actively choosing someone… someone who’s not just sexy, fun, and with whom you have astonishing chemistry, but who’ll actually be a good partner. It’s how to determine that that’s the kicker.

Because what we’ve been mistakenly told, either literally or via cultural osmosis, is that when we meet someone, when we embark upon the beginning stages of a relationship, there are “rules” that preclude any kind of real due diligence: We are to be cool, not demand too much, reveal too much, make him or her feel there are any expectations of them. Don’t share too much or ask too many questions—that might overwhelm them. Certainly don’t attempt to ascertain “where we might go from here” any time soon. Act interested but not too interested, available but not too; desirous but not slutty; just go with the flow and let it all reveal itself. If you see things you don’t like, presume those things will get better as your relationship evolves. Have standards but not too high. As long as there’s chemistry, you’re good to go. Right?   

Not always. Often not. In fact, 50% of the time not. Because, despite the very real delights of early-relationship fun, you lack information. Foundational information. The kind you need to smartly assess future potential. And no matter what modern culture or “dating rules” would have you believe, there’s only one way to get it before you’re too entrenched:

ASK.

Ask LOTS of candid, specific questions that require answers, then determine the truthfulness of those answers. Discuss. Debate. Don’t hide who you are, don’t hold back who you are. Don’t not eat when you go to a restaurant. Assess the “here and now” reality of the person in front of you with absolute awareness that what they are, here and now, is the essence of what they’ll likely always be, and determine if that’s compatible with your own here and now.

And that’s just a start.   

Look, I know how exhilarating it is to be swept up in the heat of passion, the allure of “new person” appeal, no questions asked. You revel in the excitement of discovery, the hope of potential, the envisioned evolution of what might, might, come to be, confident you’ll figure out all the kinks, quirks, and questions along the way. Just go for the ride and let it take you where it will.

Yes. So fun. Until you discover he has rather startling anger issues. She doesn’t think she ever wants kids. He’s a bottle-a-night drinker. In her eyes, commitment is overrated. He turns out to be really boring past the initial hot period. She’s had three bankruptcies. He struggles to hold a job. She hates dogs. He wears a red hat. She never votes. Etc.  

What I learned in my long and storied relationship career is that too often by the time I figured out the person I’d become enraptured by was fatally flawed and oh-so-wrong for me, I was already in DEEP, emotionally invested, heart, soul, hopes, and dreams. Doing something about it at that point is… challenging. Decisions are made then quickly reversed. Boundaries are set, then easily violated. Promises asserted, apologies offered, change assured, then it all swings back to the chronic state of the relationship, which, if you’d taken the time to “look before you leapt” (as my mother used to say), you would have known he/she was a bad choice. What follows then is the universally devastating process of breaking up… which is always hard to do. 

While I can count a couple of decent relationships in my younger years, those happened almost by accident. Because it was never about me actively choosing, it was typically about me responding (“Someone likes me, he really likes me… I’m in!”). Then I hit thirty and noticed this wasn’t working and, dead-weary of the repetitive recovery demanded of each breakup, I got into therapy to hopefully  figure it out. Now, I’m not pushing therapy, but given my deficit of parental guidance, I needed guidance from somewhere and my very wise therapist provided the forum in which I could learn. And I did.

By the time I went on that date to Disneyland, I had a wealth of confidence and knowledge that gave me tools to approach that relationship differently. My new, self-preserving attitude set the stage: I was unwilling to be delicate and cautious out of fear of rejection, unwilling to invest without proper knowledge; unwilling to prioritize “dating rules” at the expense of honest due diligence. So just days after Disneyland, within the very first week of our relationship, I nervously told him I needed to clarify some essential things, he agreed, and I fired away.

Now, you’ll have your own questions, but this was the basic list I asked and he answered, not necessarily in this order:

  1. Are you looking for a committed relationship?
  2. Are you open to marrying again (he’d been married before)?
  3. Do you want another child (he already had one)? How many?
  4. What are your politics and are you politically active?
  5. What is your attitude about race, racism, diversity, and immigration?
  6. What are your thoughts regarding LGBTQ issues?
  7. Do you have a drinking/drug problem?
  8. Are you a healthy eater?
  9. Do you like to travel?
  10. What are your attitudes about money, saving, spending, sharing?
  11. What’s your philosophy about truthfulness; do you lie?
  12. What’s the status of your relationship with your family?
  13. Have you ever been verbally, emotionally, or physically abusive…EVER?
  14. What is your attitude about guns—ownership, laws, controls?
  15. What are your views on religion, spirituality, etc.?

