In the preflight safety briefing, there is always the admonishment to “put on your own oxygen mask first before assisting others around you with theirs.” It has become the metaphor for living my life, taking care of myself first before trying to help others.

The past month have brought forth bunches of examples of why this is so important to me, and the peril to my own mental or emotional or even physical health to ignore my needs in favor of caring for others in their time of heartbreak or other tragedy. Sometimes it is unavoidable – emergencies, parents and children, serious illness within families or close friends, being a source of strength during stressful situations or periods. I completely understand those situations, have been through many myself. However, sometimes being needed or being needy becomes a default position, an addictive habit that must be broken and then resisted.

In marriage counseling years ago, M remarked that I was not the woman he met, fell in love with, married. She was a much more all-encompassing caretaker, anticipating and fulfilling his every need and desire without complaint. At the time it was a really upsetting statement, as if he were saying I was now an uncaring, unfeeling person who did not give a single shit about him, his needs, his desires. I replied that his neediness was exhausting and it would take a much bigger, stronger, more powerful woman than I was to sustain that indefinitely. It was snarky, defensive, angry, and mean, and I regretted voicing my resentment and hurt out loud in that forum. Because from there the spotlight turned back to me and my own soul-sucking neediness and the types of games I unconsciously played that contributed to the horrible place where we and our marriage were currently dwelling.

It was an awful, ugly time in our lives. No matter how much I appreciate the kick in the ass that made me start to grow up and get real, it was still an awful, ugly, soul-shredding period.

But looking back at it now, of course I was not the same woman he met, fell in love with, married. And let’s all give a big shout of thanks for that. I learned. I grew up. I matured mentally and emotionally. I evolved. And from where I am sitting right now, I became a far more enhanced and better version of myself. M did as well, although perhaps not quite as dramatically or as noticeably; he had done a lot of that work in his own individual therapy before meeting me.

I had actually just started with TM for individual counseling at that time, and I remember being bitterly angry at M’s comment, our marriage counselor’s (MC) response to it, and how the focus then turned to me and all my shortcomings. TM did not pat me on the head and bring out the Hello Kitty bandaids for my emotional wound. Nope, he ripped off the healing scab and started in with what felt like sharp and pointy dental implements to see what the freshly regenerated blood looked like.

I simultaneously smile and wince at the memory now, because I remember some serious, heaving sobbing and nose-blowing going on with a several close friends during that period. Those are the people to whom I feel indebted, for propping me up and keeping me functional during a very tough period.

M has never lied to me about his life, his actions, his behaviors. Because I lacked trust in him, it was years before I actually learned that he is who he says he is, and that I could trust him to act in predictable ways in nearly all circumstances. I, on the other hand, lied to myself continuously, and because I really believed those lies, I repeated them and presented them as truth to M and the rest of the world. They were not terrible lies, either. For example, I believed myself to be an all around happy, positive, caring person, and I am that – to everyone else.  To myself I was a cruel and inhumane taskmaster, negative, hateful, awful. I loathed myself and could not bring myself to share with him or anyone else the truth about why that was … until I finally just gave up and thought the end for me was near and spilled the terrible secrets I had hoarded.

Things started to get better after that, and I mostly stopped lying to myself. I would still try, then evaluate, then face the harder truths. The process continues to this day.

The best part for us is that we still liked, still loved the older, wiser, more intriguing versions of people we became/are becoming. M used to always talk about “taking care of ourselves” first, advice he tends to follow, particularly when someone in our world engages his rescuer tendencies. Maybe that’s the key to a longer, happier, satisfying relationship – prioritize taking care of yourself, then prioritize the relationship. On top of that, accept that you and your relationship partner are going to change and work with that precept, embrace it. Or maybe those are the things that work for us as a married couple, and for me with a few decades long, close friendships.

All that said, I firmly believe no one should ever ask me for relationship advice of any stripe or utilize it if I open my mouth and find words that sound like advice coming from it. I am not an expert in anything and have a past littered with lots of big and little mistakes that left cracks and craters in their wake.

Which kinda/sorta sets the stage for what’s on my mind this Wednesday.

