Thursday, April 10, 2014

On Loneliness: Romance

I’ve been having trouble writing this piece. Over the last few days, I slowly began to realize that it was because I felt like I was over-sharing. It’s one thing to provide intimate details about one’s friendships. It’s another thing entirely to dish about one’s romantic life. It made me uncomfortable. Therefore, I decided to tone down the details. We’ll have to see, dear readers, if you still find it interesting and/or relatable.

When I speak of my romantic life, I should be clear that there hasn’t been much of one. I spent most of my life without a partner. I didn’t have my first boyfriend until the summer after I graduated high school. The relationship was short lived. Throughout all of college, and well into my 20s, I never had a serious love interest.

It took me a long time to realize that the problem lay inside of me. To be sure, I was a bit of an ugly duckling. I don’t say that in an attempt to gain sympathy or to hunt for compliments. It honestly took me a while to grow into my looks, or at least to accept them. I was in my late 20s before I began to feel like a beautiful swan. I’ve also always been a bit of a tomboy, just “one of the guys.” For a long time, I thought these things were my problem. Not pretty enough, too much of a boy. Not desirable.

Throughout my early 20s, until I met the man who would later become my fiancé, I often felt used. Inevitably, it seemed, the people I became involved with would get what they wanted from me and leave. Or they wouldn’t get what they wanted and leave. Or, even worse, they would leave at the first sign of trouble. I felt like I could never be perfect enough. As soon as I had a bad day, they’d be out the door, running as fast as they could.

It was humiliating and depressing. I was lonely. And I felt abandoned every single time. It got to the point where I didn’t think anyone would stay. I was surprised when someone did. I felt lucky. “Finally, someone is putting up with my crap,” I thought. My fiancé and I put up with each other’s crap for about five years. Things didn’t work out. In the end, I think we’d both agree that this was for the best. To this day, we’re still good friends. When we broke up, I moved out on my own for the first time in my life: no family, no significant other, and no roommate. Just me. I loved it.

But then something bad happened. I’m not going to tell you what, but in order to put the kibosh on wild speculation, I will tell you that it did not involve any form of assault, sexual or otherwise. But it was a big deal at the time. I felt like my life would never be the same. It forced me to take a step back from everything, to evaluate not only my relationships but also myself.

At the time, I was in the middle of grad school, about to start the eight-month process to write my Master’s thesis in order to complete the program. I decided to focus on that. No more chasing after relationships, or even friendships. I threw myself into writing my thesis and put myself back in therapy.

It was the best decision of my life. I’d been through therapy before on more than one occasion. I don’t regret any of the therapy I’ve been through. Each of my counselors was important in his or her way. I felt like the times I’d gone before had been for fixing specific problems, though, like my anorexia. This one was for fixing the rest of me.

I’m not going to tell you that I had some immediate insight because that’s not what happened. There was no lightning bolt. I completed my Master’s degree and got back out into the world, rebuilding the social life that had been neglected while I wrote my thesis. Some time after I finished my degree, my therapist and I agreed that I’d gotten as much as I could in our sessions. What I discovered in the months after that was that now that I was happy with myself, people were drawn to me.

It wasn’t something I did out of any conscious effort. I was happy because I’d finished my degree, something that had been high on the list of things I’d wanted to do with my life. I was also happy because I finally liked myself. I’d gone through an ordeal and come out the other side with the realization that I could rely on myself, that I was strong and clever and accomplished. I realized that I would never need someone else to make me feel better because I knew how to do that for myself.

Not only did I attract more people – in a nine-month period I was asked out on more dates than during the rest of my life combined – but I also attracted a higher quality of person. While none of those relationships, save for the obvious one, worked out, most of them ended with a minimum of drama. I think this was when I finally started relating to my potential love interests like an adult, rather than like a teenager.

When I met the man who would become my husband, I was immediately drawn to him because he challenged me. I wasn’t used to that. He didn’t just accept my opinions; he wanted to know how I had formed them. It could be frustrating at times – it still is – but I liked it. I liked that he made me think. The first time we met, he had a girlfriend. It was disappointing but I moved on. When we met again a couple of months later, he was single. That night, one of the last things he said to me before we parted ways was that happiness is a choice. I didn’t believe him then.

It took me years to accept that he was right. Now it’s the coda that I live by. No matter what we’ve been through – and we’ve been through a lot – I have chosen to be happy. I feel the strongest, mentally and emotionally, that I’ve ever felt. Of course, I obviously still feel lonely sometimes or I wouldn’t be writing this series. But I never feel lonely in my romantic life.

I don’t worry that my husband is going to leave me. I never feel like he’s putting up with my crap. Neither do I feel like I’m putting up with his. That’s not to say it’s all sunshine and rainbows. It’s not. We rarely fight, but we bicker frequently, and sometimes we don’t like each other very much. But it’s okay. That’s life. That’s living with, and relating to, another human being. I married my husband with every intention of staying together forever. That is still my intention. If, for some reason, things don’t work out, however, I know I’ll be okay because I already am. My husband isn’t a void-filler. He’s the man I love.

Love isn’t like how they portray it in chick flicks. No one is going to complete you. If you have a hole inside of you, you need to fill it yourself. It’s no one’s job to fix you. In hindsight, I can see that this was my problem for all those years. I may not have realized it at the time, but I was looking for someone to build up my self-esteem. No one wants that job. Once I learned how to build it up myself, I became more attractive to other people as a by-product.

Sometimes I wish I'd learned this lesson earlier in life. If I had, though, then I probably would never have found myself here. I like here. So instead of wishing to change the past, I'll just be happy to have learned the lesson at all, while enjoying the present and looking forward to the future.


Patricia said...

This is very interesting, mostly because I don't see you as someone who has spent much of her life without a romantic partner. I also really like what you say about completing yourself and not looking for someone else to do that. I think women especially are primed to find men to "fix" what is lacking and I think that leads down a path that is not good. Well done doing your own work!

I had someone say something similar to your husband's view that happiness is a choice. I'm sure he wasn't the only person to say it to me, but I heard it when he said it. And I got a tattoo to remind myself that I can choose who I want to be. It's hard for me to bend toward happiness and away from loneliness and sadness, but I feel like I'm getting better at trying.

Excellent series!

balyien said...

That's because you met me post-teeanged/early 20s dry spell, haha.

I think that, even in this modern age, American women are taught to view marriage as the thing that will fulfill them when nothing else has. I agree that this leads down a bad path. It's partially (mostly?) to blame for the high divorce rate. Expectations are too high. IMO anyway.

I agree that it can be difficult to choose happiness. It doesn't always work. No one's perfect, nor should they have to be. I'm glad that you're trying and that you're getting better at it. :)