I looked out the window, cradling the paper cup of coffee he had gotten for me in my hands.

It was Valentine’s Day, and snow was falling outside into a steaming hotel swimming pool. We were meeting for the first time for coffee at a hotel, because everything else was closed as the storm of the century had come down. I was in town to visit my parents for two weeks; he was home for a week. But the little romance that had started just over a month ago wouldn’t even last that long.

We’d met online and been in touch almost every day for about a month now. Circumstances had worked in our favor—our parents lived in the same city, so he had scheduled a well-timed trip to see them when I was going back to see mine. We’d both been trepidatious about that first meeting; there was a lot riding on it. I thought this was my perfect match; an INFJ to my ENFP, a melancholic-phlegmatic to my sanguine-choleric. Conversation had flowed easily since day one, and there seemed to be a steadiness, a reliability to him that appealed to my often-frenetic, sometimes-anxious heart. He seemed peaceful where I was flighty, organized where I was random. He did his taxes—for fun. His being different from me was incredibly attractive. My parents were polar opposites, and their happy marriage was my image of happiness, a little world where the constant different-ness of the other was fascinating and fun.

More than that, as my personal life had started to feel like it was in shambles—from COVID to depression to family trauma—I was looking for someone who wasn’t struggling like I was. I wanted someone who would be a safe place to come home to, an emotional anchor to steady my mood swings and anxiety. In my head, my life was drama; he was rest. I thought he might be the missing piece.

--


“You seem surprisingly lacking in childhood trauma,” I said jokingly as we traipsed through the woods on another date. “You’re really digging, aren’t you?” he teased, not letting go of my hand. His hand still felt new, rough, and strange—but that feeling of safety never left.

--

As we pulled into my parents’ neighborhood after our second or third date in a whirlwind weekend, he asked me to be his girlfriend. I knew how I felt about him, but I wanted to take things slowly, to really savor every stage of the relationship. “How about dating?” I asked. “Dating’s good.” He smiled and agreed. Dating was good.

--

That new “dating” label lasted for two dreamy days. We chattered over Thai food until the restaurant closed; we held hands in an empty theater watching a movie. He walked me to my door.

--

The day after the movie, he sent me the message that we needed to talk—the text everyone knows and dreads. I called him immediately, but my brain could hardly process what he was saying. “You’re just looking for something that’s either there or not there—a spark—and it wasn’t there with you. No one wants to have this conversation; I just have to do what I think is right.”

I hung up in disbelief. Of course, I reasoned, that was what we had come out here to see—whether we were right together. But then I remembered scene after scene from the past week, and it slowly dawned on me. There was a word for this: I’d been played for the first time. The circumstances didn’t add up; he’d been lying then about caring for me, or he was lying now.

--

It wasn’t quite over yet. There were still his justifications to be gotten through, and amid the confusions and disorientation, one thing emerged from the mist: he was more complicated than he’d pretended to be. The simple, peaceful man was not the emotional safety net I’d been looking for. He’d looked like my perfect match, but maybe that was because he’d been trying so hard to be.

I called him one last time and told him I wished he’d been honest with me. I told him he shouldn’t have just told me what I wanted to hear. I told him he should never do it again. And when he started to respond—and I don’t know if this was good or bad—I told him I didn’t need him to.

--

But that experience changed me for the better. In retrospect, it was clear that he had problems just like I did. While I was seeking professional help for my anxiety and trauma, he was—at least to me—pretending not to have any problems at all. It turned out that I was the stable one in the relationship, not because I didn’t have problems, but because I was actively reckoning with them. My search for emotional stability ended with my finding it not in a man, but in myself.

As I jumped back into the dating scene, I stopped looking for someone to complete me, to heal my wounds, to provide what I was lacking. Instead I was looking for something very simple: the willingness to contend with problems, to look them in the face and work through them. I stopped writing off men who weren’t my polar opposite in almost every way. I started looking for a willingness to contend—a bravery to fight the battle—not someone who would enable me to hide from my fears. I felt more optimistic: not that I’d find the perfect soulmate, but that I’d find a relationship that was good, even with its flaws.