The first one left on his spring break.
I had graduated college the year before and he was a senior facing an uncertain future as an international student who would need a visa to remain in this country. After more than a year of sweet and exuberant romance, now bearing the strain of our divergent lives, he decided to break up with me — while spending the week at my house.
Number two felt more like an inevitable dissolve. His life was in turmoil when we met and that never changed. But, somehow, love and the promise of what could be sustained us. When he finally let me go, acknowledging what he couldn’t give amid the chaos of other battles, I was crushed — though we’d both had our eyes on the end for more than we cared to admit.
Then came Epic Disaster, the relationship that would electrify and tear me apart for five tumultuous years. Year one was intoxicating, the possibilities I saw for our future fueled by a connection we believed transcended all others and by my own willing immersion in the building of his dreams. But when we took a break in year two, as his ambition began to overwhelm our relationship, I should have noted the other red flags, too. Instead, we would do this dance, on and off, back and forth, tortured and elated, for four more years. When I left, it was because I’d finally had enough — of the lies, the cheating, the reckless devotion to his grandiose pursuits and my own insistence on championing the good, when it was a tattered flag I waved.
It’s not a pretty track record, but I’ve been thinking about it with increasing interest — and, I’ll admit, sometimes fear — as my partner Zane and I tunnel through this fraught and pivotal phase in our relationship. The last few months have been a nebulous maze of indecision and introspection, separation and connection, fragile joy and sharp-edged sorrow as we confront an unknown future. Though recent weeks have birthed a tenuous promise, we are still struggling with what the years may hold if we continue on together, should we both find a satisfactory way to live with the perplexing illness that is his depression.
As I look back at my relationship history, I sometimes wonder if this is what I’ve inherited: the arduous path, potholed with doomed dynamics and faltering hearts, with troubles that claw at our seams. It’s a precarious line of thinking, to ponder love as a pattern, frayed and flimsy, transmitted across generations. But when I consider the trail behind me, as well as my present circumstances, I can’t help noting the foundation upon which I stand.
In my family, I’ve had few relationship role models. My parents divorced. My dad’s parents spent most of their lives inhabiting separate houses though they remained married. And among his six siblings, only one marriage endures, while those who never entered such unions only to watch them crumble seem to prefer a life of solitude. In fact, in the receding wake of my Epic Disaster, one aunt offered the following as consolation: “Perhaps you’re just one of those women who are meant to be alone but have many friends.”
She was well-intentioned but I was dismayed, listening to her words create one more link in a chain I wished only to break.
On my mom’s side, love has bloomed with sturdier roots. But there is enough dysfunction and the veneer of normalcy in some woefully strained ties to make me question the road map I’ve been bequeathed.
It’s not that I wish to resign myself to some unhappy fate, to expect that love will burn and fail me, as it has so many in my family. But when you grow up without strong examples of what it is to be in a healthy partnership, including how to navigate the bumps encountered along the way, being in a relationship can sometimes feel like floundering in the dark.
We do the best we can, arrive with hope and good intentions, and our own ideas for success. But when we keep stepping into a story with echoes of a chapter in a book we thought we’d closed, it may be time to look not only at what we are bringing to those relationships but at our inherited beliefs — at all we’ve observed and absorbed from those who gave us our first glimpses of love.
As I sit with my own awareness of the ways I’ve struggled in my four primary partnerships, I realize the failures and heartbreaks have all come in a great and necessary service. I have grown through each one and, blessedly, been softened by what could have embittered, have expanded where I could have shut down. But still I wonder about the threads of defeat, self-abnegation and abandonment wrapped up in my family tree.
And I wonder if the opportunity I’m being presented here with Zane is the chance to break a cycle, to create something different for ourselves — but most of all for me. Ultimately, whether or not I truly have inherited a faulty relationship template, what matters is what I choose in the face of all I know and all I’ve experienced. But I can only choose for me and pray that what he unravels empowers him, too, as we strive toward a decision for what comes next in our lives.
– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times