The beauty of modern relationships is breaking free from old expectations and getting to make your own rules, says Laurel Hermanson.
Brad and I were driving home, trying to decide whether to stop for lunch. We had just finished a session of couples counseling, something we’d been doing every other week to help us better resolve conflicts. Therapy provided a safe, neutral environment where we could work on our communication skills. It was going really well.
On this day, our session was uneventful until the very last minute, when Brad piped up and said he wasn’t opposed to the idea of marriage. There was no time to explore this. Our 45-minute hour was up.
In the car, I said, “I feel like greasy diner food.”
“Or maybe Thai.”
He was fidgety and quiet. I looked out the window and mentally ran through lunch options and possible reasons for Brad’s mood.
We had been living together with my daughter for a year and a half. Whenever the topic of marriage came up, so did our emotional walls. This wasn’t new. Each step forward in our relationship had been messy and difficult.
We met on Facebook. One night we came across each other on a mutual friend’s thread and we “friended” each other. At the end of that thread, I commented, “I’ve sworn off men.” I meant it. I was living with my daughter in a tiny basement apartment after ending a post-divorce rebound relationship. I was focused on her and my second novel.
We started liking each other’s posts and commenting frequently. He was funny and smart and seemed to have a lot of women fawning over him. He described himself on his profile page as, “Tricky, but worthwhile.” I was intrigued.
Soon we were live chatting on Facebook. I initiated the first round. Then, every night after I put my daughter to bed, I would turn on chat and wait. I could count on a missive from him by 10:00. We flirted. I told myself it was fine, a safe way to play without getting close.
I looked forward to our conversations. Brad never mentioned meeting, but when I realized how much I enjoyed his virtual company, I wanted to see if he was as engaging in person. I asked if he wanted to get together for a beer. Because I’m a modern woman, goddammit.
The day we were supposed to meet, he cancelled—via Facebook message. I could have written him off then. Instead, I asked what happened, pretending to be chill. He mentioned a friend who wasn’t happy we were meeting. He said he needed to end that situation before he could see me. He’d been divorced for four years. What if he and his ex-wife weren’t over each other? Strike one.
That night we talked on the phone for the first time. His voice was different than I expected, a reminder that I knew nothing about him other than his online persona. Yet our conversation was long and easy, and I loved his laugh. He apologized for bailing on me and said the “situation” was taken care of.
He left the next morning for a two-week visit to Minnesota. We talked every night while he was away. I loved that he didn’t do small talk. We talked about morality, religion philosophy, love. We agreed we would meet when he came back.
When we met for drinks, I felt like I already knew him. We talked and laughed and drank beer for four hours. He drove me home and came into my tiny basement apartment, but he seemed nervous and eager to leave.
Later that week, we had lunch at a Thai restaurant and walked around my neighborhood. It was late spring, and the colors and scents all around us were heady and seductive. He spent the night. Because I was a modern woman exercising my sexual agency.
The next morning he left for a long weekend in a yurt on the coast. He called from his car and promised he would stand on a picnic table for me, so he could get reception on his cell phone. I didn’t hear from him that weekend, or for days after he was back.
When we finally talked he said, “I’m not in a place in my life where I’m ready for a serious relationship.” I said I wasn’t interested in that, either. But he was already gone. He wanted to be friends. I told him I had plenty of friends. Strike two.
Not long after, I was in the hospital for eight days, too sick to talk to anyone. My brother came each day with a list of messages from friends. Brad was on every list.
When I got home, I emailed and said I had a book for him, Brida, by Paul Coelho. Among other things, it explores overcoming fear and trusting the inherent good in people, something Brad and I had talked about. I suspected that our brief time together had revealed a side of him that wasn’t all confidence and smarts and charm; I had seen his scared little boy. If that was too much for him, I couldn’t be angry. He came over and we talked, argued, made out. It took us seven hours to end up in bed.
We lasted for two months. Every time we were too happy, too comfortable, too much, he said, “I’m not in a place in my life where I’m ready for a serious relationship.” This was frustrating because I wasn’t pressuring him. And it hurt to hear those words, although I didn’t take them personally. Strike three.
