This morning, I was thinking about how much easier it is these days to ask for what I want—from my husband, my friends, my professional relationships—even strangers, such as when I have a particularly complex food or beverage order (thank you, Starbucks). Nowadays, it’s OK to make like Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally, and be as particular as we want in the precision of our preferences. Today, it feels a lot safer to be picky, and for some of us, it’s even a badge of honor, or a symbol of recognition and secretly-nurtured special status when the barista remembers that we like a half-caf skinny latte with four pumps and whip cream (not really, but I’ve heard others order such things. My taste in coffee, like clothes, runs more toward basic black).
Anyway, back to asking for—and sometimes getting—what we want. This used to be an activity fraught with danger and anxiety for me. There were so many levels to my fears and lack of confidence that I believed I neither deserved nor could remotely expect to have my desires honored, so much so that I was loathe to even ask. Asking for something specific, or even simply acknowledging my preferences was a very risky business for me. In my family, having opinions other than my mother’s or preferences she didn’t share was a complete non-starter. So I learned not to express my renegade thoughts, and eventually, I wasn’t even aware I had them anymore. Tough stuff. Reminds me a bit of the conditioning of the Psy into Silence in Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling series. But, I’m straying off the path again. Need to snap that rubber band around my wrist, apparently.
So, asking for what I want and need by no means comes naturally to me. In fact, it took years to excavate first the fact that I might actually want different things than those who loved me (“love” being a subjective term in this case, but we can discuss the consequences of toxic “love” at another time), and then even longer to have the courage to tell anyone about it.
And, interestingly, all of these fairly deep ruminations were dredged up as I read about Elena and Raphael in the Guild Hunter Series by Nalini Singh. One of the reasons I love these books is the way Singh develops the relationship between a mortal woman and a millennia-old archangel who basically rules the world. The books are essentially about the power of authentic love to transform us, and what that transformation looks like. So that is one very thought-provoking element that we’ll explore later. The other part of this, though, is how well Singh is able to illustrate the strength it takes to fight for ourselves in a relationship that threatens to overwhelm us. And the courage that is reflected in the risks we take to stand our ground in asking for—repeatedly if necessary—what we need and what we want to make a relationship work.
As it often is in fiction, this situation is magnified by the circumstances in the novel so that we can better examine it. In the case of Elena and Raphael, we are watching two inherently unequal beings trying to forge a partnership based on mutual respect, mutual sacrifice, and mutual benefit. That is a fairly tall order in this situation. Raphael has never been human. He is thousands of years old, and he is one of the ten most powerful beings in the world. This is not a guy used to hearing the word “no”. This is a common theme in paranormal fiction, where the concept of the alpha male who is powerful, rich, highly intelligent and gorgeous is redefined by supernatural abilities, including flight, superhuman strength, mind reading, mesmerizing, etc., which enhance the package.
How would it be possible for a woman to hold her own in such a relationship? How can she stand up to someone when a part of her just wants to melt into him completely? How does the person who is, or feels, one down in the relationship stand eye to eye with the other?
I don’t know about you, but I can totally relate to this. There have been so many occasions where I looked over at the person next to me, or across from me—and this includes friends, lovers, and professional colleague—and thought to myself, “I am totally outclassed. This person is way out of my league,” at which point, every instinct I have urges me to make myself small and insignificant and to elevate this other person to Godhood so that I can merely follow his or her every lead. Disagree? Point out that he or she is wrong about something? Ask for something I need that this individual has not deigned to give me unbidden? Are you nuts? And risk becoming an object of pity, derision or wrath? Or, most frightening of all, of becoming completely and totally invisible and ignored? NFW. Not happening. What if the person thinks I’m stupid, or crazy or too demanding or simply too much trouble? What if he decides that I’m too annoying, like a fly that repeatedly lands on your arm. We tend to swat flies away, or kill them outright. Who would want to be that fly? Not me, that’s for sure.
Given all of these painful perceptions (that may or may not reflect reality in any way, mind you) the thought of standing up for myself in certain relationships inspired tremendous fear. Especially in love relationships. Because what happens if we ask for something and we don’t get it? Do we leave? Do we threaten to leave? Do we stay and nurture a resentment? It is in the asking that we take the leap. Which is hard enough. But, as I’ve quoted elsewhere, in the inimitable words of J.R. Ward, the leap isn’t the hard part, it’s the fall that will kill you.
What if we fall? Will we be irreparably broken? Will the relationship that we risked ruining by asking for what we want or need be damaged for good? And what happens then?
This is hard shit. Don’t kid yourself. And sometimes, it’s a leap too far. But it’s important to ask ourselves, what is it we really want or desperately need that we’re too afraid to ask for? Even if we’re just asking ourselves, it’s still a scary question.