Most love stories end in a proposal; this one begins with one.
It felt as if I were in a dream.
It was a nightmare. As I stared at the diamond ring in his hands, there was a sinking feeling in my gut and my skin squirmed around on my bones. “I’m not ready.”
I was 26 years old and had been in a happy relationship with Peter since I was 17. It was a beautiful, once-in-a-lifetime love, a love that gave my life a deep sense of meaning. He was my world, my other half, my best friend, and we shared a connection of sincere intimacy and profound passion. Our love was my guiding light, and the importance of our relationship even inspired me to devote my life to helping others feel the same kind of deep love, becoming a PhD couple’s therapist and researcher. My life was about love.
And yet, that night I tearfully said to him, “I just gave back a ring to the love of my life. What’s wrong with me?”
The months that ensued were full of pain, confusion, and panic; I was consumed by the thought that there was something terribly wrong with me for refusing his proposal. I clung to him in emotional desperation as I dissected and analyzed how and why I was so messed up to turn away what I had wanted the most. Maybe it was because I felt that I was a work in progress, that I wasn’t complete enough to tie my life up in a bow? And as he pulled away, I felt a bottomless fear inside of me. My entire world was coming to an end in front of my eyes, and there was nothing I could do about it.
The crippling doubt I held about myself and our relationship weakened me, and I couldn’t sew myself or our relationship back together. I was hopeless in the search to do something, anything, to fix what I had broken. The fear that gripped me said that I was not enough to face this world on my own. A few months after the proposal, I told him, “I think we can get married after I heal myself.” He was quiet.
Not long after that, we held each other in bed, weeping, as he told me he was terrified of the thought of being monogamous for the rest of his life and he wanted to break up. I was keeping him from living the life he wanted to live. I wasn’t enough.
As I moved my things out of our home, apprehension and hollowness gripped my heart, a tension in my chest that screamed furiously at me. But I threw myself into my new life with vigor and zest. I strengthened my friendships. I went out drinking and hit on men. I was actually pretty damn good at it! I could be bold, charismatic; I could even be funny. The breadth and strength of men’s attention shocked me. They told me I was attractive and had good qualities, and I felt desirable. I employed a “mantourage” dating style and dated up to four men at once. I was discovering a new, more confident side of myself.
I found out that Peter was with a polyamorous girl from work who offered him threesomes and an open relationship. Had he chosen her over me? Was this further evidence of my inadequacy? The grief over losing the nine-year relationship that had molded me and served as my north star was something I never could have prepared for. I sat with the pain sometimes and often ran from it. I spent my time swiping. I made out with my sexy neighbor in a hot tub. I had a one-night stand with the lead singer of my favorite local band. I met a man at Red Rocks who flew me across the country to a three-night Phish concert. I was valued by men, so I valued myself.
During my first date with Lance, six months after the breakup with Peter, we connected over the loss of our long relationships. He had recently been divorced from an eight-year relationship. We shared our stories; we both felt the loss as if someone had died. Lance was loving and accepting of me to a surprising extent—he cherished me, even worshipped me. He approved of all of me, supporting me in good times and comforting me in hard ones, and he made me feel lovable. However, his compassion didn’t extend past our relationship, and his behavior offended nearly everyone in my life. After causing a dispute with my mom and sister, I broke up with him.
I was alone again. The all-too familiar existential anxiety engulfed me. With love as my greatest value in life, how do I live without someone to love? I felt lost. But why did I feel this all-consuming fear? It had been over a year since my breakup with Peter. I should be able to stand on my own two feet by now. There’s something wrong with me for feeling this pain. Am I irreparably damaged? Defective? Unlovable? I pushed my pain under the rug and hid it at all costs.
Tinder was a useful tool for covering up my feelings; the approval I received from men made me feel that I was a person of worth. It wasn’t long before I met Will. Will had a large trust fund, and I had only known him a week when he invited me on a month-long trip through Europe, all expenses paid. I was living the high life—staying in nice hotels, dining at five course meals, and being treated to shopping sprees. But as we sat at high-class restaurants, he nitpicked my table manners. My clothes were apparently worn and cheap-looking, and shopping trips were to bring my attire up to par. He told me that all men want what they can’t have. He told me he wished I looked more like the Instagram models. He told me he wanted me to go to the gym and get a six pack. And again I was triggered; I felt undesirable and unattractive. Can I make a partner happy just being myself? Will being with me always make someone feel that they’re not living the best life they could? I felt the unease creeping in—I didn’t want to feel this way, but I didn’t want to be alone again.
Back from Europe, I again stood in a cloud of uncomfortable angst. Loneliness put my body in a state of fight or flight. Then am I defective for feeling this fear? Will people reject me if they see this anxiety? Does this make me incapable, unworthy? More loneliness, more fear, more anxiety. Feeling disconnected. Cycling. Four to five dates a week couldn’t give me the validation I needed to get out of his dark hole.
Finally, I opened up to my family. I told them that without love, my life felt meaningless, empty, and frightening, and I was consumed by feelings of shame for not being able to get rid of these feelings. Through their support and kindness, I realized that I could open up to others about my suffering, I could be vulnerable and authentic. I realized that my suffering did not make me defective, it made me human. I recognized I could turn toward myself and my pain with compassion and love. I was capable of going through hard times, and I was allowed to. I could accept myself and how I felt. Even though I couldn’t direct my guiding light, love, at an intimate partner at this time, I could aim it at myself. And suddenly, the pain didn’t feel so scary.
My life is still about love. I continue to practice compassion toward myself and toward others. I explore romantic relationships to find out what feels right to me and I strive for acceptance in the relationships I bring into my life. I work toward my goals as a therapist and researcher so that I can make a contribution in what I think is important—helping others love in their relationships with others and themselves.
Today, a year and a half after the breakup, I saw Peter drive by while at a stoplight. I thought, I could have been in that car—what would my life look like if I was wearing his ring?
That sinking feeling, my squirming skin, it had been telling me that my story wasn’t finished. At the time, I thought that I wasn’t good enough to accept myself as marriage material and tie my life in bow; I wasn’t complete enough. Although I still struggle with feelings of inadequacy, now I know the common humanity of this experience. Instead of judging myself for self-doubt, I recognize that feelings of imperfection are an experience shared by all of us, and I offer myself compassion and love for these feelings. As I looked at him down on one knee, I hadn’t been ready—ready to love myself.