My boyfriend and I broke up in the car. Normally that wouldn’t be cause for concern, but we were on a road trip—four hours away from home. We were trapped, literally, in a glass case of emotion. Did I mention my phone was broken? That’s right, no Instagram or Twitter to distract myself from the awkwardness. I had to stew in my sadness and frustration as the miles passed slowly by.
Stuck there, replaying our entire relationship from start to finish in my head, was my worst nightmare come true. My first inclination was to pull out the imaginary list of grievances he had committed and start listing them off. “That one time when” or “Remember, you said . . .” But after I stopped brooding over his hurtful words, I began to see my own failures.
I discovered that my biggest mistake in our relationship was actually my unwillingness to make mistakes. I thought that if I didn’t mess up, if we never argued, if I always did the right thing—then I wouldn’t be left alone.
The three pints of Half Baked in my garbage prove otherwise.
I thought the key to getting married was to be perfect. Well, the perfect girlfriend at least. We would never fight. He would feel validated. I would bake cookies, and he would love me.
Of course, I see now how silly that was.
One time he said something incredibly hurtful, pointing out some of my physical flaws. It cut me to the core. But rather than exposing my devastation, I laughed it off. Because a cool girl can laugh about her body, right? She isn’t insecure.
Now I see that I should’ve said how much he hurt me, and we could’ve had an honest conversation. Instead I worked twice as hard to achieve emotional perfection to compensate for my physical imperfections. It wasn’t real, it wasn’t good, and it definitely wasn’t me.
That scenario played out over and over again. He made decisions I disagreed with, but I never spoke up. He hurt me, but I bottled my emotions. I never said no, never expressed my frustration, and kept everything together. I never exposed secrets and never allowed the man I was dating to know the real me. No mess to wade through, no lovable imperfections to discover.
At the core of it, I refused to allow myself to be vulnerable. As licensed therapist Dr. Katherine Blackney told me, “Risk is always involved in being vulnerable, yet if we are not vulnerable, authentic, and transparent, we may never be known and received. There is fear in being vulnerable, yet great freedom in being known, seen, and received.”
I thought that being the perfect girlfriend would lead to a connection, but really I just created a shallow version of myself. I was a shell. Our romance was sterile ground where love and intimacy couldn’t grow. It’s no wonder he never fell in love with me; I didn’t give him any raw materials to work with. Out of fear of being without someone, I became someone I would rather be without.
To be honest, I was terrified of being found out. I had worked so hard to say yes to every date, to put a smile on my face even on my worst days, and to always answer phone calls. I even baked. I hate baking. But I thought perfect girlfriends baked, so I threw on my apron and made more brownies than I care to remember.
I treated my relationship like playing house almost, as if “girlfriend”were a scripted character I was cast to play. Cresson Haugland, a specialist who has her master’s in marital and family therapy, says that feeling secure in your personal identity creates a sense of safety that is necessary for a healthy relationship. “If you are secure in who you are as a person, you have the capacity to enter into safe and trustworthy relationships knowing that your identity is not at stake if the relationship does not work out,” she says. Now I’m learning that being a good partner to someone demands nothing more than my best self—my authentic self.
So in my next relationship, I’m going to expect a bit of a mess. I will make mistakes and allow the one I’m with to help me pick up the pieces. I will allow myself the grace to fail while always striving to do better, knowing that at my worst, I am still lovable. We are all a fantastic mix of mess and miracle. Relationships are meant to be a space where two people can let down their guards and become that person in someone else’s life who knows them better than anyone. Be imperfect. Show your weaknesses. Be upset sometimes. Not making mistakes, as I’ve learned, is really the biggest mistake of all.