A peek inside a past relationship can be a wake up call.
One night a few months ago, my girlfriend Kara and I had yet another argument. I can’t remember just how bad it was, but it was bad enough. The specific hows and whys of what caused it escape me as I write this. But the details don’t matter. The salient issue was her complaint that she did not feel loved. It was a persistent theme in our arguments, and it boiled down to me spending too much time in my office, where I liked to shut myself in for hours to read and write, and when I came out I was often so absorbed in my thoughts it was like I wore a sign that said ‘do not disturb.’ Add a proclivity for solipsism that takes root after many years acclimated to the comforts of solitude and I did not have in my possession any recipes for how to go about maintaining balance in a relationship.
I have long struggled to cultivate intimacy in relationships. I am a classic introvert, someone who demands a lot of time alone in order to feel content and at peace with life. But many introverts manage to not alienate important people in their lives. I seem to have done nothing but. I have loved other women before Kara, and all of them broke up with me because, after only months of being together (more than a year in only one case), I succeeded in making them feel distant from me. By the time I met my Kara, I had lived most of my life alone and arrived at the conclusion that my preferred lifestyle of unbridled independence was incompatible with the partnership required of a relationship.
This did not always make me happy. Yet it did inspire a kind of perverse pride in assuming the mantle of a loner at odds with the world, as if I was a lone soldier courageous enough to walk to the beat of my own drum, the world be damned. When occasionally I found a companion willing to listen to my beat, this pride inevitably instigated a strange propensity for alienating my audience, like a comedian or showman who cannot resist an urge to insult his audience. The women in my relationships wanted to be closer to me, but I kept them at a distance, seeing them only as part of the world around me, i.e. a threat, and not allowing them entry into the interior realm of introspection in which I wrote the music of my soul. Part of it, however, was the demands of introversion—I needed time to myself. That’s who I was. I like to brood. I like silence. I like solitude. Many women could not deal with that, and their feeling of alienation from me was as much a function of their incompatibility with me as it was my pride in stubbornly adhering to a life of self-centered egotism.
Kara is unlike any of the women in my previous relationships. She is a quirky introvert. She enjoys solitude. She has the soul of a loner and often shuns society after only a few hours of social stimulation. If anyone should ‘get’ me, it is she. And yet, I was succeeding even in alienating her. She respected my need for time alone. She admired my embrace of the introspective life. She appreciated the pensive, irreverent, prickly qualities that make me the person I am.
But she wanted to be a part of my life. She wanted to be a priority on the same order as my writing and reading. She wanted a seat by my side in the interior realm of retreat and withdrawal in which I had indulged the rewards of a solitary life. Yet I was resistant to making her a priority on the same order of activities which had sustained me through all my years of loneliness.
My inclination toward insular self-sufficiency set in at a young age. I grew up believing my parents hated each other. Maybe they loved each other once, but I only knew the chronic friction and combustibility that characterized their marriage. I was fifteen when they finally separated. I was happy they did. They could start anew and build a new life for themselves. It’s about time, I thought to myself, and I didn’t think much more about it. I was too busy with my own adolescent cares and concerns. I was also too young to understand the repercussions of my indifference. I was happy to see my parents find independence from the source of their unhappiness—i.e. each other. The lesson I derived from their experience was that, in life, I should never get bogged down in relationships with the wrong people. In time, however, my takeaway was: don’t get bogged down in relationships with anyone.
As the years went by, it was a lesson I applied to all my relationships whenever they started to go awry. I consoled myself, not always so convincingly, that I was best off alone. During high school, I lived with my father and embraced a life of structured routine. I loved it. School and track practice. Nothing else. No parties, no dances, no proms. With the exception of a brief relationship in which similar intimacy issues arose, I shunned a social life. I eschewed anything that threatened to get in the way of what I was trying to achieve. In college, I was the same. I spent many hours in the library and went to track practice every day. Not much dating, no drinking, no partying. I learned to be happy by myself.
When I moved to New York City after college, I tried to come out of my shell. There was a network of graduates from my university in the city, and with no exams to study for at night and the Big Apple to explore, I ventured out into the city with various friends from school, though primarily with my best friend from college. Then my best friend moved out to Los Angeles after parting ways with his firm. Having lost a friend and roommate, and getting more distracted by a busy workload, I began to feel alone and out of place in a city that swallows people up with its savvy cosmopolitanism. So I reverted to what I knew: I embraced the intellectual and emotional habits of rigid self-reliance. But I was still in my early twenties, young enough to not be inflexibly set in my ways. And I longed for love. I did not know much about love, but I was at least willing take risks to find it. Eventually I found my way into relationships, and when I did I discovered I was too inexperienced to know what to do. I was arrogant, immature, and stiff. All obvious turnoffs for any woman who might consider a date with me. I grew frustrated with women. I blamed my failures on things like not having a lot of money or having an underwhelming personality, and took a curious consolation in concluding that I simply was not cut out for relationships in the big city (or at all).
Several years later, I met Kara. I had been living in Washington, D.C. for five years. It was two years after my ex-fiancé had broken off our engagement (the only relationship of mine that lasted more than a year; she was an extreme extrovert for whom my introversion eventually proved intolerable for her). I was going out every weekend with a crew of friends who enjoyed the nightlife, and who taught me to enjoy it. I nursed a secret pessimism that I was never going to find love, and felt a vibrant freedom in embracing the single life that goes along with the nightlife (spending the whole day on weekends to ‘recover’ from socialization—after all, I was still an introvert). In my mid-thirties, I outwardly thrived on the blithe confidence that comes with maturity, even if I worried that there was something essential missing from a lifetime of nightlife and bachelorhood.
Then one day, I met Kara in boxing class. We got to talking, and one day during class I ‘arranged’ for us to do some light sparring. I inadvertently jabbed her in the eye, after which she joked that I half-blinded her. The next week, we paired up again. She kneed me in the groin. The rest was history, as they say.
Within weeks, we went on a trip to Paris and London. Soon after, we moved in together. We got along. We laughed together. Read the same books together. Realized we had the same values. Had similar struggles growing up in unstable families. Our sexual chemistry was second to none. And on and on.
The compatibility we shared was unique, invigorating, and real.
But as relationships go, we eventually ran into difficulties. After the initial rush of excitement over meeting someone new, grateful and happy in the first months of our relationship to have found someone to love, the oxytocin drained from my system. I found myself out of tune with the equilibrium that introversion demands. I started to resist what I perceived to be her intrusions on my independence. I sought time alone. I wanted less time with her and more time with my books. I wanted to retreat into my shell.
I struggled to make her feel loved and cherished. She wanted to feel secure in our love, but she was beginning to fear that my retreat into solitude would spell the beginning of the end of our relationship.
Hence we argued. Anything I said or did to make her feel marginalized sparked resentment. And resentment sparked fights.
[ 1 | 2 ]