IT HAPPENED TO ME: Monogamy Was My Crutch

Friends encouraged me to be single for a while, but when I spent time alone I felt small and empty.

Jan 7, 2014 at 2:00pm | Leave a comment

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Illustration credit: Tricia Reid

“Marriage Material.” I thought to myself two minutes after meeting my Match.com date for the first time.
 
He was a few years older, wearing a crisp button-down shirt, had a good job and a bright smile.  I was 26, figuring out my career, and living in a small apartment with two Craigslist strangers. I had broken up with my previous boyfriend just two months earlier. But I was never one to let grass grow under my feet between relationships.
 
For a decade of my life, I was a serial monogamist. That is to say, between the ages of 18-28, I jumped from one relationship into the next at lightning speed and was never single for more than two months at a time. My friends questioned my impulsive behavior, but I’ve always been a social person who connected with people easily and fell in love fast. I’ve had a history of looking at men with rose colored glasses and casting them each in the role of Prince Charming.
 
When I moved to Manhattan to attend acting school, I was clueless and starry eyed. New York is tough and expensive -- the string of jobs I’d take to support myself during my first few years in the Big Apple (waitress, nanny, personal assistant, dog walker) were not glamorous. I took crappy jobs to pay for my crappy life, and saw expensive therapists I couldn’t afford while going into debt trying to figure everything out.
 
The city was chaotic, my living situation unstable, even my goals for the future unclear; I felt lost and scared. My friends provided emotional support, but I needed more reassurance.
 
Relationships became my escape.
 
Two weeks after my college boyfriend and I broke up (after three years together), my girlfriends took me out to cheer me up. That night, I met a fun-loving, 31 year old doctor with a great sense of humor and kind heart. I was 22 and smitten. As we chatted, my worries dissolved and I envisioned a happy, stable future. I told him I was an actress supporting myself with odd jobs and put on my best smile. We went to dinner one week later and were inseparable for the next two-and-a-half years.
 
The minute I met a man I liked, he consumed 90% of my brain. I worked hard to hide my insecurities, choosing instead to focus my thoughts and energy on becoming the best girlfriend possible.
 
Shortly after the doctor and I started dating, I began working as the office manager at his busy midtown practice. After a year-and-a-half together, I moved in with him. But over time I felt anxious, questioning my choice to abandon the messy, more difficult path I was pursuing before we’d met.
 
I had moved to Manhattan to become an actress. His plan was to move to the suburbs, start a family, and have his wife administrate his business. I’d been aware of this from the start, but it was convenient to push it to the back of my mind. Still, something internal kept urging me to explore my own identity. After months of excruciating conversations lasting into the middle of the night, we broke up.
 
I moved into a tiny, furnished bedroom on the Upper East Side where my messy, more difficult life was waiting for me just as I’d left it. I worked three part time jobs while attending casting workshops at night. But most agents cut me off mid-monologue without lifting their eyes from the paper.
 
Though I'd made the right decision by leaving my relationship, this didn’t feel right either. The journey for most actors was full of rejection and uncertainty, and a sickening awareness was growing: I couldn’t commit to the lifestyle of an aspiring artist. I craved more stability, and my financial problems and living situation were forcing me to rethink my career choice.
 
A pattern was emerging: stability felt like a strait jacket; instability was not an option.
 
I was riddled with anxiety as I combed job boards. I yearned for someone to comfort me and acknowledge my talents.
 
So I got on Match.
 
And that’s how I found myself in a flowery dress flirting with a quiet, blue-eyed finance guy 6 years my senior less than two months after my break up. Our first date was at an upscale, Mexican restaurant on the Upper East Side.
 
I’m ashamed to admit that I knew from the beginning that we weren’t right for each other. I laughed at jokes I didn’t find funny, pretended to be interested in things I’m not, and agreed we should order the mild guacamole when I really prefer spicy. But those incompatibilities were preferable to feeling invisible in my bedroom, so in the weeks that followed I handcuffed myself to someone else once again.
 
