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What tap dancing and red dresses taught me about handling change

What tap dancing and red dresses taught me about handling change

Austin Photo Set: News_Christina_tap and red dress_march 2012_holding hands
The key is to give each other permission to change and to be supportive; but decisions should be made as a team and not unilaterally and the party initiating the change should take into consideration the impact the change will have on the other.
Austin Photo Set: News_Christina_tap and red dress_march 2012_new years
Terrence and Melorie on New Years Eve.
Austin Photo Set: News_Christina_tap and red dress_march 2012_holding hands
Austin Photo Set: News_Christina_tap and red dress_march 2012_new years

“You’ve changed.”

If you’re hearing this from your significant other, chances are it’s not meant as a compliment. (And you’re probably not taking it as one, either.)

Until recently, that made sense to me. After all, the notion that you should be able to trust that what you see is what you get when it comes to your relationship seems only fair. And when it comes to things you can’t see, it’s reasonable to expect some truth in advertising. While the vow might be “for better or for worse,” I’ve always assumed that referred to things you can’t control, like health problems or losing your job, rather than elective decisions, like brushing your teeth and showering.

For example, let’s say when you first met your ex-boyfriend he told you he was on his way to becoming a high school math teacher and that he was only working at Thundercloud Subs and living with his mom while he went back to school and finished his degree. Then after he moved out of his mom’s house and into yours, his best friend let it slip that he could never get hired as a teacher since he had that whole felony conviction thing in ’08.  

Well, if that made you mad enough to herd him and his entire cha-cha-cha Chia Pet collection out the door and back over to his mom’s house, you don’t need to explain yourself to me. I get it.

But what about cases that don’t involve some sort of failure to disclose or an attempt to pretend to be someone you’re not? I always thought the issue of change was best decided by applying the Red Dress Rule that my sister Angela explained to me a long time ago. 

 If you were attracted to your significant other because he was Mr. Dependable — the original Steady Eddie — you can’t complain later because you now think he’s boring for the very same reason.

“If you buy a red dress, you can’t later be mad that it’s not a blue dress.”

In other words, you can’t fault a person for being the same as he always has been. If you were attracted to your significant other because he was Mr. Dependable — the original Steady Eddie — you can’t complain later because you now think he’s boring for the very same reason. And on the other end of the character spectrum, if you married a guy knowing that he was a pathological liar and a serial cheater, the Red Dress Rule prohibits you from feigning surprise when you discover fresh evidence that he’s a lying cheat.

But what if your significant other wants to do something radically different than what you two had originally planned? Take Brad and Samantha, for example. They had both agreed that Samantha would pay all the bills while Brad went to law school, and then Samantha would be a stay-at-home mom while Brad supported the family with his big fat lawyer salary. But ten years and three kids later, Brad decided he hated practicing law and wanted to remodel their garage into a recording studio and teach himself how to play the guitar. 

In situations like this, I always thought that the Red Dress Rule meant that Brad was stuck with the deal they originally cut. They both agreed on the red dress. It’s not fair for Brad to try to redesign the red dress into a vibrant orange Hawaiian shirt and try to force Samantha to wear it. Samantha hates Hawaiian shirts and vibrant orange isn't her color. But meeting Melorie and Terrence Bennett a few months ago made me rethink my interpretation of the Red Dress Rule.

It was New Year’s Eve and Clint and I had stopped by House Wine for dessert and a glass of wine. (Extra points if you can guess who ordered which.) We were sitting out on the side porch when Terrence and Melorie struck up a conversation with us. They had recently moved from Atlanta and were still getting to know Austin. While Terrence and Clint were talking about sports, I asked Melorie what they did for a living.

“Well, Terrence tap dances—“

“Oh, I totally know what you mean. I often say how I juggle for a living,” I interrupted, tossing a few imaginary bean bags up in the air for emphasis.

Melorie kept going. “He also has a business where he sells custom floors specifically for tap dancing. And he does some substitute teaching at some of the dance schools around town,” she finished.

That’s when I realized she wasn’t speaking metaphorically. Terrence actually tap dances for a living. As in, Terrence’s tap dancing helps put food on the table at the Bennett household. It’s not every day you meet someone who tap dances for a living. In fact, this was a first for me.

