I’d been sitting in counseling for the better part of a 50-minute hour, talking about my soon-to-be ex-husband.
“What you’re realizing,” my therapist said, “is that he didn’t really love you.”
I protested, told her that he said it plenty.
“While he may have said he loved you, at the very least, when you both said ‘love,’ you and he were talking about very different things.”
Ouch. Right to the gut. It didn’t feel good to hear. But I knew on some level that she was right.
And that was why I was paying her, after all. I had plenty of friends. People in my life who I could talk to and feel good. I didn’t need that.
Sue had a different part to play. She was there to push me. Take me by the scruff of my neck, push me down on the ground, force me to smell my own bullshit. Like the dog who’s had the accident on the living room rug. It wasn’t pretty, but I needed to know what I was doing to myself so I could stop doing it.
Of course, it looked rather genteel in practice. She was often wearing pretty sweaters, sitting in a very relaxed position in a beautiful armchair of indeterminate age.
And we were usually both drinking tea.
But she still let the verbal punches fly. And she certainly wouldn’t let me get away with skirting past the painful parts. Or telling myself the same face-saving lies about people in my life who, truth be told, hadn’t exactly treated me all that well. At least not as well as I’d treated them.
She landed dozens of hits on me during the time we worked together. But somehow that was the one I kept coming back to, months after counseling was over.
Somehow I’d been in a relationship with someone for 10 years (eight of them monogamous) without ever realizing they didn’t love me.
Or at least not in the way that I defined love.
She’s the reason I wrote my first book in the first place (a memoir about the first few years I was polyamorous, when I didn’t know what I was doing and neither did anyone around me). It started as a therapy assignment.
He Told Me All the Time That He Loved Me, But My Friends Had Doubts
He’d said that he loved me thousands of times, and I believed it. For me, it was as simple as that. He told me he did, and I believed him.
Even as friends and relatives questioned his behavior, I waved it away. He loved me. I was happy. “Then why does he go get expensive haircuts and insist on trimming your ends for you at home?” one friend asked.
“Well, it’s cheaper, and I love it when he does my hair. It feels intimate.”
“Okay, but why do you eat canned tuna while he goes out to eat all the time. Sometimes three times a day?”
I’d explain that I was less fussy about food. That food preferences were deeply personal, and he had a harder time, so I worked around it.
“I see you buying fun stuff for him all the time. When was the last time you bought something for yourself?” my friends would ask.
“We use a lot of the things he buys together,” I’d explain, before desperately trying to change the subject.
He hadn’t worked for 4 years. And he didn’t do chores. Something my friends would also point out.
I’d thank them for their concern and assure them I knew what I was doing. And my friends, likely sensing my mounting frustration, would drop it.
They just didn’t understand, I told myself. When you’re really in love with someone, you’re flexible. You make adjustments. And maybe people outside our relationship didn’t understand that, but the personal sacrifice made sense to me. Relationships are often different on the inside. And whatever else my friends saw, they also saw that I adored my then-husband and even if they didn’t understand our unequal division of labor and spending patterns, they could see that I often appeared happy.
Maybe it wasn’t their dream, but I seemed to be living my dream. So, unlike the therapist I’d later see, they’d drop it.
I Overlooked A Lot Because of the Compliments
And whatever my then-husband lacked in elbow grease or financial discretion, he totally excelled in giving compliments. He told me he loved me all the time. Dozens of times a day, he would spontaneously let me know that I was beautiful, hot, sexy, or gorgeous.
So even as I stressed about what we were going to do financially, it wasn’t until I was in my therapist’s office on that one evening that I ever doubted that he loved me.
Sure, I’d been crying in the shower for years, hiding any moments of unhappiness, since my ex-husband couldn’t cope with my tears. Found it too painful to witness.
And sure, years prior to our separation, we’d drifted onto completely different schedules (despite the fact that I worked at home during those days and he didn’t work and had no real reason beyond World of Warcraft raids to flip around his sleeping schedule). Had separate blankets in bed. Never showered together (something I loved but he abhorred). Ate separate meals at different times. Things that all bothered me at the time, made me feel like we were more roommates than lovers.
