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Confessions of an Infidel

Finding love, faith, and healing in a faithless world

hard to forget

Love is not an emotion

I know it doesn’t make sense. I know for myself that I have, on more than one occasion, confessed to having “feelings” for someone. Love is certainly something one feels, and quite intensely, but that doesn’t mean it’s an emotion. Not, at least, as Karla McKlaren describes it in her book The Language of Emotions.

“When an emotion is healthy, it arises only when it’s needed, it shifts and changes in response to its environment, and it recedes willingly once it has addressed an issue. When love is healthy, it does none of these things. If emotions repeat themselves endlessly, or appear with the same exact intensity over and over again, then something’s wrong. Yet real love is a steadfast promise that repeats itself endlessly through life and beyond death. Love does not increase or decrease in response to its environment, it does not change with the changing winds. Love is not an emotion; it doesn’t behave the way emotions do. Real love is in a category of its own.

(For more on what love is not, and why, for many, relationships do not work, stay tuned to this blog.)

“Those things we’ve learned to equate with love–the longing, the physical attraction, the shared hobbies, the desire, the yearning, the lust, the projections, the addictive cycles, the passions–those things move and change and fluctuate in the way emotions do, but they’re not love. Love is utterly stable and utterly unaffected by any emotion. When we love truly, we can experience all of our … emotions (including fear, rage, hatred, grief, or shame), while continuing to love and honor our loved ones. Love isn’t the opposite of fear or anger or any other emotion. Love is much, much deeper than that.

“For some people, love is merely adoration, which is a form of good shadow projection. These people find the person who best typifies their unlived shadow material–good and bad–and live in a sort of trance with them. Though I wouldn’t call that sad game “love” it’s what passes for love in many relationships: you find someone who can act out your unlived material, attach yourself to them, and enter into a haunted carnival ride of moods and desires. When the projections fall and you see your adoration target for who he or she truly is, you become disillusioned and try to reattach your projections, or even seek another person to project onto. But that’s not love, because real love doesn’t play games with other people’s souls, and it doesn’t depend upon what you can project onto your partner or what you can get out of the relationship. Real love is a prayer and a deathless promise: an unwavering dedication to the soul of your loved one and to the soul of the world. Emotions and desires can come and go as they please, and circumstances can change in startling ways, but real love never wavers. Real love endures all emotions, and it survives trauma, betrayal, divorce, and even death.”

So then… What is love? That is…what is the recipe for finding it?

There are many forms of love, of course. Those we attach to our friends, our parents, our children, our pets… These are many and varied and intense and critical in their own ways, but that which we feel for a chosen other, that special “one”, our found and essential “soul mate” is something apart from these.

Romantic love is made up of different things. Companionate love includes those feelings rooted in friendship, companionship, and togetherness. Compassionate love is one that is focused on the nurturing and care of another. Erotic love is that lustful side of things, where the physical aspect of the relationship is the center of focus. Passionate love is that euphoric, obsessive state of things, that unique and oh-so-hard-to-find “oneness” we feel that words are scarcely able to describe. Most romantic relationships are made up of more than one of these, certainly, But a series of studies conducted by Ellen Berscheid and Sarah Myers found that the difference between loving someone and being in love with them came down to two key characteristics: That of “liking” combined with “lust”. Liking combines the companionate and compassionate aspects of love together with the erotic and passionate. Therefore, it seems, true love, the kind that lasts, is essentially quaternal–wholistic–in nature. It is friendship and tender care and physical chemistry and passion. It is all and everything! And because it is everything, when it is properly maintained and balanced, it is far more likely to endure. This wholehearted love is the sort that makes the dreaded word “commitment” more synonymous with “devotion” than “obligation”. It makes us desperate to preserve it, to take risks and to overcome our worst fears. We have no choice. That inner voice inside our hearts pulls us onward despite ourselves.

Love, you see, is not an emotion because it is more powerful than any emotion.  It is more powerful than fear, than anger, than jealousy (which emotion some say is an necessary to bonding and attachment). Love feeds us the answers to the empty parts of our very souls, it is that greatest connection between two people, a connection that, once experienced, cannot be lived without. It makes us do things, risk things, open ourselves up in ways we may have believed we never could or wanted to–in ways, in fact, we may have done everything to avoid. But the Universe knows better. It knows what we need and how to fill those empty places within us. And, more than that, that those empty places must be filled! The Universe will make sure of that, for it knows, as we in our innermost parts have always know, that once that sort of connection has been experienced, however terrifying and bewildering and excruciating it might be, we cannot live without it. Would you really want to?

