Someone is going to touch your hand in a dark movie theater where a scary movie is playing but you can’t remember a single thing that happened in the story because you are too busy concentrating on your own breath and how close this person is to your body. They are going to reach out and touch you and it is going to feel like a thousand needles pushing into your skin at once, the kind of pain which is as much a thrill as it is an object of fear. You are going to forget how to breathe, how to look normal, how to pretend to be the person you were only a few seconds ago. And it will be good, but it won’t be love.
I dated a guy for a time who was very nice. We’re used to the descriptor “nice” as having become almost a euphemism, something we say about people for whom there is not much else positive to say. But he was kind, and loving, and thoughtful, and all of the things which actually mean nice in practice. He told me such wonderful things about me. He remembered special dates, and made efforts. And though I was objectively a very happy person, all of his gestures kind of washed over me in a frothy wave of insecurity and suspicion. There was a part of my brain — a significant part, even — which did not believe that I was worthy of that kind of affection. So when he touched my hand in that movie theater, and the prickly excitement of finally feeling something numbed out my whole body, it was only a matter of minutes before I began unpleasantly feeling myself again.
And myself was not good. I was unmotivated, unable to find a foothold of pride in my rocky slope of young adulthood. It seemed like I couldn’t finish anything I started, that I was wasting every bit of potential the world had seen fit to give me and certainly didn’t deserve the attentions of someone infinitely more successful and worthy than I was. What would I say when I met someone’s parents? “Oh, hello, I am working a terrible job and I don’t know when I’ll finish my degree or what I will do with it when I finish. I can’t keep my room clean and my car is always just a few precious seconds away from empty when I pull into the gas station. I am ugly, but mostly because I can’t find the motivation to really take care of myself. I don’t like what I see in the mirror.” You can’t say these things, even when they are all you feel.
He really did care about me, I think. He was able to navigate around all of the downsides of my personality I presented him with. I would tell him I had no direction, he would say I was finding myself. I would say that I ate badly, he would tell me I was listening to my body. And if he were talking about someone else that I actually enjoyed the company of, I might have believed his assessment of my life. But as it stood, I disliked myself deeply and could only find faults in the person I was becoming. I had no respect for myself and, because he chose to love me anyway, I lost respect for him.
We often present the idea of relationships in terms of two halves coming together to make a whole. But I think a much more apt description would be a venn diagram: two complete circles overlapping and making something even more impressive in the middle. They still retain their individual wholeness, but they share things that neither would be capable of creating on their own. You cannot come to someone else as a puzzle with a few crucial pieces missing and expect that they will fill it over with whatever spares they happen to have around. Because we are not mechanics. We are not here to fix someone’s own view of themselves, and convince them that what we see is what is real. Self-love is a complex journey requiring of just as much time and effort and attention as the love we give to someone else, and it isn’t something that we will magically find when someone just good-looking enough tells us that we should feel it.
I had to make amends with myself. I had to find my own motivation, to start something for me, and to see it through to fruition. When I told him that I couldn’t be with him, I was almost tempted to use that cloying “It’s not you, it’s me” line that everyone seems to understand and reject in equal measure. But in our case, it had some grain of truth. I had run to him because I wanted to believe that I was lovable, that I could find something, that a relationship could be my one “thing” in life that I was good at. But he was in that relationship, too, and deserved just as much back from me as he was offering. When I realized that I couldn’t give it, and likely never would be able to until I proved to myself that I was good and capable on my own, I had to leave. But that’s never easy to explain.
Sometimes we say that we met people at the wrong time. But maybe we meet them when we are the wrong person, when we have not yet met and fallen in love with ourselves. We are only half of a thing — even if we can imagine that there is a better version of us out there — and we are hoping that someone else will fill in the missing parts so that we don’t have to.