When I read Little Bee this summer I realized that Sarah, the protagonist, is the woman I was always secretly afraid of becoming: a good mother but a miserable wife. Difficult. Unfaithful. Cold. Unhappy. Caged. As I related to Sarah, I understood more of the role I had played in shaping my pseudo-relationships.
During a visit with my best friend Julie this summer she brought up him, the only pseudo-boyfriend I had who she thought was worthy of me. We used to always blame him for how things worked out. How he and I never actually dated. But when I look back honestly, I know I am as much to blame for what happened down the line.
He told me once that I was sort of like a stray cat. Coming and going as I pleased, everything on my time table. He wasn’t wrong. The most foolish mistake you can make is to think a stray is actually yours. As much as she loves you, she’ll never be faithful. He wasn’t so foolish.
Our relationship had so many unspoken rules: never intentionally make plans to see each other, don’t communicate except face-to-face, don’t hold on to this relationship after graduation. Etc. The rules dictated that our relationship be one of coincidence, mutual enjoyment and nothing more. No plans, no obligations and no strings attached. Our relationship became more than that. But it wasn’t meant to. Near the end I realized that “our rules” were actually my rules. I’d set the terms.
Though our relationship became more than I had bargained for, and had the potential to be so much more, I still tried to maintain our rules. He gave me opportunities to change them. He subtly questioned our dynamic. While it’s so much easier to recognize what was going on in retrospect, I wasn’t entirely ignorant then. One of my sharpest memories is the instance when I realized I’d missed my chance. That by not choosing him, I had lost him even before he left.
I wasn’t as rigid in all of my pseudo-relationships, and especially not in my last one, possibly because most of the other men weren’t as compatible with me. Also, because I was freaked out by how intently he wanted to be married. What’s common to all of them is that these rules and pseudo-relationships protected me from becoming Sarah: trapped, miserable and consequently unfaithful. Beneath my romanticism was a deeply rooted belief that there was no other option for me.
I couldn’t imagine being happy stuck to another person. I didn’t believe that I could feel anything but suffocated by so much responsibility to and for someone. I didn’t think I could feel anything but trapped by commitment. The greatest benefit of my last pseudo-relationship was that it taught me I had underestimated my relational capacity. I learned for the first time that I could care about someone so much that it would be a joy instead of a burden to communicate all the time. I learned that being allowed to need someone else is worth the freedom you forfeit. I learned that I could love him even when I stopped liking him, even when he was destroying everything I loved about him. Most importantly, I learned that I was capable of fidelity but also brave enough to leave if there was no other option.
I know now that my fear of seeing Sarah’s reflection in the mirror one day is less likely as long as I choose wisely. In the book, she admits that if she’d listened to her mother’s advice and her own intuition she would’ve known that marrying her husband was a mistake. She would’ve recognized that they were better suited as friends or colleagues or temporary lovers than spouses. Had she done that, and chosen to commit to a man more like her lover than her spouse, she would’ve been more happily married.
It’s freeing to realize that I’m not fated to be unhappy if married. Besides teaching me my capacity for relationships, my pseudo-relationships have taught me how to recognize the men I could and couldn’t live with. I don’t regret the extent to which I self-sabotaged these relationships, because without learning these lessons I may have been more likely to fulfill my own prophecy.