I don’t.

 

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Initiations

My father was eleven years older than my mother. His own parents were both dead by the time he was three or four. He doesn’t remember them, and I’ve always felt that hole where loving grandparents should have been. The couple who adopted him, who I knew as my Nana and Grandpa, were not kind parents and they were not warm and loving grandparents. I hardly knew them, though I saw them often enough. They shared nothing of their lives or themselves with me and there was no bond there, only a regret, when they died, that they did not care enough to love me or to love my father.

My mother was raised by loving parents, though my grandmother, even in the early days of their marriage, wore the pants in the family. My grandfather was a true nurturer. My grandmother was more than proficient in everything she did, but she was not the warm and cuddly type, though I knew she loved me very much. Somehow, despite her emotional distance, she conveyed that to me quite clearly. She had lost two children of her own, three if you count the still born she gave birth to in a workplace bathroom, and that heartache never left her. It was like a pall that rested over the entire family. My mother’s sister left behind three young children when she died a year before I was born. One of these, my cousins, is one of my dearest friends. Another haunts my worst nightmares. Without a shadow of a doubt I know my mother believed she was delivering me to safety when she took me to my grandparents house. Of all the men in my life, I can count on one hand those who have truly loved me. My grandfather was one, and though he died many years ago, the loss of him still hangs heavy on my heart. My father was so injured a child that he grew to be an injured adult. I know he loved me, but it was a cold, protected, removed sort of love. My grandfather had no such reserves. He was warm and kind and generous with his time. He made us candy on our holidays and we rented movies together and watched them for hours. Once a year, twice if they were lucky, they would manage to wrest my cousins from their controlling stepmother and we would have lovely  holidays together. Sometimes we would go camping, but the best times were when we stayed close to home and ate and watched tv together and roamed the acres of wooded land, whereon was a turn-of-the century garbage dump, complete with a model t-ford and antique bottles, bits of china, and rare and curious rocks and seashells. On those special evenings together my grandfather would bring out the old slides and movie reels and we would see rare and precious pictures of our deceased aunt, and we would wallow in the pain of her loss, seeing it through the eyes and hearts of her parents and children. We, my sister and I, were on the sidelines of that pain, not having experienced it first hand, but we felt the tragedy of it all the same. Without those evenings, those motherless children might never have known anything at all of their mother. Their stepmother would rather she had never existed, that with her death all traces of her life had disappeared. My grandfather refused it to be so.

I don’t know what happened to my cousins during their childhood. I know they suffered greatly for the loss of their mother, but there must have been some greater trauma still. I know that the eldest has grown to be a good and honorable and respectable man, whom I admire greatly. The youngest has ever been one of my best friends, and with her I have grown especially close during my recent difficulties, and during my stay with my father we spent a lot of time together. I love her dearly and I hope she knows what an amazing woman she is and how essential a role she played in my life.

The other brother, however… If my time with my grandparents and cousins was idyllic in every other way, it was hellish in one. He could not, would not keep his hands off of me. He had no use for me, no time for me unless it was to fulfill some perverted, self-fulfilling agenda. It was he who taught me to distrust men, to be cynical of sex, and to see all people as potential threats. Perhaps if my father had not been so broken, if he had been able to love me better, I would not have tolerated the attention of my cousin. My sister, whose relationship with my father was very different, was, for the most part, able to resist my cousin’s advances. I had no such self-esteem or sense of a right to assert myself for my own self-protection. For eight, perhaps ten, years of my childhood I tolerated it.

It was my best friend who saved me. She and her family. When, in my early teens, my img_7650parents’ marriage fell apart, her family took me in. I didn’t quite live there, but they certainly made me feel as one of the family. They brought me into their hearts, taught me their faith, and gave me the love I had been missing. And with that strength, I finally found the courage to say ‘no’ to the abuse. A one word sentence that requires no further explanation or justification. Simply…”no.” And it was done.

