I was recently engaged for three weeks. I can’t really explain why this happened other than, as it turns out, I am not that comfortable turning down a diamond ring—especially one being presented to me in a romantic Italian restaurant on Catalina Island. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to marry him but said yes anyway; it was that I wanted to want to marry him but we were having so many problems and therefore wasn’t sure it was right. Let’s just call it a leap of faith in the wrong direction.
In the words of Catherine O’Hara from Waiting for Guffman, if there is one thing that being an alcoholic has taught me, it’s to “change my instincts…or at least ignore them.” After years following my gut only to discover that it was actually the driving force of my addiction, I still find it hard to make big decisions in sobriety. If I am 100% sure I want something, it’s impulsive; if I don’t feel right about something else, it’s fear. These things supposedly improve with time as we get more recovered and learn to decipher the difference between rational and diseased thinking but at 11 years of sobriety, I am apparently still doubting myself.
Not to sound like every single girl over [insert unspeakable age here]but I am just not good at romantic partnerships. Truthfully, I don’t actually believe that but after decades of dating, it’s hard to ignore that none of my relationships have worked out—a term I define as being exclusively involved with one person for seven years or more (a number I arbitrary came up with just now but at least the amount of time the itch allegedly comes along). When I ask my friends who are in long-term relationships how they do it, they all say that relationships take work. But I never thought to ask: what does that mean?
So when my boyfriend of two weeks and I had our first fight, I thought, no big deal—it happens. When we had another spat a couple of weeks later, I chalked it up to growing pains. But when, a month-and-a-half into the relationship, he threw a temper tantrum and in the process jeopardized precious time I needed to prepare for a project, I knew it wasn’t going to work. Still, even though I spent that entire weekend alone with my thoughts—weighing the pros and cons, calling friends and asking advice—and had concluded that, ultimately, we were not a good match, I allowed him to talk me back in. He promised to change and I thought trying harder was what I was supposed to do. Because relationships take work, right?
And work we did. After two-and-a-half months of dating, we agreed to go into couples counseling. While this may sound ridiculous, it didn’t feel that way to me. I am not one of these people who thinks therapy should be a last ditch effort to save a relationship or break up; I have always felt that it’s valuable at all stages of a relationship and that seeking help in communicating with one another should happen as soon as possible. But we were fighting so much that some weeks we were in counseling twice a week with different therapists—and with our individual therapy sessions, I found myself working on our relationship more than being in our relationship.
I was recently talking to a friend of mine, an accomplished sex and relationship expert, and she dropped a simple nugget of gold on me I wish I’d had a year ago. She said, “Relationships take work—after six months. For the first six months, it should be perfection.” And it made me remember that I completely agree with her. I guess after so many failed romances, I began to doubt myself and consider the fact that maybe her six months of bliss bar was too high and that I was shutting myself off something with potential. What I shut myself off from was a better relationship.
Prior to being with my ex-fiancee, if someone had asked me to describe what I think work in a relationship entailed, I would have probably said it was compromise—two people sitting on a couch and calmly communicating their needs to one another. He might want to spend Thanksgiving with his family in Sioux Falls and she might rather take a Caribbean vacation and each side would their case, discuss it and then makes a decision about it together. I don’t know why this is my concept of relationship work since a) it doesn’t seem like work at all and b) it certainly hasn’t been the kind of work required in my relationships. Still, since I have always sort of figured that, when it came to putting work into my relationships—like many things in my life—I was doing it wrong.
But what I was doing wrong was not understanding when something is worth working on and when it’s time to walk away. My low self-esteem says, “Who do you think you are, throwing away a man who loves you just because he announced in the middle of Starbucks that you had been molested by your cousin”? My alcoholic self-doubt tells me that I abandon relationships when they get tough because I am scared of intimacy. This sounds like a believable argument and when the voice that delivers them is my own, it’s hard not to listen.
Even with the help we were getting in therapy, my ex and I couldn’t stop having episodes. Because of my lack of relationship role models, self-esteem and healthy boundaries, I let these situations slide, hoping they were just isolated incidents. But what I had hoped were just early relationship blips turned out to be the beginning of a pattern of emotional reactions that ranged from pouting to yelling to passive aggressive insults. Before I realized it, I was in the throes of a high drama courtship—something I was not at all interested in. What I was interested in, however, was being with someone who was willing to work through problems so I kept trying.
Because I was born, I seem to be expected to know how to do certain things—like return phone calls, cook dinner, pick a suitable partner and work through problems. Apparently, these are skills people acquire by the time they are my age, through their loving parents and other decent role models. I never had these things. My parents’ relationship consisted of yelling, ignoring each other or not being home at all. I don’t know what message I got about relationships from them other than not to have one (and that grown men shouldn’t be expected to have a job—thanks, Dad).
So even after years of therapy and 12-step work, when I get into a relationship and problems arise, I still feel like I am shadowboxing until things falls apart. Of course this isn’t any way to go about a romantic union but I don’t know what else to do at this point. I also don’t know the difference between problems that can be worked out and ones that should be deal breakers. I have very little measurement of what is reasonable within a relationship—I know what upsets me but I also know that most things upset me—so I usually just run things by my friends to get perspective. This helps me make decisions as to whether I should be upset or not. I can’t help but feel that this is the saddest, most ludicrous system on the planet but—for the moment—it’s still all I know.
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