Picking Your People: Avoid Green Teeth and Tennis Ball Lobbers

Photo credit: Martyn Fletcher

I want to explore relationship a little more, based on conversations I’ve had with people this last week and insights I’ve had about myself and how I’ve done relationship over the course of my life. I don’t expect I’ll impart any amazing new knowledge in this post, but I do want to play with a couple of metaphors that I’ve been mulling over quite a bit, that might be helpful to you as well.

I was talking to a friend of mine this last week who has been a therapist for a long time. (I love having friends who are therapists, because they just can’t help but leak their wisdom, and I get to soak it up by being in close proximity. I know there are some horrible therapists out there, but so far I’ve been pretty lucky in the ones that have orbited through my life). Anyway…..this particular person appears to me to have navigated life amazingly well. She has had plenty of her own difficult obstacles and tragedies, yet she has come out with this amazing certainty of who she is, what she wants, and what she is worthy of. Furthermore, she has a wicked awesome ability to see and call out those things in me,, and I come away from our times together always feeling like I just had a long, refreshing drink of cold water. She’s one of the game changers in my life, for sure.

This week I was asking my friend about romantic relationships she had been in, and how she seemed to be so good at finding the solid people who were capable of being in committed, generous , balanced relationships. She responded by using a metaphor of getting out on the dance floor. I wish I had recorded her so I could write out verbatim what she said, because it was really good. Basically, she told me that if you sit on the side of the dance floor and wait for someone to ask you to dance, you’re going to get alot of the guys (or women, depending on your personal leanings) with green teeth to ask you to dance. And if you keep saying yes over and over to the guys with green teeth, that’s all you’re going to end up dancing with, and you’ll end up in this constant cycle of frustration…with bruised toes and a strained back. So, she said….first, you’ve got to stop waiting for the people to come ask you to dance, and get the hell out there and start dancing on your own. Second, when the guys with green teeth come up to ask you to dance, you’ve got to stop accepting their requests. And finally, if you get out on the dance floor and show the world you can dance like hell solo, the people who can also dance well on their own will see you and come to dance with you.

This visual made me pretty happy, and I think my therapist friend is right. And she’s done well because she’s extremely picky about which men she’ll bother to dance with, and if no one asks her to dance, she has no reservation about staying out on the dance floor busting wicked moves all by herself. She might be the most empowered woman I know. What a badass.


After my friend gave me this metaphor, my mind immediately went to another metaphor….which is actually kind of funny because it is seemingly unrelated to her comments. My brain works in mysterious ways. I tell myself this ability to connect completely unrelated ideas adds to my charm. 😀

I really love to play tennis. I mean LOVE to play tennis. Out of all the sports I’ve played or been involved in, tennis is the one that I’m probably the best at. Which is still setting the bar pretty low. Nevertheless, I can generally hold my own, and I’ve had a pretty decent serve at times. The problem is: it has been SO hard to find people to play tennis with. I have no clue why this is, unless most people in my demographic just don’t play tennis anymore. The people I do know who are willing to play with me live towns or states away and so setting up a regular schedule is impossible. For one short summer when I lived south of Boston, I met my best friend weekly in the city to play…that was a really good summer….never mind the hot muggy weather, or having to mind my three little boys in between volleys as they ran around the park.

Since it has been so hard to find people who enjoy tennis, I’m not always that discriminating when it comes to who I’ll agree to play with. If they have a little bit of interest, and a modicum of skill, I’m up for a match. BUT….I do have one strict rule when choosing an opponent: I do not play against ball lobbers. By that I mean, if every other shot they make catapults over the court fence, or even flies over my head into the fence behind me time after time….nope. I have no patience for that. Anyone I play tennis with has to be able to keep the ball at a reasonable altitude and within the court at least 75% of the time.

This lobbing issue is where my metaphor comes in: there are people who are skilled at navigating and being in relationship, and then there are the lobbers. This is not a statement of judgment, but just of stating facts. I would venture to say that most of us are probably lobbers at certain points in our lives, or in certain areas of our relationships from time to time. And, we are all at different points in our journeys and have all had our own struggles, so I’m not judging the lobbers. I will straight up front say that I was a hard core lobber for at least the first 30 years of my life….not at all because I wanted to be a lobber that annoyed the hell out of or hurt others, but because I just didn’t have good relationship skills for a lot of reasons.

Maybe I should back up a bit and explain what I mean by a relationship lobber. I haven’t exactly mapped this out, so I’ll just toss out a few ideas that come to mind when I think of this. Relationship lobbers are people who have very little sense of who they are, and so they rely on external validation the majority of the time. They need other people, and their relationship partners, to constantly reinforce that they are OK. Lobbers also are so focused on their own needs that they either can’t see the needs of the person they are in relationship with, or they have no capacity to try and meet those needs, and so the relationship ends up being completely unbalanced. Lobbers can be people who will love bomb the hell out of you and do grand romantic gestures, but they aren’t capable of showing up consistently or when it really counts.