In amazing book The Language of Emotions, author and empathic counselor Karla McLaren refers to the words of mythologist, author and storyteller, Michael Meade who refers to sexual abuse as a sort of initiation “done at the wrong time, in the wrong way, by the wrong person, with the wrong intent-but nevertheless, it is an initiation; it’s a separation from the regular world, and a wounding that changes the initiate forever.”

This is rather a profound way of looking at it, but I cannot resist doing so, nor exploring the idea further as it relates to all traumatic experience, as Ms. McLaren (citing, once again, Michael Meade’s assertions) does in her life-altering book.

“Tribal initiations are performed as a way to guide tribe members through life’s transitions. Rituals and ceremonies guide tribe members from conception through birth, from birth into childhood, from adolescence into adulthood, from marriage and mating into elderhood, and from elderhood into death and ancestral status. Many tribal societies create a container and a foundation from which all growth and transition can be understood and overseen.”

Typically, explains Meade, an initiation ceremony consists of three stages:

  1. Isolation or separation from ones normal understanding of the world and the society in which we have been nurtured and indoctrinated.
  2. The experience of some great ordeal from which we have overcome great danger, perhaps even a brush with death.
  3. Recognition and welcome back into our social sphere as an initiate.

McLaren from here explains that traumatic injury, particularly that which we experience in childhood, is a kind of initiation ceremony since the movements within it represent the first two stages of initiation. With some key differences (besides the spiritual and ceremonial.)

“In tribal initiation, stage one is a organized, expected removal from the parents and the everyday patterns of the tribe. Tribal children are brought up to expect initiation; they and their families prepare for it and are fully aware of its presence in their lives. In trauma, however, there is no preparation. Traumatic stage one is a disorganized removal from the known world–a sudden, shocking and wholly unexpected end to normalcy.”

“Tribal stage two is an organized ordeal… The walkabouts…occur on tribal lands where trackers abound; the scarring and ornamentations are usually performed by adults who have a certain expertise at what they do; and the ordeal has a definite end-point, which the initiates are aware of on some level. In trauma, there is no organization to the ordeal and no promise of an end. Traumatic stage two is the out-of-control moment of the assault-the beating, the yelling, the unwelcome touch that separates spirit from body…”

Traumatic injury has no third stage. There is no celebration, no welcome party to safely enfold the initiate back into the warm embrace of the community. There is no one to prepare the initiate for the new reality that is their life to come.

Even in tribal cultures, without the third stage, the initiate has not completed their transformation. The initiate must, therefore, repeat stages one and two again and again until all three stages are complete. It is the same for the human psyche. We relive our traumas again and again because we have not completed our initiation, we don’t know what to do with or how to  use our pain. Society teaches us from an early age that anger and sorrow and fear are bad emotions and we must avoid them at all costs. But what if those emotions–unpleasant though they may be–were exactly the shamans that led us back to healing?

Our emotions, each of them, have a purpose, and a purpose we cannot and should not ignore. Anger allows us to establish and maintain boundaries. Sorrow allows our emotions to flow, it helps us let go of what isn’t working in our lives and to rejuvenate our psyches. Fear makes us aware of the dangers around us and prepares to receive the “heart-knowing” wisdom intuition brings. The wonderful thing about emotions is they know what we need, and one of their primary functions is to communicate that to us. Only we are rarely prepared to listen. But avoiding our emotions doesn’t keep them at bay, rather, like water behind a dam, they build up and come rushing at us, overwhelming us in unexpected moments. To prevent this, we often become dissociated, living half-lives where we feel nothing, not the good or the “bad”, because emotions don’t make themselves available to pick and choose from like food at an all-you-can-eat buffet. You welcome them, all of them, or you learn to shut them down…all of them. And that simply isn’t healthy. What it forces us to do is live and relive our traumas over and over and over again, repeating the brutality, either upon ourselves (internally) or (externally) upon others. Such dissociating behaviors make it difficult for us to function effectively in our lives. We learn, instead, to embrace “neuroses”, those paralytic, self-destructive behaviors that stunt our personal growth, shielding us under the protective umbrella of “I can’t”.

