My partner is a strong woman and I’m done apologizing for it.
I’ve been working with Lisi Whitworth since 2003. We’ve provided IT consulting and creative services together for more than 15 years. We are now cofounders of event accessibility startup Eventida, Inc. We’re also married and raising two amazing teenage boys together. We’ve lived in Austin, Georgia, California, Utah, and now Washington, D.C. We’ve serviced our clients remotely in many other States as well as the U.K., Sweden, Australia, Canada, Italy, and other countries.
We also happen to be Deaf and use American Sign Language as our primary mode of communication along with written English.
Lisi is a highly intelligent, capable woman who isn’t afraid to speak her mind. She is a planner and a thinker. Spreadsheets and Google Docs are her primary tools. Her well-rounded skill set includes accounting, business administration, journalism, marketing, and website development. Her mother was an attorney, so Lisi was raised to be analytical, factual, and logical. She’s very process-oriented. A commensurate survivor of accidents, cancer, oppression, auto-immune disorder, and much more, Lisi is without doubt a strong woman.
The strongest I know. In the face of adversity, she stands her ground and she stands up for herself. She doesn’t take shit from anybody. She’s also the first to admit her mistakes and acknowledge her own failings. She also believes in people and gives everyone the benefit of the doubt time and time again. She has a big heart and gives any project she gets involved in her all, even if she has no skin in the game. She also has the ability to see connections that most people wouldn’t notice – causes and effects – and the ability to strategically put the right dominoes in place that will accomplish goals.
As a result of my enviable and unique position as Lisi’s partner in all things, I’ve apparently become the go-to person for a lot of people when they experience a conflict with Lisi. Now, these conflicts are the kind that could happen to anybody. Miscommunications. Billing disputes. Personality clashes. Workplace disagreements, and what have you.
More often than not, here’s what they say to me:
“Your wife… Whew!”
“I think Lisi may have some form of autism. She doesn’t understand people.”
“Your wife is overwhelming!”
“She totally emasculated him!”
“I was told in confidence that you’re not going to win the pitch competition.” (And right before our actual pitch too.)
“Your wife talks too much.”
“You know, nobody likes working with her.”
“Lisi doesn’t listen to anybody.”
“I feel like she’s always pushing for her own agenda.”
“This project failed because she did too much and overwhelmed the [client or contractor].”
“Corral your wife!”
“All of your problems begin with her.”
“She should get a job and let you do what you want.”
… And other things not worth repeating. Now, I’m an affable guy. I’m also extremely introverted, and, as a result, quieter than most people. I guess this makes me approachable enough for people to say all of these things to me.
Unfortunately I’m not perfect, and I had (have) my own share of frustrating moments throughout my long personal and professional journey with Lisi, and she has hers with me. A lot of these frustrations felt very similar to what was being expressed to me at those times by others.
The noble intention for listening to comments like these was to be polite, open, and listen to whatever complaints are being shared with me. So I could mediate and/or mitigate the difficulties that these people expressed to me. To give them the benefit of doubt. It didn’t help much either when some of the comments, even the more extreme ones, came from other women.
These extreme comments I would deign to ignore. Not because they weren’t worthy of a response, but because I’d often be at a loss for words. For example, in the thick of a project discussion, what does one say to a fellow stakeholder who direct messages you and says, “Corral your wife!”
For the rest, my default response would be something along the lines of “Really? Why? Tell me more about it.”
The ignoble motivation for responding that way, I’m deeply ashamed to say, was to seek confirmation of my own biases. See, I wanted to maintain my “Nice Guy” status, so the last thing I wanted to be seen as was difficult. So I listened. I compared these statements to my own experiences, and in some cases, because of my own baggage, I even confirmed some of it.
“Yeah I hear you, she can be difficult to work with.”
“Sorry you had to go through that.”
“I’ll talk with her about it.”
Over time, I’ve come to the slow, painful realization that I was wrong. I was wrong to ignore the extreme comments. I was wrong to listen to the rest. I drank the Kool-Aid. Worse, I tried to make Lisi drink the Kool-Aid too.
And she did. Lisi drank deeply of the poison that I shared with her. My confirmed biases. I put her feet to the fire and held her accountable for these issues – told her to get better at reading the room. I told her that she was impossible and overwhelming. The rift between us grew. We were no longer on the same page. But because of her strength, Lisi would reject the poison and vomit it all back on me. She stood by her work and continued to insist on quality and excellence wherever and whenever she could.
