The very dynamics that felt so good at first became our undoing in the end
Love Lessons I Learned the Hard Way
Biochemically, nothing feels as good as falling in love. But, navigating love can be tricky because those very dynamics that feel so good in the beginning can ensnare us in the end. As an anxiously attached romantic, I learned this lesson the hard way.
Believe it or not, the most satisfying relationship I’ve ever been in was with a homeless man. When we first met, I didn’t know he was homeless. It was a blissful year, that ended in near disaster.
We met when I was in town for the summer and he was “passing through town.” I was heartbroken at the time. He was profoundly available. We fell in love in less than two weeks.
On our first date, we went for a walk in the neighborhood of the friend’s couch on which he was crashing, a simple pleasure unheard of in pre-pandemic LA. He was just my type, with a warm smile and soft hands. It was hard to say goodbye to him at the end of the evening. The time with him had been unlike anything I had ever experienced. He was totally present. He held my hand and kissed me under the moonlight. He did not check his phone once. He was simply there. It was intoxicating.
On our second date, we drove down to the beach and he played ukulele for me. He had been an amateur musician in his younger years. We picnicked, watched the sunset and he wove his feelings into songs for me. I awoke the next morning to a gift, the YouTube link to Milky Chance’s “Stolen Dance.”
I want you by my side
So that I never feel alone again
They’ve always been so kind
But now they’ve brought you away from here
I hope they didn’t get your mind
Your heart is too strong anyway
We need to fetch back the time
They have stolen from us
I replied right away, “Yes. I want you always by my side.”
Andy was not the first time I had fallen in love within two weeks. Such a love affair is what launched my failed marriage. At 23, my craving for the unwavering presence of someone to love me was so pervasive that I couldn’t see it at all. It was like air. I breathed and I craved love. It’s just who I was.
I had grown up in a broken home, and arrived in adulthood with a classic anxious attachment style.
Originally put forth by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, Attachment Theory asserts that early imprinting in infancy determines our basic patterns for connection in an intimate relationship. Today, scholars like Dan Brown at the Attachment Project train therapists and patients alike to learn their attachment style in order to heal childhood trauma and settle into satisfying love. You can learn yours as well.
My blend of anxious attachment is complicated, as things were pretty good with my own mom. Rather, the source of my wounding had been an angry and emotionally absent dad and the echos of the sudden death of my mother’s father when she was only seven. Raised by a mom who felt abandoned, I emerged from childhood with a sharpened set of tools I would use to assess my love’s presence and to keep him emotionally right where I could see him so that he would not abandon me as my mother’s father had abandoned her.
I craved total attention. Anything less sent me shaking.
Depressives, as it turned out, were just my cup of tea. Andy, and my ex before him, loved me with a desperation that soothed my anxiety. They would not let me go, could not, terrified of the darkness in my wake when they were left alone.
Andy’s severe depression began to show itself in our second month together. He self-medicated with pot, but his mental illness was so debilitating that he had dropped out of society five years prior, as of yet unable to break back in. His mind was a dark and scary place. The neuro-chemical cocktail of new love provided him respite, for a time.
Desperation was the glue that held Andy and I together. It was blissful at first. The sex was electric and the connection was deeply soothing. There really was something so pure about it all, like the sweetness of a child whose fallen off of the jungle gym, who sobs into his mother’s loving arms.
Such deep soothing is powerful enough to rush some young couples all of the way to the altar.
But, it’s not healthy
If I told you that whereas I have two advanced degrees, Andy had dropped out of school after the 6th grade, you might know right away that we were incompatible, and I’ll admit that in being with him, I felt like the bird who had fallen in love with a fish. But, for a year, I didn’t care. To the contrary, it felt so good to be loved by him. I still miss it sometimes…
For a year, Andy and I drowned our sorrows in one another, my anxiety, his depression. Even though loving him might have been less damaging to my liver than say, alcoholism, the dynamic is the same.
There is, very simply, no running from our demons.
Those of us who try to do so by hiding in relationships end up in unhealthy relationships.
What does a healthy relationship look like?
In her article “What Does a Healthy Relationship Look Like?” Dr. Andrea Bonior lists ten signposts for health in a long-term relationship. While Andy and I embodied her top three, trust, respect and patience, where we struggled was with her “Individuality and Boundaries.” The mode of clinging that Andy and I settled into in our early weeks left no space for each of us to be ourselves in the world. We were too busy holding on to one another.
When I envision a healthy relationship, I’m inspired by the words of poet Kahlil Gibran, who writes on Marriage:
Let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance
Love one another, but make not a bond
Let it rather be a moving sea between
the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from
Give one another of your bread but eat
not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous,
but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone
though they quiver with the same music.
There simply was no space at all between Andy and I. Our own respective heart wounding could not tolerate it. But, according to sex and relationship therapist Dr. David Schnarch, such enmeshment always implodes in the end. Our human egos are pre-programmed to prompt us to fight for ourselves, to be ourselves in the world.
In the end, my own need for space and air overwhelmed the soothing he offered me. I had hoped my love for Andy would hold him and support him, help him to hold down a job and get back on his feet. I could not have been more wrong. When we were not together, his functioning lessened, rather than improved, the terror of losing me heaped upon all of the rest.
Though passionate and so soothing at first, we had always been on a co-dependent collision course. In order to lay the foundation for a thriving relationship, we both had serious healing work to do.
I’m happy to report that Andy and I are still dear friends, though we live thousands of miles apart from one another, and have both found new love. He’s been working and housed for more than a year, earning savings and moving slowly in a new relationship. The end of us was yet another blow to his oft-battered heart, but he learned from it. “I fall in love too easily” he can now chuckle, with his radiant smile. Once we were free of our negative co-dependent cycle, we were able to support one another in being healthy happy individuals.