My ex-husband and I used to half-joke about what we’d do if we got divorced—I don’t always like you, I’d say, but I like being married.
He’d say: I’m never getting married again if this doesn’t work out.
His girlfriend moved in with him before the divorce was final—they’ll be married in a few months.
Our two sons have yet to be introduced to a man in my life.
We separated six years ago. Neither of us is who we said we were.
Though it gets a bad rap, not being in love with your boyfriend is a comfortable place to be; one doesn’t feel off-kilter. When he was unhappy with me I was clear-headed, took out a notepad and wrote down his concerns, moved toward problem-solving to preserve the trappings of what we had—daily phone calls and text messages, steady sex, a date I needed one. I made space to accommodate this thing I kind of wanted, this thing I was finally mature enough to settle into. Not being in love with a very nice boyfriend is a good compromise.
During a weekend together Nick, the first man I fell in love with after my marriage ended, had hidden a gift in my bag and it tumbled out with my clothes when I returned home. It was a handmade book, bound in fuchsia and gold brocade, the size of my palm. The first page contained a note in his right-slanted all caps handwriting explaining that we would send this book back and forth between us. When I read it, I felt a rush of panic rather than the delight he’d intended. When I saw the book, I knew the relationship would not last. This kind of thing was not sustainable or smart or reasonable; this kind of love burns itself into a curl of smoke. This was too romantic a gesture, too silly, too childish, too reminiscent of the obsessive love I’d experienced with my husband as a teenager. The kind of love I’d woken from with such difficulty. The kind of love I had nearly allowed to swallow me whole.
His last note in the book begins, “This is so hard, I feel like you’re moving far away…” Though we remained entangled for nearly a year after that, I never returned the book. The remaining stiff pages are blank, their cream faces broken only by embedded flower petals.
When I found it in my sock drawer three years later, I faced myself in the bathroom mirror. You don’t deserve love like that, I told myself. Love like that is madness, my self told me back.
The word compromise means both to settle difference by mutual sacrifice and to risk exposure to danger.
My friend made an OkCupid account for me. He was developing a dating app and wanted to test something. After a few weeks he sent me the password in an email. Some of these guys actually seem nice, he said. Maybe you should respond.
He took a photo he had of me and decreased the contrast so my features blurred and smoothed. A plastic Seema. He provided sparse answers to the profile questions. Every time you login, your ranking on the site increases—even if you just glance quickly at the faces, feel immediately terrified and close the tab, it produces an influx of messages. Most messages just say: Hi. What else can they say? How does one explain themselves to a stranger? I don’t know where to begin. I don’t know what the format for such a thing could be.
Date one: drinks
Date two: dinner
Date three: sex (not necessarily, but definitely not sooner, except for sometimes)
Date four: I realize you get on my nerves, firm break
The four date model works only if I date people I don’t really like too much, people I feel safe and in full control of my faculties with. Though at the time I might think I’m giving them a chance. Tell myself, Oh, maybe he told me his salary at our first date because he was nervous. But that first weird thing would eventually be my exit strategy. To preserve the heart one must only start stories with anticipatable endings. There are no disappointments if you don’t get too attached. No one can hurt you if they can’t quite reach you.
If someone asked me if I was seeing someone, I could say yes. I could also (but would not) say: Yes, but it will be over soon. We have nothing in common aside from the fact that we are both human beings. I am not proud of this, and am less proud still that it was a marked improvement from my unrequited love phase, during which I obsessed over men who were at best lukewarm about me and therefore demanded nothing of me. Which was less ethically questionable than the phase that preceded that: trying to convince myself to love when I didn’t so I wouldn’t be alone, hurting people in the process.
I am most comfortable alone, sleeping on my king-sized bed half-covered with books and clothes. To wake to the reliable heat my own body produces. And yet, this compulsion toward partnership.
Is it something I really want? Or is it something I think I should have? Does my ex-husband’s impending remarriage make me feel left behind? I don’t want to be with him, and I don’t want to be her. I want their marriage to succeed, because I want my children, who live with them half the time, to live in an environment of love. I want him to be happy, because when he is unhappy he implodes and the tremors can be felt all the way across town at my dining table.
But I have to admit this: that he can maintain partnership and I cannot makes me wonder if the whole enterprise of marriage failed because of a lack on my part, because I am unable to compromise.
I tried to break the four date pattern with A., the boyfriend I was comfortable not loving. We saw one another twice a week for four or five months. For the first time, five years after the divorce, I took the time to work out differences rather than abandoning the situation when things became messy. A. was a great partner in those conversations, steady and calm and well-reasoned and patient and as honest as a person who is not habitually introspective can be. His interests and belief systems were completely different than mine, and we avoided substantive conversations. He did not read my writing. I did not attend church with him. He was seeking commitment to a future right from the start, and I kept asking to defer the conversation while enjoying intermittent companionship.
Finding myself compromising for the sake of companionship was astonishing—and not in an unpleasant way. I was glad to discover that growth in myself. But I also learned I didn’t want to shape my life around that—it’s what marriage had been for me, an effort to remain static to maintain a life. While compromise is an important component of relationship, the goal of relationship is not itself a reason to compromise. Building a happy, present life with someone has to be about more than convenience or not wanting to be alone.
A. started looking for things to fight about, I started avoiding him. Or maybe I started avoiding him and then he looked for things to fight about. We ended our relationship in a polite conversation at a Starbucks, where we discussed what hadn’t worked in a rational, tearless way. I told him he needed to be needed more than I was willing to need anyone. He told me I was too busy and made too many jokes about the Holy Spirit. He walked me to my car in the rain. I went home alone, relieved.