FINDING LOVE DURING A GLOBAL CRISIS – THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING WITNESSED

Towards the end of April I found myself in a place I’d visited before. I was two and a half months out of a relationship that had ripped my world apart with its ending — for the second time. Unlike the first time that relationship ended, the waves of grief were, astoundingly, still surprising me with their tsunami-like intensity, though the frequency of the batterings were much fewer and farther between. I had loved, deeply and fully, and had committed to doing so despite the probability that this relationship was not of the long-term type. In spite of the understanding that the harder I let myself love, the more it would hurt when the object of my attention jumped ship again, I opened my heart. The whole point was to FEEL. I understood, intellectually, that the greater the pain the greater the capacity for joy, and this relationship space, with its intensely disorganized nature, was ground zero for such experiencing.

It felt important this time around that I not hold back. I was entering the second stage of my adult life, which was as much about unbecoming as it was about becoming. Twenty years of a beautiful but mismatched marriage to the solid, dependable man who is the very capable father of my children left me craving chaos and passion. While I had loved him fully, I wanted an experience of love that included passion, something my former and husband and I had not experienced together through no faults of our own. I wanted a partner who could receive my full power without flinching, who could stand in awe of what I could offer him without perceiving it as entrapment or enmeshment. Who could bear witness to the truth of me, and want more and more and more. Who would meet me in my openness. For whom “too much” did not compute.

In retrospect, expecting a man 16 years my junior to be my first partner in my second stage was all at once the best choice (for me) and the worst choice (for him) I could have made. It was a phenomenal opportunity for me as an older woman with experience under her belt who wanted to apply all she’d learned over 20+ years of relationship to brand new playing fields. This particular canvas was very fresh, and seemed ready to receive the deep pigments and deliberate strokes of my already accomplished paintbrush. But unprimed canvases get overloaded with fresh paint quite quickly, and they warp and weft. May that canvas find peace, success, and much love, and may his frame unbend.

When I met D at the end of April, I was not necessarily looking for a relationship. I had reconnected with the free agent aspect of my soul that I had experienced during the first breakup of my former relationship a year and a half earlier. After more than 20 years as wife and then partner, and as a mother, I ached from the depths of my being to not be tethered to anyone or anything on the weeks that my children were with their father. I had not rebelled very much as a teen or as a young woman, and at the age of 21 thought I was in it for life when I met my husband. The spaciousness of my alone time in my early 40s was deliciously enough, and the casual but respectful relationships I’d developed with men left me feeling that I could maintain this space for a long time. I wanted to protect my right to sovereignty over my experience of myself, and not find myself indebted to another by virtue of my female being.

It’s always when we’re not looking that we find. And so D and I went for a walk on frigid late spring day, and then another walk, and in the six months of our togetherness I’ve lost count of how much walking we’ve done. We’ve walked and talked and whirled our way to a space I felt could possibly exist somewhere on some plane, but that I was not confident of being able to find in this lifetime. 

D and I connected from peace, and not from chaos. But in spite of how non-conflictual our space was and still is, a surprisingly powerful polarity developed as we both discovered that the other craved our full expression, and wanted nothing more than to bear witness to our unfolding. His basking and quiet attentiveness enhanced my power through permission to express, and through my power we created divine union, with trust and a co-regulation at its core. As he connects to the experiences that allow him to solidly feel the truth of who he is, I use his embodiment to de-tether and meet my inner goddess. 

To bear witness is a powerful gift we can offer our fellow humans. Merriam Webster defines bearing witness as “to show that something exists or is true”. When we hold space for another, we remove our need for relevance and give the other the floor, promising to quietly mark their existence in a particular way. When we listen to another’s grief we offer validation of their suffering. When we experience another’s joy we celebrate with them, legitimizing their right to happiness and pleasure. When we witness a performance and congratulate the performer after, we recognize their talent. In bearing witness, we allow another to fully immerse into the experience of themself. Without others to mirror us, we are lost to understand who we are, and what our capacities are.

The greatest joy in intimate relationship comes from being fully seen for your most authentic expressions, and being loved in spite of those you cherish or revile most. An advantage to finding love in midlife is that all the wrinkles on our softening skin act like growth rings on a tree, etching – if we’ve paid attention – wisdom into our very flesh. To meet another to build a life based on non-tangibles with the tangibles of your former lives in tow can be unsettling for some. There is no road map for the second stage of life like there was for the first. And for those of us who are committed to exploring every nook and cranny of our beings, it’s more exhilarating than any young love could ever have been. To come together with the understanding that things are more possible than they’ve ever been allows the imagination to run-free, a more innocent and childlike state than many of us have allowed ourselves over decades of marriage, career, and family building. To be seen is to be known, and to be known is to be free to be who we are meant to be.