But the poison did its work anyway. The damage was done. Her confidence was destroyed. Our partnership was being slammed on the rocks. I became more introverted and withdrawn. Depressed. The wins we did have (and there were quite a few) lost much of their flavor under this constant cloud. It insidiously affected everything in my life. I became angrier. More anxious. I would snap and lash out to people. I became less capable of dealing with difficult situations and more prone to blaming others – especially her – for anything that went wrong.
I can be extremely stubborn and I’m also a bit old-fashioned when it comes to what I perceived as “social norms”. But over time, and through osmosis from different projects and situations, I started to see the Kool-Aid for what it really was. The more I withdrew, the less I drank, and this helped me gain the ability to see behind the facade to the true motivations of the people who would unabashedly pour whole glasses of the stuff for me. Reading articles like “Your Negativity Reveals Your Insecurities” have been huge eye-openers.
The truth is there’s nothing wrong with Lisi. She’s tough, but fair. She expects a certain standard and quality from everyone she works with. She believes in people and their ability to reach that standard or quality, and she will patiently push for it. If push comes to shove, she will try to adjust expectations and continue doggedly working toward goals. She’s honest and straightforward, and she doesn’t mince words either.
She’s no different than the lauded professor who gives a lot of homework that makes one squeeze their brain. No different than the senior engineer who can create reams of complicated specifications and transform them into clockworks of beauty. No different than the lawyer who scours book after book of legal jargon to zero in on the precedent she needs, then writes a 100 page brief. She operates on that level and deserves the respect and consideration that the professor, the engineer, and the lawyer would get.
When she doesn’t get that consideration or respect from people she engages and work with – yes, she can become very frustrated and prickly. It is extremely maddening when people chose to dismiss or ignore certain details, especially when that negatively impacts a project as a whole. It’s also extremely flabbergasting when she gets blamed for that negative impact when all she’s done was to do her best to think everything through and plan for the most optimal results. Then that frustration gets latched onto and she is further vilified for daring to be upset.
Now, why, one may ask, (and I have, many times), would these people say these things about her? I have a theory about that. It’s a theory based on an analysis of my own biased reactions. It’s also based on my own experience running several projects solo where I got a taste of that medicine.
People simply don’t like complicated. They want things simple, quick, and easy. They don’t want to think too hard about anything that’s not in their wheelhouse. When it comes to large projects, they’ll ask for the sun but they don’t wanna think about the moon.
Along comes Lisi, talking about all the phases of the moon in relation to the sun. Add in the tides and their impact on the coastline and that’s often more than what people realize they bargained for in the first place. There’s too many dominoes for them to keep track of, or even want to care about. No one really wants to go the extra mile unless they absolutely have to.
The problem is that they don’t want to admit it. They don’t want to admit they don’t want to think about the devil in the details. To do so, would be to appear shallow or weak. They end up shooting the messenger instead. Or at the very least, attempt to dismiss or suppress the message.
When really, it’s all only and always ever about the phases of the moon in relation to the sun. How the coastline is shaped by the tides and, more importantly, which phase is the best to achieve a desired effect. All one really needs to say is, “You know what, this isn’t for me,” or “I’m not ready for these details,” or “Please help me understand why I need this.”
It’s all about communication. And choosing the right people to work with. When people fail to be honest about what’s going on with them and instead choose to respond negatively, this makes them extremely toxic to be around or work with.
Lisi deserves better than how she has been treated by these people over the years. She deserved better from me, too.
I failed my partner. Utterly and unforgivably. I didn’t stand up for her. I didn’t stand up for myself, either. I was weak. I was a total coward. I allowed these people to get away with feeding me the Kool-Aid. Worse, I even allowed them to believe I’m on their side.
I also failed all the other strong women out there who have fought to be understood, relevant, and heard.
The impact on our partnership, our business, our family, and our lives has been… Immeasurable, and also irrevocable.
So I’m done apologizing for my assertive, strong, and unbridled partner. I’m done with being a coward. I’m done listening to anyone who’s looking to blame her for their own inferiority complexes. I’m done with being a silent enabler. And my more than appropriate response to those extreme comments is going to be a real simple and plain “Fuck you!”
My partner is a strong woman. If you need someone to come up or deal with complicated business or IT solutions, Lisi is one of the best candidates that I know. If you need someone who will stand by you, then she is the most tenacious and loyal person I know who will do that. She is not afraid to tell you what she really thinks and how she really feels, and that is one of the rarest qualities one can find in a person, and the mark of a true friend.
It really is too bad that some people just can’t seem to or don’t want to appreciate that.
Lisi, I am proud to be your partner in all things, and thank you for continuing to stand by me while I work on unpacking my own shit.
For the rest of the world, and members of our beloved Deaf community, if you are a strong person who has been ostracized for that strength, know that I stand for you now, too.
You are not alone.