And so on…

It’s likely we were not as organized as this list implies—and, no, I didn’t have it written out at the time, I just knew what my priorities were. And it wasn’t easy, I felt squeamish; at times I could see he was surprised by my candor, but I’d reached a time in my life where I was not going to invest in another relationship without enough information. We literally talked for hours, because once we got through my list, he had his own, which was largely a version of mine from the male perspective. It was exhausting. And exhilarating.

But know that, brave though you may be to commit to this exercise, you go in aware you might get to the end of it only to realize you really aren’t as compatible as hoped, and quite honestly shouldn’t waste each other’s time when the conclusion is clearly foregone. But still, the List is a gift, because you’ll have figured that out before investing weeks, months, years into a relationship that won’t, ultimately, succeed.

In our case, we didn’t scare each other off, we didn’t implode, we didn’t “ruin the romance” or run screaming into the night. We learned what we needed to know and, in the act of asking and answering, created intimacy, got to understand each other, so well that the magical state-of-being long-marrieds always tell you happens—“you just know”—happened. We just knew. I remembered thinking: “Oh, this is the kind of guy you marry!”, realizing the reason I hadn’t “just known” before was that I hadn’t been with anyone I should have married.

And so we did. Eight months later and now over 30 years.

But trust me, we aren’t magical. It hasn’t all been smooth sailing. As with any relationship, particularly a longterm one, we’ve hit some unforeseen bumps along the way, some significant. I won’t pretend we’re preternaturally transcendent “relationship experts”; we’re not. But it is true that the solid foundation we began building after we got back from Disneyland and sat around my house with our lists was the glue that ultimately held us together. It was very good glue.   

So, dear interviewer, that’s my “secret,” my advice. Do with it what you will. Or don’t. It’s all so personal. If you’re just looking for fun with someone who makes you laugh and gets your pheromones tingling, go for it, Devil may care, caution to the wind, however long it lasts. But if you seek a relationship that might have the potential of future, revel in pheromones, sure, but also ASK. Everything. All things. Every single little question you might have. If you scare him or her off, trust that it wasn’t the right relationship for you. But I promise, if you honestly and authentically get through your lists and discover there is reason to proceed, you will have put yourself in the best possible place for all the good that follows. 

Photo 1 by Korney Violin on Unsplash; Photo 2 by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash


Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

That Universal Yearning: How Finding Love Became the Theme of HYSTERICAL LOVE

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An interviewer asked me recently about the themes I most often employ in my writing, mentioning that love and family were central pivots around which both my novels spun. She wondered why those two themes so resonated with me, and I told her it was simply because they’re the most universal themes in all of life. Regardless of circumstance, ethnicity, social status, or any of the other qualifying ways in which we define and divide life, we all have family and we all want love. Even Edward longed for his Bella and he was a vampire!

When I started writing Hysterical Love, my second novel, the story evolved in a way that made it a companion piece to my first, After The Sucker Punch. While very different stories in terms of tone, plot, storyline, and protagonist, both involve thirty-something people reacting to the words of their fathers. But where Tessa, of my first novel, was most involved in rediscovering who she was—and who she was to her deceased father—after reading his scathing journals, Dan’s journey in Hysterical Love is all about love, sweet, elusive, maddening love.

And it’s an exploration of love on many levels: not just the heady lust and passion of new love that’s so often the driving force of drama, but the longer-term love of Dan’s three-year relationship with Jane (his very-soon-to-be-ex-fiancée); the lifetime love of his parents married for forty years; even the fleeting love of youth described in a fifty-year-old story written by his father. His roommate, Bob, revels in love’s abundance, his workmate, Zoey, can’t seem to find it, his sister, Lucy, is convinced it’s all about soul mates. But it’s when his father has a stroke and hovers near death, mumbling the name of the woman from the fifty-year-old story, that Dan is struck by the realization of another kind of love: love unrequited.

Given the strains and struggles of his parents’ cranky, utterly unromantic marriage, the story of his father’s aching first love of fifty years earlier overwhelms Dan’s imagination. And when he hears his comatose father mumble the name of the woman from the story, he’s struck by an unrestrainable urge to go find her, convinced she holds answers to his many questions about love.

So Dan sets off on an untimely and ill-conceived road trip to Oakland, CA, where the woman was last located, determined to change the course of his and his father’s lives. While on that tumultuous journey, he not only questions every aspect of his life, he’s faced with defining a whole new level of love when he meets the gorgeous, intriguing Fiona, a woman surely formed from someone’s fantasy. She appears as if sent from the gods to help in his quest and, in doing so, takes his breath away, forcing him to face his own definition of the elusive emotion.

