Keeping the Boardroom Out of the Bedroom

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Modern Love

I ended my marriage after nearly 12 years. He was a good man with a good heart, who didn’t lie, cheat or belittle me. He was responsible and kind and loved me as best he could, or as much as I would allow.

At that time, I was working in corporate marketing and more interested in climbing the ladder in the financial industry than I was in creating a connected relationship with my husband. I worked long hours and made good money. My professional drive was my identity. I always felt as if I was reaching for something, and as soon as I got it, I reached again, never satisfied but also never truly happy.

I pursued the next promotion or the next job, making director by the time I was 30 and chief marketing officer by 40. I stood toe-to-toe with male colleagues that I suspected earned much more than me, even though I typically worked longer hours and was the only one among my peers with an M.B.A.

With each new accomplishment, I thought, “Maybe this will finally be enough.” But then the high would wear off, leaving me feeling alone and disconnected yet again, with the added guilt of thinking, “If I can’t be happy with all this, can I ever be happy?”

On many days, I was the only female executive at the board table. I had to be strong but not too strong. I had to have high expectations of my teams but still be likable, because my group needed to outperform the others so that I could feel worthy of my seat at the mahogany table. I had to be able to speak my mind without disrespecting anyone.

But there’s a funny thing about being a female executive in a male-dominated industry. You are strong, driven and in control at the office all day, but there’s no magic switch to flip when you arrive home every evening. So I brought that same strong, driven and controlling energy into my marriage.

I bet that was a lot of fun to curl up next to.

I would give orders. I would sarcastically correct my husband, thinking my humor would lessen the bite. I would assume the pressure of being the primary breadwinner but then resent it.

I had always been an overachiever at work, and the same was true in my home life. I did all of the cooking, grocery shopping and planning. I kept our social calendar and booked our vacations. There was almost no decision that didn’t have my mark on it.

I used to say that Christmas wouldn’t happen without me, because I would choose and purchase all the gifts (one year I counted 76), wrap them, make an endless number of Christmas cookies and plan and prepare the holiday dinners.

I felt alone because of the heavy load I was carrying. But no one had asked me to do all that. My husband didn’t have those expectations of me. I put that on myself and then resented him for not helping or carrying what I felt should have been his fair share.

I never asked for help; in my mind, asking for help was a sign of weakness.

I never expressed my own needs; I just made sure I got my way.

I never allowed myself to be vulnerable with my husband because I didn’t realize that it was a requirement for an intimate, connected relationship. Back then, I didn’t even know what an intimate, connected relationship was. I only thought in terms of tasks and achievements.

Exhausted, I started to check out of our marriage, convinced that what we had was fine. After all, our lives looked pretty good from the outside.

Then I began noticing other couples in a way I hadn’t before, how a hand would gently rest on a leg, head or shoulder. I saw the closeness of two people who seemed to exchange affection effortlessly.

I wanted that closeness and connection. But it felt so foreign; it wasn’t something I had ever known. I began to ask for that in my marriage, but after all of our years together, my husband didn’t know how to give that to me, and, frankly, I didn’t know how to receive it. So our attempts were just awkward. And I was no longer fine with fine.

After we split up, I went in search of that elusive connection and intimacy.

I found intimacy but also heartbreak.

I found affection over and over again but also brokenness and irresponsibility.

I found connection but also emotional unavailability.

I had gone from placing the burden of my happiness on my career to a man and his love, which was just another version of the same lie. I had been attempting to create a successful relationship the same way I had created a successful career: through action and force. But my take-charge, get-it-done mentality wasn’t working when it came to love.

So I stopped. I stopped dating. I stopped lying to myself. And I started trying to figure out how I’d gotten myself into this situation. Because one thing was clear: No one else was responsible.

After all, I knew who my first husband was the day I met him: a stable, secure man who wouldn’t hurt me. I ignored our relative lack of passion or spontaneity, and for more than a decade, that trade-off between safety and passion served me.

I made that trade-off; I did that.

I was the one who then went out looking for love in all the wrong places, attempting to turn men into who I needed them to be so I could feel more confident, more secure, more whatever. I invited that into my heart.

Owning up to all of this helped me change — but only so much.

More than a year after my divorce, I met Derrick through an online dating site. We lived an hour apart but started chatting. He was coming out of an 18-year marriage himself. He was calm and respectful, but also strong and confident. A firefighter and paramedic, he loved what he did, and I could tell by the way he talked about his job that he was good at it.

When we decided to meet in person, I made sure we did so on my terms, asking if he would drive to me. Sushi on a Sunday afternoon seemed like a safe start, and it was. We hit it off and started getting together regularly, sometimes spending several days together.

He was gentle and patient as I struggled to open my heart to him. I had accepted a new job and decided it was time to trade in my home for an apartment downtown. When Derrick came over, he would help me clean and pack. One day, I came home to see he had refinished my grandmother’s hope chest; it was the most thoughtful gift anyone had ever given me.

I was falling for him, but I hadn’t completely shaken my old attitudes. At my new job, I was once again working long hours, partly because I felt I needed to, but also because that was all I knew. Derrick and I got together when I could, which worked well enough.

Until one evening, about three months in, when I went out for cocktails after work with my new colleagues. I assumed it would be just one drink and I would make it back to the condo by 6 p.m., when Derrick and I planned to meet to go to dinner.

One drink turned to two, and suddenly it was 7:30 p.m. When I got home, a little too happy from all the cocktails, he was quietly fuming.

“Where have you been?” he barked.

I knew I needed to go into apology mode, but I still wasn’t thinking this was anything for him to be upset about. After all, I had acted this way dozens of times with my former husband. “The people at work asked me to go out for drinks,” I said. “I’m trying to get to know them. The time just got away from me.”

Derrick’s response was: “I will not be disrespected in this relationship, no matter how much I care about you. If you’re going to be late, you need to pick up the phone and call. I would never consider being that disrespectful to you.”

I was stunned — yet also strangely relieved: “You’re right. I’m so sorry.”

A sense of entitlement can be destructive in surprising ways. What I hadn’t known was how destructive it can be to love. I felt as if I was a big deal as the new chief marketing officer at my company. Surely, I had thought, my firefighter boyfriend would wait an hour or two for me without complaint. But if he had, would we still be together today?

It has been said that we teach people how to treat us. That night, Derrick taught me how to treat him. And by doing so, he also taught me — perhaps for the first time in my life — how to love.