Lesson #18: The difference between compassionate intent and being a doormat

Photo credit: Tony Fisher 

While my last post was about OKCupid, it’s been a while since we've actually talked relationships. Two years, in fact, which have held both wonderful times and tough ones with the men in my life. Public relationships and less public ones. Today, we’ll be talking about the latter.

Before I dive into that though, it’s interesting to me to note that I tend to write about relationships more when they go awry rather than when they are constantly delightful. As with most things in my life, I tend to pay attention to the lessons resulting from difficult things more than the easy things, partially because there’s more to learn from them, partially because I’m more aware of them, and partially because I believe you need to understand the pain and the sadness to fully appreciate the joy of when things are great. Accordingly, take these posts with a grain of salt – for every story of romance gone wrong, there’s a story of it going right…I just tend to be a bit less introspective during those times.

Enough talk though – back to the story.

This fall, I met someone who would become a close friend in ways neither of us anticipated. We were both going through difficult times – me, a period of questioning, identity insecurity, and rebuilding, and him, an inflection point that masked what was coming next—and so, in those few months, we became each other’s distractions from ourselves.

After the context of us meeting came to an end, our relationship morphed from a space to be both us and ourselves without expectations into a series of occasional IMs. While we agreed that what had been there was not something that transcended distance nor our desire to focus on our separate lives, we also agreed that if either of us found ourselves in the other’s home city, we would have a friend to visit and a place to stay.

A few weeks ago while in NYC for a girls’ weekend, I took him up on that offer.

I wanted to go into that weekend without expectations for what would happen or what seeing him again would be like, however, I had a feeling that it was going to be different. Most of the things that had originally brought us together were no longer there, the timing was off, and ultimately, we were different people than we were when we first met…so (to which my seatmate on the flight out can attest), I had a lot of uncertainty about what that weekend would hold.

What actually happened turned out to be a pretty balanced mix of great, meh, and frustration/disappointment. Some things were different, yet others were the same from what had been before– it was still me initiating time with him, him distracted by what was to come rather than being able to be with what was, and me feeling like I wasn’t being prioritized in the same way that I was prioritizing him. Decision after decision that weekend reinforced that feeling, which, regardless of if it were coming from him or from any other friend, frankly sucks.

While the situation and our agreement didn't call for it, I wanted him to be different. I wanted to magically be someone whose time and needs he valued on the same level that I felt like I valued his. For the few hours that weekend that we were going to spend together, I wanted him to act as though I was more than some girl that came along and held his attention for a few months. I wanted to feel desired and special. And at the time, the way I felt was anything but that.

Between the moments of figuring out how to respond to text messages and feeling frustrated by what wasn’t, I realized that as much as I wanted to make it seem like he wasn’t trying, he actually was. The difference was in what our definitions of “trying” were.

Like most truthbombs, when that thought came up, I immediately tried to block it from my head. When I told my girlfriends about it, they tried to block it from my head. Because really, what self-respecting, independent feminist is going to rationalize someone treating her as though she’s anything less than the Goddess Athena herself? Certainly not the feminists I read about. And certainly not the feminists we talk about. So if I was questioning these things, what exactly did that make me? Not a feminist? Not someone with good self- esteem? Not who I thought I was? Yikes Lisa.

What hit me shortly thereafter though wasn’t that I was downplaying my needs in that situation or my standard for how I deserve and expect to be treated – it was that in choosing to look at things from his perspective rather than from my own, I was choosing compassionate intent over my desire to make everything about me.

My (wishful thinking/in my head) homegirl Dessa introduced me to the idea of compassionate intent in her 2012 commencement speech to the University of Minnesota College of Liberal Arts graduating class. Beyond me feeling compelled to share that speech with everyone I know because of how amazing it is, her words really stuck with me. In short, compassionate intent isn't about being right (which, if we’re being real, is what we all want to be in an argument), but instead, is about looking for what the other person was actually going for and running with that instead.

