I wrote a first draft of this blog post a few months ago. I woke up one morning and felt moved to tell you all how much I love my boyfriend (OK, so I think I’m going to have to call him ‘partner’ from now on. ‘Boyfriend’ seems a bit silly as I’m nearly 45 and he’s nearly 50 and we’re looking to buy a home together).
But then I got sidetracked explaining why I hadn’t written my blog since August, reassuring you I hadn’t given it up, filling you in on my summer and autumn – lots of beach days, sea swims, good times, tough times, particularly as the winter nights set in and everything went dark and quiet down here on the south coast). And before I knew it, the day was over and I hadn’t finished my post – I must be out of practice. Then, when I came back to the blog a few days later, I didn’t feel quite as in love with my partner as I had a few days before and I felt very hesitant about declaring my feelings for him on the World Wide Web. So I stalled, returning to the post a few weeks later when I felt smitten again, but then somehow failing to finish it before Christmas arrived.
Now here we are in 2016 (Happy New Year!) and finally, I’m ready, not just because I really love him today but because I’ve come to understand that it’s natural for my love to ebb and flow. It’s nothing to be scared of. It doesn’t mean I need to jump ship. It doesn’t mean it’s not right. Maybe it just means I’m normal.
I’m also noticing that even if my love ebbs and flows, it also steadily grows. That may sound contradictory, but it feels true for me.
I used to have a very different concept of romantic love. I used to think that it wasn’t love, it couldn’t be real if it didn’t feel desperate, urgent and all-consuming; if I didn’t feel on edge and high on adrenaline.
I used to think it had to be like on Fatal Attraction (without the bunny boiling or sharp knife), or I had to experience an intensity like Baby on Dirty Dancing: “I’m scared of walking out of this room and never feeling the rest of my whole life the way I feel when I’m with you,” Jennifer Grey told a bare-chested Patrick Swayze, in a breathless whisper.
I’ve experienced crazy, breathless, got-to-have-you-right-now ‘love’ before, but it didn’t grow into anything. It went up in smoke or it fizzled out. Sometimes, it was all in my head. Once, I fell for a stranger over email. Over weeks, he wooed me with poetic words. I imagined us meeting and falling into a passionate embrace. But as soon as I saw him, as soon as he became real, the bubble burst. I felt no spark. I walked away. He was upset. (I’m sorry, if you happen to be reading this).
I see now that my understanding of love and the journey I’ve been on to get where I am today reflect my personality, my inner battles and my challenges. These may be unique to me, but I share them in the hope some of you can relate.
I first had to choose to love. I had wavered and wobbled and been in and out of a relationship with my partner for a few years. I thought I needed to stay away but I kept going back. Tired of not knowing what I wanted or what was good for me, I made a decision to commit to the relationship for six months and to give it my best shot. I promised myself, a few dear friends and my incredibly helpful therapist that I would do my utmost not to doubt, not to question, not to find fault and not to look for ways out. I agreed, for that time, to stop thinking there was someone else.
Choosing to love in this way may not sound particularly romantic. It’s not very Hollywood. But I’ve had a lifetime of ambivalence, of push-pull, particularly in my relationships with men. ‘I want you, but I don’t want you. I want to love, be loved and be in a partnership, but I’m terrified of loss and of being hurt. Come close; now go away.’ My mixed messages must have left a few of my ex-boyfriends feeling bewildered (if you’re reading, I apologise).
Ambivalence plagues me in other areas of my life too – ‘I want my work to get noticed. Wait, no I don’t. I’m scared and I want to hide’ – but I’ve written about that before (Ambivalence) and I can come back to it, so I’ll stick to love in this post.
I chose to put two feet in and keep them in and every time my feet got cold and I wanted to yank them out and run, my friends reminded me of my decision, of my commitment. Stay with it, for six months. Those six months came and went and I felt ready to move out of London to the sea, where he lives. We’re now at 15 and I’m ready to move in.
So I made a choice and I pushed through my doubts.
I used to think he couldn’t be the right guy if I had so many worries and reservations at the start. I kept waiting for the man to come along with whom I’d enjoy an immediate honeymoon period. (For more on that, see my 2013 blog ‘Waiting for my honeymoon’). I kept waiting to meet someone and be instantly enveloped in a pink fluffy cloud. I’d heard others talk of love like that. I’d heard others say ‘I just knew. As soon as I saw him, I just knew’, so I thought that had to happen for me too. I thought, to misquote Michael Bublé, that I just hadn’t met him yet.
