These past couple years, I’ve felt like I can barely keep my head above water. Three years ago, I was sexually assaulted by my boss. Subsequently, I lost my mother to brain cancer. Two years ago, I was diagnosed with HPV (I know, one of the more mundane venereal diseases, but I still have to disclose it before sex in a non-sexy, NDA way.) Then right as COVID began, I lost my job; and I’ve been cobbling a living together from freelance work ever since.
Amid all this pain, I reconnected with an old friend from my hometown. We’d been friends in school years ago, and when we met up again, I found a refuge in him. He treated me with the kindness and love I needed to begin … well, not hating myself. He didn’t so much as wince when I brought up the trauma and the dull depression I’ve lived under since. So when he asked to date, I said yes. Even if there wasn’t much chemistry or romantic appeal there, there was safety. And these days, I cherish safety.
But as the relationship has progressed, I feel deeply ashamed and anxious as he speaks to the future — “our future.” I know it was selfish to begin a relationship with someone I didn’t have strong feelings for, but I was terrified of being alone. I’m 28, who knows if I’ll find another person who’s willing to accept this baggage with such grace and compassion? On the other hand, he’s a good man and he deserves honesty from his partner. Should I shift my priorities towards having a caring partner over one I really connect with? Should I break up with him and just pray I can keep treading water?
Good lord, you’ve had a real fucking time of it for the past few years. Yes, a lot of people who write to me have had bad things happen to them but I do feel obliged to give this one a sincere: Damn, that is rough.
Rough enough that I understand why you would grab hold of anything or anyone who feels steady and warm. And it’s hardly surprising that you’re depressed, giving the litany of depressing things the universe has thrown your way. Even if these things hadn’t happened to you, if you’d just been allotted a more meager share of misery, you’re at the age where a lot of women start being told that what they need to look for in a partner is steadiness. Reliability. That it is time to grow up and set aside our adolescent notions of romantic love in favor of something more sustainable. Warmth that nurtures instead of heat that burns.
This all sounds very sensible and correct. It certainly did to me after years of one romantic humiliation after another. It was simply a matter of, as you say, shifting my priorities; learning to value the things that really matter, long-term. The problem, Baggage, is that while it’s eminently possible and even good to reprioritize what you want from other people, making yourself want the person in front of you simply because they promise to stand there forever is another matter entirely.
Try as I might, I’ve never had much success directing the course of my own desire. I can will it in one direction — toward someone who makes so much sense on paper — but it inevitably goes awry and lands somewhere else. The fact is desire is sort of fundamentally adolescent, and while it can grow and flourish over time into something less petulant and demanding I think, for me, it has to start out that way. The most I’ve ever hurt anyone else is in trying to be someone for whom this wasn’t true.
That’s probably not the case for everyone, or even most people, who knows. I’m sure for some there are genuine and long-lasting pleasures to be found in relationships built on a different foundation. But those people aren’t the sort to write an advice columnist because they already feel awful about it.
I think that what you would like me to do is tell you that your actions are selfish and unkind and that you have to break up with this man immediately. I’m not going to do that, because I suspect you feel bad enough already. Instead, what I’m going to do is ask you to think about what happens when you start feeling good again. Because this will happen, eventually. You will start to feel more alive in the world. When that happens, will this good man make you feel sheltered or will he make you feel trapped?
You do have to stay alive before you start to feel alive. That’s important, so I’m not saying you have to be alone until you get there. But I think you do owe this person some honesty about your reservations and your anxiety about planning a future together. That may mean admitting that while you would like him to be in your life it may not be as a partner. This will take a bit of courage on your part, as it always takes a bit of courage to tell someone precisely how and why you need them. Whatever else life throws at you, you can usually feel good about doing the courageous thing.
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