But it’s the one-two punch of the plot’s unfolding—the reality of the woman he’s searching for, and Jane’s unexpected arrival to win his heart back, that forces love, an urgent pull both life-giving and soul shattering, to be most deeply examined.

For any adult who’s experienced the roller-coaster ride inherent in our human urge to connect and find affection, Dan’s story, and that of his parents, his fiancée, his workmates, his roommate, even Fiona, will surely resonate. He’s led to new thoughts, new realizations, and some painful, if undeniable, conclusions about the many faces love wears, and, in ways he couldn’t have imagined at the start of his story, he finds life altered accordingly.  

The true testament to the power of love… 

Photoart by Brenda Perlin

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

What Barry White Taught Me About Love and Other Anniversary Notes

Me & Pete_1990When I was a young girl, electric with sensuality and a burgeoning curiosity about all things lust, passion, and love, a song came out, sung by a man with a silky voice, that seemed an anthem to all three. I was working my first waitress job at the time, an Irish restaurant that had a juke box stocked with as wide a variety of music as you can imagine, and in the midst of milquetoasty 70’s selections (“Dancing In the Moonlight,” “The Morning After”?!) came… Barry White, with an undulating, unforgettable intro and that rumbling baritone crooning “I’m Gonna Love You Just A Little More”… remember?

Give it up, ain’t no use
I can’t help myself if I wanted to
I’m hung up, no doubt
I’m so in love with you, for me there’s no way out

‘Cause deeper and deeper
In love with you, I’m falling
Sweeter and sweeter
Your tender words of love keeps calling…

Eager and eager, yeah
To feel your lips upon my face
Please her and please her
Any time or any place

I’m gonna love you, love you, love you just a little more, baby….

I remember the suspense of that musical opening: the drums start it… then the keys set that iconic riff; Barry’s voice weaves in and out in that bedroom way he had… all combining to create this grooving, driving, layered paean to immutable love. I was smitten. I was always attracted to the “DrumsDude” of any band, the rhythm section in general actually.

I would play that song over and over, all day and into the night shift, swooning around “section B” like a lovesick teenager to the point that the bartenders thought I was crazy and every drunk in the room wanted to dance with me. But this wasn’t about hook-ups and flirtations; this was about LOVE, true love so strong “there’s no way out.” That’s what I wanted: to be in love with someone who’d fall “deeper and deeper in love” with me right back. I was a young girl mesmerized by romance and poetry who now had my love theme.

But time went on, music changed, Barry put out other songs I liked but none quite as well. I grew up, fell in and out of love more times than my mother appreciated, and learned that the kind of passion Barry rhapsodized about wasn’t easily found. I still believed in it, didn’t give up on it, but stopped holding every relationship to the standard of “no way out.” I always seemed to find plenty of ways out… as did they.

Until I met him. Pete. The man I married, the man who, 24 years ago on this day, told me, by virtue of everything he was, everything he gave me, and everything he promised on that wedding day, that he was, indeed, so in love there was no way out.

This time it looks like love is here to stay
As long as I shall live
I’ll give you all I have and all I have to give

No, those weren’t his vows – I’m still quoting Barry here 🙂 – but in the ensuing 24 years he did give me all he had to give, which was every joyful moment, every event, triumph, and memorable experience you could imagine. But life being what it is  – meaning, we weren’t living in a love ballad – we also hit some walls that were so damn hard I thought our heads would crack. His almost did. And those were the moments when “no way out” felt more like a sentence than a promise. We ebbed and flowed, ran away and came back; sought and looked and learned in every way we knew how and, somehow, some way, ended up full circle, back to where we started… back home. Where we healed and evolved and let go and forgave until we knew, once again, no doubt, “this time it looks like love is here to stay.” A vow coming full circle as well.

I’m sure you realize there’s a wink in how I’m framing this story, a clear understanding of my sweet, youthful naiveté in believing love could be defined by a ballad sung by Dr. Love. But still… certain ideas nestle, certain sensations and feelings become part of your cellular memory, and even seemingly trite words and melodies become connectors to grander ideas. And, to this day, whenever I hear “I’m Gonna Love You Just A Little More,” I’m back at that juke box, swaying to the beat, eyes closed and heart filled with longing, believing in life and passion and those “tender words of love.”

And today I celebrate the man I married, the one who spoke those tender words so long ago and speaks them still. Happy Anniversary, darling. Wherever we’ve been, wherever we’re going, know I’m always gonna love you, love you, love you… just a little more.