(“You had to keep looking, just in case,” my partner joked with me yesterday morning.
“You kept looking too,” I replied.
“I was just passing the time, sweets, just passing the time.”)
But I never found my honeymoon. I was always wracked with doubts, judgements, criticisms and reasons why it wouldn’t work out, often right from the start.
I’d judge men on their height, weight or amount of hair, on their attitude to work or their career choice, their shoes or socks or the way they crunched their Cornflakes at breakfast. I could go from feeling incredibly attracted to someone one minute to not being able to stand the sight of them the next – ‘Come here. No, get away from me!’ – and when I felt repelled like that, it had to end.
I used to think my turmoil meant there was something wrong with him, until I realised it was more likely there was something wrong with me. I read He’s Scared, She’s Scared and began to understand there was a reason why I was attracted to men who couldn’t meet my needs and who feared commitment – because I feared it just as much or perhaps more. I was the common denominator in all my failed relationships. I was the one who made these judgements, who pushed men away. So I began to try to understand myself, to challenge my own commitment-phobia and to tame my urge to run.
Do you push love away? Are you attracted to people who aren’t good for you? Are you still holding out for the instant honeymoon, for someone about whom you won’t have any doubts? It’s helpful to become aware of our patterns and what lies behind them. Only then can we change.
When I finally became ready and willing to push through my reservations, I chose someone who showed willingness to push through his baggage too. My therapist reckons we’re attracted to people with a similar level of ‘stuff’ as us, to people who are at the same level of maturity or emotional wellness, who have the same level of commitment-phobia. The key is to find someone who’s also willing to grow, who’s also willing to push through.
This process – the choice, the decision, the compromise, all the deep and meaningful conversations (D&Ms, he calls them) that we’ve had to have to sort through our stuff – isn’t how I imagined love to be. It’s not how they portray it in the movies and it’s not the message I heard from those people who ‘just knew’. But it’s my process. Our process. And it feels real.
I’d say be wary of the lightning bolts. Remember some of us get an addictive fix off men – or women – who are unavailable or unreliable or both. I did. We can be magnetically drawn to people who can’t meet our needs, sometimes because we’re subconsciously repeating a pattern from our childhoods when we craved love from our parents and it didn’t come. As adults, we replay the tape, hoping to engineer a different outcome. This time, he’ll love me. This time, he’ll stay. But too often, the ending is the same.
What if you find someone you think you can trust but something inside you still tells you to run for the hills? I’d suggest asking yourself if this really is your gut instinct or if it’s your fear. I reckon this is the hardest question to answer – gut instinct or fear? It’s so difficult to discern. But if love has left its scars – the love of a father, a mother or a previous partner – we may be reluctant to get hurt again. So we put up barriers, in my case in the form of criticism, judgement and ambivalence.
These days, my wobbles about my partner are few and far between and, while I had to take a long-haul flight to get here, it feels like I’ve finally arrived on my honeymoon. Both my feet are in deep and all I want to do is sink them in deeper.
This love is different. It feels certain, long-lasting. I even feel able to write, here on the Internet, that I am ‘in love’ with my partner. I’ve always been afraid and embarrassed to utter those two little words. I never dared to. I didn’t think I was allowed. I didn’t think I belonged to the club of people who fell ‘in love’. I didn’t think my love looked like the kind of love I saw on TV, in movies or between other people.
But I’m owning those words now. And the more I say them, the more it feels true – and this isn’t about convincing myself of something that’s not real. It’s about challenging the harmful, self-sabotaging, ambivalent, shaming, ‘I don’t deserve’ messages that have inhabited my core for many years, embedded deeply in the same way the word ‘Blackpool’ runs through a stick of northern rock. This love feels good for me. I feel calmer, more grounded, I laugh a lot more. And there’s space to grow.
My regular readers may be wondering about the baby thing, by which I mean the fact I’m nearly 45, don’t have children, thought I wanted them, am unsure and ambivalent (no surprises there) about both motherhood and about childlessness and I’m wondering what will happen and how I’ll feel if I don’t have kids. It’s been a recurring theme on this blog as I’ve aged from 40 to nearly 45 and it will feature in my book, which I’m still writing and will finish this year. But that’s not something I’m going to tackle now.
Suffice it to say I’m focusing on one miracle at a time. It’s a miracle that someone who was once so obsessed with her work, her looks, her diet and her weight and who was shut down emotionally and unable to deeply connect can love like this.
If you’re reading this wondering if you can too, take heart. You can.