And while I don’t know anything about tap dancing, I know from watching my eleven year old daughter work her tail off at Ballet Austin for the past eight years that developing anything approaching professional-level skill in dance usually requires starting young. So, I assumed that when Melorie met Terrence, he had already been tap dancing for years. For the second time in as many minutes, my assumption was wrong.  

When Melorie met Terrence, he was a twenty year old college student majoring in accounting and had only been taking tap dancing lessons for a couple of months. He had signed up for classes on a whim when he had taken his little sister to her dance class and saw that the studio offered a beginner tap dancing class for adults. Tap dancing was a hobby. He enjoyed it, but it certainly wasn’t something he planned on doing for a living.

 You can either choose to see it as an adventure that the two of you are going to handle together, or you can let the challenge divide you so that you’re battling both the challenge and each other at the same time. 

When they got married a couple of years later, they both expected that his career would be in accounting. And after he graduated and got an accounting job making good money, it looked like he was on track to do exactly that. Then two things happened that changed everything: 1. He discovered he hated being an accountant; 2. He realized he wanted tap dancing to be more than a hobby.

According to my interpretation of the Red Dress Rule, Melorie could have said, “Forget it. I’m out. I married an accountant, not a tap dancer.“ But she didn’t. She was down for the adventure. And it was more important to her to be married to a happy Terrence than a miserable accountant. 

A couple of years later the tables would turn and Terrence would get his turn to be supportive of Melorie’s change of heart when it came to her career choice. The corporate job she had taken after graduating from college wasn’t at all what she wanted to do with her life. She wanted instead to be her own boss and work from home. Walking away from a steady pay check at that point in time was hard for both of them. But Terrence wanted Melorie to be happy, too. 

Ten years and two kids later, Terrence and Melorie seem ridiculously happy. They have one great story after another of things that have happened to them over the course of their ten years together. Funny stories like when they first met at Office Depot. Sad stories like when Melorie’s dad passed away unexpectedly after they had only been married for a month and a half. Scary stories like the Christmas they rented a cabin in the mountains but then got snowed in and almost ran out of formula and diapers for the baby and — scarier still — rum for the grown-ups. 

When they tell these stories, they laugh a lot and finish each other’s sentences. You’re left with the impression that there’s nothing the two of them can’t handle — as long as they’re operating as a team.   

And when the conversation turned to relationships generally, Melorie and Terrence said they believe when challenging things happen, you have two options: You can either choose to see it as an adventure that the two of you are going to handle together, or you can let the challenge divide you so that you’re battling both the challenge and each other at the same time. 

When you handle things like a team, working through those challenges ends up being the glue that makes your relationship stronger. You get to the point that you couldn’t imagine taking on a challenge without your right hand man or go-to girl. But if you bail on the relationship when the going gets tough, your relationship never gets to the next level.

It occurred to me that my interpretation of the Red Dress rule was too superficial. That if you didn’t give your significant other the room to change and grow over the course of your lives together, you sentenced yourselves to the relationship equivalent of bound feet. After all, it isn’t reasonable to insist that both of you wear the same clothes you were wearing when you met each other for the rest of your lives.

The key is to give each other permission to change and to be supportive; but decisions should be made as a team and not unilaterally and the party initiating the change should take into consideration the impact the change will have on the other. So, thirty-five year old Brad up and quitting his job after unilaterally deciding he’d rather sit in the garage and play his guitar all day, leaving Samantha scrambling around trying to borrow money from relatives so she could feed their three kids?  Not cool.

But twenty-three year old Terrence figuring out he hated his job, talking things over with Melorie, then retooling his career choice at a time when they could roll with the financial punches? That’s a different deal altogether.  

When I stopped to consider if Clint and I could apply any of this new found wisdom to our own relationship, I was surprised to realize we already had. When we first got together, I was general counsel at an oil and gas company and writing was my hobby. Two years later I quit my lawyer job so I could write full-time. Essentially, I had done the exact same thing that Terrence had done all those years ago; and like Melorie, Clint has been completely supportive.

I took a red dress and redesigned it into an awesome pair of blue jeans. I have to say, it’s a much better fit for me. 

If the day comes when Clint wants to make a change himself, I intend to be every bit as supportive — so  long as it doesn’t involve moving back to South Africa. Trying to maintain a long distance relationship between Austin and Cape Town would definitely push me out of my comfort zone. But pretty much anything other than that? I'm his go-to girl.