Entire days were spent getting my nails manicured, my hair blown out, and charging expensive outfits to my credit card so I’d look flawless whenever we got together. I lived for the moments he’d ooooh and ahhhh over me, and prepared for our dates with more determination than I ever invested in auditions. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t right for me. What mattered was that I was perfect for him.
 
A dizzying sensation overcame me when in his presence. I’d perform the part of “Perfect Girlfriend,” desperate to win the role. The validation I’d never received as an actress was made up for with his approval. His attention and affection filled me the way water fills a dry sponge, and I grew thirsty for him whenever we were apart. The time and money burned in the process were worth it to me: the mission gave me purpose; the payoff made me feel whole.
 
At least it did in the beginning.
 
Over time the sensation wore off quicker and quicker, and once I’d won him over, I got antsy. I knew deep down that our relationship was headed nowhere, but felt guilty and trapped. It became harder and harder to make small talk.
 
“What’s goin’ on with you?” he asked one night over dinner.
 
“Nothing,” I mumbled. “I’m just thinking about work.”
 
He took a deep breath before answering.
 
“Fine.”
 
It was one of many tense meals we'd endure as our relationship came to an end. I should have apologized for deceiving him, but I was humiliated and didn’t want to talk. I just wanted out. He was the one to pull the plug, though; tired of trying to figure out what was wrong with me.
 
It still makes me cringe, and I’d like to think those 15 months never happened.
 
But they did happen, and by this time I was 26.  And while I’d spent the past year getting manicures, most of my friends were now getting promotions and getting engaged.
 
The realization startled me, and I was eager to catch up. So I contacted a head hunter to set up meetings with potential employers. After a week of interviews, I was hired to work at a talent agency. For the first time since moving to New York, I had insurance, a steady salary, and a chance at a career.
 
With my relationships behind me and my new job ahead of me, things were turning around. Friends encouraged me to be single for a while, but when I spent time alone I felt small and empty. After a few weeks, I insisted I was ready to date again.
 
“I’ve learned from the past.” I argued. “I won’t make the same mistakes.”
 
“Marriage Material” and I met at a coffeehouse in the West Village, and were crazy about each other from the start. He was handsome, creative, and thoughtful; everything I imagined my husband would be.
 
I moved out of my tiny bedroom on the Upper East Side and into a tiny bedroom in Park Slope so we could be closer to each other. Families fell in love, holidays were shared, and I could practically see our redheaded babies.
 
Which is why I was so shocked when it happened.
 
Driving home from the Jersey Shore on a beautiful Saturday, cold beads of sweat started trickling down my neck as we spoke about our future. It’s a sensation you feel when your gut is trying to tell you something important.
 
A few weeks later, it happened again at a friend’s wedding. As the happy couple recited their vows, my legs became jelly and my fingertips turned prickly.
 
Then it started happening all the time: a tingly feeling, like someone was pouring Ginger Ale in my brain, whenever we spoke about the future.
 
Yes, it was true he was everything I’d wanted in a husband. But he couldn’t be my husband because I wasn’t yet ready to be a wife. Anchored in me somewhere, I knew if I ignored my conscience on this, the consequences would be far more devastating than anything I’d experienced in a relationship thus far.
 
My gut was sending the same message louder and louder each day: I’d never be in a healthy relationship if I couldn’t be honest about who I was. But I hadn’t taken the time to get to know her yet. It was imperative I learn to fill the space when I was alone so I didn’t feel small and empty. Those voids needed to be filled with understanding, compassion, forgiveness, and respect for myself.
 
I realized that when it comes to honesty and love, you can’t give to someone else what you haven’t yet given to yourself.
 
I kept tripping and falling, until I finally forced myself to do the hard work I had been eluding for many years.
 
A year after “Marriage Material” and I broke up, I went to another wedding, solo this time. As the DJ called the couples to the dance floor, another single girl took a seat next to me.
 
“Awkward,” she moaned.
 
I thought back to two years earlier when I was having heart palpitations as my friends recited their vows. 
 
That was awkward.
 
Today, I was OK.
 
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The author enjoying the company of friends at a wedding in 2013, solo.