Magic Words

Once upon a time, when I was in the middle of a relationship that wasn’t going well, I heard the aphorism, “Weak people give up and stay, strong people give up and move on.” I have a vague recollection that the phrase is attributed to Maya Angelou, but I can’t find a citation to back that up.

Relationship BreakupMy friends had told me to “ditch the bum,” or “lose the user.” Their input struck me as judgmental, unkind, and simplistic. I’m not the easiest person to be in a relationship with, and I’d chosen “the bum,” after all–what did that say about their view of me?

But when I really needed some wisdom, those words–about moving on–popped up on my radar and gave me a nudge in the right direction. I had viewed ending the relationship as going back on all those “I love you’s,” and kicking the guy when he was down.

I hadn’t thought of bowing to defeat as courageous and wise until I’d heard it put in terms of having the strength to move on. There’s a big difference between the contempt of “ditching the bum,” and the painful wisdom of letting go of a relationship that isn’t working for anybody. I parted ways with the Dashing Swain, and have never regretted it (and I don’t think he has either).

harried momAt another point in my life, I was the exhausted, broke, overextended single mother of a toddler, trying to invest in a new relationship, and run ragged by the kid. My boyfriend (also a single parent) was tolerant of Her Highness, though one evening, she’d been a particular pill. Instead of telling me, as my dear family had, “you’d better get the kid under control or she’ll turn into a monster,” he put it this way.

“I wish for your sake that your daughter was more amenable to direction, and had a better sense that when Mom says something, she’d better listen. As much as you do for that child, as conscientious as you are in your parenting, and as wholeheartedly as you love her, you are entitled to her respect.”

THAT, I could hear. I could hear that a mom who’s trying hard is deserving of her child’s respect. The right words came at the right time, and Darling Child and I had some productive talks on the topic of mutual respect.

listeningHow something is said counts for a lot, but so does our ability to understand what’s motivating the speaker. My friends and family love me and are protective of me, and yet, I couldn’t hear that in what they said. I heard judgment and an implied threat: Follow this advice, or I won’t care about/respect you as much. Interesting, that though you love somebody, how you convey your love can result in that person feeling either judged or supported.

When did the right words give you a much needed and well timed insight? Some courage? Some relief from emotional pain? Maybe you were the one with the right words but you didn’t know it at the time?

To one commenter, I’ll send either a $50 Amazon gift card, or $50 toward the payment of your heating bill.


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25 comments on “Magic Words

  1. Almost 10 years ago, a “perfect storm” of a failed relationship, job stress, the revelation of a family secret, a growing and gnawing understanding of our global environmental crisis, and the burden of paying for and maintaining a home on my own really had me rolled up emotionally. And in trying to sort through everything and find a way forward, this insight came to me: there is no real security.

    To me, that meant that material security — that there would always be enough money, that having the right things would solve all my problems, that having insurance would be enough of a safety net, that the retirement funds I had saved up would actually still be around when I needed them — you name it. And while the thought of having no real security is frightening, it’s also incredibly liberating.

    It gave me the chance to start letting go — first the little things, then the house, then (years later) the secure full-time job. It made me understand that being adaptable and resilient — able to change with whatever life gave me — was more important than being settled, fixed in one place, and ultimately unhappy with my “secure” life.

    I can’t say it’s been easy, but even in the lean months I have a roof over my head, heat, water, food, all the basics — and still have room for dreams and ideas for living life.

    And having learned all that, it’s made it easier to embrace a French saying I recently saw quoted by Tom Hiddleston: “We all have two lives. The second one begins when you realize you only have one.” That’s a piece of wisdom that will carry me into this next stage of my life.

  2. When my grandmother passed away I was devastated. I fell into depression and just felt like there was no light at the end of the tunnel. She was my best friend and I went to her house and read books with her everyday. People told me that “time would heal all wounds” and “God must have had a plan for her”. It took time for me to see that these people were right. I was feeling selfish because I didn’t want to lose her and I raged against God for taking her away from me so soon. I thanked those people for offering me that insight, I apologized to God and I made peace with her loss. I still think about her often and I have the memories to carry in my heart.

    • Sheryl, the one thing I’ve heard grief counselors agree on is that we all grieve differently, and my experience is I grieve the same loss differently on different days. It’s not a linear process either, with tidy stages and a sense of forward momentum.

      The important thing is that you found a way to deal with this great loss, and to keep all the good memories and your grandma’s love despite the grief.

  3. At the last school I worked at I spent five years co-teaching Algebra 1 with the same man every semester. On my last day there I was saying all my tearful goodbyes and I suddenly couldn’t find him. I got in my car, started it, and just sat there. I actually considered leaving without saying goodbye. Luckily, I couldn’t do it. I texted him and met him in the hallway. Standing there with my arms wrapped around his neck I was sobbing and he told me that if I ever needed *anything* to call him. And I believed him and to this day, nearly three years later, I still believe him. It’s comforting to know you have a corner man that you can really trust.

    • It’s awful when a strong team breaks up. You feel like you’ll never have quite the same sense of esprit de corps again, and yet, you seem to have a gift for finding strong teams, Madam Teacher.

