You can get to know a stranger pretty well in six hours — but can you come away knowing yourself better? Maybe. This long night makes me think so.
It was a chance encounter. We were both strangers looking for something — maybe neither of us knew what — when we found each other Saturday night. I was restless and needed to get away from my house. She was frustrated with the people at her house and was escaping them.
It was around 10 p.m. when I got to Whataburger in Trussville. I picked it because it was open all night and because I seem to keep being drawn back there lately, since it’s a place where I used to go all the time. She walked in with a self-assurance that suggested she would own any room she walked into. The place was mostly empty and it wasn’t long before we were chatting, first across a couple of tables and then across my old booth as she joined me there.
Her name is Delaney. She’s a tall blonde woman with blue eyes and she looks as though she would have been at home as a hippie in the ’60s. Some of that was the way she dressed but part of it was the way she carried herself — as though she sees right through everybody and says things others are too polite to say.
There can be a freedom in talking with a stranger, because such a person doesn’t know your past or anything about you other than what you offer. Such a stranger doesn’t know what you said or did a year ago or five years ago. She’s hearing your story for the first time — and she’s not yet tired of hearing why you’re so unhappy.
For a little more than six hours, we had something that was a bit like a joint therapy session. I was her therapist and she was mine. Since this is my story, most of what I’ll tell you here was what we discussed about me — and there were times when she had very strong opinions. Maybe she was right. I can’t say for sure yet.
Delaney is 27 years old. She’s from Connecticut. Her mother still lives there but they are estranged. After college, she moved to Denver to be with a boyfriend and she’s been there ever since. She finished a master’s in psychology and was working on a Ph.D. in psychology when they broke up just before Christmas. It was a difficult breakup and she left school.
Her father lives in Birmingham with his new wife — he was transferred here by his company and married a local woman — and Delaney came here intending to live for awhile as she figures out what she wants. But the situation in their home is difficult and she is trying to decide what to do. She doesn’t like her father and she likes his new wife even less. They had a blowup tonight and she left.
She doesn’t want to go back to their house, but she doesn’t know where else to go — or where she wants to be right now. She’s something of a lost soul since her family is messed up and her relationship broke up. She wants to finish her Ph.D. and become a therapist, but she’s not sure she wants to be in Denver anymore.
So she found herself sitting in an all-night burger joint with me watching the rain and trying to help both of us figure out where life should go from here.
We talked about our families for awhile and compared notes on how childhood issues affect us as adults. We talked a lot about the desire to establish healthy families to become what we never had. And we talked a lot about the romantic relationships we’ve been through. (For her, there was a lot to say about the man she left in Denver just three months ago.)
For me, we talked mostly about two relationships. After awhile, though, she zeroed in on my most recent love. She found it fascinating because she saw it differently than I did. In fact, she thinks I’ve been lying to myself about this woman — and she says she thinks it means I don’t really know what I want.
“Of course I know what I want,” I protested when she said that. She asked me to explain what I wanted and I went into detail about the things I want in a woman — both the outward characteristics and the inner things related to personality, values and desires. When I finished, she pounced.
“And this is why I say you don’t know what you want,” she said. “You have a nice list. You’ve obviously thought about it a lot and you’ve fantasized about a family with that theoretical woman. But is that enough? Everything you just described could have been me. I look like what you say you want and your description of your perfect woman sounded more like me than you know.
“But let me ask you this. What if I asked you to marry me — right now, without knowing more? What would you say?”
It was a hypothetical, not a proposal.
“Obviously, I’d have to say no,” I responded. “I barely know you, so if you were interested in me that way, I’d have to say I would have to get to know you much better — since it’s such a long-term commitment.”
“That would be the right answer, of course,” she said. “But think about this woman. If you had been right about who she was — if you had really known her as you thought you did — she wouldn’t have done what she did, certainly with no explanation. You were wrong about her and you don’t want to admit that to yourself.”
I was torn between defending the woman and figuring out what this had to do with me not knowing what I wanted.
“She didn’t act as a responsible and emotionally healthy woman would act when she loves a man,” Delaney said. “She might have said she loved you. She might have even believed that. I’d be surprised if she really knows how to love in a way that’s not manipulative and selfish.”
I wanted to angrily say that she was wrong about this woman, but I felt too much doubt now to say that. I stayed quiet.
“She doesn’t seem to have the depth that you gave her credit for,” she said. “She sounds very selfish. I’ll bet she’s really dishonest with herself and others, maybe in subtle ways. I think you dodged a bullet by not ending up with her.”
Could I have given this woman too much credit? Had I made excuses for behavior that was inexcusable? I didn’t want to think about that.
“But she said she loved me,” I responded feebly. “She told me to never forget that she wanted me.”
Delaney smiled, but it was more of a smile of empathy than of humor.
“I’m sure she said that,” she said softly. “What else did she tell you that isn’t true?”
