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In my first relationship—the one with my mother—I was afraid.
She was a woman of extreme intelligence and elegance. A woman who cared deeply about others and loved “in her own way,” but she was also a woman with incredible trauma that in those days was attributed to every other condition except what it was: mental illness.
Her treatment of me was often harsh and unjust, in my opinion. But I am not perfect, and as a child, I was difficult and unruly. I grew scared of displeasing her until the day I chose to leave for good; but even then, it somehow felt as if she had left me. I felt abandoned and unloved, and that sadness never went away, especially as it mixed with guilt and doubt that maybe it was me who did something wrong, that somehow the actions of a 7-year-old or a 12-year-old or a 16-year-old were so offensive that they deserved her anger and indifference. I put the weight of it all on my shoulders.
But I loved her and, in silence, I wished for her to tell me that she loved me as well.
In my second relationship—the one with my first wife—I was inexperienced. She was a woman of extreme intelligence and a style all her own. She was vibrant and beautiful and the first woman who told me she loved me; she was also the first woman I said “I love you” to. But we were young and stupid and blinded by sex and pleasure so much so that we failed to build the other three walls necessary for a relationship to thrive, and soon we were out in the cold with no protection from all the things we didn’t plan for. And I was left trying to quickly build shelter to save us, but it was much too late. I am not perfect, and I was unexperienced and undisciplined and a bad communicator—and so, she left me.
I again felt abandoned and was left with another layer of failure and guilt that maybe it was me who didn’t have the fortitude to not make mistakes, to be perfect and protect us. Once again, I put it all on my shoulders.
But I loved her and promised to be better “next time.”
In my third relationship—the one with my second wife—I was cautious. She was a woman of extreme intelligence and beauty, inside and out. She was gentle and sweet and vulnerable, and she fell deeply in love with me. I was jaded and cynical and had almost given up, but I had promised to be better, and I was.
For 30 years I tried, and we were good but never great. I loved her and respected her and always wanted the best for her, and I did my best for her but not without a degree of control stemming from my fear of losing it all again. I even enabled her to the point of suggesting an extra-marital relationship, if she felt it would help her gain perspective or fill a void I somehow was not filling. It was as if I believed I had to ignore my emotional needs, my fears, and forget about myself entirely and live solely to complete her. And again, I wasn’t perfect. I was intense and sometimes angry and made her feel scared—and so, she left me.
I felt betrayed and angry and jealous and abandoned. I felt an emptiness that hurt my soul.
But I loved her with all of my heart, so again, I made a promise to myself and a preemptive promise to the next person to come into my life that I would be even better. It was just that by now, I felt like “next time” was becoming an impossibility.
In my fourth relationship—the impossible one, the one I saw as a life vest floating in an ocean of loneliness and hurt—I was caring and careful and patient and loving and understanding and attentive and sensitive and hopeful, but also two things I hadn’t been before: calculating and strategic. She was a woman of extreme intelligence and beauty and style. She was the first “grown up” I had been with, and this time it was as if I was reading the manual I had written my whole life and carefully veered around the usual mistakes.
I was going slow, I was a good listener, I made her feel safe, and I insisted we build something that was “ours”—free of outside influences or jealous motives or ignorant opinions from strangers. It felt like a totally new relationship that didn’t involve her past or mine, something pure. A relationship built in stages, where the first stage was about us strengthening our knowledge of each other and then sharing it with others around us—but only those we chose to share it with. We were intimate and beautiful together. We laughed and behaved like kids and actually made each other feel new things. It was a good connection. But I am not perfect, and one day I had to admit to a lie, and she was inconsolable—and so, she left me.
I realized our relationship wasn’t even close to what I had believed, and her irreversible decision left me feeling disillusioned, abandoned, worthless, and angry at myself. But mostly confused. I had come so close; was all of this attention and careful planning and tactical maneuvering also not the f*cking answer? If not that, then what was it? I was literally dumbfounded to realize that this whole new approach, the net result of all my mistakes and failures and successes and logic, yielded sh*t—again.
It felt as if I had done something so wrong in this life or a past one that I had to keep being punished no matter what I did.
But the truth is I loved her, and had fallen in love quickly, and while I wanted to promise myself that I’d be better “next time,” I realized that maybe next time is not meant to be. That allowing a next time would be a tremendous risk that my heart simply can no longer afford. That I am all I have left but that I am also thankful I learned to be all of those good things for myself. That I did get better. That I tried and made and effort and showed urgency. That I cared.
And while I’m thankful for the love I received and for them allowing me to show love, I can’t help but admit that I am absolutely terrified to get close to love again.