By Kate Ellis
I fell in love with pieces of him.
I loved how he interacted with children, how his usually stoic face would soften into a smile when someone placed a baby into his arms. Watching him play with preschoolers was the first time, I gave him a corner of my heart, and it was such a small space that, at first, I didn’t even notice.
I then fell for his hands.
I’ve always been intrigued by men’s hands—how they have the potential for great strength and cruelty, or gentleness and warmth. His hands were solid, thick and wide. They could easily be blunt instruments of torture if he chose. Somehow, however, he used them with great grace and precision. Watching him balance a piece of bacon between two chopsticks to fry it caused me to surrender another bit of my heart.
My own wrists are tiny, and when he enveloped my hand in his, he used just the right pressure. He did it absentmindedly, probably with no thought at all, but it felt so familiar and right that I should have known then that I was in trouble.
He drank too much, could be wildly irresponsible and selfish, and had built an impenetrable wall around himself to shut others out.
I knew these things, but I also saw how he struggled to keep that wall intact all of the time, and how much it cost him. Instead of seeing how those things could cause me great harm if I fell in love with him, I used them as reasons to soften my own heart toward him and let him in completely. I had such faith in the parts of him that I loved, I assumed the good man in him would love me in return.
One booze-filled night he laid down on the couch and patted his chest, gesturing to me to lie my head there. It was probably nothing more than whiskey making him feel cozy for an evening. I mistook it for an invitation to enter his heart, and I bent my neck down to him as surely as if I was placing it into a guillotine.
There’s nothing wrong in seeing the potential in others, and loving those parts of them.
We, however, cannot love someone for their potential alone. We have to love them for the person they are, as they are, now, and never expect them to overcome the things that hinder them. They may not want to. Ever. We can encourage them to be their best, but we have to realize that they may never reach that pinnacle of transcendence. If we try to force them, we’ll be left winded and alone halfway up the mountain.
One day we’re dragging them unwillingly behind us, and the next they get tired of the trek and abandon us on a path they never intended for themselves in the first place.
I listened to my lover’s stories about his painful past, and glossed over the times when he would say that he could easily detach from feelings, and that no woman would ever be so important to him that he would be hurt by her absence. I saw the anger in his eyes, how closed off he would become, but the few rare occasions in which his eyes shone with tenderness toward me kept me fighting for something that wasn’t even my battle: his healing; his willingness to try to love another, his hope for a better future.
His. Not mine.
I lost myself completely in trying to save him, and in doing so, put myself in a position where I placed my salvation into the hands of a man who never wanted to hold it in the first place.
He quickly grew tired of my pleas, tears and weakness, and backed further and further away. I watched him get stronger from my support, and when I became too weak from worrying about him to do anything for anyone, I watched him walk away.
It was the most excruciating experience of my life, and I could have avoided it altogether had I understood that the real way to unconditionally love another is to truly love the things about them that aren’t so wonderful without hope of ever changing them. It’s even possible to be in love with someone without wanting to be with them.
On really bad days or nights, I still want to be with him very much. Unfortunately, those days still outnumber the days that I don’t. I’m still in love with my friend.
I finally understand that I only want to be with the parts of him that he showed me rarely. I do not want to be with the man who has to drink to tell me that he loves me or show me any form of physical affection. I no longer want to spend the rest of my life with the man who backs away from intimacy and a relationship with a woman because he feels that he’s not worthy enough; it’s no longer my full-time job to show him that he is.
That is his responsibility, and making it mine was torturing me and pissing him off.
Loving someone is a noble act, but it’s nothing to take pride in if we do it with the intent to change them, even if the change would help them in the long run. Unconditionally loving ourselves first is the only way to make sure we don’t fall into that trap.
I’m still working on that part myself and until I figure it out, I’ll be the one keeping love at arm’s length.
Kate Ellis is a mother of two boys and lives in the suburbs of Virginia. Nursing is her passion, but she still dreams of being a writer when she grows up. She works with animal rescue groups, the Medical Reserve Corps of Virginia, and enjoys hiking, camping, kayaking, and meditating. She credits her love of literature to her high school English teacher, who took a trashy novel out of her hands and replaced it with Wuthering Heights. Kate believes words are powerful, especially the ones you whisper to yourself.
Editor: Alicia Wozniak
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