By this point, I was confused and frustrated. I’ve had another version of this conversation with a dozen other people. Probably more. In those conversations, people have listened to me describe this woman who would have been perfect as my wife and they’ve sympathized, typically adding the hope that maybe things can be worked out for us.
But this was different. Delaney wasn’t buying any of it. That made me feel uncomfortable, partly because I was starting to think she might be right. Maybe I’ve been in denial.
“I think you still love what she could have been if she had allowed herself,” she said. “But how can you love someone who knows what she’s doing to you and doesn’t even explain — years ago — that she wasn’t going to pursue the relationship you were offering her? I’m sure you see the parallels with your mom. You wanted her to love you and you kept hoping all those years that things would somehow work out, even though she abandoned you. You’re doing the same thing now.”
This wasn’t a new idea to me. It’s something I’d already been thinking about lately, especially as I’ve been processing the feelings related to my mother’s death. I don’t want it to be true. I hate what it says about this woman and I hate what it says about myself, but I’ve considered it.
We went back and forth about this issue for awhile, but it was more of the same. Delaney said she thinks I attached to this woman because something inside knew it was “safe” — because I knew she wouldn’t really give me what she promised. And loving her — and obsessing about her — kept me from finding someone who was emotionally healthy enough to give the love she said she had for me.
But Delaney had one more observation that I didn’t want to hear.
“Do you know what you’re doing?” she asked. “You’re so worried about the things you see as your flaws that you’re essentially deciding nobody is going to want you. You worry about your weight and you worry that a woman young enough to have babies isn’t going to want you anymore. You worry about what the last 10 years have done to your success and you’re humiliated that you aren’t wealthy and powerful.”
I didn’t want to hear that part and I wanted to protest that she was wrong. But I knew she was right. Nobody else had been willing to tell me — and I’ve been too scared to see it on my own. I have so much fear about my shortcomings that I’m terrified I don’t have enough to offer to the sort of woman I want. And I feel shame about that.
“You’re so worried about not being good enough that you almost sound like you’re saying, ‘You wouldn’t really want me, would you?'” she said.
I laughed, but I knew she was right.
“You don’t seem to realize that what you have to offer is more than enough to make up for the things you think are terrible,” she said. “Do you know how many women would kill for a guy who can think and feel and listen the way you do? How many women are miserable because they don’t have someone who knows how to love them?”
In the last few years, all I’ve seen are the flaws in myself. I’ve been alone and unhappy. I’ve felt unwanted. I’ve eaten too much as a way to fill the inner hole, which has made me gain weight and make me feel even more undesirable. I had always seen myself as someone who would be wealthy and successful. It hit me in a very uncomfortable way that I’ve wanted those things back so I would have something to offer to a woman — since I was so worried about my flaws.
I finally started seeing how this connected back to what Delaney had said earlier about me not knowing what I wanted. She didn’t mean I didn’t know what I wanted in a woman. She really meant that I didn’t know what I wanted someone to want in me.
“You want a woman who wants what you have to offer — just as you are,” she said. “What you’ve allowed yourself to pursue is someone who would be image-conscious and you would always fear you weren’t good enough for her. That’s why I said you haven’t known what you wanted. Yeah, you wanted this woman — I think you still love her, even though she’s clearly not enough for you — but you’ve been overlooking the obvious fact that you want someone who can be happy with you as you are. Someone who wants to grow with you and become something with you. I don’t think that’s her.”
We talked about much more — including my need for more authenticity in the people close to me — but I can’t remember some things well enough to make notes about them after the fact. She just left to go get some sleep. I have to do the same thing soon, but I had to get this in writing or I’d never remember later. Writing about it helps me to process what’s been said. (I’m obviously paraphrasing our quotes from tonight as I write this, but I’m being as faithful as I can to our words as spoken.)
There’s a lot about what Delaney said that I didn’t want to hear — about myself and about this woman from a few years ago. (Wait. It’s been almost four years now. Is that possible?) But she’s gone and there’s still nothing I can do about it. Maybe Delaney was right, though. Maybe I never could have done anything about it. Maybe she was destined to back off as soon as I offered her what she said she wanted. Maybe she’s just as confused and dysfunctional about what she needs as I’ve been.
It’s raining harder outside this window right now, but I need to drive home and get some sleep. The sun will be coming up in the next hour or so. (The time change tonight has me a little confused about when that is.)
It’s been a long night. I’m exhausted from helping Delaney work through some of her issues — she’s not going back to the guy in Denver, that’s for sure, and she has to get away from her dysfunctional family — and I’m even more exhausted from having her expose some of my weaknesses and blind spots.
I don’t know how things will look after I’ve had some rest. I’m really, really tired. I’m tired from staying up all night, but I’m even more exhausted from the long-term stress of having unfilled emotional needs. Something has to change. Maybe tonight will be one more step toward change. I have a lot to think about.