      Or maybe a gift for creating them? Surprise the heck out this guy, why don’t you, and call him?

      • Oh, I talked to Brad the other day. Right in the middle of third block I called and he actually answered…so I could ask a calculator question. 🙂 And I make sure I know how the football team is doing.

        Knowing the people at that school there were probably rumors, but Brad is my other brother.

  4. I don’t know of any words I have said that give anyone relief or courage but, I do know that in times when I was scared or alone my grandma would say God never gives you more than you can handle and he will walk with you. But I think the most wonderful words of encouragement came from my husband on our wedding day as part of our wedding vows. He said I will be here with you whatever comes, I love you and the most important and heartfelt of all “I do”.

    • Gail, you picked a true keeper. Simple as that.

      But as for that saying about God not giving us more than we can handle… please don’t get me started on the myth of the indestructible Christian (Jew, Muslim, Buddhist…)

  5. Sometimes no matter how you say something, the person you are trying to help doesn’t want to hear what you are saying. About a year ago, a friend of mine broke up with her boyfriend of about a year. They both wanted different things out of the relationship no matter what he told her. A few days after breaking up with her, the boyfriend called her and wanted to get together to talk about giving it another try. Everyone tried to tell her that no matter what he said, he wasn’t going to want to get married anytime soon, but she wouldn’t listen. They got back together and she wasted another 8 months on the relationship.

    • You’re absolutely right, that sometimes, words won’t cut it. Experience has to clobber us over the head with indisputable truth. The guy I had such trouble breaking up with was by no means my last imprudent choice as a boyfriend (though in hindsight, he was among the worst).

  6. When I was in my phase – of doing everything “Wonder Woman” of the 80’s – I was failing at it all it seemed. The last straw that did not get done was the housework on the weekends.. My good friend had a cleaning business – she was trying to get me to let her clean for me – and I was so embarassed , I kept saying NO. One day, she said, I am over there all the time, I know what your house looks like. Why not just let me do what I do best, things you don’t have time for so you can enjoy that time with the kids activities – You will not have to feel guilty that things are not getting done at home. Best thing I ever did. Her push and words came at the right time and so relieved some of my guilt and exhaustion. In later years I learned how foolish that 80’s crap was… 🙂

    • You said it: Crap.

      I have house cats, two big dogs, and I live in the country, where mud and dust will find a way. When I walk into my house on the days when the cleaning lady has been here, the experience is delightful. She’s worth every dime I pay her. EVERY. DIME.

  7. Wow! Tones of thoughts come to mind of when I got the right perspective to get myself out of a jam, relationship or otherwise. The ones I treasure the most though, are the times when I was able to speak so my daughters could hear me. I can see it on their faces when I get it right and I have this reaction inside that is something like giddy. Oddly enough the only specific conversation that comes to mind is when I told my daughter that I was fully aware of my imperfections (named several) and that I was truly sorry for the many times when my poor responses or actions negatively impacted her. I think I would like to enter silence as my official powerful statement. I have a quote on the desktop of my work computer that says “Remember that silence is sometimes the best answer.” That has not only been a powerful support at work, but also in dealing with my more explosive daughter… learning to to state my piece and then not get drawn into a verbal battle. Most importantly, I have noticed that the more I get it “right” and can be heard, the more their trust builds and the less perfect I have to be when speaking to get my point across.

    • What kids can teach us about effective communication… ye gads. Spot on, Sue. I recall the discussion in which I offered my fifteen year old daughter the option to home school for the last three years of high school.

      I think she finally GOT that her happiness matters to me. Not her grades, not her appearance, not her sweet disposition, not her ability to imitate her mother’s academic two-step… And yet, if I’d said, “I love you!” she probably would have shut down on me entirely.


      And as for silence… that’s something I need to work on. (And let’s leave it at that, for now.)

  8. Almost 40 years ago I gave birth to twin daughters. No one, including my two doctors, knew that I was carrying two babies. We were young and inexperienced. We were ready for one child, not two. Needless to say we were panicked and not a little worried. A friend who had children advised me to take a breathe and go with the flow and don’t sweat the little things. Most of of life is little things
    I had worked myself into a frenzy about how to feed tow babies at the same time.
    my friends words sttod me in good stead over the years!

  9. I was given the special words by the man who has been my husband for 22 years.

    When we met I was in a less than healthy relationship — and engaged to be married — to a young man who had his own insecurities and chose to take some of them out on me by belittling me and my accomplishments. He always did this in little ways, but was going through a rough period and was acting even worse. I was unable to escape my own insecurities (and belief that he was right in some ways) and step away from the situation to realize just how bad things were.

