Before you read about lesbians and space, you might want to make yourself a cup of tea. It’s 369 words over what conventional wisdom says the maximum number of words a blog post should be.
Dishes were being cleared away to make space for coffee and desserts from Rahier. Conversations wandered into the territories of life and love and women. Then she of the amazing green eyes, a thinking woman’s woman, responded with her slightly husky voice, inviting all ears to tune in that she thought relationships between women were more difficult than relationships between men and women.
Invisible antennae unfolded all over my body, slid into their super-sonic macro/micro listening posts. It was the second time I’d encountered the statement in a month.
“Why?” I asked.
She sat at the kitchen peninsula in the swiveling stool, moving it in half circles, side to side, her head tilted slightly, thinking.
“Space,” she said, her hands moving in front of her as if trying to squeeze a volleyball. “It’s about lesbians and space. I’m not sure what, though,” and exasperated, she put her hands down.
“It’s not only lesbians,” I said. “Some straight women have issues with space.”
“True,” she said, “but it’s different between women. It’s harder.”
There were nods of agreement as we watched dessert being placed carefully on plates. Lemon tart and chocolate ganache trumped conversation. When we started talking again, it was about something entirely different.
Her statement of lesbian relationships being harder, more difficult and the notion of space bounced around in my brain. I needed to land it, stop the bouncing.
I pondered space first, figuring that it was not a reference to the kind of space that is eliminated in a kiss, in an embrace, or in bed. The space of pondering is the space of 1+1=3; the psychological space of happy separateness, of a self that is whole on its own outside and away from her that’s maintained and nurtured while in relationship with each other. Or the pondering is of the apparent absence of such personal space in lesbian relationships.
That done, I buckled my quantum seat belt, intent on puzzling my puzzler with a ride through urban legends, stereotypes, non-sequiturs and blind alleys to land on some thoughts I could live with for now.
MODELS: the known knowns
Where we live, what we’ve seen, experienced, the influence of siblings and peers, the gifts the goddesses bestow on us when we are born all gets glorped together in our brain and filters into what becomes mind that creates a window through which we develop a highly personal world view. This view can also include a sense of self and where we fit in along those culturally defined terms of gender and sexual orientation.
When it comes to relationships, our perspective initially springs from our observations and feelings about the primal and most enduring examples found in family. This is typically, but not always, our parental units who are in relationship with one another. We are marked by what we witness, observe, hear, experience. We determine somehow that when we get there, we will do this, we will never do that; we want this, we never want that or we just don’t care. Some part of us transmutates all that into mental models, those shortcuts designed to save time and energy spent on, oh, thinking and analysis.
But back when we were toddlers, pre-teens and teenagers, holding that future lesbian self, examples of same-sex relationships might have been non-existent other than the closeted gym teacher living secretly with the closeted French teacher.
So, what day-to-day examples were there for women loving women? Where COULD a girl turn?
Perhaps it was the group of closest girlfriends or ONE best girlfriend with whom you shared everything, who knew YOU, talked with you 17 hours out of 24, who knew your thoughts, who gave you so much togetherness. They, or she, gave you that feeling of being a unit against the world of others, so much something. Today that’s an acknowledged girl crush and is not much different from any first love where you feel you need to breathe the same air and drink through the same straw. Is that where some of us found an example of what a relationship with a woman should be?
The thing about first loves? We get to try our newly sprouted love wings. We behave based on what we believe not necessarily on what is real or what the person in front of us actually needs. We get to learn — or not — how to manage differences, how to navigate powerful emotions, how to communicate our wants and needs and to see how relationships truly work.
That best girlfriend closeness may not be sustainable or desirable every single day in a long-term adult relationship. Obviously, there will be some tweaking and trashing of mental models as we grow up.
There was this nagging feeling that mental models were only part of a clue. So I focused my internal telescope for closer look at the satellites around mental models. Oh. Yes. Those.
