I called off the wedding. Yes, I’m “that girl.” No, I didn’t leave him at the altar. We had plenty of time. The venue and photographer were “booked.” We were looking at dresses and flowers. My sister was dutifully calling me: “I don’t want you to be stressed out. Tell me what you need me to do.”
And I was stressed out. Not only did I discover the disgustingness that is the “wedding industry,” but also my relationship was falling apart. It had been for a while.
I’m young. It’s not because I’m young. I wish people would stop saying that to me. Women of all ages find themselves in this position. Why? How do we get here? Eleven months of therapy later, I think I know. I was in love with potential. I was desperately trying to hold together an idea, a concept, a fantasy. When in reality, looking back, I’m embarrassed about how long I had allowed myself to be treated so badly. I felt ashamed that I had “failed” and even more ashamed as I came to terms with his abusiveness.
I’m a writer. I’m loud and independent. I’m opinionated and stubborn. I’m a staff blogger for a feminist journal. So what happened? I fell into a trap. Six months out of a devastating break-up with a live-in boyfriend who “just left” one morning, I started dating my now ex-fiancé. Still in the midst of my pseudo-divorce, untangling bills and apartments, and divvying up our social life, I fell madly in love with a man who was extremely persistent in his pursuit of me. I mistakenly read this determination as confidence. It was really just ego, and not the good kind.
We were on a ski trip with a friend and got “snowed-in” in New York together, which I of course read as some sort of divine sign from God. So, thinking we were obviously (due to a snowstorm in winter) meant to be together, I plunged forward into the saddest and most passionate two years. And, come to find out, we grew up in the same synagogue! Our siblings were friends. My mother was even the head social worker at the geriatrics unit where his grandfather had briefly stayed. Who knew!? “Besheret!” our families said. We all already “knew” each other so well. We had so many things “in common.” Like, I was in art school, and he pretended to like art. I was teaching at a university, and I forced him to go back to school. I hated smoking, and so he told me he quit smoking. You know, the usual, normal things.
We were Jewish, and we were liberals, and I assumed we were both ambitious. Here I was, so lucky, I thought. You should also know that we were both former drug users. I had about eight years clean at the time and he had just over a year (or so I thought). For most of my life I believed that only someone else who had been through and survived trauma could understand trauma. I had found someone truly broken. Broken like I must have seen myself at the time, but I wasn’t, and the disparity in our spiritual and emotional health became clear only after a few months. We were also long-distance. He lived in Cleveland (where I’m from and where my family lives), and I was and still am living in the D.C. area.
I was about ten years old when I started getting “into trouble.” This is a bit of an understatement. At thirteen I had already been arrested. There were hospitals, and rehabs, and you name it, my parents tried it. They were desperate to help me, or at least to get me into a new environment, seeing that I had become such an unsafe roommate. So I went to boarding school and, in many ways, never looked back. At the young age of sixteen, I got sober and healthy, and all the good things that were supposed to happen, happened.
Due to my past as a monster-child, I have always had a complicated relationship with Cleveland; I was always anxious when visiting. I still think my visits are a bit stressful for everyone, even now, all adults, me not having lived with my parents since I was fourteen. So it was strange, to say the least, that I felt so drawn to someone who was intrinsically connected with my sordid past as well as my revival. I had spent all of my adult life trying to avoid people from “that scene.” But with my ex, I found myself in the middle of it all once again. There was something satisfying about coming back, but that feeling was short-lived. The best revenge is living well.
“Kim thought she’d found her soul mate. He was lovable. Undereducated. Wore the hurt of his childhood, and its vulnerability, on his face. He was a drug dealer who had once been in prison. Maybe she thought she could change him. He never quite looked you in the eye. And because in his heart he didn’t feel he deserved her, he cunningly learned how to whittle down her self-esteem to make sure she wasn’t going to leave him… In him she had found someone to take care of… Seeing Kim and Alan together, with their arms wrapped around each other, made you want to believe in them, even though you didn’t.”
