In hindsight, entering a long-term relationship when you’re barely 18 and just starting your first year of college is not the best idea. Nonetheless, I spent the next five years in a relationship with a man who, while perhaps having the best of intentions, should not have been anyone’s boyfriend.
I didn’t know what a healthy and happy relationship was supposed to look like to be quite honest. My mother was a poor example and even if she had been a perfect one, it’s still hard to navigate your own love life through the lens of another’s. It’s because of my naivety that I missed, ignored, and made excuses for a never ending stream of red flags that would have given any person reason enough to leave. And while I’ll never regret a once in a lifetime learning experience, I’ll always cringe a bit at my younger self’s horrible, horrible, ignorance.
He put his family and friends first…100% of the time.
He wasn’t the type to reach out and actually make plans with the guys. And to be honest, his “friends” didn’t reach out a whole lot to hang out with him either. So when they did, he dropped everything to be with them. Including me. He’d cancel plans with me if one of his friends called him at the last minute. We’d rearrange our schedule when he “had” to take care of a hungover buddy (even if he wasn’t invited to the bars the night before). He’d buy his brother a new cell phone but then say he couldn’t afford to go to a fun event or concert with me. He was one of the most selfless and giving people I had ever met. But after giving so much away to everyone else, there was little left for me. Which meant…
I had to be the rock in our relationship.
Every three or four months, he’d go radio silent for about a week. I had grown accustomed to the pattern. It usually meant something was eating away at him and instead of trying to figure out what inside himself was making him unhappy, he’d instead default to the one thing within his control that was easiest to blame. Me. After one or two failed attempts to break through his week-long wall, I finally figured out a response that worked. Give him his space and then be relieved and willing to talk about it when he had decided not to break up with me this time. Talking about it always worked wonders. He would realize that it was work or family or insecurity that was really bothering him. After opening up to me he would feel a thousand times better and would instantly change back to the warm hearted, affectionate person I loved. I would forgive the person he had been for that week in favor of the person he usually was. Even if each time I felt a little more beaten and bruised for it.
Underneath that charming smile lay someone who was incredibly insecure.
He had all the reasons in the world to be happy but it was never enough. His clothes weren’t stylish enough, he wasn’t fit enough, he wasn’t popular enough and eventually, when he grew tired or bored of criticizing himself, he’d make up reasons to find me not quite good enough either. When he wasn’t making self-deprecating comments about his own failures, he was making back-handed “jokes” and comments about either my weight, my dinner plate, or even worse, my intelligence.
To temper the sting of unobtainable expectations, he would often fall back on the easiest sources to boost his ego. Women and alcohol. A dangerous and often hurtful combination.
My gut told me something wasn’t right.
There are only a few crystal clear memories I have from the earliest weeks and months of our relationship. One of them is a voice. We couldn’t have been dating for more than a couple of months but the voice is as clear now as it was then, “He’s going to cheat on you someday.” And although it took years, he eventually did. Emotionally, physically, and everything around and in between. My intuition gave me a piece of knowledge about this person that I had no evidence to back up. So instead of listening and walking away, I waited until there was evidence to back it up, and even stayed until long after.
My gut also told me he was never going to be “the one”. I don’t really believe in “the one” but nonetheless, if there was someone out there I was meant to be with, my instincts told me this guy wasn’t it. Sure, on our really good days I could easily picture a future together. And I desperately wanted that to be the case. But that little voice would creep back up and say ever so clearly and simply, “He’s not the one.” I believed the voice but I couldn’t quite gain the courage to leave. So…
A part of me felt relief at the idea of him ending things.
According to my therapist, I tend to stay in situations for too long. I think part of this stems from a deep (and probably codependent) sense of loyalty. I don’t like calling it quits and I don’t like giving up on people. In this case, it was to my own detriment. I didn’t want things to end, but I wanted to move on. Sometimes I considered applying for out of state jobs just so I would have an easy out. And when he would get into one of his quarterly funks of contemplating breaking up with me, a part of me hoped he would just do it already. I knew I’d be fine without him. In fact, I knew I would thrive without him. But I just didn’t have the balls to leave…yet.
For us, talking about the future wasn’t fun. Or natural. Or mutual.
One thing that stands out for me about the end of our relationship was that it was one of the only times he ever brought up the future. “I wonder if this is how it would be if we lived together” he contemplated out loud to me during our last argument. It was the first time he had ever admitted to thinking about us cohabiting and he was doing it in the same breath as wondering (also out loud) if he should dump me.
And there was the, “I could see myself marrying you” or the “when I picture the perfect person for me, it’s you” lines he uttered as he cried on a park bench and we both agreed it was time to go our separate ways. It was also the first time in five years I had ever seen him cry.
Yes, he had a knack for avoiding any contribution to, or discussion of, a hypothetical future for us. Even after five years together. That is, unless, it was done as a way of reiterating how I was not up to par or contrarily, as a final admission from a man losing his best friend.
I never admitted his failings to anyone else, because I knew they’d tell me to leave.
I could forgive him for his mistakes, but I knew my friends and family never would. So I protected him. Even when we broke up for a brief summer, I still hesitated to speak honestly and candidly about the negative side to him. I suppose even then I knew there was a chance we’d get back together. I believe that every relationship is unique and has its own dynamics but looking back, a part of me knew that mine wasn’t good enough and I deserved better. I believed the weaknesses in my relationship were my business and no one else’s, but I was also embarrassed by just how many weaknesses mine had. The people who loved me would be disappointed in what I had tolerated in my relationship. But also, I knew that they would say aloud what up until now had only been a quiet voice inside my head. “He’s not the one.” And I wasn’t ready to hear it yet.
It’s easy when you’re finally out of the woods to look back and see everything with such clarity. But when you’re still in there, it’s all much more blurred by love, pain, confusion, inexperience, and fear of the unknown. I’m pretty good at pinpointing the failings of a relationship and yes, at the time they were happening I also recognized the failings taking place in my own relationship. I just justified them as fixable. I justified them as “nobody’s perfect”. I justified them as being better than facing whatever else was out there.
So no, I don’t regret a once in a lifetime learning experience. I’ve had enough passion, love, pain, and heartbreak to last me a couple years of singledom and self-discovery…which is exactly what I want. And in a few years when another version of him comes along, I’ll know to stay far, far away. But even better? When a version of NOT him comes along, I’ll know to appreciate it.