It was the night of Valentine’s Day, 10 years ago, when I met him in Washington, DC. I was there for a semester to study politics, though I probably learned more about which bars would accept my fake ID than I did anything else. My new-found girlfriends and I, all single, banded together for a night out. Though we complained about being boyfriend-less, we also reveled in our singledom and all the excitement that being 20 years old and unattached brings.
A few years before I got to DC was when I began to recognize the power in being young and attractive, and particularly how strong that power is over men. I flaunted my ability to flirt with a man all night, only to walk out of the bar before he could ask for my number. I loved playing these games and the high I felt after winning a man’s attention only to reject him. Of course, years later, I recognize that this narcissism and exercise of “power” only pointed to my own insecurities and low self-esteem at the time.
So it was in this context I met him, my first adult love. That Valentine’s night, we talked until three in the morning. He was everything I wanted, he checked off all the boxes—tall dark and handsome, incredibly smart, super liberal, and an Atheist (and willing to admit that proudly to a stranger), But more than the labels, I also admired the way he carried himself, with a confidence in himself and about the way he led his life. Finally, I had met my match, someone who I couldn’t readily dismiss, play games with, or conquer with my coquettish moves.
Our love affair that began in DC continued for three years after I left—he moved to New York to start a job as a lawyer, and on the weekends I took the train down from my college in Rhode Island to visit him. We went to Europe together that summer and spent two blissful weeks touring museums, drinking wine and smoking cigarettes at Parisian cafes, and hours upon hours in bed, sometimes making love but mostly wrapped in each other’s bodies, talking, laughing, and just feeling giddy.
The cracks in our relationship started to emerge after that first year. After the honeymoon period had come and gone, I was no longer his number one priority. In that first year, he used to literally run home from his office because he was so excited to see me—being away from me for eight hours was simply too much. But as cute as that sounds, making someone that central to your universe and becoming so dependent on them for your happiness is not sustainable. He started to develop habits that—in retrospect—were healthy, but at that time felt devastating to me. Instead of running back to me after work, he would go out for drinks with his new co-workers, and though he would invite me along, the tone in his voice told me I should stay home. He began to develop a life beyond our relationship, and while he made some efforts to include me, the revelation that he needed anyone outside of me or our love made me angry. Why wasn’t I enough? So I would pick fights. He would pull away. That only made me try harder to get close to him, to reign him back in, to make him want to sprint home to see me again. To reclaim my rightful place as the center of his universe.
Anyone who has experienced or witnessed this dynamic—one pulls away, the other just tries to get closer—knows it can only end badly. And it did. We fought constantly, blowout fights, the memories of which make me cringe. I once threw red wine at him and his white walls while he was incapacitated in bed after knee surgery. He once threw the entire contents of my wardrobe outside of his door in an effort to kick me out of his apartment. Because we knew each other so well, we knew what best to say to make the other’s heart break, to hurt each other at our cores. After too many incidents like this, we both knew it was over—there was no going back after all that damage. We were broken.
Breaking up with him felt like dying. And in a way, every break up is a death. How hard it hurts and how much you grieve depends on the relationship. For me, it felt like the death of a family member, and my whole world was turned upside down.
But as with many emotional wounds, time really does heal. When I was finally ready to date again, I felt confident that because I had learned so much from my past relationship, my next would be better. I was wrong.
I flitted through my twenties from boyfriend to boyfriend, no one really lasting more than a couple of months. These were the men I thought I wanted—successful, attractive, intelligent, liberal, Atheist, and confident. But for one reason or another, they didn’t work out. The reasons I gave at the time—he complained about his tax rate, he admitted to going to church on Christmas, he confuses there/their/they’re—my deal breakers, were really just excuses. In truth, because I was so scarred from my first relationship and knew too well the risks of making one’s self vulnerable to another, I was terrified of letting them get close to me. Most didn’t get past the second or third date, making their fatal error in a grammatically incorrect text. And if anything they did could be interpreted as even the slightest sign of disinterest in me, I fled. Even if whatever reason he cited for not calling me back in a timely manner was true, I was too scared to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Then, after several years of this pattern of going through suitor after suitor, the men who checked off the boxes, I met a man my roommate would later dub, “All-American.” We started chatting at a bar, and I knew right away that I could check off the intelligence box—he was an attorney, but like me he studied political science in school, and could speak well to current events, with a liberal bent to his opinions (check, check, check). But on the other requirements, he fell a bit short. For one, though he was attractive, he looked unlike any of the men I dated before. While most looked very much like my first love—tall, dark, and lanky—he had light, freckled skin and was built like a football player—quite the opposite of lanky. That’s why my roommate and I dubbed him “The All-American Boy,” or AA for short, during text conversations or G-chats. The type of confidence he exuded was different too—far from being elitist or pretentious at all, he was quietly self-assured, and didn’t need to prove anything to anyone.
Having met so few of my requirements, I’m not sure exactly why I let him get past the first few dates. But there was something about him that made me feel different and didn’t let me dismiss him. He had a warmth about him that felt so comforting.
When I was with him, it was like being in his cocoon, protected from the outside world and from my own inner thoughts of inadequacy.
My feelings toward him were so strong that I even gave him a pass when he admitted to me one drunken night that he might believe in Karma.
Once our relationship developed further, though, my destructive habits began to come out. I began picking him apart, looking for any excuse to flee. His socks never matched, he let his dishes sit in the sink for days, he’s not liberal enough, he doesn’t understand feminism, he didn’t get that joke fast enough. I got angry when he didn’t call me back within the hour or whenever he showed any sign that I was not the center of the universe, and particularly his.
His reaction to my behavior, however, was different. He didn’t throw me and my clothes out of his apartment but he also didn’t let me get away with it. He called me out, but in a respectful, kind way that I have come to love about him, because it makes me want to be a better person for him. He refused to follow my silly rules and expectations, but rather than get angry with me or run away, he simply did not participate in my own destruction. Yet despite this, he fundamentally accepted me. He saw some of my ugliest sides, but he loved me anyway, and he showed it. In time, his constant love and acceptance and the healthy boundaries he helped create gave way to a different me, and a different relationship.
First, I let him in emotionally. My guard came down. And it wasn’t as scary as I thought, because his acceptance reassured me. Second, I made active attempts to change my destructive habits that I discovered were rooted in my own insecurities. I stopped setting up my usual tests that were designed to make anyone fail. I stopped trying to coerce him into demonstrating, proving his love for me. I recognized that none of that was about him, or any man I dated, but about me, and my own ability to love myself.
He inspired me to become better, and he had the patience to see me through that process. Suddenly, the boxes he didn’t check off became less important. I realized that what I wanted was not what I needed. Who he was, and who he made me want to be, was far more important than anything else.
It’s been 10 years, a whole decade, since I met my first love who checked off all the boxes, who represented all I wanted in a partner. The person I was at that time would have never guessed that I would have ended up, 10 years later, with a husband who looks like a football player, might believe in Karma, and sometimes confuses their/they’re/there. But what I wanted in a mate, 10 Valentine’s Days ago, was not what I needed. And now, what I want, is exactly what I need.
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Images: Courtesy of the author