One of the problems we have in traditional therapeutic psychiatry is that trauma is approached from a perspective of individual tragedy, rather than a societal or cultural (even multi-cultural) phenomenon. How many others do you suppose are out there, suffering, as you are? Do you know that the statistic for reported sexual assaults is one in three women? That’s the number of reported assaults! And that’s only for one type of traumatic experience. Certainly we have all been traumatized in some way. The problem is that not enough of us are embracing our emotions. We alienate the inconvenient and unpopular parts of our psyches in favor of what the collective majority considers acceptable–the tangible and the logical.

A well balanced psyche, McLaren explains, consists of the physical, the spiritual, the emotional and the logical. But, in our society, logic is favored over emotion, and physical over spiritual, even though only about two thirds to three quarters of any given population uses sensing (physical) and rational (logic) as their chief cognitive functions. What about the idealists among us, those who use the fiery, visionary parts of our minds to make decisions, or those, like me, who rely on their emotions to guide them safely through life? That’s a lot of people we are discounting. It’s a large part of ourselves we are discounting, too, since no one can function in a balanced and fully-resourced way when we are shunning half of our psyches in favor of a more “acceptable” self.

I’ll discuss more about balancing later, but for this post I simply want to leave you with the idea that you are not alien in your trauma (there are too many of us for that). You are not alone and you are not broken. What you are is unhealed, and healing comes when we stop demonizing our emotions and embrace them as the harbingers of wholeness and recovery. While our traumas have caused us much pain and anguish, have disrupted the flow of our lives, we must also consider that they have brought us great learning and wisdom, and by embracing this, and by embracing the full village of emotions we contain within us, we pass from stages one and two into stage three of initiation. It is a beautiful process which brings clarity, understanding, and self-acceptance. But it is not an easy process. It is full of its own kind of chaos. This understanding alone,that the tumult within me was part of the healing, has made the journey to wholeness and recovery so much easier to bear.

Quoting McLaren once again: “With full-bodied understanding of the situation,…” (using the physical psyche through work, the logical through study, the emotional through acceptance of our emotions, the visionary through trust in our intuition and connection with the divine) “…we won’t attempt to erase those disruptive responses; instead, we’ll follow their tracks to the heart of the trouble. When we can do that, the symptoms will decrease naturally, because they will have been heard and attended to in a fully resourced way. We’ll be able to break the trance-like cycling between stages one and two and move decidedly and triumphantly to stage three. No matter how the trauma began, the end will be beautiful.

“This beautiful movement is not any kind of avoidance technique. It is also not an antiseptic or dainty process; it’s an oceanic (emotions=water), fiery (visionary=fire), muddy (physical=earth), windblown (logic=air) process that creates not mere survivors, but fully initiated soul warriors. This is why it is so unusual in our culture; it doesn’t look or sound like what we call healing. It isn’t peaceful, anesthetized, or predictable. This movement to stage three is a vibrant and utterly singular process which is why our access to the full village inside us is so vital to the outcome. When the psyche is moving out of the fist two sages of dissociation and trauma it shakes and jerks and kicks…just as animals do when they come back from dissociative trauma.”

“The first emotions that usually arise when people begin healing…are the various mood states of anger and fear. …When fear arises in any of its mood stages–as fear, worry, anxiety, confusion, panic or terror–it signals that new instincts are flowing into the psyche. The channeling task for fear  is to make conscious movements that restore a sense of focus, resiliency, resourcefulness, and intuition.”

It’s easier said than done, I know. I’ve been inside that struggle a multitude of times. But that space, that frightening, disorienting, soul-crushing place where you are reliving your trauma, where you are abasing yourself for the tumult of emotions that are bearing down upon you and which you cannot control and you feel you are only regressing, locked into your own emotional and psychological tail-spinning of self-loathing and doubt and you cannot see a way out of it, know this: your psyche is healing itself if you’ll only let it. Your anger is setting boundaries, your fear is scanning the scenery for new paths to take in place of the unhealthy patterns you are doing away with, your sorrow is letting go of that which doesn’t work for you, and when, at long last the process is over, (and it will end!) you will come away a full initiate, a soul-warrior, of the walkabout that the Universe chose as yours, but never yours alone.

Carl Jung’s words helped me a lot during a time when I felt locked into my own uncertainty and confusion. “When we must deal with problems, we instinctively resist trying the way that leads through obscurity and darkness. We wish to hear only of unequivocal results, and completely forget that these results can only be brought about when we have ventured into and emerged again from the darkness.”