In the early months of the lockdown I struggled with a kind of identity loss. Many of the external factors that I had used to define my existence as a middle-aged woman were taken from me. The ballet classes through which I found grace and elegance and a glimpse of my potential for quiet composure were no longer accessible. My circle of friends was reduced to those of like-minds – my sisters, my partner, my children, and my friends partners. My work took on a new life, one out of my control, that left me space to be, but also left me feeling powerless over outcomes that should have been easier to control. What hit me most, though, was the loss of our human right to gather – to see and be seen, to love and be loved. We squeezed in a few quiet gatherings before the government clamped down once again. But there were no barbecues, no birthdays, no pool parties, no press of bodies, and always an uneasy vigilance overshadowed our enjoyment of our togetherness.

Since I was small I have required witnessing of my feats. Unable to get satisfactory feedback from my parents regarding my value, I relied on teachers and friends of parents who recognized my abilities and encouraged me to pursue them. Sex was of great interest to me from my early teens, and when I was ready, I used boys as mirrors of my desirability in an attempt to figure out what I could gain through contact with them. I wanted to know how I was perceived, and through this information I learned who I wanted to become. 

My family did not welcome my husband with open arms. I come from a background that does not welcome outsiders, especially not outsiders of colour, and until we committed to marriage six years after we met, there was always hope that I’d smarten up. When the marriage ended, my mother, at a loss for how to express her feelings, confirmed that my grandmother had been right, that the marriage would not last. Reflected back at me was the inability to make sound decisions about my life, despite the fact that we had three beautiful children between us, relatively successful careers, and split mostly amicably, the peaceful co-parenting of our daughters the thread that keeps us communicating. 

The relationship to my younger beau was fraught from day one. Despite the intense connections that existed between us, this was the relationship that overlapped my marriage to a brief extent, and accelerated its demise. Throw in the vast gap in our life experiences, and finding external validation for a future together was challenging at best. On the heels of the marriage whose death my grandmother predicted came a love affair that simply could not stand up to social convention, nor our own judgements and roadblocks. 

My current relationship is legitimate. Though my partner is not of the same religious background, his background is similar enough, he is also a parent, and we were born in the same year. I’m still the older one, but our age gap is more than reasonable. He’s taller than me, we take a mean co-selfie, he’s educated and has had some significant career success, and he has also been married and divorced. His intellect would most likely put mine to shame should he ever allow himself to fully express it. From the outside looking in, we match.

What flows between us, of course, is all that really matters. Those are the things that are not for public consumption for the moment, and we co-validate through our shared experiences which more often than not leave us both with dropped jaws due to how they shatter the bounds of previous experiences either of us have had. We wonder if anyone else has experienced the numinous-nature of our lovemaking given that I, an avid reader on relationships, have not encountered text that relates to the inexhaustible and awe-inspiring daily exchanges that have yet to begin to blend into each other. 

But what is a relationship, even one such as ours, worth if it is not properly witnessed?  Throughout history, ceremony has legitimized the connections between two people. First dates generally involve public meetings, in bars or restaurants. In normal times, I would have taken him to the concert in lieu of the ex-boyfriend for whom I’d bought the tickets. We would have gone to cafés and chatted over coffee, or people watched side-by-side. We would have had many dinners with friends, and I would be working up the courage now to bring him to meet my family. Our close friends, the ones who would have borne witness to the ups and downs of our former lives anyways, have seen us to together to an extent, but not enough to reflect properly on the perfection of our match. And I struggle with this. After a lifetime of making choices that someone always had a problem with, that I felt myself needing to defend, I want to stand next to D, tucked under his shoulder with my arm around his waist, and be seen. 

No one will notice us. We are not different skin colours. We do not have an obvious age gap. We look like two regular middle-aged white people who could have been together a lifetime except that we prefer to always be touching. But for me, to not stand out or draw attention means that I have the freedom to be with him in public, fully present, without dialogue. This is the kind of witnessing I crave – the unremarkable kind where nothing about me or us will draw undue attention. Where we can be free to love openly, to connect deeply, to experience together. To be served a meal as a couple, to not be noticed. To book an Airbnb for a night or two in a small town and immerse ourselves in the experience of each other without the tethers of our regular identities. Planning a trip seems like something we may not get to do together for years, even if we don’t leave our own country. 

Finding love during a global crisis means defining ourselves unwitnessed, and this is much more challenging to me than throwing off the weight of others’ judgement always has been. I took the witnessing for granted. I should still be able to take the witnessing for granted. We all should be, if that’s what we choose. But instead, I write this piece to bear witness to my own need for witness, for my own desire to bear witness, and for the remarkable capacity of hearts to connect no matter the circumstances. I grieve my loss in the face of the astounding beauty I’ve found in D’s humanity, which speaks to the remarkable capacity of our species to hold two or more separate and even conflicting thoughts. I feel to an extent even I did not know was possible. And for all I, as a perpetual student, am grateful.

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