If trainer J is the thoughtful, supportive, just-right coach I need to teach me how to exercise safely and sanely, friend J is his evil twin, the gung-ho drill sergeant type that would have me in tears of frustration, anger, and fear twice a week, every week. Over the course of the last 6 months of consistent practices, friend J has taken to texting me every morning bullying badgering enthusiastically asking about what I did at the gym that day, how much weight I am moving to and fro, etc. At first they were really nice inquiries, just “how’s it going?” and “it gets easier” kind of comments. As I have progressed and grown more confident, his queries have grown exponentially more gung-ho as well. These days, it’s still nice that he has such a genuine interest in my progress, but it has gradually gravitated toward “did you do full reps for every exercise in every set?” or “what do you MEAN your head’s not in it? Pull it out of your ass and just do it” type sentiments. *laugh* There is no malice in his expressions; this is friend J being himself and stating his precise thoughts in the lowest common denominator manner possible.

I love, Love, LOVE friend J, but at the same time, there are moments when I hate, Hate, HATE friend J. And devilish charmer that he is, he relishes every single second of driving me to the darker side of my emotions toward him. Because that’s just the way he is with me and others closest to him, and most of the time it (eventually) makes me laugh and appreciate his intensity and irreverence all over again. Occasionally it has the (likely) intended effect of firing me up into an angry tirade in reply, which in turn makes HIM laugh uproariously. These are buttons only he can push with this degree of aplomb and expertise, because he installed them through the years of our friendship and reads me like a book.

Occasionally he will say or do something that is genuinely hurtful, and I call him on it. With friend J, as with M, there is no knee-jerk apology and falling all over himself to make me feel better. There are explanations. There are discussions. Sometimes there is escalation into loud, shrieking, yelling at each other. Occasionally after all that there are apologies, sometimes from both of us. Mostly, though, I have come to understand the the original hurtful statement or action was not something said or done with intent to hurt my feelings, maybe just a thoughtless something that I took personally or too personally.

Through the years friend J has by example taught me a lot about putting on my own oxygen mask first. He is a mentally and emotionally healthy guy, knows what he wants and what he does not, is pretty much impervious to the opinions of most everyone, and takes no prisoners in living his life on his own terms. That said, it’s refreshing to know someone who has a “do no deliberate harm” outlook yet tends to be brutally honest even when I wish he would lie to me, if only by omission. As a friend he is the fiercest, most protective and stand-up guy imaginable.

When it comes to romantic entanglement, he has evolved into what I think of as a serial monogamist because of his tendency is to date 1 woman at a time, whether it’s for 2 weeks or more than 2 years. He does not lie to women, does not ever represent himself as someone seeking a long-term commitment, yet is happy to go with the flow if that’s how things work out between them. To date he has been very clear that children or marriage are not on his bucket list agenda, and he has tended to steer clear of single mothers as a result. He actually likes children – both my kids have very fond memories of him playing with them, attending their birthday parties, being present at family events – but just because he would be an amazing father does not mean he wants that for himself.

Some of my more cynical single friends wonder if I am too trusting, that no man can stay single and enjoy a happy social life without lying and/or cheating at times along his way to the grave. To them I always reply – why lie to me? We are now and have always been just really good friends, I am among the least judgmental people he knows, and through the years many of my close friends have become close friends of his as well. Sooner or later the truth would trickle down to me, and I would be upset that he felt the need to lie to me about his activities. If he were the type to be cruel and insensitive to the women he dates, we would have never become friends in the first place. I have met many of his squeezes through the years, including 3 memorable instances where he dated friends of ours for various periods of time, so I have heard many first hand stories from the other side.

He is spending a year in Switzerland, working for a charitable organization he strongly supports. It has been interesting for me thus far, hearing the stories of his day-to-day adventures and figuring out that a grown man can actually get a little homesick for his own house and car and friends and regular life. But since he is away from normal, day-to-day familiar activities and things, he also has more time to harass me about training and exercise, interrogate me about what my husband, children, and mutual friends are doing, and tell me the stories of what he is doing and experiencing currently. He also loves to ask me what I think about dating and the women he is dating, knowing full well what I am likely to say well in advance of my saying it. I am quite predictable that way.

Friend J is an avid gym rat and works out at a swankier gym than the one he uses at home. He broke his hand a couple of months back and is only now able to get back into some lighter version of his regular training. Between the soft cast and being a good looking, gregarious American in a Zurich gym, he’s had plenty of opportunities to make new friends to hang out with and women to date during his off time. The latest has been a 28-ish young woman he met at the gym. For the record, friend J turns 44 this year.

He describes this one as nice, intelligent, kind, and has a good sense of humor, qualities he values. He has also said she’s kind of pretty girl spoiled, in that she’s very attractive and used to men slipping in their own drool when trying to get to know her. They began in an easy-going relationship revolving around gym workouts, which advanced to coffees, meals, touring the city, etc. You know, regular dating stuff.