Lobbers can be people who keep relationship boundaries vague and ambiguous because they don’t really know what they want, and so you are running around the relationship court frantically, constantly, trying to catch up with shifting court lines, never knowing if you are in or out of bounds….or even if you’re actually involved in a match. Lobbers can be people who have so many needs, demands, and expectations of their own that also keep you running frantically from one side of the court to the other, like you’re playing against one of those automatic tennis ball launchers that has gone haywire. And they can often be very good at convincing you that they need you to fix them or meet all their needs.

The worst relationship lobbing, though, is when the ball is rocketed high and over the fence, and you are left to chase after it. ESPECIALLY when your partner is content to laze on their side of the court while you run off to find and retrieve the ball that THEY slammed into orbit. These are the lobs that require us to really abandon ourselves…where we forget who we are, our personal values, and what we want….to go chasing after something in a vain or misguided attempt to “prove ourselves” or “save the relationship” or “make them stay.”


Why and how do we end up in relationshp with green teeth guys and tennis ball lobbers? In my “ahem”, expert, opinion…it’s because of poor attachment styles from our childhoods, thinking we can’t “do” better, being addicted to people pleasing, and somehow being really adept at attracting people who are in pain. Especially if you are an empath and hate to see people hurt…..hurting people can spot you from a mile away and if they’re not emotionally healthy, they come running.

Sometimes it’s hard to avoid tennis ball lobbers even if you want to. Sometimes they’re just hot or charming or interesting….or you’ve been in a stagnated relationship lull for a long time and literally no one decent has come along, so you lower your standards…..or the worst case scenario: you can see their potential and so you hang around indefinitely, chasing ball after ball that is launched over the fence, exhausting and frustrating yourself, while you wait for them to improve.

The thing about tennis is that it’s true you need to play with stronger players in order to improve. But, you also have to put in alot of your own individual time in order to build fundamental skills….like hitting balls against those damn, wooden walls over and over, or hitting serve after serve to perfect your aim and velocity, or allowing yourself to be objectively coached from the side of the court by people watching your stance and swing.

The same is with relationship. Like I talked about in my last post, you have to practice in relationships to get better at relationships. But more importantly at times, you have to do the hard, behind-the-scenes work on yourself, your weaknesses, and your pain in order to see improvement in the actual relationship….and to make yourself a partner worth the other person’s time.

Lobbing balls across the fence occasionally happens in good relationships. Life can get overwhelming and stressful, and we always have our own hurts and issues that need to be worked on. And sometimes, for short periods of time, relationships will shift from a place of mutual 50/50 giving to 20/80 or 80/20. But they can’t stay like that to be sustainable or healthy. One person can’t be chasing all the balls all the freaking time. During those times of imbalance, the person who isn’t in a place of balanced giving has got to be actively owning and working on their stuff. At some point, the imbalance has to shift back to a midline.


Another one of my friends and I have discussed how you should evaluate relationships you’re in based on how they affect your life. She has asked me in the past: “Is this relationship worth letting go of your peace and solitude?” Meaning, is any stress or anxiety or whatever that you’re dealing with in this situation worth it? Or, would the peace that comes from the solitude of not being in this situation be a better thing? I think we are all way to quick to give away our peace, and often we stay in unbalanced relationships because we are afraid of solitude. Chasing lobbed tennis balls on a never ending basis, where we only get an intermittent reward of a solid, returned volley….I’m pretty convinced the anxiety and exhaustion that comes with that is way worse than the fear or boredom that can come from being alone. I just tend to forget this fact occasionally.

I think the tennis metaphor can also apply to good, healthy relationships. Strong relationships will help both people grow, keep them moving, and require work from both parties. It might even be a little bit of controlled chaos. But they won’t be a matter of one person constantly having to bear the burden of lobs going this way and that.

This is hard, I’m an expert. I’ve said yes to green teeth guys because I didn’t think anyone else would ask me to dance. And I”ve agreed to play with lobbers because they showed up dressed in all the right gear and “looked” like they knew what they were doing. I’ve also been lonely enough in the past that I was desperate to play with people that would just show up. We should NEVER be in relationship with people just because they are there and nothing better has come along. That is the first step that happens in a slippery slope of abandoning ourselves.


So there you have it. My two latest, favorite relationship metaphors offered through my informal, off the cuff, pontification. And with them, a call to myself and all of you….to stop abandoning ourselves to go chase after other people’s lobbed tennis balls all the time, or accepting dance requests from people that are not well matched with us because we are too afraid to light up the dance floor alone. If we are willing to put time and effort into our own shadow work and relationship skills, then by God we have the right to only choose to be in relationship with people who are doing their own work and who honor our work, evidenced by how they show up for us, and communicate and interact with us.

If it’s something you’re not willing to accept on the tennis court, then DON’T accept it in your close and romantic relationships.