The end will be beautiful. It will be messy, and chaotic, and excruciating at times… but it will be beautiful. So love your emotions. Welcome them as favored and honored guests, as necessary sentinels guiding you towards wholeness. Because that is what they are. I welcome you, initiate, to finish the journey already begun. It’s scary, but just think, everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear. It’s true. I know. I’ve been there. I am there still. And I am sharing my journey with you, my tribesmen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Dance

I met him at a college dance. I had gone with some friends from the design program and we were dancing together, the three or four of us, enjoying ourselves and our singlehood. It was a private, religious based school, and the pressure to get married was high. I felt it. The fact that my peers felt it was evidenced in the dwindling number of single people I knew and socialized with. Even my best friend, with whom I’d come to school, and without whom I’d never had the courage to leave home, had married last Christmas. I wanted it too. I wanted the safety and security, the love and companionship I thought such a commitment would guarantee me.

And so, when he interrupted our happy circle to reacquaint himself with one of my friends, I took great interest. He had known my friend before, having lived for a short time in the suburban town from which she had come, a couple thousand miles away. He was good-looking, polite, gentlemanly, and when my friend introduced him to me, he looked at me as if he actually saw me. It was nothing like the usual, hungry, assessing (and oft-times disapproving) looks I got from men. His gaze did not sweep the length of my too tall and angular frame, but held my own. He looked me in the eye and smiled. I smiled in return and accepted his invitation to dance.

It was a slow dance. We talked easily, laughed a lot. He danced well, though I struggled to follow him, trying to anticipate where he would go next, and struggling, in my uncertainty, not to  lead him instead. I enjoyed it nevertheless, and when the song ended, I hoped he’d ask me again. He didn’t. I inquired of my friend about him and she offered to set us up on a date. It was an offer I eagerly accepted.

Our first date was on Valentine’s day. He made a heart shaped brownie with berries and ice cream on top. He was thoughtful and sensitive. He was also a little awkward, which I found endearing. Here was no Casanova, spinning silken words I was never likely to believe. He was genuine, honest, and unassuming. I liked him. We had dinner and talked, then went for a drive so that we could talk more privately, more intimately about our lives.

It was when he shared with me the story of how his sister had been assaulted and had consequently born a child as a teenager that I knew I could trust him. I had a secret of my own, though the consequences had been more psychological than procreative. He loved his sister dearly and in spite of the embarrassment her situation might have caused him, and apparently did cause others of his family. I felt it brave of him to share that story with me. I’m not sure even now why he thought to do it. Maybe he wanted to know if he could trust me. But I knew then, at that moment, that I could trust him.

When the date ended, I knew I wanted to see him again. I’m not a patient person, and when I want something, I go for it. I didn’t wait for him to ask me out a second time. I asked him. A band I liked was playing locally, and I wanted to see them. He hemmed and hawed at first, but at last agreed to go with me. Before that date ended, he asked me out again. The band was playing a second show. We went and had a wonderful time. But then he disappeared. It was harder to chase a guy down in the early 90’s. There were no cell phones, no internet, which probably has a lot to do with why he reappeared when and how he did.  A month or two went by and I had given up on him. I had decided to go to school abroad, to pursue my dream of living in England. I had walked to the college administration building to mail my letter, and on the way back, I ran into him. He had no explanation for why he had disappeared (though I understand it quite clearly now). Our meeting seemed to him propitious. He thought we ought to meet again. He came over to my house later that day and we had a lovely conversation. With that encouragement, I began to pursue again. Within a month he moved to another state. Eventually he came back to visit, and we began seeing each other again, though mostly on long distance terms now, I seeing him every other weekend, when he made the four hour drive (presuming the weather was good) to see me.

And that was how it went, for the most part. Me leaning forward and him running away. Me backing off, growing comfortable again in my own space, and he reappearing. As long as I wasn’t leading the dance, he was happy to keep dancing. When I gave up trying to direct the relationship along my own course, he was happy to take me anywhere I wanted to go. Almost. For he had reservations about love and intimacy (which I’ll save for another post.) Reservations, as it so happened, that I shared. We were a good team then.

