By Heather M. Graham
I walked into my last relationship certain that I just wasn’t good at being with another person. Every relationship I’d had since I had 17 concluded with an unhappy ending. One boyfriend declared that he couldn’t see himself married to me (after having moved in with me), and another was spooning me when he told me he’d gotten another girl pregnant — and her name was Heather, too. But this new thing seemed to have a chance. He was an old friend who’d already seen the unpretty sides of me and he was still in. He reassured me that I’d be OK, and that made me feel safe enough to try.
And I was OK. This relationship proved to be different than the ones that came before. There wasn’t a dark and desperate side to it that drove my belief that I was inescapably broken and fundamentally unlovable. It was the exact opposite. It’d only taken me 25 years to get there.
* * * *
My first love was beautiful, but I’d acted badly. I left for college and quickly dropped out of his life, but then expected him to be there when I called. We repaired our relationship after my freshman year, but I ended things by Christmas so I could carouse and canoodle without consequences. With regrets, I called him months later hoping (or fairly certain) he was waiting for me. He told me not to call again. That didn’t go as planned.
A few years later, I moved to the Hudson Valley and got myself into an epic five-year relationship that took me to places I never expected, including San Francisco. When I first saw him, his jet black hair falling below his shoulders, his small glasses perched on his round nose, I was knocked off balance. All I wanted to do was be near him. Our chemistry was so electric it lit up the air around us. He became my best friend and running partner. We gossiped and giggled and share our philosophies on life; played pool in bars and drank gin on our living room floor; fantasized about our outdoor wedding. We lived through the grief of losing a good friend. I could feel his love no matter where I was. I didn’t believe in soul mates, but he was changing my mind.
I didn’t believe I would find love, and if I did, it’d be too painful. In my experience, feelings left scars.
But with highs came lows. The first year of our relationship was on and off, push and pull. We had fights that could set the house on fire. We exchanged cruel words, and more than a few things got thrown across our apartment. He cheated on me and then I had an emotional affair. I once gave him a black eye in a drunken blackout. (The absolute lowest moment of my entire life.)
And I was addicted to all of it.
When we finally broke up, I was devastated. I could feel my heart labor to beat; each breath felt like a struggle, like there was a brick on my chest. I cried in my morning showers and lived in a perpetual anxiety attack. I smoked too many cigarettes and ate too little food. I analyzed every moment of the previous five years, reconstructing every fight and every cross word I’d ever said. The evidence was in: I deserved this.
I shut down emotionally and started shagging my friend’s brother. It passed for a relationship. I spent my late 20s and early 30s dating inappropriate men—emotionally unavailable was particularly my type. I turned a one-night stand into a three-year booty call. (Which also passed for a relationship.) Guys who really liked me tended to get the brush off—there was obviously something wrong with them.
Every fleeting relationship was the same: I withheld affection but demanded attention. I expected emotional support but refused to cultivate intimacy. I couldn’t commit or I tried to be in a full-fledged relationship immediately. I was intoxicated by the drama I conjured.
And then one day I took myself out of play.
I stopped drinking and found myself faced with the truth: I was sad and lonely and tired of the riff raff I’d been keeping company with. I also didn’t believe that I would find love, and if I did, it’d be too painful. In my experience, feelings left scars. I prepared a mental checklist of the reasons not to get into a relationship and carried it for years: I wasn’t thin enough, I wasn’t pretty enough, I wasn’t warm enough, I wasn’t discerning enough… I wasn’t enough.
Hanging the closed sign on my love life was a relief. I took my broken picker and my innate ability to fuck things up and sequestered myself for eight years. I sent dating the way of the dodo.
* * * *
Around my 42nd birthday I ran into the aforementioned old friend. He flirted; I ignored him. We kept in contact and a year later, I agreed to a date. Within weeks we were a couple. I was terrified. I was sure I was going to do it wrong, and I did: like the time I didn’t consult him before walking away from a restaurant I didn’t want to eat at, or the fury I felt (and shared) when one of his phone calls woke me up. Still, things progressed: We spent the next year in a long-distance relationship, talking and texting every day, seeing each other every weekend, and really enjoying one another’s company.
We didn’t fight — we disagreed without dishing out the cruelties meant to hit a particular nerve. I thought about him when I made decisions. I happily gave him my free time. Instead of raging at him when I was feeling neglected, I tried to be patient when we barely saw each other for two months while his 6-year-old son was visiting.
But I made mistakes: I harassed him about getting a better job, fantasized about the future way too much, introduced him to my family sooner than I probably should have (and then made him spend a lot of time with them). I complained about his apartment. Sometimes I still ran hot and cold.
Just before our one-year anniversary, I shared some things with my boyfriend, the real stuff that can make a person decide to stay or go. Days later he sat on his bed and told me he was unsure if he wanted to be with me. That was unacceptable. You either have my back or you don’t — it shouldn’t be a great debate. So, I grabbed my overnight bag and hit the road. This time I refused to accept being jerked around as an inexorable part of a love story.
Still, I was mourning what had been an important relationship. As I drowned my sorrows in sad songs and sweet treats something unfamiliar happened. Self-loathing and self-doubt didn’t descend upon me. I wasn’t riding the shame spiral looking for each moment I’d done something to cause the breakup. What I saw instead was the truth. I loved that man openly and honestly and showed up every day as the woman I am: smart, funny, loving, loyal, decisive, successful, and imperfect. I hadn’t gotten what I deserved. What I deserved was better.
In this breakup I was given a gift: I no longer believed the story that I was an emotionally broke-down woman who feared commitment and sabotages relationships. It had become clear to me that I can love hard, without drama and without shame or fear. The truth is, there ain’t a damn thing wrong with me. If I were dating me, I’d never let me go.