This post is part of the "Modern Male Brains & the Young, Powerful Women Who Love Them" series compiled by Dr. Louann Brizendine, neuroscientist and author of the recent book, The Male Brain. The series explores how the next generation of women relates to love while balancing complex, stressful lives.
In retrospect, I probably should have known how complicated my love life would become somewhere around the 20th time I replayed my favorite Barbie game, in which Ken cheated on Miko with Barbie and Miko dumped him because it was better to be alone than with someone who would treat her badly. I was six.
Twenty-five years later, there's a whole cast of characters who I'm better off alone than in a relationship with: liars and cheaters, certainly, but also men more interested in having a girlfriend than having me be that girlfriend and men with very traditional ideas about how our relationship should go (including a white wedding, 2.5 children and a suburban house with a white picket fence -- all ideas that give me hives) that bear no relationship to the person I actually am.
Like many women, particularly in their early twenties, I internalized my relationship problems and the fights I had with boyfriends, and tried to be less brash, less crass, less loud, less stubborn, less opinionated -- but none of it stuck. The personality I'd imbued Miko with as a kid kept whispering in my ear, "If he doesn't like you as you are, does he really like you?" The answer, it turns out, was always "No."
It wasn't until my mid-twenties that I met someone who liked me in all my loud-mouthed, hard-charging, dirty-joke-telling, attention-hogging glory, and it was a revelatory experience. He not only didn't want me to shut up, he encouraged me to be louder and bigger and just more -- in part because he, too, had always been that way and had been in relationships with women who wanted him to temper his personality, just a little bit, just to fit in a little more easily. And when the relationship started to go south for reasons unrelated to either of our big mouths or love of uncomfortable situations, I clung to it, and to him, for that sense of being known and understood and cared for that so many of my other relationships had lacked, because I'd tried to be someone those men could know, understand or love even when that wasn't me.
But sometimes, there are problems even love can't overcome (Patty Smyth and Don Henley already went there, though), and there's nothing more lonely and more isolating than looking across a dinner table at someone you know understands you and loves you, but can't keep from hurting you. And, I'll admit it took a few hours of relative quiet in a therapist's office to hear my own voice again, telling me that it's better to be alone than to be with someone who treats you badly, even if you love one another.
I won't pretend it was easy, or that the aftermath was pretty, or that I didn't at times feel like Humpty Dumpty after the king's horses and men had a go at me with a bottle of Elmer's and a roll of duct tape. But I knew that, at the end of the day, I wasn't going to be able to get past how he'd hurt me -- and he'd helped me figure out, finally, that the worst bits of me weren't unlikable, let alone unlovable. Maybe I didn't have to accept that being without him meant I would always be alone.
As with anything, there have been some highs and lows back out here on the dating-coaster: the liars and the cheaters, as ever, but also some good guys and even someone who is one of my best friends. And, finally, someone who I call more than that -- despite the fact that he hates when I write about him. But without giving too much away, I knew I wasn't better off alone than with him on our first date when, stuck at a comedy show listening to a comedian tell rape jokes and, worse yet, listening to me heckle that comedian, he didn't ask me to shut up or slink down in his chair. Instead, he sat up straight and held my hand, and, when the act was over and I was through, he asked me if I was OK. And I looked at him, and squeezed his hand back, and I was.