Except … and there always seems to be an “except” or a “but” in such matters … she is becoming more needy and clingy while claiming to not wanting to get closer, too close because he will be returning home to the US at the end of this year. She also says she does not want to depend upon him too much while demonstrating the opposite and seeming more and more dependent upon him. Friend J is a stand-up guy; he’s happy to help if there is something he can do to help, but not to the point of tying himself in knots to make it work. He’s affable, not a stuffy, arms-length-because-I-am-leaving-in-a-few-months type guy, because if he likes you he likes you and will be all he can be for friends or more.

For this girl – and possibly for everyone else but me – he is a good and supportive fitness coach friend and assistant, happy to help her with her lifting form or learning how to do new things safely in the gym. However, like most people, he has basic expectations that the person he’s trying to assist is willing to do the work and the (quite literally) heavy lifting in whatever goal she is pursuing. Stories I am hearing this week, she is trying to turn his gym time into social time with her. First she tried the cute pouting routine – did not work because he is immune to cute pouting. When that failed to get her the response she desired, she escalated into little teary-eyed disappointment at his “indifference” – which quite understandably left him even more inclined to ignore her poor behaviors. I guess the latest was a little tantrum that left him cold and to the point that he wants nothing more to do with her childishness. When J is at the gym to get through his own workouts, he is generous with his time but is pretty serious about getting his shit done, too. She grew to expect that if they were both present and working he would pay more attention to her and her routine than his own. The friend J that I know and love does not tolerate any such misunderstandings and has been kind yet direct about what he sees as an obstacle and an issue. This is her problem to be resolved not a “couple” thing where they both need to make compromises. Needless to say she has not been taking it very well.

My take is that she’s a little too young for him and he needs to find someone a bit more grown up to hang out with. But he knew that already before I even said it; he just likes the exasperation in my voice.

He was quizzing me on whether I thought she was shining him on about what she really wants, and I again referred him back to my basic default is that as women, we tend to lie to ourselves more than we lie to other people. Truth, I have found from personal experience, leaks out in a myriad of other big and small ways. While this is my default position about women in particular, it is my personal generalization and is adjusted as I meet people and get to know them; I do not wander through my life with expectations that all people tell big and small lies to themselves or others deliberately and routinely. However, as a person who is aware of and affected by the opinions and expectations of the world at large, I know how adaptable I can desire myself to become, and I have to guard against the justifications and exceptions I might make to be more comfortable or to get what I think I want in the moment. Slave to my own impulsivity – not often for a very long time. I am vigilant in guarding against that to the point of being a safe, sensible shoes sort of personality.

So I have been pondering this little melodrama off and on all week and find myself thinking again that I am missing an angsty emotion chromosome in my genetic chain. No one likes to be ignored, and while I am not there and able to see what he is doing and how he is responding to her, I know friend J is as susceptible to “white knight” syndrome as the next guy, but tends to set some tall boundaries against it with others, particularly with women he likes. In fact, I have had him tell me that I’m being a baby, I’m being ridiculous, or I’m overreacting about something or some situation on more than one occasion, and even me, knowing he is absolutely right, knowing exactly what kind of guy he is, have slammed the phone down in his ear with a string of obscenities that ended with “insensitive jerk” or worse.

Unfortunately, when I calmed and cooler, more honest reflection prevailed, I had to agree with him. I was being a baby, being ridiculous, or overreacting. While it might have been nice for him to be a little less direct in telling me so, it’s not his way. He and M share that trait, and while I do not always appreciate it, I respect both of them for it. If they were yes men who only told me what I wanted to hear when I wanted to hear it, they would not be the men I hold in such high esteem.

I suspect the days of this young woman being in his orbit are winding down, and I am more amused than concerned. Friend J does a fine job looking after himself, and the biggest worry I have about him is that someday he will cross paths with someone truly unstable and who hides it very well.

There are other people, other friends’ romantic entanglements and long marriages suddenly dissolving in my real-time, real-life world right now that have a lot more painful drama. In those cases, the drama will not be dealt with in a realistic, direct, or honest manner, and it makes me feel so sad for the parties involved. Friend J and his dating adventures are a distraction from others I care for facing painful choices and realities they did not desire. Right now, my role as a caring friend is to listen, to support, and to encourage them to take steps to protect and care for themselves first and foremost (there are no dependent children involved in any of these situations). I suppose I have finally learned how to put on my own oxygen mask first and am now ready, and capable, of assisting those around me. Even if I do not feel especially qualified. These are close friends and I truly want them to get back to a place where they can be at peace and hopefully happy once more.

Maybe, right this minute, that is qualification enough. Time will tell.

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