Fuck, I gasped, and then I cried a little. I kept reading, and it turns out that this couple that “made you want to believe in them, even though you didn’t,” took a trip to the Caribbean, which just so happened to be the last disastrous trip I took with my ex. I was spooked. I was Kim.
I remember the night we had gone out with our parents for a super-awkward wedding budget dinner discussion. My mother and I drove home alone together (It was of course a blizzard!), and she said, “You don’t have to do this. The money doesn’t matter. This is your life. Forever.” But, I forged on, because I thought I could save him. His mother thought I could save him. I even think he thought I could save him, or hoped I could anyway. So I tried harder. I gave everything I could. In the book Drop the Rock published by Hazelden, it says, “You can’t open a flower with a sledgehammer, only God can open a flower.” Over-sentimental and true.
I should have known better, but I didn’t. I wouldn’t listen. The one and only fight I’ve ever had with one of my closest friends, Andrew, was over the start of this destructive relationship. I like to call it “the hand-holding incident of 2009.” It goes like this: He holds my hand! That’s right, in front of Andrew and anyone else who might be walking by the family room where we are watching a movie in his parents’ home, where he still lived (29 at the time). I was panicked and self-conscious, but I let him. Next thing I know, I get a text message from Andrew, who I could have literally reached out and smacked (and wanted to), that said, “Should I go and leave you two alone? ;)” Emoticon and all. I was offended. What kind of woman did he think I was!? Andrew and I drove there together and we would be leaving there together, thank you very much. “Fuck you,” I texted back. When we pulled into my driveway, I turned to Andrew, “What? Say it,” I barked.
“This is a bad idea… he isn’t in a good place, he doesn’t have a lot of time clean, you do…” Andrew said. I felt a “you are the more responsible and therefore, culpable one” speech coming on. Andrew proceeded to bring up every failed relationship I had had since I was ten. This was more than the “I’m just a little concerned about you,” that he opened with. So, we sat there screaming at each other in his car, parked in my parents’ driveway (it was Christmas break, we were both “home” visiting). Then I said, “I love you, but I’m too angry at you to continue this conversation.” I got out and shut the door hardish, but not too hard, and went inside. An hour later Andrew called me to apologize. He said that he had overstepped his boundaries, and that it wasn’t really his business, and that he knew that his accusatory tone was an unproductive way to communicate his loving concern. (Andrew is now getting his Psy.D.!!) And I apologized too, but more importantly, in the morning I texted my future fiancé saying that we should just be friends, the whole sobriety thing, and that I should be more responsible. He was angry at my response, and he was also mad at Andrew. Andrew and I haven’t fought since.
The point of all that? My friends love me, and there were signs. Big red signs. From the first moment we met. More than I could ever tell you. Some of the problems concerned recent ex-girlfriends, felonies, gambling problems, the list could go on. But I ignored it all. The living in his parents’ house, the social expectations of what it meant to be “a Jewish woman” in his family, and all the enabling masked as care-taking.
Here’s the problem: we don’t live in the fucking movies. The guy doesn’t always “get better” for you, because you are so devoted. And, if the relationship is not awesome in the beginning, then it only gets harder. It is what it is. I now appreciate that some of the things I was taught about self-worth, some of the things that I learned about relationships growing up, were wayyyyy off. Apparently, we are only as sick as our secrets, and my secret was that I wasn’t sick like he was. I was lying to myself.
I realize that, unless I decide to start dating women, I will probably never receive a gift like the incredible “dinosaur cheer-up book” that my friend made for her girlfriend during some difficult times they were having (brilliant idea, by the way). However, I now very much know what I want and deserve out of a relationship. Firstly, I will never again spend any amount of energy trying to convince another human being that I am “worth it.” I believe that there is someone out there who knows how to be and wants to be a true partner. What’s all this “true partner” crap, you ask? Someone who inspires me to be a better person, which looks and feels very different than the constant emotional drain that is living in and with someone who is in constant crisis mode. A true partner is someone who both gives and receives love. This looks like two people taking care of each other. This partner is someone who can COMMUNICATE. Because, really, at the end of the day, that’s all we have: our ability to connect with each other.
