Think for a moment of a “bad” romantic relationship you were in. We spin over not only why, but how it could have happened. Behaviors, choices, betrayals, and abuses could all be to blame why it went south, but how often do we consider what was taking place in our lives just before we met those partners? It could be the case that even if Prince Charming himself entered our lives at that time, the relationship wouldn’t have been right. This is not to say we’re entirely at fault, but we could have unknowingly laid the framework for dysfunction.
I met my ex-husband when I was 20. That’s probably all of the information anyone needs to know that marriage wasn’t going to last, but it goes deeper. Sure, I was a baby, but also, that had been one hell of a year.
I was in college and moved back home, after feeling utterly overwhelmed by family drama. I had been in therapy, trying to figure out my role in all of it and what the hell I was doing with my life when I realized the major I had chosen to study wasn’t really a major after all (rather a certificate program) and that I would need to go a much longer, more expensive route to get remotely close to the field I had chosen. I had misunderstood the course catalogue and didn’t have an advisor working with me to plan my path to a bachelor’s degree. I felt defeated. It seemed like a clear sign to just go home and try to deal with some of the mess that was waiting back there for me. (Clearly, this would be a great time to start a serious relationship, right?)
I made this move out of desperation. I had run out of money, was racking up debt, and getting groceries from a local food pantry. I like to think a mandatory financial literacy course would have made all the difference because I didn’t really want to leave that school. I felt alive there, while back in my small town, I felt suffocated. But back home I went.
This was a fear-based move, but I also conquered a big fear that year by taking my first plane ride ever. I went to New York City to see my best friend twice and fell deeper in love with the city and hopelessly in love with her friend, Jesse. He broke my heart. He became completely unreachable after sending two dozen roses to my parents’ house on Valentine’s Day. (Can you see the relationship foreshadowing yet?)
I felt like I had so many incredible things being dangled in front of me, yet I had no control. It seemed my life was being dictated by other people and outside circumstances. Through it all was an electric current of rage toward my mother, so my therapist recommended an anger management course. Yes, that sounds dramatic, I know, but I’ve learned very few people manage anger in a healthy way. The class lasted a couple of months and was eye-opening. I decided to go visit my mother in New Mexico, and before I knew it, we had hatched a plan for me to move out West and pursue acting. This would be the part where I meet my future ex-husband.
This was not the right time, it was not planned, and I wasn’t even interested in him. I know you can figure out his identity, but at an attempt to preserve his privacy, I’ll call him Ethan. Ethan was cocky, and from what I could see, he had no reason to be. He was a smoker, a drinker, a single dad, and his version of flirting looked like incessant teasing, which annoyed me. He had many strikes against him, and yet, we started talking all the time. We talked about life, art, religion, politics, music, current events, travel, our pasts, our dreams for the future and on and on. When we weren’t talking to each other we were writing to each other. There were pages and pages of handwritten dialogue, instant messages, emails and later, text messages. I think we took this to mean we understood each other and had a deep connection, when really, maybe we were just happy to have intelligent conversation and someone’s undivided attention. It’s nice to be wanted, valued, and appreciated (all things that would fall by the wayside soon enough). We were also young, hormonal, and had delusional, pop culture expectations of each other. We loved each other, but I have many platonic friends whom I love and never feel inclined to start a romantic relationship with.
I would soon rationalize the timing of this relationship by saying that since I had gone through such a transformative year of forgiveness and inner work, that I would meet my “soul mate” because I was ready. I was bringing my “best self” to the table, as you do when you are the ripe age of 20 and know all of the things.
We were together for a total of seven years, married for three. We were both exhausted by the time it was over. Our first big, profanity-laced fight happened halfway through our first year together and never really let up. So much for anger management! I’ve been remarried for some time now and my husband and I have never talked to each other the way Ethan and I talked to each other. My theory is that our relationship was based on communication, so when we fought, it was maddening that we weren’t understanding one another, as if we only had to yell louder and be more aggressive to finally get through to one another. Or maybe we realized how tragically wrong we had been about the whole thing and let our disappointment get the best of us. We moved in with one another and then moved apart, we broke up and got back together, we worried about divorce before we were even married, I spent nights away, cried in my car, went to restaurants alone just to get away from the fighting, and we spent so many hours in counseling…the writing had always been on the wall.
So how does this happen? Not the demise of a relationship, but entering into the wrong relationship in the first place. It can be that we are young and stupid, yes, but anyone at any age can have a year like the one I had prior to meeting Ethan. Our coping mechanisms, our world view, our outlets for both the positive and negative all play a part in whether we can distinguish right from wrong, healthy from unhealthy. And this goes for any major decision, but it just so happens that no single decision has had more life-altering consequences for me than my first marriage had.
Then there is this: Without a doubt, I would not have created the life I have today without experiencing what I did when I was 20. It is possible to have regrets and not regret the whole thing. Where do you feel this way in your own life? Can you contemplate your “bad” relationships, put them in context of where you were at the time you entered into them, and be compassionate toward your younger self? In the process, you just might be able to make sense of the senseless.