One of my favorite movies of all time is Regarding Henry. If you haven’t seen it, and you want to see a movie that makes you smile about the power of the human spirit to change and evolve through hardship, I encourage you to check it out. My favorite message in the movie among all of the beautiful messages that are present is about saying ‘when’. Henry, who has suffered amnesia and has some brain damage, has returned to work. His secretary is pouring him coffee, and she keeps pouring. She tells him he must tell her ‘when’. He learns this lesson about a number of things and finally says ‘when’ on his career. It’s easier to say ‘when’ on a relationship or a career when you have no memory or recollection of the past, I guess. I wish we all had the opportunity to forget the messages we learn about life early on.
I have several friends who are contemplating the end of their long-term romantic relationships. They each have their own story, and this is not their forum, but ending a relationship is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done … every time. I’ve ended an engagement, two marriages, numerous friendships and lots of superficial encounters that I’d hardly call relationships but they had enough significance that it wasn’t easy to say ‘when’. I’m codependent. I will always have that tendency although I’ve gotten much better. I never said ‘when’ in the past. I say ‘when’ fairly often now.
Because I write about divorce, people talk to me about their journey. There is so much pain and guilt incorporated into that particular rendering of ‘when’. Not only is there the brutal pain of the loss of the relationship and the dream, there is the overwhelming guilt that divorce brings with it. No matter how common, when it’s your divorce and your broken covenant, it’s deeply painful. I discussed it with a minister who told me that the vows also include the covenant ‘to love, honor and cherish – forsaking all others’. The vows were already broken long before the part about ’til death do us part’ was broken. We put so much emphasis on the wrongness of saying ‘when’ that we forget about the rest of the vows.
Since I’ve been in recovery from codependency, I’ve learned how to say ‘when’. I’ve learned to say ‘when’ to coffee, poor quality food, hurtful relationships, dysfunctional jobs and people, places and things that hurt me. A friend of mine was newly dating a man, and she was trying to decide whether she wanted to continue to date him. There were a few things that bothered her, and she wanted to know if she was being too picky. I actually don’t know if I’m the right person for that conversation, as I’ve become really damn picky. But, I told her what I remind myself. This is your life and your relationship. If you don’t like something about it, you can say ‘when’. It doesn’t matter if I think it,s right or your Momma thinks it’s wrong, or if he thinks your are being unfair. We can choose what we want in our lives and what we don’t. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with him or his lifestyle. It just means that you don’t really choose to have that in your life. We each have our own limits based on our own past experiences and wounds. We get to choose what we have in our environment. And I actually love it when other people tell me ‘when’ to. It teaches me how they want to be treated. It’s clean, it’s loving and it helps our relationship.
I say ‘when’ on relationships pretty quickly now – male or female. I’ve learned that I don’t deal well with non-responsive people. My core issues get triggered when I have to put all of the work in a relationship, or if it’s not mutually affectionate. So, when I meet somebody and they ignore my attempts to contact them or consistently cancel commitments with me, I say ‘when’. There’s nothing wrong with them. They are who they are, and they probably mean nothing by their non-responsiveness. But, I don’t want that kind of behavior in my close relationships. I want people that accept me and like me as I am and that want me in their lives enough to pursue me as much as I pursue them. I may have fewer people in my life, but I sure have closer relationships based on my higher standards. And that’s precisely what I want. I had to say ‘when’ in order to make room for the good stuff. Otherwise, I imagine I’d be spending all of my time chasing people who really aren’t that interested in being friends with me instead of opening space to meet people who do.
When I say ‘when’ to something, I actually get this really big jolt of energy. If I have to say ‘when’ there is somebody or something that is draining me emotionally or physically. So, when I say ‘when’ that rope that’s dragging me down snaps, and I get a backlash of positive energy coming back at me. I also believe that when I tell the universe NO … I don’t want that … I’ve just alleviated one future hard lesson that I have to learn. As my friend Elizabeth says, “I’m glad I dodged that bullet.” I wish saying ‘when’ made me bullet-proof. It doesn’t. It just helps me get out of the way, and it gets easier every time I utter the word.