Sometimes, in the middle of an ordinary life, a fairytale happens. — Anonymous
I awoke this morning thinking of my friend “Laela.” Laela is a truly amazing woman; one of those people in my life who forever altered me by being my friend. I was fortunate enough to meet her my first day of law school and we became fast and steady friends. She is one of those women who, when she enters a room, every eye is upon her. Many like to dismiss that effect as merely a function of her beauty, for she is, indeed, strikingly beautiful in a Hollywood blond bombshell kind of way. But what I quickly realized is that it isn’t Laela’s physical beauty that draws people to her; it is her wide open heart and a lightness she exudes. She loves easily and openly and loyally. She celebrates her friends without a trace of jealousy. She makes everyone in her life feel like they are a little closer to the sun when in her orbit.
But Laela, like many women, went through a long period of poor choices in men. Not horrendous choices… just unhealthy ones. It culminated when she met “David.” David was dashing and erudite and could match Laela’s intelligence and ambition step for step. She fell madly, deeply in love with him. As they were both regulars in the society pages, their romance was followed avidly and David’s planned Valentine’s Day proposal was reported in a major national paper before Laela even knew of it. But their relationship wasn’t the fairytale the papers and gossip columnists wanted it to be. After many months of decline, their relationship came to a screeching end when David did something so unforgivable, Laela could barely speak of it.
I met David once while they were dating, and couldn’t have despised him more if he had made a pass at me or physically assaulted me. He was pompous, patronizing, and spent the few minutes we had alone denigrating Laela and then me. It was phenomenally horrible and I grieved for her when we parted. When the news came that the relationship had ended, I was nothing but relieved for her.
But life is funny. And that’s not the end of their story.
After her relationship with David imploded, Laela was devastated. She had been working with a therapist for some time, but without any real progress. I suspected that her therapist — like most people who meet Laela — was in awe of her and not truly able to guide her to and through her blind spots. But after David, Laela’s devastation prompted her to make some serious changes in her life, including firing her existing therapist and signing on with a new one. And for the next several years, Laela went to intensive weekly sessions that left her alternately drained, exuberant, terrified, and hopeful. You see, Laela was like many of us — a smooth, calm surface on the outside, but underneath were layers of hurts and pains and fears that were leaking into every aspect of her life, holding her back from achieving happiness in the ways that were most important to her. I watched from half a continent away as Laela began tentatively dating again. She wrote a book and did a book tour. She jettisoned “friends” who were merely hangers-on and hunkered down with the people who really loved her. She drew healthy boundaries around family members who were undermining her and causing her pain and fear. Very slowly, Leala blossomed in all the best ways.
Then tragedy struck.
Laela collapsed and was rushed to the hospital, unconscious and seriously ill. The hospital personnel consulted her “Next of Kin” listing and guess who it was? That’s right, David. Leala had never changed her forms with her insurance company or her doctor. And so David was summoned and rushed to the hospital, where he assumed the power of attorney granted to him and made the decisions that ultimately saved her life. When Laela finally awoke in her hospital room, David was sitting there, a worried mess.
Now, if this were Hollywood, there would be a passionate embrace and a slow fade out, signaling a happy-ever-after. But this is real life, so it didn’t happen quite that way.
They talked. They learned that they’d both spent those intervening years in therapy, working through some really difficult, really intimidating personal stuff. They learned that the things they’d liked about each other hadn’t changed, just a lot of the stuff that they hadn’t liked. And they fell back in love. Less than a year later, Laela and David were married on a rooftop patio in Italy. It’s been 3 years and they are still madly in love.
I offer you this true story as evidence that fairytales do happen. But my real point is this: they only happen when we’re ready for them. Laela and David had a chance earlier and failed miserably. And, to be fair, although David was the one who made the final mistake, neither of them were ready at that point to be the partner the other one wanted and needed. They had to be ready. They had to be whole and complete and capable before they could be that partner for someone else. We all deserve a fairytale, we’re all inherently lovable, we all want to love and be loved. But are you ready? Really ready?
So, this Valentine’s Day, as you’re pondering your own relationship or lack thereof, try asking yourself: Are you the partner you would want? When was the last time you took a long, hard look at what you’re bringing to the table instead of pointing the finger away from yourself? Can you look in the mirror and honestly say that you’d want to be in a relationship with yourself? (This is a tough one. Ask it out loud and then wait. The truth is there.) Are you defensive? Controlling? Bossy? Do you keep score of chores done? Small hurts incurred? Do you judge your partner harshly? Is there room for mistakes in your world? Can you listen — really listen — to your partner, even if their truth is not the same as yours? Do you treat your relationship with integrity and value? Do you understand that commitment means more than keeping your pants zipped? Can you be vulnerable and open, even when it’s scary? Do you ask for more than you give, emotionally? Physically? Do you feel protective and loving and kind towards your partner? Or do you see them as something to be fixed, advised, or directed? Do you know how to be fun, to be playful? Do you understand the difference between being fun and being juvenile? Do you want to make your relationship better, or is that your partner’s “job”? Is their sexual satisfaction important to you? When was the last time you talked about it? Do you hold grudges? Do you withhold love or time spent together or sex as a means to get what you want or obtain the upper hand? Is your relationship about power? Or love?
These are the kinds of questions I’ve been mulling lately.
For the last three years I have devoted one hour a week to working on myself. Only me. Not my career. Not my kids. Not my house. Me. No matter how busy I am or how chaotic the rest of my life, I set that time aside to poke around in my head and my heart and do a little housecleaning…. a little redecorating… some serious demolition. Sometimes it’s difficult. Sometimes I cry. But it’s worth it. My god is it worth it. My last boyfriend used to scoff at me for it, his tone indicating that he felt that I was somehow lesser for “needing” that therapeutic assistance to guide my self-improvement. But I was unfazed. How can I possibly expect to be ready — really, truly ready — for my own prince (in whatever form he takes) if I don’t work on my own shit along the way? Yes, I want to be loved for who I am; we all do. But I’m not letting myself off the hook. He deserves the best version of me, just as I deserve the best version of him. And even when we’re ready for each other, we won’t be done with that journey of self-discovery and self-improvement… it’s never-ending, and that’s part of its beauty.
Laela and David still work on things. Every day. But now they realize that their individual problems nearly cost them their fairytale. So they work on things as they come up. And they do it with love and real commitment.
Their story is not about David coming back. It’s not about his apology or her forgiveness or staying in a relationship that’s unhealthy. It’s about Laela and David being ready for each other. Finally. Ready for their own, personal, real fairytale.
Are you ready?