I fell down a YouTube rabbit hole tonight (as is my wont once I decide I just NEED to hear a song), and somehow got from Joan Armatrading’s “Drop the Pilot” all the way to a video commemorating June and Johnny Cash’s epic coupledom. (OK, I’ll tell you how I got there – it involved The Cowsills, Joni Mitchell, The Grass Roots, and Seals and Crofts…yeah, no, it makes no sense unless you’re me, lol.)
Anyway, I guess I’m just thinking about love vs. codependency, and new relationships when the old ones can’t be so easily pushed aside, for any given number of reasons. I don’t know that I have any solid wisdom to impart here. But I’m trying something very new (for me) lately, and that’s just trying my best not to worry, not to push myself, and to let things unfold as they see fit. In the last 12 years, I’ve learned numerous lessons, but lately, two of them are pushing themselves to the forefront. I’m trying to listen, learn, and avoid duplicating the pain.
Lesson #1: Saying “I love you.”
I’ve dated a lot of people. It might surprise some of you, since I’ve been in long-term relationships for pretty much as long as the Internet has been a serious thing, but before 2006, my longest relationship was three months. I made up my mind quickly, and moved on if things weren’t right. I never told people that I loved them, or talked about a future together, mostly because I was smart enough at 20 to understand that there was a lot of future left, and the odds of making a lasting connection with a guy my age were extremely low. I took every day as it came, and life was pretty good. There were a couple of heartbreaks, but overall, it felt like I was succeeding at the dating thing.
Then I met the guy I assumed I was going to marry, and stopped dating other people for eight years. It might as well have been a marriage, just no paperwork. But it was unhealthy, and eventually I LOST MY EVER-LOVING MIND. Well, that’s the face value…in reality, the people closest to me could see me cracking years before I gleefully blew the whole thing to smithereens.
Here’s the thing – I could have told you in 2006 that there was a problem, even if I couldn’t have given you a name for it. I knew there was a problem as soon as he told me that he loved me, and I thought, “I love (*insert Universe-sized pause here as the non-math person does complicated calculations…*) your family.” I didn’t say that, of course. I said “I love you, too.” But the split second between his declaration of love and my return of the sentiment stretches an eon in my brain. It wasn’t that I didn’t love him, or that I didn’t think I loved him at that moment. That’s not it at all. I did love him. It’s just that when I thought about being with him, it was in conjunction with his family – and his family held more weight in my heart. We had a good run, and I can do the coulda/woulda/shoulda thing all day long, but in the end, it was really super wrong for both of us. I mean, it was a pretty epic mistake, in retrospect. He wanted a different kind of life, and I let myself disappear under the weight of his ideas.
The thing is, in that split second after he told me he loved me, I knew that my understanding of love was somehow flawed. I knew that I was going with “solid” instead of “amazing,” because I was worn down by “amazing” turning to “shit” within a month or two. He had all of the rare ingredients that I’d been told I should look for: he was attractive, dependable, and responsible. And his family – I really did fall in love with them. They kept me going for a few more years than I should have endured, if you want to know the truth. I miss his parents so much. I cherished being taken in by a group of rowdy New York Italians, of having someone’s dad keep my special brand of coffee stocked in the house “just in case,” of having an aunt pull me aside to ask for a recipe (still a high point in my life, if you want to be honest), of hearing all of the family stories, and feeling like I could live on forever, with this kind of close-knit family. I’d never wanted children, but all of a sudden, I thought how nice it would be to give my mother-in-law a grandchild to pamper. In other words, my life shifted to accommodate everyone but myself. Classic INFJ.
In the end, as things were drawing to a close, I started to find that my mouth didn’t want to make the shapes required to spit out “I love you.” I was unsure at the beginning, but at the end, I KNEW. I kept waiting for it to pass, to figure out how to reboot it somehow, but it withered and died. And you know why? Because in eight years, we had never really talked. We’d been saying things to each other, but we were never speaking the same language. Here’s what I have learned in years since, about what I was saying, and how I should teach people to interpret my words and my actions. “I love you” isn’t about romantic love, though it celebrates it. It’s not about sex, though it acknowledges it and revels in sharing a healthy physicality. “I love you” is about seeing the person in front of you for who they are, and celebrating that flame for having the courage to flicker. It’s not about wanting them to be better or do better, or envisioning who they could be, or who you could be when you’re with them. It’s about seeing the space between you, and realizing the steps you each take to bridge it, fling open the doors, and welcome the other into your weirdness, every damn day. Loving is easy, but building a relationship where you can love and be loved, that’s a daily commitment, requiring constant renewal.
Right now, love for me feels like that moment of zen when you take a breath and soak in your physical surroundings and state of being, and take note of the person’s presence in your sphere, and think, “Oh, this is good. I could do this more.” If you can meditate in the presence of the person you love – if you can trust enough to breathe freely and look how you look and think how you think and never ever worry how they might have misinterpreted you – and if you can appreciate all the same things about them in that moment – then saying I love you is right for now, and you will never regret saying it, even when now is no longer.