I always dreamed of being loved. Love was something that, for various reasons (the way I was parented, my personality, and a presdisposition to depression), I never believed I had when I was young. And I had this convoluted belief that I didn’t deserve to be loved, on the one hand, and that someday someone would love me enough to make me worthy, on the other. It all comes down to not loving myself which inevitably leads one to believe no one else could love them either. But somehow if I could just be good enough, pretty enough, helpful enough, humble enough, etc. I would finally deserve and receive love from the perfect person. So I kept trying to be perfect, and I kept looking for the love of my life….starting around age 8. I had a series of boyfriends between the ages of 12 and 17, and finally (in my dramatic teenage view of life) fell in love with a good friend just before I turned 18.
He was smart and funny and hard to get. I was braver than I ever had been; I made the first move. And the second. And eventually he decided I was worth the risk of a broken heart. He was not really interested in a relationship that would be a waste of his time, so he had to be sure I was in it for the long haul. After all, he had seen me go through guys and just “give up” on them when I realized it wasn’t perfect or long-term or whatever. He wasn’t wrong to feel that way. I was looking for The One my entire life. And I didn’t stick around once I realized Current Boyfriend didn’t fit that bill. So this guy was right to be wary of me. But I was certain. He was it. He was a bit of a project – someone who didn’t give his love easily….so if he gave it to me that meant I was special! I was worthy! I was truly loved! Finally! He must be The One. And for 6 years, he was.
We went through a lot together. I graduated high school a year before him, but due to depression and exhaustion with school and not knowing what to do with my life, I took a year off before going to college. I worked some, I went to his soccer games, his lacrosse games, his friends’ parties. I didn’t really have any friends of my own at this point; at the end of my senior year (again for the sake of my mental health) I had distanced myself from the people I had been friends with for the past dozen years. Don’t get me wrong; I liked his friends. I felt included, and I was happy. Then he graduated, and we went to different schools a thousand miles apart. I stayed in New England, and he went to Ohio. For 4 years, we saw each other for a total of about 4 months every year. We talked on the phone almost every night, though. We had the internet. And we had hope and determination. Still, things were hard. And sometimes I felt like I was putting way more into the relationship than he was. Our first Valentine’s Day during college, I planned a secret trip to his school; I coordinated with his roommate to come pick me up at the airport so I could surprise him when he got out of class. Instead he surprised me. By walking into his dorm room where I was anxiously waiting to see the grin break out on his face….and, upon seeing me sitting there, saying “hey.” And then going to the other room to put his backpack down. He said “hey.” as though he had just seen me yesterday. And as though I had not just flown a thousand miles through the air to surprise him for Valentine’s Day. I was crestfallen. But I decided he was just being funny. Just not giving away how happy he was to see me. Just protecting himself. I’ve always been excellent at excuses. Those 4 years of long-distance relationship were really hard. But I kept telling myself it would be better when we lived in the same town again. When I saw him more often, I would feel more loved. Finally he came home, and I got to see him every day; I even moved into his parents’ house to live with him. But most evenings were spent in his bedroom, me watching a movie while he played video games. Me asking him to please come hang out with me. Me feeling like I was too clingy. Too needy. Too unlovable for him to want to be with. But I told myself it was just the awkwardness of living with his parents. We couldn’t do as we pleased because it was their house and a confined space and all that. So I knew it would be better when we got our own apartment. And we did. An adorable little one-and-a-half bedroom. We moved in. It was perfect for us. We were both working, making some money; we had freedom. But I was still lonely. He had a weekly poker game with friends. I stayed home. At least one weekend night per week someone had a party. I usually stayed home (I didn’t like these particular friends). The nights he was home, he spent hours playing computer games. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong. I asked him. He said, “nothing.” But obviously that was a lie. Because if I were doing things right, he would love me. He would want to spend time with me. I would be more interesting than his computer. But I wasn’t. We had dozens of conversations about it. I always came away feeling like I was just asking too much, needing too much attention, being too clingy. Always too clingy.
Finally I made my own friend. He was a guy from work. It was an unlikely friendship. He was married, he had 3 kids, he was 14 years older than me. But we laughed a lot at work. We started emailing random shit back and forth. Talking all day long every day. He was the best friend I had ever had. He was the only person who gave me a housewarming gift when I moved into my new apartment. We started hanging out sometimes after work. Killing time. Getting drinks. We had a blast. And we talked about everything. I told him about how I hated myself for being so fucking clingy and needy. He told me about how his wife liked to go out and party a lot, and he liked to be home. We helped each other deal with some really hard shit. And we felt understood by each other.We were drawn to each other and never got tired of each other’s company. He actually wanted to hang out with me. Voluntarily. And it started to occur to me that maybe it wasn’t that I was so unlovable or needy or clingy……maybe it was more that my boyfriend just wasn’t a very good boyfriend for me. Maybe it wasn’t that I should try harder to meet his need for space and alone time and independence. Maybe it wasn’t that I was wrong for needing affection; maybe it was just that my need for affection wasn’t compatible with what he had to give.
