IT WAS IN August 1976 that Tom Wolfe, writing for New York Magazine, first used the expression “the ‘me’ decade” to describe the new prevailing attitude of Americans towards self-awareness and the need of fairness in the conduct of human relationships. At that time I was struggling with what I saw as a woman’s dependence on men for her sense of empowerment or worth. Feelings ranging from bitter helplessness to seething anger were elicited as I became obsessed with the need to be self-supporting. Determined to never again be dependent on a man for my financial well-being became my number one goal.
Ironically, during this time, one of the most frequent commercials on television was “Mr. Coffee,” featuring none other than Joe DiMaggio Sr.—my ex-father-in-law, and an all-American hero. Every time I turned on the television, I was reminded of my own self-deprecating past by the sight and sound of him, which posed a powerful challenge to my otherwise growing self-confidence. Not a rational reaction, I know, but these were my thoughts at the time.
Before I could learn to be in a healthy, interdependent relationship with a partner, I desperately needed to stop feeling subordinate to men or dependent on them for a reason to exist.
It would be some time before I felt secure enough in my own selfhood to not need the energy that anger gave me to break free of men’s opinions of me. Totally absorbed in my effort to become my own person, I was ripe for any type of self-help program including the “human potential” movement. Still, it took a long time for me to understand there is a big difference between being truly independent (which always involves interdependence) and going against someone.
The year was 1977. I had recently married for the third time, but this time was the polar opposite from any relationship that I’d had before. Maybe the feminist agenda was infiltrating into my personal belief system. Whatever made the difference, this time I had married a man whose influence was positive and calming. Mike was the first man who did not make my hair stand straight up with fear every time he walked into the room.
In a bizarre twist of logic, I had deduced that Mike would never hit me, which was my one and only deal-breaker. First and foremost, I had to feel physically safe before I could proceed with “self- help/growth.” The second thing that helped me relax into the relationship was a certain type of integrity (I did not have the wherewithal to name it at that point) displayed by my husband.
Driving home after a weekend holiday in the Florida Keys, I noticed
Mike was very quiet. “What’s up?” I said.
“I just feel like an idiot.”
“First, I lock my keys in the car, then I forget my shoes at the pool, and now I realize that we are just about out of gas and this is Memorial Day weekend and I am not sure that anything will be open where we can get enough gas to get home.” (Thirty-five years ago, the Keys were very sparsely populated, and businesses were few and far between.)
“Wow! I think that I love you!” “Excuse me?” “Never mind.”
I was stunned into silence as I sat beside him, thinking, What kind of person says things like that? I had never in my entire life heard anyone take responsibility for their mistakes. I had always been the blamed or the blamer.
Even though Mike was the single safest man I had ever known, and we had so much going for us, I was still medicating a lifetime of anxiety with alcohol two to three times a week. We had many drunken arguments. It seemed like my insides refused to stop reacting as if some untold disaster were about to happen. My need for excessive vigilance prevailed at all times. I constantly scanned the world for the next calamity.
In my previous marriages, I had internalized every negative opinion that anyone—especially my husbands—had toward me. Now I was like a heated Teflon pan, allowing nothing that sounded even slightly negative to stick to me. Unfortunately, my defensiveness was so instantaneous that I often perceived a negative motive where there were none. By the time we had been married a year, it was clear that I needed a major adjustment in my perspective on life, myself, and others.
Mike and I made the decision to sign up for a weekend seminar, or “training session,” recommended to us by some friends. We signed up for something called EST. We weren’t sure what it was exactly, but we were willing to learn something that might help our relationship.