Thank you, Barry White…

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

The Lesson Of Long-Term Marriage: What’s Better Is So Much Better Than What’s Worse

Twenty-three years ago today I got into a car with a very handsome man dressed in blue pants and a white shirt, drove a couple of hours to a courthouse in the very bucolic town of Mt. Vernon, Washington and, during the lunch break of a local judge, and in the presence of the bailiff and court secretary, married the man to whom I am still married today. The bailiff fired off a few snapshots from my then-cheesy 35mm camera (pictures I, years later, Photoshopped to the excellent results below!), we had lunch at a nearby cafe where a bottle of champagne and a slice of pecan pie with a bride & groom atop awaited us, then we drove north to Vancouver to spend three days at the Pan Pacific Hotel as our rainy, wondrous honeymoon. It was perfect… and when people ask if I ever regret not having a wedding, I assure them I still think it was perfect, to this very day.

Wedding day sepia 4 triptych

There is much to be said for weddings done right (I covered a few of those HERE), and certainly the topic of marriage is a deep and many-layered one (in The Warmest Chord my own heartfelt perspective is offered), but on this anniversary, from where I sit many years beyond that glorious Pacific Northwestern day, currently miles away from my stoic, stalwart husband who continues to deal with the ramifications of brain injury, the message of marriage I have to share is a different one than I had 23 years ago.

It’s a stronger one, one built more on wisdom, resilience, commitment and compassion than wild romance and youthful lust. Though, don’t get me wrong; I’m all for romance and lust, revel in it whenever it presents itself (which, as most of us would attest, is never enough!), but life teaches that any long-term relationship survives within an unpredictable mix of emotion and events… and the way we respond to both. And the longer I live the more I realize, while I may not be able to predict events that come flying my way (damn that unpredictable universe), I can do something about how I interpret, respond to, and learn from those unfolding moments.

Love is a funny thing, too. It keeps you attached and aware of that other person; sensitive to their needs and emotions, impacted by the events of their life that can overlap your own. Sometimes those intersections are lovely, sometimes they’re… challenged. As any couple knows who’s dealt with illness, adversity, injury, or any of those kinds of unexpected events that knock us off our feet  – a job lost, a disease diagnosed, a family member’s death; a brain injury – marriage can become about endurance and tenacity, a balance between attachment and detachment, even an ability to let go when needed to allow life to reorganize into some different while you’re away.

As the wife of a husband dealing with brain injury, I’ve learned about that part of being married. I’ve learned (as I wrote years ago in Love In the Age of MTBI) how circumstances can change and impact a marriage, make it more complicated and mercurial, shake it up in ways that can both take your breath away (and not always in a good way) and make you realize how strong your relationship really is, strong enough to endure the dark corners stumbled upon repeatedly and sometimes without warning. When pain episodes strike, when the walls go up and the lights go down and you realize plans will change, warmth will take a holiday, communication will be backburnered in lieu of necessary isolation and silence, it’s then that you face the reality of what you and your chosen one created back on that magical day, years earlier, in a courthouse in Mt. Vernon…

The tether. The bond. The connection. You can pull apart because you have to, because you both need time to regroup and recalibrate, but you never stop feeling the connection. The love. The sense that you are family and you will get through this to a happier time, a better time.

And while away, if you’re smart, you’ll take the opportunity to pursue your own “vision quest.” You’ll pay attention, listen, learn, and remember that thoughts impact reality; you’ll readjust your own view of life to get stronger, more compassionate and loving… to him and to yourself.

And if, during that time, an anniversary pops up, you’ll pay attention to that, too. You’ll look at that person – from wherever you are – with all the love you feel, all the belief you have in what’s good and right, and you’ll … celebrate another anniversary. Another year of marriage. Another worse endured for all that is better.

Because what you find when you step away, when you take that breath, and look at the reality outside of pain and the adversities life throws at you, is that what’s better is so, so much more than what’s worse. Worse, you can overcome; better, is the life you’ve created and will continue to create. That’s the lesson, the true gift of a long-term marriage.

Happy anniversary to us!

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

Is There a War on Mother’s Day?

Mother’s Day has long been a holiday that required no PC posturing, no concerns about what to call it, how to celebrate it, or who might get hurt or offended by it. Up till now there’s been no “war” declared, no confusion about who gets to partake; even the food shared on this day has no particular tradition or agenda. As it should be. It’s an inclusive holiday; we all have mothers, most of us hold them dear, and the notion of honoring the “one who brought us life” typically engenders some measure of warmth from everyone. Bring on the brunches! 

But as I’ve gotten older I’ve noticed a growing sensitivity toward all the unabashed “mother” hoopla. In this life and time of choice — of women putting off families while careers gestate, of couples making decisions not to procreate at all, of older women finding pregnancy more elusive or fruition sometimes impossible — the matter of celebrating motherhood necessitates some nuance. While, certainly, most of us can gather to celebrate our own mothers without concern, what about those whose perspective on being a parent is either bereft of experience or desire? Is greater sensitivity needed in those circumstances?