And yes, he called me high maintenance and dramatic, in spite of the fact that I was the breadwinner, and he spent the hog’s share of the money. Or the fact that it was his emotional outbursts that would keep us up all night — not mine. While I was the one who had to be up for work in the morning.
And of course I wasn’t happy that when it came to conversation, we stuck mostly to topics that interested him as found most of what I wanted to talk about (mostly interpersonal dynamics and social intricacies) tedious. Or, as he would often put it, “You’re exhausting to talk to and only want to talk about the most boring shit.” So we stuck to topics that interested him, mostly philosophy and video games, although he would chafe when I tried to apply that philosophy to real-life situations.
But he never stopped saying he loved me, complimenting my appearance, or laughing at my jokes.
An Epiphany in the Pet Section of Target, of All Places
Not too long after my divorce, I was standing in Target with Justin (my then-boyfriend, who would later go on to become my second husband). We were there picking up cleaning supplies, but as he happened past the pet section, he stopped.
“I should pick up some stuff for the kitties,” he said. “They’ll be so happy.”
And as I stood there watching Justin pick out toys and treats, it dawned on me with sudden intensity:
My new boyfriend treats his cats better than my ex-husband treated me. He cares about their happiness more.
As the months went on, it became evident that Justin didn’t just act like that with his cats. It was actually a bit unsettling at first how well Justin treated me. At first I feared that the good treatment was a trick designed to manipulate me and that at any moment he would turn. But he didn’t. He continued to go out of his way to protect me, provide for me, to make sure that I felt happy and safe in my own skin.
Whether I liked it or not, Justin prioritized my happiness as much as his own. At times, arguably more.
And while it was scary at first (I kept worrying that it was a ruse), with time, patience, and persistence, Justin actually succeeded in raising my standards for how I expected to be treated.
“I love you so much sometimes that if I really stop and think about it, I start crying,” I say.
“Awwwww,” he says. He smiles.
“Does that ever happen to you?”
“No,” he says. “But I love you very much.”
“Oh, okay,” I say. After the words have left my mouth, I note how disappointed I sound. It happens simultaneously sometimes. I realize how I feel at nearly the same instant I’m conveying it to someone else.
He looks at me in alarm, clearly concerned by my tone.
“Sometimes I just… stuff like that makes me feel like you don’t love me as much as I love you. And I know it’s probably stupid, but I wish you did,” I say.
He sighs. He’s frowning now. “Of course I love you just as much.”
“Then why don’t get you get overwhelmed by it like I do?” I ask.
“Because I’m not you,” he says.
When I’m Asking Why You Love Me, I’m Really Asking What Love Is to You
In that piece (I Feel Like I Love Him More Than He Loves Me. And It’s All My Fault), I focused on the role of my own actions in feeling like I loved Justin more than he loved me. In that essay, I came to the realization that I’d been putting Justin on a pedestal in a way that was unfair to us both.
And while that’s an important realization and a valuable lesson, I realized on deeper reflection that there was another very large aspect in play.
When I went through my divorce, it did major damage to my trust. Not to my trust in love or relationships or the goodness of people. But to my trust of myself. Of my own ability to judge situations, to accurately judge the intent of people I love.
And yes, it damaged my trust that I could accurately judge how much another person loved me. And perhaps most importantly, I lost my trust in my own ability to judge the character and quality of that love.
I used to trust that when someone said “I love you” to me that I knew what that meant.
But after my divorce, I wasn’t so sure anymore. Because I’d been very wrong for a very long time without knowing.
So it became very important to me in my relationship with Justin to make sure that I understood what he meant when he said he loved me.
And it wasn’t until I asked him, “Why do you love me?” many more times than I wish I had that I realized the questions I really want to know the answers to:
Do we mean the same things when we say “I love you?”
Do you love me the way I want to be loved?
Do I love you the way you want to be loved?
What is love to you?
I got a lot of reader mail about this piece. I wrote a followup post responding to it called “Feeling Loved and Being Loved Are Different.”