When I was in the fifth grade, my first year at a Christian academy, a first-grade girl named Cheryl who used to ride the same bus home seriously took a shine to me. She treated me like a teddy bear, occasionally playing with my hair, hugging me and — most notably — kissing her hand and brushing it up against my cheek. She even often told me that she loved me.
Interestingly enough, now that I think about it, she really did. After reading the book “The Five Love Languages,” I’ve determined that the two that affect me the most are 1) Physical touch; and 2) Words of affirmation.
And that relationship, as irritating and confusing it was to me at the time, affects those I have with women today.
I say this because over the years I’ve often found myself in the role of nurturer, occasionally a father figure, to women, some of whom have told me feel “safe”; I used to consider that an insult because I wasn’t dating much and felt stuck in the “friend zone.” Today, however, I recognize that it brings the kind of responsibility that men need to have in any significant relationship with a woman, including a marriage.
About a decade ago I was attending a certain 12-step recovery meeting — for the sake of anonymity I won’t mention it — and one of the women who tended to dress sexily approached me, clearly wanting some validation from me, so I gave her some verbally. (I learned later that she was coming out of a marriage so trying to hit on her wouldn’t have been appropriate, plus I know from personal experience that such meetings aren’t good places to meet partners for a number of reasons.) Later on I gave her a balloon on which was printed, “To cheer you” — to that, she said, “This is just what I needed!”
Sometimes a woman may need to vent or grieve, not to solve a problem but just to be heard; at other times she may just want to curl up. Although I didn’t always, I do these willingly today without the expectation of gratification.
So what does this have to do with the “inner child?” Everything. Someone pouring her heart to me I now see as a gift — it’s not merely what she has; it’s who she is, and it’s something that I had better not exploit for my selfish purposes. Some women have been abused by significant others or, sadly, parents, and I don’t need to compound their trauma. It’s where the tender side of a man needs to come out.
Maintaining those boundaries has helped me quite a bit, especially of late. In the fall of 2014 I began learning West Coast Swing, and many of my partners are young enough to be daughters if I had children; as I wrote in an essay the next year, “It’s a lot like dancing with siblings.” In turn, they often give me energy, and I often leave a session feeling satisfied.
Even when I’m in a relationship, I remember the 6-year-old part of my partner — the part I really need to honor most.