When I met the woman who would become my wife, I had no clue about love.
Worse, I had no clue that I had no clue.
It began with a magical first date and a memorable first kiss under a full October moon. We immediately began seeing each other every night, and after a week I confessed I loved her and wanted to marry. Our every-night romance continued until the end of week two when I confessed I didn’t know if I loved her any more. I had completely lost my emotional bearings and now both our hearts were broken.
By the end of week three I was begging her forgiveness and confessing that I was clueless about love. Because I was vulnerable, desperate, and open about my pathetic cluelessness, she was moved and her heart softened. We were back together but embarking on a long and difficult journey.
In my ignorance I thought romantic love meant finding the right person and after that, little effort was required. I imagined that upon love’s blissful breezes couples are magically carried aloft, and that broken hearts were but a temporary cost of ultimately finding true love.
Yes that is naïve, but I grew up in a time when most people married out of high school or college, and in a Christian community where divorce wasn’t an option; we kept up a happy appearance. But I realized my ignorance, and urgently delved into various self-help books and the Bible. I asked friends for input. I was hungry to learn and quickly discovered that real love is more than just magic; it requires openness and dedication.
Looking back, I wish that I had kept that initial sense of urgency. Continuing to seek, learn and grow would have prevented a lot more disappointment and hurt over the ensuing years. But I had won back my girlfriend’s heart; that’s what mattered at the time, and I quickly became complacent.
What I didn’t realize then was how much my ego was in the way.
Seeing the real me—the clueless, yet arrogant and thoughtless me—was painful and offended that ego. Though seeing the awful truth was strangely liberating, I wanted to quickly move out of that place and put the pain behind me.
What I also didn’t realize was my ego’s terrible fear of personal rejection. The thought of opening myself up with all my faults to another person—especially to my true love—and potentially being rejected was beyond scary. I simply was not prepared to deal with rejection at that level.
I just wanted to believe that I had done my homework, learned my lesson and could move gleefully forward to enjoying romantic bliss. Problem solved!
The back story is that from grade school through high school I dealt with ongoing bullying and rejection. Each year I grew ever more suspicious and fearful of others. I eventually concluded that the only solution was to construct a fortress of false confidence and hide the real me inside it.
It was as Deepak Chopra writes in The Path to Love, “If your mission in life is to protect your self-image, then opening up to another person’s feelings is contrary to your mission.” During the 10 years between graduating high school and meeting my wife to be, there were friends and girlfriends, but rarely with genuine openness and always with my guard up.
Ironically my soon-to-be wife would have gladly and gratefully been a place of safety and freedom for me, as she is today. She truly loved me for me, even with all my flaws. But that kind of love was impossible for me to imagine at the time. I had closed myself off to that possibility.
I had become a prisoner inside my own fortress, within my own heart, like a twisted shadowy character in a Hawthorne story.
Still, less than a year after that first date, we married. As it turned out, my low self-confidence was a perfect match for her low self-esteem, and a dysfunctional relationship was solidified in the bond of matrimony.
Many times over the ensuing years and with many tears, my wife confronted me about our lack of closeness. While I heard and understood and vowed to change, I could only respond with the smallest of steps, though they required Herculean effort and felt to me like major strides. At any time she would have been justified in walking away.
That would not have been wrong, but for some reason she stayed, even as her self-esteem blossomed. After 30 years of marriage and her most recent confrontation—eight months ago—I determined once and for all to deal with my ego and escape my self-made prison.
As it turns out, after 30 years of marriage, in so many ways I am still clueless.
So once again I delved into books for help. I started with The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh. There I learned to accept and even embrace my ignorance and arrogance, so I could escape it. There I learned to move forward by forgiving myself for my cluelessness and for all the hurt I have caused.
And this time I will not be complacent. For the rest of my life, I am a student of love.
Now I am escaping the prison I labored so hard to build; the task is not easy. Each turn and dead-end requires confronting another aspect of my true, messed-up self. More horrifying still is realizing the levels of disappointment and pain I inflicted on my wife. In the process I am increasingly amazed and grateful for her deep, enduring love. Without it I would still be hiding. With it my heart awakens and opens.
She texted me the following quote yesterday (attributed to someone named Daniel Nielsen) and said it is the man I am becoming.
“The awakened man has stepped away from living a life ruled by his mind and ego self and is consciously connected to his heart. He is not embarrassed to reveal his true colors. He is redefining age-old beliefs of what a real man is, and by his example calling other men to wipe sleep from their eyes.”
Author: Tim Hulst
Assistant Editor: Jan Farias / Editor: Catherine Monkman
Image: Emily Rachel Martin/Flickr