He was an overcorrection on my part. When I returned home for the summer, my friends warned me of the possibility of turning the wheel too far in the opposite direction. My ex-boyfriend had been controlling but thoughtful, intense in good ways and bad. We sent each other dirty texts and naked pictures but also searing love letters. He was perfect. And he was terrible.
This new boy was nothing of the sort. He was smart, gentle and kind. He moved slowly. He held back. He withheld deeper emotions until later in the game. He was everything I needed but nothing like I thought I wanted.
My friends were convinced he would be a palate cleanser — a safe space to rid myself of the previous relationship’s demons before moving to a middle ground. At the time I wondered: How could he be right for me? My ex had been half-perfect. His opposite couldn’t possibly be the ideal — as though such a man exists.
We all have visions of who our perfect partner will be. Shaped by the love songs I played on repeat and the TV couples I rooted for, this idea of a person fit into the larger (very unoriginal) narrative I planned for my life: A single career girl for my 20s, married around 30, traveling the globe before children. This eventual man was to be smart and worldly, an excellent conversationalist who could be a bit of a jerk when he needed to be. “I want to be challenged,” was my frequent refrain.
The narrative certainly did not include marrying my sweet college rebound.
But suddenly, at the age of 20, I had an undeniably and uniquely good man on my hands. He had no interest in keeping his options open. He abhorred locker-room talk and surrounded himself with male friends who felt the same way. He never called me names or exploited my insecurities in a fight. He tended to his family relationships with purpose and unselfishness.
I felt inept and unworthy in the face of his goodness. To compensate, I focused less on his inherent goodness and more on trivial things that bothered me: his preference for dressing in athletic wear, his lack of spontaneity, his hesitance to share his every thought. After college, he said he wanted to marry me. I felt myself drowning in uncertainty. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. I told myself that he deserved better and that I should let him go — let him find a sweeter, simpler girl who was more eager to get married. But I knew this man was special. I was increasingly afraid that if I insisted on holding tightly to my trite narrative of how my life should go, I would look back with regret.
I forced myself to be brave. I was tossed about by enormous waves of doubt all the way to my wedding day, sure I wasn’t supposed to feel this way on the eve of the most important decision of my life. The little voice in my head hissed: Twenty-five years old and marrying the second guy you’ve ever dated. Pathetic.
“It takes a strong man to marry a strong woman,” my mother said in her toast at our rehearsal dinner. Her words rang impossibly true. My kind, nonconfrontational husband has shown strength I could never have envisioned in a future partner. With a calmness I can’t fathom, he has weathered my emotional storms, my fear of commitment as a child of divorce, my mixed signals throughout our relationship.
“I’m not ready,” I would tell him. “Maybe we should break up.”
“I don’t need you to be ready now,” he would reply. “Take your time.”
It is tempting to distill relationships into binaries: One person is passionate and thoughtful but bad; another is good and kind but boring. I feared a life of soulless domesticity but have found my marriage, and my husband, to be far more complex. His patient and rational mind has proven to be an ideal foil to mine. On long road trips, his English major comes out and we talk in depth about our favorite shows and movies for hours. He is rarely defensive when I raise problems with our relationship, and with an open mind, he has grown into not just what I needed, but what I wanted.
Why don’t we write love songs about this kind of person? Why aren’t romantic heroes men who prove decent, patient and kind? The witty banter I enjoyed at parties wilts in the light of this goodness. The idea of the worldly older guy flying me to Paris seems like a joke. The toxic high of a man who promises the world and then rips it away the second things don’t go his way feels exhausting.
I took a leap that felt wrong in my gut but right in my head. I married the steadiest person I ever met and embraced our relationship for everything it was instead of everything it wasn’t. This sort of thing doesn’t lend itself to love songs, but it makes for a happier life.