Sometimes when I’m about to tell a story that feels intensely personal, I think of telling it as a fairytale instead. “Once upon a time, there was a girl.” That kind of disassocation, just a bit of distance between me and the person in the story.
But I’m the person in the story, and it grows monotonous to refer to myself as “the girl.” So, whatever. Here you have it: all my cards and dirty laundry.
When Robb and I started dating, back when I was 19 and he was 23 and my friends and I were all so impressed with what a man he was – (23!!) – with a full time job and a salary, I created a pattern that turned out to be unhealthy.
I affirmed his every word, declaring him to be the smartest man I knew, the keeper of all information, and knowledgeable in all things.
“You know everything,” I would say to him, with a hazy, lovestruck gaze. (Oh, that makes me nauseous. I seriously can’t stand girls like that.)
A friend even said to me once, “You know he doesn’t, right? You know he doesn’t actually know everything?”
“Well, sure I do. But what’s the harm in stroking his ego? What’s the harm in showing him I’m impressed with his intelligence? Is there anything wrong with affirming the things he says, agreeing with him, and learning from him?”
Well, no. There’s not really anything wrong with that at all. Except that’s not what was happening. And that became the problem.
Robb was – and is – a very intelligent man with lots of knowledge, to be sure. But all of my babbling about his super genius IQ didn’t do either of us any favors.
First, even though I didn’t mean to, I put Robb on a pedestal he couldn’t maintain. He didn’t want to let me down or flaw the image I had painted, so he became inordinately afraid of saying “I don’t know,” since his lovely bride had declared that yes, of course he really did know.
He became a secret keeper, a vault of information, somehow convinced that if he let me in on everything he knew, I’d find him less attractive, less charming, less knight-like. So he stopped telling me things, since the risk of showing all his cards felt too much like saying “That’s all I’ve got; I know no more. I’m not who you think I am.”
Worst of all, I depicted myself inaccurately. By declaring him all-knowing, I acted as though I knew little, as if my intelligence were lacking, as if I were simply blessed beyond measure because he had bestowed his information upon me.
I’m a smart girl. But something in 19-year-old me believed myself to be more attractive if I weren’t quite so smart. I think I thought it would intimidate him if I could keep up, so I pretended like I couldn’t.
We were married for years before we began to unveil this delusion, and by then some patterns were in place that neither of us wanted. We had to retrain ourselves to say, “I don’t know” and “I think I do.” Each brings its own humility.
We worked hard to find clarity, to claim the vulnerability we had surrendered with those early mistakes in the name of flirting.
Now, years later, I am appalled to see that I nearly stepped into the same pattern all over again. I spent some time with someone important to me, and as I affirmed his knowledge and intelligence on whatever topic was his expertise, he began to think I knew nothing. And alarms sounded in my head.
I think women the world over are forever making up for the first time a woman said, “Oh, dear man. You are my hero because you are so much smarter than me.”
So, once upon a time, there was a girl. She’d like to do it differently next time, but she doesn’t really know how.
I’ve said it before; I’ll say it again. I raise my glass to the smart girls.
It takes serious guts to be one.