In the situation I encountered in NYC, yes, I felt like I wasn’t being prioritized, but the guy in question was also two weeks away from moving out of the City, was trying to fit everything in, was in the midst of a crazy project AND a job search, and also wanted to be around his family for Father’s Day. When I look at it from his perspective as well as for how he felt when things didn’t work out the way he’d intended, compassionate intent and looking for the good in what he was trying to do felt a lot more right to me than my ideas about what sticking up for me meant.

Even if compassionate intent meant me staring at my phone and crying on the floor of my girlfriend’s apartment out of disappointment when he took the out I gave him from our plans.

Even if compassionate intent meant that I likely wouldn’t see him again.

And even if compassionate intent meant that I didn’t “win” that situation and that I had to take my pride and ego down a notch.

Compassionate intent in that situation (despite me not pulling it off as gracefully as I would have hoped) was the right thing to do and the thing I’d hope would be done for me in return.

So. Why do I bring this up?

There is a big difference between compassionate intent and being a doormat.

Yes, it could read as though I’m making excuses for him, but if I factor in all of our history, which includes multiple examples through which he showed he was looking out for me instead of for him, I know deep down that I’m not. I know that he is genuinely one of the good ones, and that someday, he will make a very lucky lady extremely happy. I also know though, that when he’s stressed, he’s better at choosing his needs over the unspoken needs of someone else. And that “not stressed” is something I haven’t yet seen of him.

This is where the compassionate intent v. doormat piece comes in.

In looking back on what happened in New York, I’m actively choosing to see what he was going for in that weekend rather than what actually transpired. I’m also actively choosing to see the lessons in it for me – the lessons that say, “You need to actually voice your needs rather than expect someone to guess them.” The lessons that say, “You need to talk about what you’re feeling rather than let it fester until you feel ready to talk about it.” The lessons that say, “Even though this will be awkward, it’ll be worth it to have an honest, adult conversation about it.”

What I’m also taking from that weekend is the understanding that if we were to see each other again, I won’t ever be the sole thought in his head without the silent timer telling him it’s time to go. That despite me knowing what that’s like—to feel that pressure, to constantly feel like you should be elsewhere, to wonder if you’re stacking up—that I should not expect him to put that aside. That even though I want to be the only thought in a guy’s head when we’re together, that for the particular guy in question, that that is too much to ask.

It is an acknowledgement that my needs are different now than they were when we first met and that that’s OKAY. An acknowledgement that he isn’t the man I want him to be nor need in a partner and that that’s okay. An acknowledgement that I’m probably not the woman he wants for anything more than what was our mutual time of need and that that’s okay.

An acknowledgement that our time has both come and passed, and that that too is okay.

That things will change and that that’s okay.

And most importantly, that even if those things change, that that doesn’t make what once was any less special.

What comes with acknowledgement though is a little harder to swallow: that since I know and acknowledge these things, I need to act on them.

That despite my compassionate intent in this situation, I need to put myself first next time.

And that that might mean choosing to say, “No thanks – this isn’t in my best interest” to the romantic aspects of a friendship with someone that has meant a lot to me.

This brings us to Lesson #18: The difference between compassionate intent and being a doormat

Compassionate intent is looking for the best intentions in someone when you feel it’s a situation in which you should “win”; being a doormat is not listening to the lessons that that situation has taught you and letting history repeat itself in the future.

Please note that there are a few obvious caveats here: any situation in which abuse is at play, whether it is emotional, physical, manipulative, or otherwise, is NOT a situation in which compassionate intent applies. It also does not apply to repeat offenders. Providing that they don’t fall into one of the above categories, compassionate intent, however, does apply to lovers, to friends, to roommates, to coworkers, to significant others, and to our families.

Compassionate intent means that you are putting yourself in someone else’s shoes for a while and loving them in the way you’d want to be loved if that person was you.

Compassionate intent means learning from the times that have gone differently than you would have wanted or expected.

And compassionate intent means that you can look out for both you and for the other party(ies) involved without you ever being a doormat again.

That, friends, is a lesson worth learning.