    My new friend, now my husband, made many of the same comments that I had heard from other friends, but in a much nicer manner than “he’s a jerk”. He went further to say that no one deserved to be treated the way I was being treated for any reason, but that if he were lucky enough to have me in his life he would treasure me. I honestly don’t remember his exact wording, but obviously he made an impression. 🙂

  10. Several years ago now I was in complete flux, relationship over, debt, job about to be axed, the whole bucket of woes and I felt vile. Whilst trying to sort myself and my head out and talking things over with a dear long term friend she said, a few years ago when I was in need of a shoulder you gave me it, but what was more important was that email you sent me that cheered me up no end , I’ve still got it. And, sure enough an email arrived. It said, remember this….”when you’re skating on this ice, you might as well dance. ” and it danced across my screen 🙂 . So, I turned the music up and danced, didn’t fix everything but it certainly fixed my attitude to it all.

  11. During a difficult single-parent-moment (when was it not?) a friend told me that sometimes looking at the whole elephant can be intimidating. But a determined gal could eat one, one piece at a time. That sometimes it might take a while,and you might have to spit some out and try another piece, but it could be done. My friend put her advice into food terms so I would understand, and I did. Whenever I am overwhelmed, my natural reflex now is to not look at the challenge as to be solved all at one time, but to breathe and take it a step at a time. I have faced down many elephants this way. Sometimes the hugeness of a situation still confounds me, and I don’t get it right. But I am working on this. I am grateful to my friend for teaching me this lesson.

    Also, I spent the weekend with your Andrew and Douglas. Loved them!! 

  12. My family never discussed anything. Keep everything to yourself. Good or bad. That’s probably why I detest secrets but so many ways of childhood stay with me. Intellectually I know better, but emotionally, not so much. I did learn perseverance no matter what so I work within those guidelines. Luckily, my oldest daughter knew better to just stick things out but she didn’t confide until everything more or less exploded. But at least better late than never.

  13. For years after a bad break-up in my 20’s, I beat myself up. How could I, a heretofore strong woman who was smart and knew her own mind think she was madly in love with someone who
    wasn’t even nice to me nor even act like he liked me? I thought, “If I did better, or behaved better, or looked better, then he will love me.”

    Fortunately, he moved across the country and finally, finally. I let him and the relationship go. As you said, Grace, I have never regretted it. As a matter of fact, I am thankful.

    Not too long after I became myself again, instead of a weeping, defeated idiot, I happened on an episode of Oprah. I can’t remember what the focus of that particular show was, but I remember hearing Oprah say, “When you knew better, you did better.” I’ve always found that non-judgmental phrase to be forgiving and freeing.

  14. I had a tendency to label myself as lazy because I don’t always get some everything on my TO DO list – or sometimes anything!

    I’ve had people pshaw me and tell me I wasn’t lazy, but I couldn’t hear them over the shouting in my head.

    Them a wise therapist said, “lazy people don’t work so hard to beat themselves up.”

    The right balance of humor and identifying my faulty behavior and thinking did the trick. Now, when I want to label myself lazy, I tell myself it’s too much work! *grins*

  15. So, I’m the oldest child in a Catholic family – I know a little something about the power of guilt and expectations. My husband and I dated for three years, got engaged, got pregnant, and then got married. 🙂 Not ideal timing in my world. Telling my parents about their impending grandparent-hood is still in the 5 worst days of my life. Recently, my mom said to me: “You know, you didn’t do anything your sisters didn’t do. You just had to pay the consequences.” It was like unexpected forgiveness 20 years later for a burden I didn’t even realize I was carrying. I thanked her and we kept doing whatever kitchen task we were chatting over. She was finally ready to say it, and I was finally ready to hear it.

  16. I really like how he framed that advice about your daughter, that was very constructive.

    I like to look up scriptures that talk about how I am fearfully and wonderfully made 🙂 Let’s me know I’m the way I am for a reason.

  17. I have two stories.

    I was in my early twenties, hiking with a group of women in Northern California. One of my dear friends hiking with me was stuck in a miserable relationship: she couldn’t fix it and she apparently couldn’t leave. We were all sitting in the shade, drinking water and snacking on gorp (I never hear that word any more) while Carol described the latest episode in the miserable relationship she was living. In the silence made by Carol’s stopping her monologue to chew and swallow, a white-haired woman hiking with us commented, “You can chop off your finger or you can saw it off.”

    It was a surprising thing to hear, and even more surprising coming from an older woman, but I paid attention to it even more because it came from an older woman and from one who didn’t know either Carol or me and was commenting on the shape of the story rather than its details. I know Carol took it to heart. I’ve remembered it myself over the years. I take it to mean that if you allow yourself to see it, sometimes the end of the relationship is inevitable, but how you conduct that end, and how much pain you put yourself through on the way to the end, is up to you.

    The other instance of words of wisdom that I carry with me was this: I was enduring the ending of a hugely important relationship, and an older woman friend (ah! there’s a pattern here!) told me to let myself cry whenever I want to. I did, and I offered that advice to my friends when they were in similar straits. Then, many years later, when my mother died, I remembered that piece of what seems to me now a kind of mothering. I cried whenever I felt tears coming. It seemed to me that grief came in waves, like labor pains, and that it was a natural, physical process that you just accept and endure, and in my case, it was. The waves eventually stopped rolling over me, and though I still miss my mother, I think my initial grieving for her was made easier by my friend’s advice all those years earlier.