The inability to recognize the natural push and pull of masculine and feminine energy sabotages a lot of potentially great relationships. There are a lot of these misunderstandings, in fact, and I’ll discuss these in more depth in the coming weeks. (Misunderstandings which include men v. women’s differing views on commitment, sex, and emotional needs, to name a few. [links to come])

Women generally struggle in society to know how to behave in order to get what they want and need out of life. We often feel powerless and unheard when it comes to getting what we need from the men who repair our cars and homes, who employ us, who try to sell us products we may or may not want. We often feel we need to be bold and assertive to survive. And sometime we do. In a relationship, however, unless the man is a “feminine energy” sort of man and you are comfortable wearing the hat of the leader (and sometimes this dynamic does work) then a man wants you simply to enjoy the ride, to enjoy him. He takes pleasure in pleasing you and making you happy. And while he may know very early on in the relationship, perhaps even during the first date or two, if you could be relationship material, it very well may take him a long time to be ready for the sort of commitment. Too often we get impatient, feel insecure, or feel pressured by timelines (which only exist in our own heads) and so we begin pushing and prodding him to do it our way, in our time, on our schedules, and according to our agendas. That doesn’t mean we can’t have exactly what we want from the relationship. We can! But we don’t do it by steering him in which direction and how quickly we feel the relationship should progress.

In fact, getting what we want from a relationship has far more to do with where we are than where he is. Any man can be inspired, even taught, to “dance”. If we are the women we want to be, we will often find that we are the very women men want as well. If we are happy and confident in our own lives, men will be drawn to that. They will want to be a part of it, to share in what we have. And while a man loves the idea of making us happy, he does not want the responsibility inherent in our being unhappy. It isn’t his responsibility to make us what we are not. It isn’t anyone’s responsibility but our own.

So how do we move a relationship forward that seems to be stagnating? We do it by communicating and trusting our own boundaries, and by respecting his as well. If he hasn’t said it’s an exclusive, committed relationship, even if it looks that way to you (sex, living together, meeting his family, none of these indicate to a man what they do to us about commitment) then don’t assume it is. We inspire him to move toward us when we are comfortable in our emotions and making him feel safe enough to share his. We do it by showing our appreciation and admiration for him, by never being too available. By having our own lives and living them with joy. When we expect the best for ourselves, oftentimes the men in our lives will rise to that expectation.

Over-functioning is a bad habit many women bring into a relationship. Men may enjoy a woman who is willing to bend and shape herself into anything a he might believe he wants…for a time. And yes, if a man can have it easy (uncommitted sex, free housekeeping and custom catering) he’ll take it, but that doesn’t mean it’s what he really wants. It’s not what he needs, and it’s certainly not in your best interest to give what he hasn’t earned. In fact men tend to feel obligated by gifts and they often distrust a woman who will sleep with him too soon. He knows you don’t really know him, and while he wants it (and he’s not a pig for wanting it; it’s biological) it doesn’t mean you’ll earn anything for giving it to him. While women often feel bonded to those we sleep with, men’s physiology doesn’t work the same way. Making a man feel obligated might win him for a little while, but it is far more likely to foster resentment than love. Leaning forward always makes a man feel the need to lean away.

What does leaning forward look like? It is any time we are giving too much of ourselves in order to get more of him. We lean forward when we call him or text him too often, when we initiate contact, when we give too much of ourselves, or of the things we can buy him or do for him. It’s when we complain that the relationship is moving too slowly, or even when we don’t agree with a decision he’s made, however small. It’s when we do anything at all that violates our own boundaries for the sake of his “happiness.” A man isn’t truly happy who doesn’t have to work for the relationship he’s in. We each of us value more anything we have to earn. And men want to feel inspired, bettered by the woman they are with.

So what do we do instead? We relax. We just be. We find balance and peace within ourselves. We show appreciation for the pleasing things he does for us. We be the fabulous, beautiful creatures we are. And if we believe that of ourselves, so will he.

Of course it’s all more complicated than I could possibly hope to explain in one blog post. There will be others to follow, so stay tuned. In the meantime, please visit my library to learn more about the subjects covered here. My Pinterest also has links to books, articles, and inspirational quotes and materials you might find helpful and…er..inspiring. For more information on relationships and the concept of “masculine” and “feminine energy” and what it means to “lean forward” in a relationship and why you should never do it, (and what to do instead) I strongly encourage you to explore the work of Rori Raye. Her newsletters are free, and while she does charge for her programs and ebooks, they are well worth the money.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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