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Recently, I listened to a podcast interview with Ruby Wax, the outspoken comedian and TV presenter who is now an author and a vocal advocate for mental health. She was talking warmly about her relationship with her husband, the (according to her, anyway) longsuffering director Ed Bye.
The pair have been happily married for over 30 years and they met when Bye directed Wax in a comedy show. “I didn’t fancy him at all,” Wax declared. “I didn’t fancy him, so he didn’t scare me. I got to know him as a friend. He’s the first man that I’ve ever loved without it making me sick.”
I knew exactly what Wax meant. I knew what she meant when she talked about the lack of fear, and I knew what she meant when she talked about “sickness”. There are some relationships that, while exciting and heady and utterly thrilling, come with a tasty side order of medical-grade anxiety; they’re heralded by an amuse-bouche of genuine, damaging obsession.
I have been in these relationships. I have huddled in dark bus shelters waiting for a “maybe” date to turn out to be a “definitely not”, losing faith in cold increments as each set of car headlights failed to slow down. I have cried in phone boxes (yes, I’m that old). I have invested far too much genuine emotion in the “loves me, loves me not” sequence of plucked daisy petals. I have slept with my phone on its loudest setting and jammed uncomfortably under my pillow.
In each of those hot-and-cold relationships, the man I was involved with was my sun and my everything, but I felt that warmth only when the beam of his affection was trained on me. Whenever it passed over and left me in shadow — the shadow of a canceled date, an unreturned phone call, a dismissive comment about a meal I’d made or about a gift I’d bought for him — I felt cold and lost.
These yo-yo surges of alternating joy and misery did, quite literally, make me sick. In my relationship with one boyfriend, I developed heavy cold after mysterious chill after curious skin infection, like a series of Biblical plagues, always threatening to derail or at least disturb the few dates I could persuade him to actually commit to. I felt like I was falling apart.
During another, longer, relationship with another man, I realized one day with a pulse of sickening dread that I had lost my ability to focus on more than 3 paragraphs of any text I read. My favorite hobby — reading — was thus stolen from me by the unhealthy level of my distracting obsession. I felt like my core self was being swallowed by what I truly believed to be passionate love but which mirrored, almost exactly, paralyzing horror-film fear in the way it coursed through my veins and muscles and brain.
With my husband, it has never been like that. For Valentine’s day this year, he got me a card which read on the front: “I met you. I liked you. I loved you. I’m keeping you.” The words are simple, but they’re perfect, and they are funny because they are true. We met, we liked each other, we began to love each other, and now we are keeping each other. Sometimes, that’s all anyone needs.
The thing about that steady, warming sort of friendship-based love is that it doesn’t always look like the films. There’s no bolt of lightning when your eyes meet across a crowded room. There’s no dangerous edge of delicious fear when you fire off that first suggestive text message and wonder if it will be reciprocated. There’s no churning, nail-gnawing anxiety as you pull petals to the tune of “loves me, loves me not” — because you know.
To know you are loved and to feel secure in that knowledge is a feeling that can be unfamiliar and disarming and feel almost wrong for how easy it is. In a Times interview, again talking about her husband, Ruby Wax mused “Do I feel loved? I didn’t grow up with love, so I don’t quite know what it feels like. I do feel really lucky.”
Some tumultuous, fiery relationships work just fine. They work as fuel and sustenance for the people within them, heating their shared lives up to just the right level and sustaining them through happy decades together. They work out and both parties are happy. But for some other people, that sort of crackling consumptive fire is debilitating. It was for me. I was no match for it.
I thought I wanted wild boys, I wanted excitement and thrills, but my heart couldn’t take the heat. I will forever be grateful for whatever disarming grain of self-preservation my heart eventually latched on to, allowing the pearl of gentle friendship-based love to grow around it and to be enough for me. More than enough. Like Ruby, I feel really lucky.
If you’re sick of being singed, maybe the fire isn’t the right place for you, either. Maybe there are embers to nurture that you never considered before. Maybe it’s time to blow on them and see what happens.