I know many women believe they aren’t lovable, that as soon as a man knows them well, they will flee. I don’t have this issue. Maybe I got just enough love from my father, or maybe my past relationships had conditioned me. Regardless, once I got past high school and most of college, I figured guys might sleep with me because I was pretty, but the ones worth keeping realized I was also smart and funny and fun to be around.
So when Brad said it had nothing to do with me, I believed him. And after the third or fourth time I heard those words, I couldn’t do it anymore. I ended things. We talked about being friends someday. We cried and hugged and said goodbye.
When two wounded, skittish people come together, they bring with them a lifetime’s collection of expectations. Brad expected me to rush into a relationship he wouldn’t be able to handle. I expected him to fall in love with me so I could decide if I wanted a relationship. There was no room for intimacy or vulnerability—for either of us. We cling to what we know.
I called him a few weeks later and invited him over. I had a crazy idea, I told him, a harebrained scheme. I said he couldn’t stay long; I just wanted to talk. I was nervous because my idea was so radical I thought he might laugh.
“I miss you. You miss me. What if we just hang out and enjoy all the good parts of us without calling it anything? Can we just be together without naming what we’re doing?”
He didn’t laugh. He thought about it, then agreed. We worked out parameters: no sappy love songs (his weakness); no sleepovers (my weakness); no changing our Facebook relationship status (the horror). We decided not to see other people. For both of us, this was more a relief than a sacrifice.
The beauty of liberating any relationship from expectations is the ability to just be. We reminded each other when we broke our rules. But instead of feeling limited, we became more comfortable breaking those rules. Because rules are fun to break when you’re being all modern.
A month later, we broke them all. Brad slept over on a night I had my daughter. We were in bed when he said, “I love you, goddammit.” I loved him, too, but I don’t remember if I said it.
The next morning I said, “Were you drunk last night?”
He hugged me and whispered in my ear, “No. I love you, I love you, I love you.”
We updated our Facebook status to “In a Relationship.” Five months later, after several tense discussions, we moved in together. And that’s when things got really tricky.
Brad sometimes hunkered down in his office during my daughter’s more dramatic meltdowns. I didn’t blame him, but I worried he might regret his decision to live together. I worried so much that I frequently told him, “If this is too much for you, I understand. But you need to decide before Gigi becomes too attached to you.” I thought I was giving him an out, but it was really an ultimatum.
Then there was marriage. I let him know I wasn’t interested in just living together forever. I told him I didn’t want to belabor the point and I didn’t have a specific timeframe in mind, but I would know when I’d reached my limit. Another ultimatum disguised as honesty.
Ultimatums rarely work, and if they do, what is gained? The knowledge that you’ve pressured someone into moving forward before they’re ready isn’t comforting, or winning. Resentment builds, trust erodes. I thought about how expectations had derailed us in the past, and decided not to let it happen again. I laid it out: If Brad needed time to adjust to living with me and my kid, he should have that time. If he was uncertain about marriage, that was OK, too. I wasn’t going anywhere.
I’m not comfortable with uncertainty, especially when it involves my daughter. But by agreeing to time and space, we liberated ourselves from those scary expectations. Once the pressure was gone, we were able to enjoy our life without overanalyzing it. As the uncertainty and fear faded, we became even more committed to each other.
In the car that day, while I was thinking about lunch and wondering why Brad was so distant, he said, “We could change our relationship status on Facebook.”
“Wait, is this a proposal?”
“You want to get married?”
We didn’t stop for lunch. We drove home and Brad went straight to his computer and updated his status to “Engaged to Laurel Hermanson.” He beat me to it.
When Brad saw his therapist again, alone, he told him about our engagement and how he’d “proposed” to me in the car on the way home from our last session. His therapist’s response: “How modern.”
Role/Reboot contributor Laurel Hermanson is a freelance writer and editor in Portland, OR. Her first novel, Soft Landing, was published in 2009. She is currently working on her second novel, Mommune. She blogs about almost everything at Grace Under Pressure. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.