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My partner and I met four years ago at a self-development program.
For 16 consecutive Monday evenings, we’d gather with five other people in a shop that sold fireplaces—a space donated by one of the participants. We’d arrange our folding chairs in a circle and ultimately end up sitting across from one another. I felt drawn to his expressive, blue-gray eyes that did not shy away from mine when our gazes touched and easily filled with tears when he shared. His chin had a dimple at its center that I thought to be the sexiest thing on the planet. I’d often daydream about resting the tip of my finger inside it and then leaning in for a kiss.
He was slightly taller than me. When we hugged goodbye at the end of each session, I’d notice a pleasant tingling where our hearts connected and a warm, swirling energy in my pelvis. We learned that in order for the feel-good hormones to begin flowing, the embrace should span three complete breaths. That suited me just fine. I’d turn my face into his neck and inhale deep and long. I could hold this man for the rest of time, I thought.
When the course ended four months later, we went on our first date. I had been single for only six months after leaving an 18-year long marriage, and thinking myself a progressive woman, was ready to experiment with physical friendships. Although I did not believe I was ready for anything serious, when he expressed a desire for a deeper connection, I crossed my own boundaries and embarked on a relationship that, looking back, became the catalyst to finally facing my true self.
From the outset, my partner was extremely open about his past. As we took a long walk after a dinner of sushi and a film about the cats of Istanbul, he shared with me the set of circumstances that had landed him on the proverbial rock bottom five years earlier. He described, in unflinching detail, the consequences that came on the heels of his actions and the steps he had taken to heal and regain self-respect and love for himself.
I was gobsmacked by his courage and his ability to be vulnerable and radically honest with me. I told myself that this is exactly what I wanted in a partner. I shared my own tale of woe. We compared our traumatic pasts and saw ourselves reflected in each other’s stories.
We had both lived through loss, grief, and pain. We had both been married; both co-parented with our ex-spouses. We were both mad about adventure, and when I asked if he was interested in jumping out of an airplane with me, he said yes without a moment’s hesitation. I fell for him. I fell hard. Our chemistry felt like the pull of gravity as we freefell toward the earth on our second date.
Looking back, I see it all clearly now. I see how ripe my soul had been for the lessons this relationship offered up; lessons that eventually broke me into pieces, rearranged me, and demanded I learn how to put myself back together. I am grateful, don’t get me wrong, as it is this freshly aware human who is writing these words today and hoping they will be of benefit to others.
He was his own man without apology. He was independent where I was dependent. Wild where I was reserved. Quiet where I was talkative. Secure where I was insecure. Messy to my tidy. He was stubborn where I was yielding. We recognized our differences and did our best to accept them (although I had a harder time doing this). I often thought of us as the sweet and savory couple, like the chocolate-covered bacon slices I love so much.
He introduced me to his shadow side, the rebel he’d release when he craved the excitement of living life in fifth gear. I witnessed him become a different person during those times, someone I didn’t recognize, found confusing, and impossible to trust. Slowly, the wheels of our love relationship began to wobble and then fall off one by one. The faster we crashed, the more desperate I grew to control him. After all, was my safety not contingent on my external environment? Was that not what I had learned in childhood?
By then, I was attached to his loving bits and, equally so, to his rebel that foretold a future of painful growth. I needed it all, began to crave the ups and downs that came part and parcel with our particular mix of relationship ingredients. I grew addicted to him. My thoughts became more obsessive, my actions compulsive, all in an attempt to keep him with me, to get him to make me the most important person in his life. I wanted him to need me the way I told myself I needed him.
The power struggles escalated as I unconsciously used my codependent tools to regain a semblance of control. I cried. Justified. Pleaded for him to reign in his shadow. I gave ultimatums. I grew jealous and suspicious. I checked his phone. Read his journal. I demanded he stop seeing his female friends in fear that he would cheat on me.
I wanted him to put me ahead of everyone. I felt abandoned if he chose to spend time with others instead of me. I made up elaborate stories about his activities when we were not together. My triggered thoughts fueled the ambers of anxiety into an inferno that was crazy-making. I self-medicated. I spiraled into the armpits of hell when the relationship insisted I raise the dead—the wounds buried deep inside my body.
Like any other child, I had craved the love and approval of both my parents. Theirs was a tumultuous relationship, fueled by alcohol rages and long periods of emotional unavailability. I never knew what a day would bring. Would there be peace and quiet or turmoil and chaos? Would I be left to my own devices to figure life out?
I learned at an early age to take my cues on how to behave from my environment. I felt safe when my parents were happy and when chaos returned, the trap door would give out from under my feet. Safety, I learned, was dependent on the people around me.
Over the course of my childhood and adolescence, I became proficient at hypervigilance, people-pleasing, masking my emotions, passive-aggressiveness, approval-seeking, obsessive and self-deprecating thinking, lying, manipulating, impulsivity, addiction to alcohol, sex and relationships, self-sabotage—all in an attempt to be loved, valued and approved of.
Unknowingly, I continued to use my codependent bag of tricks in all my adult relationships. When they stopped working, I’d self-destruct. I’d blow up my life and start over with a new place to live, a new job, or a new boyfriend. This would last for a few years until I’d begin to feel the familiar un-ease taking root and repeat the pattern.
When I tried operating out of the old patterns with my current partner, he pushed back. I had finally met my match. He loved me in a way that resurrected my childhood fears of not being important, my feelings of unworthiness, and the belief that I am disposable. His personality and behavior unconsciously reminded me of what I did not get in childhood: safety and security. The Universe matched me up with a man who ultimately triggered the same frustrations I had experienced with my parents, but this time, for the purpose of healing, not harming.
My partner’s shortcomings brought up painful father wounds. I had to face my fear of abandonment when he was not available to me. I had to learn how to be there for myself and let go of resentment. I learned how to say no to him and put myself first. I became intimate with the anger that I had repressed since childhood. He was witness to rages that left me limp and sobbing on the living room floor. I learned that the energy of anger did not always lead to violence. His extreme independence forced me to face my disease of codependence and, for the first time in my life, embark on a journey of recovery using the 12-steps of Codependents Anonymous.
I found the courage to let go of alcohol that I had used to self-medicate for decades. I became my own anchor as well as my own hot air balloon. I learned how to ground myself and shed the layers of fear that had held me captive since childhood.
Three times I tried to run and end the relationship. Three times I listened to the inner voice that said: “We are not done here, sweetheart. I know it’s hard. I know it hurts, I know it doesn’t make sense on the outside, but I promise you, if you work through this, you will know a great love.”
I used to think that the voice was referring to the love I would feel for my partner—a romantic love. I was wrong. That voice had me in mind all along. Today, I love myself unabashedly and without justification.
I pay attention to my little girl and give her what she needs to feel loved and cared for each and every day. And, from this rich soil of self-love, I am able to love another in a way I did not think possible—without attachment.