As I sit in a cozy hotel room in Nis after a long day of interviewing high school students, it’s hard not to reflect on this time of year two years ago.
Almost to the day, I was sitting in a far lonelier hotel room in this very same town. I was similarly drained from the day’s work, but beyond that, I was emotionally exhausted. My eyes were swollen from tears, my throat constricted from fighting, and my muscles sore from tossing and turning for countless nights. I sat staring at my computer screen blankly, at the Skype window that had long since switched back to the chat dialogue from the call. Noticing the blinking indicator to type a message. Something. Anything.
My self-confidence was practically shot. I simultaneously felt frustrated with myself for not being able to make up my mind and stick to a decision and furious for even considering what I had on my mind. His words kept ringing in my head:
“If you don’t make this work, nobody will ever love you like I can.”
“Someday, you’ll tell your grandkids about the one who got away and how you never found true love. Then you’ll realize what you’ve lost.”
“Why can’t you be more: romantic? Crazy? Loving?”
“Why can’t you change?”
We’d been fighting about the same subject for so long. He’d wanted to get married for months. I simply wasn’t ready and everything in my gut was screaming: this isn’t right.
Though it would be years before I began working on defining my core desired feelings, identifying my top five values, and doing daily yoga, I had already begun a journey of personal growth and self discovery. Through reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed and having many soul searching conversations, I thought I was narrowing in on our fundamental differences. I deeply and honestly believed that we needed to be happy individuals before we could be a happy couple. He wasn’t that. And his favorite response to my encouragement to move past his grudges, discontent, and general belief that the world was out to get him, was to say:
“You’re not a damn Ted talk. Stop talking like one.”
Thinking back, there were so many red flags that it wasn’t going to work. It was a perfect storm of circumstances that led to us even starting to date in the first place. I had been in one of my most vulnerable periods of life – terrified to graduate college, depressed about leaving my friends, and uncertain about my future. Few of my close friends were graduating with me, most wouldn’t until the next year, and I struggled to find someone who understood my dilemma. In he stepped. So confident and assured. Equally nervous about the future, but with much more clarity. He became my lifeline. My safe place.
Things between us were rough from the start. He was demanding. We had very different cultural perspectives. He expected me to change instantly when he didn’t agree with my choices. He was controlling, possessive, and jealous, but all under the guise of romantic. He was simply so passionately in love with me. Sometimes it made him go crazy.
I’ve heard it said that the first time you grant forgiveness in a relationship sets off a slippery slope to co-dependence and often emotional abuse. I’m all for second chances but in my case I believe this is precisely what happened.
I forgave something early on that never made sense. Even now, looking back, I have no explanation as to why I took him back. But in doing so, I gave up a piece of myself. My voice.
Months after we broke up, I hashed out the ugly details of our relationship with a therapist. I shared how angry I was with him for hurting me, but more than that, how angry I was with myself for letting him. When we would fight, I would lose my words. Somehow, I would become so lose in the hazy mist of his anger, that I couldn’t formulate what I needed to express. Fortunately, this therapist broke down to the core of my lingering bitterness: that I was still blaming myself, just as he had blamed me all those months.
From that point on, I refused to take the blame anymore. I’ve forgiven myself and moved on. I’ve found my voice and I won’t let anyone steal it from me again.
Continuing with the theme from last week, I’m exploring what it means to be unapologetically happy in love.
Summer of 2014. Proud of the fact that EJB and I are managing a bi-coastal, long distance relationship from Washington, D.C. to California successfully. Excited and relieved that I’d finally managed to respectfully quiet the mantras that enabled me to be commit phobic for so long. I was feeling great! However, the calm and content within me was short lived.
Though I tend to be an eternal optimist, I do my best not to sugar coat reality. As mentioned previously, during our 4-month break, several of the couples I had admired for their love and commitment ended their relationships. This pattern extended in 2014 when I’ve observed many of the people I’m closest with struggle to to be comfortable, content, joyful, and beautifully in love. Inevitably, this impacted my ability to be fully present in my relationship with EJB.
Enter guilt. An emotion that I’ve struggled to control for a great majority of my life, however, one that I never expected to appear in my love life.
It took me several conversations to identify the feeling, but once I did, it was so obvious. Talking with a girlfriend on Facebook about a tumultuous, on again and off again relationship she’d been involved with for 10 years. Watching the couples I had once admired, now do an awkward avoidance dance at community event. In passing over morning coffee with my roommates. I found myself down playing my relationship and making it less than it was and is. Often being overly empathetic to compensate for the fact that inside, I was over the fence, out of the park, World Series kind of happy.
Though of course nobody said it, inside I was hearing, “Why should you be happy when nobody else is?” This counter productive dialogue limited my ability to be authentic and degraded the quality of my relationship.
Once I recognized it for what it was, I had the freedom to stare it down and then release it. Guilt is a burdensome and unnecessary emotion that is self-generated. Be it ego. Upper limits. An inability to free ourselves to be truly happy. Whatever the cause, we’d all do a bit better to simply say: sorry, I’m not sorry. I’m genuinely happy.
There are so many adages about love that we’re spoon fed our entire lives. These cliches became deeply ingrained in our psyches and it’s impressive the role they can play in our relationships.
From my Grandma, mom, and multiple aunties, I often heard, “Don’t settle,” “Don’t get married before you’re 27,” “Be picky.” These mantras became my best defenses against getting too close, letting my guard down, and frankly, falling in love.
For many years, I prided myself on being selective with those I dated. I would often brag about how picky I was. Even when I did fall for someone, it was always with a pre-determined exit strategy in mind. Leaving at the end of the summer? Perfect. Taking a leave of absence next semester? Absolutely. Though typically subconcious, looking back I can see a clear pattern that I only let myself date someone when I could see a clear lineage of the relationship.
Until EJB, enter stage left. He came into my life at the precise moment when I was at a crossroads. One month after ending an emotionally taxing relationship, I had vowed to myself to 1) have fun, 2) play the field, and 3) not commit. In fact, on precisely the day we met, I had a Skype heart-to-heart with a friend where I voiced those same vows aloud (she laughed at me, almost as if she realized the universe was going to have other plans).
Regardless of this vow, the spark with EJB was undeniable and I attempted to open myself to him. Low and behold, my subconscious held stubbornly to the limits I had set for myself. I received from the relationship exactly what I was able to put into it, which was: lack of commitment, unclear intentions, and mixed signals.
Wisely, we made a decision that I’m now so grateful for: we called it quits indefinitely. Almost immediately following our decision, I entered a 4-month span of time when I witnessed the collapse of many of the relationships I had looked up to and considered the foundation of my outlook on love. No joke: in one summer, 3 couples that I had once considered strong examples decided to divorce. It shook me to the core.
Rather than holing up in a ball of cynicism and strengthening the walls around my heart, I took it upon myself to become more vulnerable than ever and dig deep inside of me. I had to reexamine all of those long-held beliefs that I’d been clinging to like a security blanket.
Once I did, the walls came crashing down, the voices stopped pushing me to look for an exit, and I experienced genuine, unabashed, freely flowing, romantic love.
The trick? Making a choice. I’ve heard it long debated whether true love depends on destiny/fate/etc or if it’s a choice. I’m 100% choice. This love affair has grown stronger, gone deeper, and been more affirming than anything I’ve experienced before. But the reason? We made a choice last October 26th and we’ve continued making that choice every day.
Stay tuned for part II: Releasing the Guilt of Happiness