Slowly, methodically, I enumerated my boyfriend’s many virtues: honesty, empathy, patience and generosity. He’s handsome and smart, funny and thoughtful. He’s adventurous; he cooks me elaborate meals.
My therapist interrupted to ask: “So what’s all the anxiety about moving in, then?”
She is an incredibly smart woman. I would follow her advice on anything, if she would only offer some. But she’s frustratingly professional. Her job is not to tell me what to do but to nudge me into figuring it out myself. This means we engage in an often tedious volleying of questions and answers with the occasional statement to help me see things from a different angle.
In this session, what I’d described as a “slight tug in my belly at the thought of parting with my apartment” she’d interpreted as full-blown anxiety about moving in with my boyfriend.
Could she be right? At 41, with two divorces behind me, I’d been at this juncture before. Never did I think twice about it. I gladly packed my bags and moved in with the man I loved, each time.
Normally, I’d be hard-pressed to keep my mouth shut in a therapy session. But I’d gone blank.
I knew better than to rush to fill the silence — another sign of anxiety, apparently. So I tried to sit with it. Not an easy task, but I’ve been going to therapy long enough to develop tricks. I might think of the bill I’ll get at the end of the session. I can BS my friends for free; but here, I better make each minute count.
Since I couldn’t come up with a reason for my anxiety, I tried to explain what it is not about.
“It’s not about moving in together,” I began.
My boyfriend and I had been practically living together the past five months. It happened organically, when I left my Manhattan apartment for a temporary work assignment in Washington. I spent almost every weekend with him in New York, taking the train up on Thursday evening and back down on Monday morning. My project in Washington ended earlier than anticipated, weeks before my New York apartment would be vacant again. Naturally, I stayed at my boyfriend’s. And we had a blast.
By the time I got my apartment back, we’d run out of reasons for spending time apart. I hadn’t bothered to take my winter clothes back to my place; little by little, I brought my spring outfits to his, filling the closet and chest of drawers he’d given me. Before I knew it, I’d started using my apartment as an office, going there each morning and returning to my boyfriend’s place in the evening. Soon I’d stopped doing even that.
I still went to my place to water the plants and pick up the mail at least once a week. But having my own apartment had become an extravagant inconvenience.
“It’s not about needing my own space,” I said.
I’m used to being surrounded by people. I grew up in a one-bedroom apartment, with my single mother, grandparents and uncle, in the projects of Sofia, Bulgaria, under communist rule. I had to share a room with my mother until I was 18. When I’m alone these days, I often turn on the TV for background noise so that the apartment doesn’t feel so empty.
“It’s not about fear of commitment, either,” I continued.
If anything, my problem is that I commit too easily. I have two failed marriages behind me to prove it.
“Maybe I just love my place,” I said. “Simple as that.”
It’s much smaller than my boyfriend’s apartment, so it’s out of the question that we would live there together. But I’d miss my view over the brownstone rooftops of the Upper West Side. I’d miss being so close to Central Park.
I knew it was more than that, though. I felt emotionally attached to the place.
I moved to my apartment after my ex-husband and I parted ways two years ago. Since then, I’d been through a lot in those 650 square feet. At my lowest, just after the split, I would lean out the window to smoke, hoping to dull the pain with nicotine. Or I’d cry in the bathtub, the water gone cold.
On good days, I would sit on the couch and stare at the rooftop gardens bathed in sunlight. If it was overcast, I’d shift my gaze to my Cape Cod painting; at three feet high and six feet long, it took up nearly the entire wall, brightening the living room with brilliant yellow and orange dunes. Listening to the birds singing in the trees outside, I’d feel the beginnings of recovery: the urge to go for a walk or have a friend over for dinner. I’d make travel plans and dream about the summer. This apartment is where I learned I don’t need a man to be happy.
“I wish I could take it with me,” I said. “Like an old stuffed animal that I’ve outgrown but want to keep for sentimental values.”
My therapist laughed.
“Okay, maybe I’m scared that I’ll get hurt again.”
She gave me a look that said: “You think?”
“Given my record,” I went on, “of course, I’m scared.”
She cocked her head and wrinkled her brow in disagreement.
“Sure, I know that this time it’s different,” I said. “This guy is different.”
“He’s a good guy,” I said, and she nodded again.
I’ve thought that each time with each man, and each time I’ve been wrong. My first husband turned abusive. My second husband met another woman. After an eight-year-long battle with infertility, two miscarriages, numerous surgeries and hormone treatments, I found myself childless, jobless and alone. I have since recovered: The events of the past, however painful, led me to my current boyfriend, and I can’t imagine being any happier.
“Also, this time,” my therapist said, “you are different.” She said it gently, almost in passing.
As I walked toward the subway, her words finally sink in. This time I was different. I was no longer the eager, inexperienced woman who ignores red flags, wishing problems away because she’s determined that the guy she’s fallen for is the right one.
It’s been nearly a year since I moved in with my boyfriend. The Cape Cod painting from my old place hangs prominently in our living room, brightening the space even on the gloomiest of days. It’s a reminder that my happiness doesn’t depend on the person I’m with — it lies within me.