For the first time in my life – at the age of 23 – I felt a glimmer of understanding that I was not inherently unlovable. It was merely that I had spent my life surrounded by people that could not love me the way that I needed them to (obviously not everyone; but the people I had counted on – my parents, my various boyfriends – had never been able to show me adequately that I was loved), and I had internalized this idea that I was to blame for that. Once I had figured out that it wasn’t that I was needy or clingy, I knew that I could no longer remain in this relationship. I needed to get out of there and give myself a chance to find someone who would make me feel loved. So we broke up. I have always been a decisive person……….eventually. It takes me a long time to come to a conclusion sometimes (I have to go through every conceivable scenario and plan for each contingency), but once I make a decision, I stick to it. So I told my boyfriend that I was not happy, that he had never made me feel like he loved me, and that I could not stay in a relationship like that. He said he would change. I said that all the evidence I had indicated he would not. And that he should not. He should not force himself to be affectionate any more than I should force myself not to need affection.
Now the scary part started. He moved out of our new apartment; how would I afford rent on my own? I had to tell everyone that we’d broken up; I had always been so sure I’d be with him forever. My best friend was invaluable. He hugged me. He told me things would get figured out somehow. And I believed him. And he had his own shit going on. Things with his wife were going downhill fast. After all, the whole time our friendship had been teaching me not to settle for a mediocre relationship, it was doing the same for him. He was tired of feeling like he was the fall-back husband (they had gotten married very young after the birth of their first child). He knew that he and his wife had grown in very different directions since they had gotten married at ages 20 and 17 and that neither of them were happy in the marriage any longer. They were together still because they always had been. And he was tired of that. He, like me, wanted to have the chance to be truly loved and to truly love in return. They did counseling, they tried to find each other again. And they just couldn’t. And eventually one night when they had arranged to have a long discussion, she went out instead of coming home to talk. And that was it; he felt she had given up but wouldn’t make the move, so he had to make the move himself. So he did. He moved into the not-quite-a-bedroom in my apartment. It didn’t have a door, and it had my computer desk in it. But we put an air mattress on the floor, and he had a place to sleep.
It worked well. He couldn’t contribute much money because he was paying child support, but between the two of us and what I had saved previously, we could afford rent, food, everything we needed. And we could save money on gas by commuting to work together. So, essentially, we were suddenly together 24/7. We lived together, we worked together, we were together in between. It didn’t take long for us to start saying out loud the things we had each been thinking for months: “I wonder what would happen if he weren’t married…” “…if she weren’t 14 years younger than me…” “…if he didn’t have kids…” “…if I didn’t work for her parents…” They were jokes. First mostly, then partly, then only kinda. Eventually, we started to realize neither one of us was joking anymore. We were in love. Madly. Wildly. Comfortably. Admittedly, we kept it a secret for a while. We knew people would think we were crazy, and we weren’t entirely sure we weren’t. It felt perfect and wonderful and eternal…but we are both rational enough to recognize that we were both very vulnerable, emotionally. But the feelings persisted and got stronger and bigger and harder to deny. I started to tell my family about us. No one scoffed aloud, which was a relief. But it was harder to tell his family. The biggest thing was the kids. On the one hand, it had only been a few months since he had moved out. And it also seemed a little bit…premature for them to be forced to get to know someone who, frankly, was such an unlikely match for him that she might not be around very long. But lying about it all didn’t seem right, either. We handled it badly, but we let the cat out of the bag, and no one threw a fit. His parents were very nice to me, though I found out later that, of course, they thought he was going through a mid-life crisis and I would be gone once he came to his senses (not that they thought his marriage was the answer; just that a 14-years-younger twenty-something seemed implausible as a long-term companion).
And then we stuck together. Things got better and better instead of worse. Everyone got along (not that it wasn’t difficult at times; after all I am only 10 years older than the youngest kid and only 6 years older than the oldest), the divorce was finalized (after what seemed like an eternity), and after a year-and-a-half together, we were engaged. We got married 6 months later, bought a house 2 months after that. We have both experienced heartache: his father died very suddenly, and my mother died after a long battle with cancer. The kids have had good times and hard times, and we have tried to be present for them when they wanted us. We’ve each gone back to school to begin new careers. We’ve only in the last year been living anything beyond paycheck-to-paycheck. We are still deeply in love. We love the life we lead and dream together of where we will go from here. Things aren’t perfect, but they are as close to perfect as either of us has ever experienced. We have never been happier but know with certainty that there is much more joy to come.