From the beginning, my views on love and relationships were dysfunctional. I was surrounded by people who were supposed to love each other, though in so many ways what was between them was anything but. At six years old, I had a mock wedding with a young boy down the street that I couldn’t stand because we both believed people got married to argue and couldn’t think of anyone else either of us hated more. That speaks volumes about my earliest views on love.
Yet strangely I grew up to be in many ways a hopeless romantic. I believed in the presence of love, at least in theory. I believed in the happily ever after of fairy tales and the foot pop that occured with true love’s kiss. I believed with all my heart that there was someone out there for everyone, that one beautifully wonderful love that would remain strong and endure even through the roughest of times, a love that could stand the test of time. Though I had never personally seen such a love, I believed wholeheartedly that it was out there. I just honestly had no idea how to find it or where to even begin to look.
When I was a teenager and began to date, love was about fulfilling expectations. Identities seemed to be linked to pairing with others. Everyone strived to date because to be single meant something was wrong with you. Being with someone reaffirmed your worth somehow to others. It was never about how I felt, what I wanted or how I was treated. Being in a relationship, being in ‘love’, meant fitting in, being somebody. When I found what I thought might be love, I held on for dear life. I believed it was him and me against the world and love could conquer anything. I had been prepared to face anything with him at my side, never realizing that I was fighting a losing battle because you cannot keep someone there who wishes to be elsewhere. After years together, he blessed me with a child and then he ran. Despite all the faith I had in love, I found myself alone again. Yet at the same time, I would never be completely alone again.
On the verge of my twenties, I became a young mother. Everything in my life changed, love most of all. When I began looking to open my heart again, love became about family. When I searched for love again, it was ultimately to create a strong family, to find someone who would be good for my daughter, someone I could build upon my family with, growing it into something more. Love wasn’t about me at all. Love was about building a marriage, a family, trying to hold on and make everything work despite how I was feeling or hurting. Love was about being the best mother I could be and about trying to be what I believed a wife should be. Love was about playing roles and going through the motions. We were young. What did we even know about love? In hindsight, I’ve often said that what two kids in puppy love think they want turns out to be much different than what two adults in the real world need. In the end, we were just too different. We were never meant to last. But I was blessed with beautiful sons that made it all worth it.
When my marriage fell apart, I felt so unlovable, unwanted, like such a failure for being unable to somehow hold everything together. Love was something I was terrified of finding again. I had never been more vulnerable, more scared of letting anyone in. An unlikely and unusual love still managed to push its way in, a love surrounded by safety and bonding over similarities and shared loneliness. My heart didn’t stop to consider longevity or practicality, it was just grateful to finally matter to someone. For the first time, albeit briefly, I didn’t feel invisible or inconsequential. Somehow, for the first time ever, I fit into the equation. Love became about holding tightly to someone who I could trust, could talk to, someone who I knew wouldn’t hurt me, was incapable of hurting me. It didn’t last long, burning hot and bright before fading to ashes swept away in the wind, but it was enough to open my heart back up, make me believe in the possibility of love again.
While rebuilding after the ashes, I stumbled onto a narcissist with a gift for playing the victim. He had supposedly been through so much and I found myself desperately wanting to take care of him, to somehow make his life better. My heart had been opened wide and he took full advantage of my empathy and vulnerability. For over a decade, throughout all of my thirties, love became about trying to take care of him, to help heal his wounds, trying to be enough for him, wishing that at some point I would begin to matter, too. For eleven years, I hoped that if I was just there enough, loved him enough, he would be able to heal, to change and we would finally be able to build something real and lasting. I had so much faith in the power of love that I was unprepared for someone who was incapable of letting anyone else in or loving anyone else in return. Love became very codependent, with my accepting abuse and making excuses for his transgressions instead of holding him accountable for all the hurt he kept causing. When he finally left me for someone else, the last in a long line of infidelities throughout our relationship, it was a blessing because my heart and soul had become so battered and broken by years of trying to give all the love within myself while receiving nothing in return. I had become an empty vessel. Yet somehow, I still believed in love.
Overlapping the pain from loving a man incapable of ever loving me back sprouted a new and unexpected type of love, one born out of a close friendship. It was much like the ill-fated love I had stumbled onto over a decade earlier when my marriage had collapsed, but at the same time, it was so different and so much more. He became my best friend, my confidante, the one person who truly saw me, knew me, accepted and loved me completely for who I was without judgment. If not for his presence during most of the eleven years of narcissistic abuse by my ex, I would not have survived the ordeal. I loved him for it, loved him more than I probably ever should have. Over the years, it grew into more than friendship for us both, though it was always suppressed by our obligations and commitments to others. When we were finally set free from the nightmare of our relationships with others, however, free to finally possibly explore what was between us, everything had already irreparably changed. The damage was already done. Though I still believed in love, believed in him and the vision we had carried for years of an ‘us’, he had given up on himself, on his future, on me, on love itself. Love needs to be fed and nurtured to flourish and grow. Love cannot be sustained by only one person. If both aren’t willing to put in the effort, it will wither and die. Though the foundation was strong, the walls still crumbled because there was only so long I could hold on by myself, only so long I could be the only one trying to make things work before I had to give up in order to save myself from dying along with our love. It was never that I didn’t love him or want to be with him. I just ultimately needed more than he was capable or willing to give.
In my journey through life, my search for love, my perceptions on love itself have changed again and again. Both my first views and my first experiences with love were highly dysfunctional. Over the years, with each new relationship, a different facet of love presented itself, each a piece to the puzzle, a fragment of the whole. With each new facet, a new perception of love emerged for me, as well. Though each love seemed to have so much possibility in the beginning, looking back, I can understand why each failed in time because love must be whole in order to work. Both partners need to matter, to fit into the equation. Both partners must be willing to put in their all, as well. Over the years, I have found fragments of love, each different, though none could stand the test of time. Though strangely, out of the rubble of all these failed relationships, a new love I had never expected has taken root and begun to grow.
As a child of abuse and dysfunction, over the years I’ve struggled to even like myself, drawing my worth from the warped views of others around me instead of from within. I never expected to ever truly love myself. Yet somehow that love crept in, took root and began to grow, like a daisy sprouting through the cracks in the concrete, refusing to give up or give in, fighting to survive. Though it was never nurtured, it managed to grow just the same. I once saw a simplistically beautiful motivational saying that stated “The moment you start wondering whether you deserve better, You do”. And the truth of the matter is that I do deserve better. I will no longer accept fragments when I deserve a whole. I will no longer settle for loving anyone who isn’t willing or capable of loving me back just as much in return. I love myself too much to set myself up to be hurt again.
Though I’m still honestly not sure where to find that fairy tale love, the hopeless romantic in me still wholeheartedly believes it exists. I will learn from my past, from my failed relationships and heartbreaks, and move forward in a healthier way. I will no longer settle for less than I deserve nor will I ever allow myself again to be abused or to become inconsequential. As much as I crave love in my life, I would rather be alone than mistreated, rather be single than be fed empty words or false hope. I believe, in time, love will once again present itself and this time I will be ready for it. I am willing to fight for love, to put all of myself into a relationship, though this time around, I will settle for nothing less than that in return.