Today, I want to share a love story with you. It is not a typical love story, but it is my current favorite. This story doesn’t read like a standard romantic comedy from a major Hollywood studio; at best it’s an arthouse film with flawed protagonists and a convoluted plot. But it has a certain charm for me.
It concerns a couple who met many, many years ago — almost 15 years ago, actually — and knew each other only in passing for most of those years. The day of their first meeting was a sunny, warm spring day when they were both young and in love with other people. She remembers that he was handsome and soft-spoken, but perhaps arrogant. He remembers that she was smart and intriguing. Every few years, their paths would cross for some brief moment, and they gradually formed ideas about each other. They came to know each other in the way that you might know someone to whom you spoke casually and infrequently over the course of many years. During that time, they each got married and had children and then later divorced.
He divorced first — a long, bitter, nasty battle that left him emotionally scarred and terrified of intimate connection. He dated, but didn’t allow anyone to get close to him, lest his heart be ripped from his chest yet again. Two years later, she divorced, too. Hers was more amicable, but her self-confidence had suffered badly during her marriage and a post-divorce relationship with a terrible charmer had left her bruised and burned.
The summer after her divorce was final, she contacted him on a business matter. When the office manager discovered that she was divorced, she quietly played matchmaker, setting up a rare Saturday appointment for the two (so there would be no time constraints on him to attend to other appointments) and explaining to each that it was the only time the other could make it. Both grumbled, but agreed. At that first appointment, they talked for a long time, first about business, then about life. A second business appointment quickly dissolved into a lengthy discussion of marriage, divorce, and love. The third appointment, several months later at the conclusion of their business together, ended with a dinner date.
Both were dating other people at the time, but there was something between them that outpaced the others. For several months, they dated and got to know each other more deeply. They spent many hours in intimate conversation, gradually opening up to each other, but still guarded. Then, a misunderstanding triggered their mutual fears, spiraled out of control, and they broke up.
A couple of months went by and she found herself surprised by how much she missed him. She went on dates, but nothing compared to how she felt with him. So, when he called and asked her to go out for drinks, she said yes. And they began dating again.
But, despite all their wonderful long talks, they struggled to communicate effectively about issues between them. They were, in many superficial ways, opposites, and some of those differences caused chronic and painful misunderstandings that quickly devolved into defensiveness and the silent treatment from him, and panic and mistrust from her. So, over the next year, they dated and broke up three more times. In between, they always dated other people, but neither of them discovered anything that rivaled what they experienced with each other. They kept coming back, but always the same dynamic quickly re-established itself between them — one borne of mistrust, insecurity and fear.
The last break-up, after 15 months of dating off and on, left them both exhausted and miserable. They had each tried so hard, in their own ways, but it hadn’t been enough. It was over.
Over the next year, they connected occasionally, but never with any success. They might see each other for a week or two before some disagreement blew them apart again. Their interactions were fraught with the pain of past hurts and the fear of hurts yet to be inflicted. To be sure, the chemistry, the emotional bond, and the energetic pull that had first brought them together was still there, but both realized that they could not continue to hurt each other over and over again. It wasn’t going to work.
So they went off and dated new people — him more than her, but her more seriously than him. But always… lurking somewhere in the corner of their hearts, was disbelief that, with so much great stuff between them, they simply couldn’t make it work.
And then something happened. If this were a scripted romance, the something would be monumental — a dramatic climax to a perfectly crafted story, perhaps. But, alas, this is not a scripted romance, it is real life, and the shift was not dramatic, or even perceptible. It was silent and invisible and impossible, even now, to pinpoint. But something changed.
In her, the change manifested itself as a loss of fear. Not all fear, mind you, but the fear of not being enough for him. She found herself ready, finally, to ask the hard questions of him, to hear the truth, and to receive it with compassion, even if understanding eluded her. She was ready to talk about what had gone wrong between them without fear of losing him. Because, after all, she already had.
For his part, he finally decided that he was tired of running from her and from what they could be together. The risk of letting her in was terrifying, but losing her forever was more so. He wasn’t sure he could be what she needed, that he was whole enough to be the partner she deserved, but he knew he needed to try harder or risk watching some other man finally claim her heart.
So, one night, they met at their favorite bar for drinks. It was a familiar scenario; many of their earlier, failed attempts had originated at that same bar. But tonight was somehow different. First he talked and she listened, then she talked and he listened. They listened for understanding, intently and without judgment, asking questions for clarity but without defensiveness. They talked about all the issues that had been landmines in their relationship — the ones that the mere mention of would immediately generate tension and a retreat to opposing corners. Each was surprised by the other’s open nature that night, and the conversation went on for several hours, until their tongues were tired and their brains were full.
They separated that evening knowing that something had happened. What that something was, was still unclear, but it was different and they could both feel it. “That was the most productive conversation we’ve ever had,” he said to her when he called the next day. “Thank you.” She agreed and thanked him, too.
And so they began to try to know each other in this new way, from this new approach. Both had sincere trepidations, given their long and complicated history, but they made a point, in those early weeks, of having fun together again. It had been so long since they had laughed and teased freely and with ease. They spent time together, and time apart, and each was mindful of the other’s feelings and needs, without falling into that dreaded “walking on eggshells” trap that had characterized so many of their earlier attempts to work on things.
During their year apart, she had focused on trying to learn to relinquish her expectations of certain outcomes, and she found that she was more comfortable, more secure, and happier with him when she did so in the context of their relationship. Loosening her tight focus on a single destination for them liberated her to finally relax and truly enjoy the precious, small moments they were creating together. By living in the now, she discovered that more wonderful little nows were quick to follow.
Not feeling the usual pressure from her that had scared him and caused him to push her away, he was able to let her in. He told her things he’d never told her before, and appreciated her in ways he hadn’t before. When a personal and professional crisis that had been looming in his life finally exploded, he discovered in her a best friend, confidant, and trusted adviser. She was his quiet support and his tender comfort. They agreed that if they could weather his storm together, they could tackle anything…
So, are you wondering how the story ended? Are you wondering if they got their happy-ever-after?
Well, the truth is, I don’t know yet. Because this love story is mine.
It is the story of me and James, and it’s far from over. It’s not perfect, and yet it is. We will still argue, because we are human. We are both still terrified of getting hurt or left or humiliated. We know we have a lot of hurdles in front of us in order to create something sustainable and healthy, but — for once — we’re talking openly about our fears and trying to support and understand each other. Who knows if we’ll be able to stay on this track, but I have more confidence in us than I have ever had before. And, I honestly don’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out our future right now. The present is just right — even with the tough stuff — that I am simply grateful to watch each moment unfold. Some romances are nice and neat and easy; ours is not. But is it real and it is beautiful to me.
I awoke recently to find him sleeping next to me, breathing softly and holding my hand tightly. I rolled over and looked at his peaceful face and felt, as I always do, my heart skip a small beat.
I don’t know what our ending will be, but this, my friends, is my happy new beginning.