The View from the Aquarium (Joce)

My parents met when they were in the 5th grade. We have a newspaper clipping from that year that shows them, two desks apart in a classroom, clad in plaid shirts, diligently working on their schoolwork. They dated all through high school, attended the same college and got married the summer after they graduated.  Four kids, many homes and cars and businesses later, forty some years later, in fact, they are still married.  It hasn’t always been a fairytale romance, but I think anyone would admit there is a little bit of crazy magic (coupled with a lot of diligent hard work) that goes into a long term union such as theirs.

No matter how non-traditional I feel in other aspects of my life, growing up with their solid alliance as my primary example of a relationship has contributed to my believing, deeply, in the power of marriage, family loyalty and commitment.  And yet, despite my openness to it, this kind of union has eluded me at every pass.

In my twenties, I was a serial-monogamist. I never dated anyone for less than a year, and I had two nearly 5 year, cohabitation relationships. In the first one, we met when I was 19 and moved in together after just a few months of dating. We were a classically bad match, but young and inexperienced enough to keep at it for way too long. Years before we actually broke up, the relationship had run it’s course and we sniped at each other, complained to our friends and became jaded with life and each other. He was a lazy alcoholic with a porn collection and I was a bitter, overworked, short-tempered bitch. We brought out the absolute worst in each other. After a few years, our parents started pressuring us about marriage and when I realized the long-term implications of that merger, I was confident that was not what I wanted. Not with him.

It wasn’t until a gentle, sophisticated fellow classmate started flirting with me that I realized I wasn’t stuck in my dead-end relationship forever. I was still young, ambitious, pretty and witty and I had options.  So, that gentle, sophisticated fellow classmate and I dated for a few months and then I moved in with him. We were a classically good match. We both were working and going to school and we were very poor, but enjoyed spending our weekends on house and art projects, bumming around used book stores and thrift shops, cooking together and watching the occasional movie on our ancient television.  Years in to our relationship, I still felt a tightness in my chest, an excited anticipation, when I was waiting for him to come home from work.
But, as much as we loved each other, we never discussed marriage. We had lots of plans: education, travel, business, money, but there was always plenty of time and goals to accomplish, before we needed to worry about that. So, I went to grad school half way across the country, and he stayed, to try and sell our house, and apply for jobs in the mean time. And three months became six months and then nine. And by the time he moved half way across the country to be with me, I had become a different person, more independent and confident, and I panicked with the responsibility of taking on our big, poor, complicated life again. “The world is my oyster,” I thought, and there is no need to settle down now, when I am still so young. I didn’t want him to settle down either, he had big dreams that needed to be realized and they would have been much harder to realize with me in the picture. They say, “if you love something, let it go,” so that’s what I did.

I was 28 years old and for the first time in my life, I started dating. My discouragement was nearly instantaneous. I dated and dated and dated and found that I had little in common with most of the men I was dating. I struggled through one or two meals, beers or movies with each one, and each time realized I couldn’t imagine spending any extended time, let alone a lifetime, with any of them.  This went on for years. In the mean time, my ex got married, to a girl that he’d dated for a few months. I had made a mistake. A big one.

Since then, I’ve had a couple of longer-term relationships, but none lasting more than a year. And each time, I’ve committed myself to someone who ended up being a real borderline personality.  These men have been manipulative, cruel and destructive. You’d think, I’d think, that with as much experience as I’ve had, and the good example set by my parents, that I’d be a little bit better at judging character. I love a good guy, a nice guy; I don’t want to be with a bad boy, a rogue or a player. And yet, I keep ending up with them. Jerks and douche bags. I think it's because I so badly want this classic, traditional relationship experience that there’s this seed in my brain, this pressure, that is pushing me to commit, to decide, and forgive, to take a person as they are, despite giant waving red flags and deep character flaws.

I'm not one of those people that blame their problems on their parents: we're all doing the best we can with the tools that we possess. And it would be absurd for me to attribute my relationship failures to their marriage success, yet, I do believe there’s a good possibility that my faith and conviction in the institution of marriage has set me up for failure in my own relationships. In the beginning of my love life, I was so confident that relationship success and marriage would come, that I was cavalier in my associations with men. "Everything will come with time," I thought, "there's no hurry and if this doesn't work out, something else will present itself around the corner." I wasted four good years with one worthless guy and then trivialized five years with a great guy. I had neglected to notice that good matches, like my parents, are rare, and present themselves maybe only once or twice in a lifetime. 

Realizing my mistake took my entire 20s. And by 30 I realized I had a new problem. A partner, marriage and a family, was something I wanted. Maybe not now, immediately, but eventually, and with the right person. And finding someone to have that marriage and family with was really, really difficult (so far, actually, it's been impossible). I just keep getting older and older and my chances for a traditional, long-term relationship seem to lessen with the days. For so long I felt like there was nothing but time and so many fish in the sea; and now time is up and there is only one fish, and that fish is me, and it’s an aquarium, not a sea. And it’s getting really murky in here.