The day our relationship ended was a day of surrender. He said, “I don’t want to be with someone who makes my life so difficult.” And I said, “I don’t want to make your life difficult anymore.” Earlier that morning, on the phone with my best friend, she said, “He’s going to ruin your life. You know that, right?” And I said, “No, I’m letting him.” I knew I had to get out. I knew I didn’t want to open a bank account with this man, and that I was scared at the prospect of having children with someone who wasn’t able to take care of himself. I felt sick to my stomach thinking about our wedding day. All the drama that surrounded planning our ceremony. This was a man who, after I had just had surgery, asked me what had happened to the Sarah he had fallen in love with. “You killed her,” I whispered under my breath.
But still, there were a few days after it ended when I was fairly sure that it was possible to die of a broken heart. “Maybe he just needs more time?” I thought. If only he loved me enough. If only I had been more lovable. That was the awful tape I played over and over again in the first month of accepting our breakup. I would flip through this book we had bought together in a last-ditch effort at reconciliation called, “Talk To Me Like I’m Someone You Love” by Nancy Dreyfus. I gave him a book with all the right things to say, and he still couldn’t say them.
He used to say to me, “Sarah, I’m not going to talk to you when you’re acting like this.” Like this, referred to any expression of emotion: fear, sadness, anger, disappointment. He was completely intimidated by my ability to express how I felt and ask for what I needed. He didn’t like that I knew what I wanted in life. This is not acceptable behavior to me any longer. To refuse to engage with your partner in this way is clearly the opposite of communication. In fact, it’s a debilitating form of emotional manipulation that shuts down any chance of compassion or empathy.
Sometimes we have to compromise in relationships. Sometimes our partners ask us for an extra phone call, to run an annoying errand, or for some other form of attention and affection. I’ve learned that you don’t have to “get” or “like” everything your partner asks you to do, but unless it’s completely unreasonable, you do it because you love that person and you know it is important to them.
Here’s the thing: times takes time. Not only did I survive, but I instantly felt better. In fact, this has arguably been one of the best years of my life. I also happen to have an incredible support system of friends. Go buy the book, “It’s Called a Break-up Because It’s Broken.” Believe me, it’s a gift that keeps on giving.
It is so clear to me now (as it was in the moment of breaking and even months before) how lucky I am to have escaped. I would rather not be in a relationship at all than be in the wrong relationship. I really believe in showing up–you know, loving-kindness. I try to do what I say I’m going to do when I say I’m going to do it. I no longer believe that it is “needy” of me to expect that from someone else. Having feelings isn’t being sensitive. I now resist the notion that I’m just too intense, too passionate about things, too opinionated. I recently remembered that I like those things about myself!
I still feel excited about all of the possibilities in front of me. I’m excited to someday be with someone who can simply ask, “What do you need right now?” or “How can I be helpful to you?” instead of an incessant problem-solver, a dismisser of emotions, or someone who insists that being a man means being a robot. I’m also very aware that what I once considered to be shared values actually weren’t “values” at all. Today I ask myself: “How do I want my home to feel?” I want to feel and provide love, support, safety, and security. These are the values I’d like to share with someone. That’s the person I am meant to be with.
To me, marriage means marriage…as in forever. I want that to be true, and I’m confident now that I will know when I am ready. I still want to get married. I like the idea of partnership and of creating a home with another person, even if that home isn’t a physical place.
So, in the words of my BFF Kirsten Clodfelter, “There are other guys who exist who can compete with Xxxxx’s awesomeness and who are also not terrified babies when it comes to opening their hearts. Find them.”