Let’s start with those who wanted children but couldn’t have them for one reason or another. CBCs, childless by circumstance. I have several people in my life who fall into this category and it’s a tender and sometimes sensitive one. The CBC will cheer, bring muffins to brunch, and spend oodles of time with the kids with nary a complaint, but when mimosas are mixed and glasses are raised “to motherhood,” a shadow of pain crosses those eyes and you can’t help but realize Mother’s Day has a bittersweet and confusing edge for some.

I have a friend who married in her early-thirties while building a successful career and when she crossed the mid-decade mark, decided it was time to start a family. What was expected to be a simple matter of “getting pregnant and having a baby” turned into a several year, very expensive, and emotionally draining project with fertility specialists, repeated inseminations, two miscarriages and even the temporary separation from her husband when the stress caused a wedge they couldn’t overcome. They ultimately got back together and are in the early stages of exploration with adoption but, as she wistfully stated, “We really wanted one of our own.” When Mother’s Day rolls around each year, she sends flowers to her out-of-state mom, avoids all brunch-centric restaurants, and hunkers down in a Cineplex to watch enough action-adventure movies to get through the day without bursting into tears.

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Then there’s the childless-by-choice people (CBCP), a hearty bunch with clear minds and no regrets about eschewing the parent track. They love kids, enjoy being around them; are close with nieces, nephews, Godchildren and mentored youngsters, but they had/have no desire to make any themselves. Being social people, however, they willingly spend time with family and friends who do have children and this is where things can get sticky…hands and otherwise. They’re typically outnumbered by PWK (People With Kids) and because the majority steers the theme, the theme usually comes with all manner of happy, messy, usually very loud kids, moms chirping about schools, playgrounds and the most gifted pre-schooler, and distracted parents of either gender who can’t finish a sentence for the flickering of eyes as they follow their little rambunctians (yes, I made that up) around the yard. For even the most patient, most interested CBCP, this frivolity has its limits. They’re supportive, loving, and tolerant but, frankly, they’re not in the club and the jargon and kid-centric focus can hold interest for only so long, like listening to computer geeks discuss HTML.

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But MOTHERHOOD (there’s nothing lower case about it) is all encompassing. I know. I’ve been there. And when you’re there, there’s nothing more interesting, more engaging, more emotionally fascinating than not only being a mother, but talking about it. Except to CBCPs, who can find their good sportsmanship wearing thin after the second hour of sand play and string cheese. We’ve seen the glazed eyes and restless leg tapping as childless friends edge toward the door with excuses of meeting “colleagues” at the Formosa for drinks and adult chatter. We know because we used to be them. We sometimes wish we still were. But now we’re wiping snot off the noses of children we don’t even know and, oddly, we’re always the ones with the Kleenex.

Mother’s Day was easier when we were younger; at that point our own parenthood was far enough ahead that categories weren’t yet clear. We could happily make calls and send cards to our own Moms, toast till we were tipsy, and no one had to dab eyes or prevent rolling them. We didn’t have a parental status to talk about so we didn’t have to avoid it. Mother’s Day was simply a day to celebrate our moms. As it still is, with just a little more complication.

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According to one friend and hostess, Mother’s Day has become, like so many other holidays, a confused, PC sensitive event rife with wrong turns. “There is a War on Mothers’ Day!!” she declared. “It’s gotten to the point where I want to send out surveys before I invite anyone to brunch! I mean, come on! Let’s either celebrate it or not but we can’t be held responsible for triggering CBCs (she liked my acronyms) or annoying the crap out of CBCPs. I feel for them but whatever they’re going through is their issue. Everybody had a damn mother, how about we just celebrate that?” She’s an excitable sort.

And while I reject the overused war vernacular, I agree with the notion of not losing the holiday to hyper-concern. Sensitivity, certainly, but not war. Making a Mothers’ Day toast in mixed company does require a little forethought and it can’t hurt to limit the poetry to: “Here’s to you, Mom; you’re the best!” or “To all the mothers in the room, cheers!” Probably wise, however, to avoid, “And to motherhood, which is a woman’s greatest gift and most satisfying role!” For your cousin still mourning her second miscarriage, it’s likely cutting; for your friend who decided not to have children, condescending.

So let’s make this clear: there is no war, just consideration. Celebrate the matriarchs in your circle with every bell and whistle at hand, but keep the rhetoric sensitive. We can all find reason to celebrate LIFE…and that, after all, is what motherhood is all about.

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Happy Mother’s Day!

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.