I've been in three long-term relationships. I was a bad girlfriend in most of them. I didn't know I was a bad girlfriend at the time. I was oblivious; I wasn't self-aware. It didn't occur to me that relationships require full presence, sensitivity and liability. My idea of coupledom was doing cute things together and looking cute while doing them. In other words I was in it for holding hands in the hallways between classes, posting social media pictures, etc. The only examples I'd seen were polar opposites: the picture-perfect youthful ones on sitcoms and the monotonous, dry marital ones in real time.
As you may remember from my previous posts, I'm not great at communicating emotionally. The first time I learned of this shortcoming was when I was about 16. Because I went home to the secure shell of my parents' house at the end of each encounter with my boyfriend, I didn't know what it was like to deal with relationship problems head-on. Anything I didn't like I passively swept under the rug.
I was attracted to my high school sweetheart simply because it seemed to make sense for us to date each other. We were the token black boy and girl in our social circles and we both liked Elton John. Apparently that's not enough to sustain a relationship. We only lasted about a year. I never had to open myself up to him during that period, and when the time for opening up came I broke up with him. I remember being in a local theatre production with him. We had to do a warm up where we were supposed to dance around in a defenseless, silly way. It made me feel so awkward and uncomfortable. I quit the play and the relationship.
By the time I was in college I still longed for a steady, long-term boyfriend. I was willing to look past every flaw and dive into a relationship with the first guy who would have me. I didn't pay attention to the important things--am I myself when I'm around this person?, do we have shared interests?, are we emotionally connected? I was lucky to have found a great man who was good to me. We started out as friends with benefits. In true Ashleigh-fashion I never pressed him about being exclusive. I was passive-aggressive.
Instead of telling him I wanted to be in a relationship I just started acting like his girlfriend. I made note of something he said he wanted months earlier and bought it for his birthday. He was so surprised and happy. Shortly after that he made me his girlfriend. My passivity wasn't all for good though. I wasn't assertive. I didn't speak up about the things I didn't like. I lost my identity for two years. Anything he wanted to do we did. I followed him to the barber shop, the gym, we watched the TV shows he liked. He planned our dates, which I was too young to appreciate. I never took initiative. Poor guy. He loved me immensely and I didn't appreciate it.
Eventually everything came to a head. He called me out toward the end of our relationship. During one of our fights he yelled, "You don't do anything!" He was right. My whole identity was wrapped up in being his girlfriend, and I wasn't even good at it. I knew I would have to change in order to be a good girlfriend to someone else in the future. I spent the next three years getting back into the things that made me me. I started singing and going to open mics. I started hanging out with my friends again. I started doing things that made me uncomfortable. It was a great growing experience. I decided the next time I got involved with someone I'd take my time.
Eventually I landed myself in another relationship. It only lasted eight months but for the first time I felt like I was able to let go and be myself completely. I let my guard down and was vulnerable. I wasn't afraid to be a goofball or to have tough conversations. I took it upon myself to find fun things for us to do. It was super fulfilling.
I don't think there's such thing as a perfect relationship. Everyone has weaknesses and room to grow. I know when the time is right I'll find someone and we'll bring the best out of each other. Until that happens I'm happy to work on myself alone one day at a time.