The Twin Moons: assumptions and expectations
A friend of mine said she didn’t understand women. My right eyebrow arched of its own accord.
“What don’t you understand,” I asked.
She’s a mathematician; analytic, logical, methodical, and rational. Intense. Focused. She’s been a lesbian since the Goddess was in diapers yet has never sustained a long-term relationship and would rather jump from a bridge she built than call for a U-haul.
She is capable, charming, quirky, and intelligent. She is also a shrewd and ruthless businessperson. She tends to like women who are artists and who seem to have their own life and interests. No-one is more surprised than her when somehow, overnight, these women become (sssshhh) needy, wanting to share living space and expect that not only will she be a partner, but a best friend too.
Thing is, she assumes all lesbians think, act and behave just like her. Thing is, they don’t.
My mathematical friend doesn’t understand why women want more of her. Because she assumes all women think like her and because she doesn’t quite care to articulate her feelings, or engage in conflict, she does not understand why other women want all that. She and I have had conversations about the names women use: cold, ice queen, uncaring. She hasn’t labeled lesbian relationships as difficult because she sees the same behaviours in her straight female friends. But she does wonder if she’ll ever meet a woman who accepts her.
Where it lands
When we decide to fall in love, to love and enter into a relationship, we haul in our mental models and assumptions and expectations. I wonder if in that emotional mix we hold women to a higher standard than we do men, and expect there to be absolute sympatico between women; after all, under the clothes, when we are naked with her, we’re the same, aren’t we, feeling the same thing in the same way?
For women who emerge as lesbians after a trial period of heterosexuality, there is an assumption that everything ranging from friendship, communicating, domestic duties, sex, entertaining, money, decision-making, and yes, personal space will be easier with a woman than with a man. That assumption is going to bite and not pleasantly.
Women are, generally speaking, demanding in all of their relationships. Think of mothers, sisters, friends, lovers, colleagues, bosses. Generally, we talk and express and emote more than men do and expect the same back. Our need for community, for emotional intimacy, for closeness and expression of love, affection and desire is generally different from men’s and expressed differently as well.
With two women together, there might be a better chance of understanding some things by virtue of a shared reality (think period cramps and apprehension at walking alone at night). But that can also can mean it’s not as easy to hide: A woman might not let another woman get away with some of the things a man lets slide or doesn’t notice.
Perhaps we expect that women’s secret ways of knowing will bless our mess and everything will magically be telegraphed to our beloved, who will feel exactly the same and know precisely what to do. Funny thing, that DOES happen for some and is wonderful to witness. For the rest of us mortals, we get to learn that being in a relationship requires work.
As for psychological space? Generally, women’s space requirements are different from men’s and are expressed differently. That is not the same as saying women do not want or need space, or that all women have the same view of space. Yet in the beginning of a relationship, few lovers want or need that space. But after the second date, when the U-haul has left, personal space in a relationship can become a lightening rod for root cause issues: respect, communication, incompatibility, unmet expectations, and wrong assumptions.
Having the space issue per se is not a problem. How it’s navigated and resolved for good matters more. That space for people who need it is crucial to feeling safe, and for recharding to better engage with the world, including loved ones. That need is not unique to lesbians or women: it is a fundamental need for some people of all stripes. Which answers the question in part one about distinguishing my lesbian writer voice from my other writer voices: it comes from the need for space.
My words of advice for people who need space? Help yourself by choosing a partner who gets it and gets YOU. And a lesson learned from personal experience: Do a strip search first, then a brain scan and a Vulcan mind meld. Never ever EVER choose someone who has velcro strips anywhere on her person.
And so out of this comes a question I wished I had asked over dessert: if we wanted easy, would we be lesbians?
On visible examples: it’s better today. In many cities it is now entirely possible that some kids know of a kid with two mothers and neighbours know of the seven lesbian couples on the block. This generation of kids will have examples of lesbian relationships that will be just as healthy and just as messed up as opposite sex relationships.