Relationship Guideline: When You Start Making Excuses
It’s been years now, but I still remember the first time I made excuses for a significant other. I sat at my best friend’s kitchen table during a long lunch hour I’d taken in the middle of the work week. My kids were little—in kindergarten and elementary school—so weekday lunches were the only time my best friend and I could get together to talk about writing. I would run out of my office at 11:00, through a sandwich shop drive-thru at 11:05, and be at her kitchen table as 11:10, and still have a solid 45 minutes before I had to leave and head back to work.
Those were wondrous days when I got the emotional support I so desperately needed from my best friend, who was some years older, and took a decidedly motherly tone in our relationship dynamics. On that day, we sat at her kitchen table, over sandwiches and iced sweet tea with real sugar, and brainstormed the internal and external conflicts of the main characters of the next novels we planned to write. More than once, her husband poked his head in the door, not to interrupt our lunch but to see if we needed anything and to say hello.
“That’s funny,” I told her, “that your husband takes so much interest in what we’re writing.”
She blinked at me, genuinely confused. “Why would that be funny?”
She knew that by funny I meant very much out of the ordinary. I tried to explain but stumbled over my own words. Finally, I found a way of saying it.
“He doesn’t seem like a, um…. He doesn’t seem like someone who likes reading women’s fiction,” I finally said, referencing the specific sub-genre that she and I were writing in at the time.
“He’s not.” She shrugged. “He’s not a fan of women’s fiction, but he is a fan of me.”
I smiled at that. Her words were a little too close to the bone. She must’ve seen how deeply her husband’s inquiries touched me. My own husband and I were having hard days, but I kept telling myself how happy I was, how I had everything I’d always needed or wanted, even if I didn’t really feel it in my heart. There were many desires still unrequited.
“Doesn’t your husband read your…your manuscripts?”
I shook my head.
“Any of them?”
I shook my head again.
“Well…well, why not?”
I shrugged, thought for a few minutes, scrounging to come up with the answer. I’d asked myself the same thing, but I always assumed it was that he didn’t think it was very good. He’d said as much, at least on one occasion, upon hearing the plot, not even reading the words that I had labored over.
“Whoa. You mean the most important person in your life doesn’t read your manuscripts?”
I shook my head. It seemed to be all I could do. “He… he doesn’t like the kind of stories I write. He prefers westerns or history or.…”
Truth be told, he’d never had any interest at all in my creative process. Only in the financial side and how much money each book might earn. Or how much of a tax write-off we might get if we made a special trip to do some research.
“But…but….” At this point, my friend’s face had turned red and her voice had risen an octave. “How can he not read your stuff?”
“It’s just not something he likes,” I said.
“No. You’re not understanding what I’m saying. How can he not read your stuff when it is such an important part of you? How can the most important person in your life not be at all interested in something that is such a huge part of who you are?”
I couldn’t answer her question then and I’ve never, in the last twenty years since that conversation, been able to answer that question. I certainly tried that day, and during conversations later, when that same question arose. How I tried was to make up excuses for him, even excuses he had never given me! But the whole time, trying to answer those questions, making up those excuses, just felt…icky.
These were the same questions in my own heart that I wanted and needed answers to, but couldn’t get from the most important person in my life.
So I didn’t say, “I have no idea, but I’d like to know. And I’d like to know why I don’t get the kind of emotional support that I want from this person I give so much to.”
I couldn’t say that. Saying that would be admitting that my friend’s allegations were true, that there was something wrong in my relationship.
When, in fact, there was.
After that, I would change the subject whenever she brought it up. Or find some reason not to get too deep into it. There were other writers, after all, whose husbands and boyfriends weren’t interested in what they wrote.
Over the next ten years, there were more questions that came up. Probably because, as best friends tend to do, mine felt she knew me well enough that she could ask these questions.
She wasn’t the only one to ask these questions. Others did, too. And, each time, I squirmed and made up excuses until I finally recognized that there were certain things in the relationship that were beyond repair, that they would never get better. It went far beyond whether or not he read anything I wrote or had any appreciation for that part of me that is, and always will be, a writer.
Within a year after my divorce, I had started dating a new man in my life and found myself, fairly quickly, being asked questions about him that I could not answer. About things like why he changed certain plans at the last minute or why he behaved toward me in an unexpected way. I didn’t know. I didn’t have answers. He had never told me. He wouldn’t for another decade when he confessed he’d been a closet drug addict. I couldn’t stand the glaring questions so I made up excuses for him, all plausible. At least the first twenty times or so. After that….
A couple of other relationships, in the intervening years, were perfectly wonderful…when it was just the guy and me. There were specific questions that they dodged. Sometimes they had an answer, sometimes they didn’t. But 98% of the relationship was wonderful. I could live with a little bit of uncertainty. Or a lot of patience, in other cases. I could be compassionate and understanding and not think a thing about it, about those questions, that is. They were easy enough to bury and come back to later.
My friends and family, colleagues, and even mere acquaintances, all had questions though. Ones that I couldn’t answer. For one man, I knew of his financial issues, so it was easy enough for that to become an excuse. At least, for a little while. For another, who knew how I felt about him and how he felt about me, people wanted to know when we were getting married, when he was moving in with me, when were we going to come to dinner as a couple. They all knew I had started dating this man when I thought he was divorced, only to find out that his divorce was weeks away, and them months away, and then “She refuses to give me a divorce” and then “I don’t want to talk about this right now” and then.…
Inevitably, the question on everyone’s lips was, “How much longer are you going to wait for him to get this mythological divorce that he was supposed to have had before you started seeing him?”
The more pointed the questions became, the less my excuses held up, mainly because they were my questions, too. To keep from hearing what I didn’t want to hear and to keep from feeling that awful icky feeling of making excuses for the most important person in my life, instead of ending my relationship with him, I faded out of sight of all my closest friends and family who were the only other support network I had, outside of him.
When that relationship ended, I spent the next year re-establishing what I had lost. All those people were the ones I’d made excuses to, and I was very, very fortunate to have all of them come back into my life, without a moment’s hesitation.
Albeit a few with rather brutal, I told you so’s.
Eventually, I met someone new who could have turned into relationship material. I wasn’t sure yet, so I was careful and I took it slowly.
In about three weeks, something happened that my friends quizzed me about, something I didn’t have an answer for. I immediately jumped to defending him, to coming up with excuses, not even excuses he’d given me, but just trying to fill in the gaps in what I knew and what they wanted to know. That same old icky feeling came back. That’s when I stopped and wondered, “Why am I making excuses for him?”
If I have to make excuses for someone, because I don’t flat out have the answers myself or because I’m afraid of what the truth might be if I actually speak it, then there’s something wrong in that relationship, something broken, something damaged. Maybe it can be fixed, maybe not. My general guideline now is to take that as a clue whenever I make excuses for anyone–romantic, platonic, familial, business.
If friends or family ask questions about a significant other’s belief systems, a turbulent childhood, some problems at work, I find that I rarely have to make any excuses, or even attempt to. I either know the answer or I don’t know the answer.
When the questions involve a significant other’s actions or attitude toward me, something my friends and family are protective of, and I feel I have to defend actions toward me that are in no way positive by making such excuses–this is the guideline. This is when I know I’ve stepped over the line and have to take a big step back and re-assess the relationship I’m in.