We're All Learning To Love

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“I know you like I know my reflection” 

She had her head on his shoulder. She was wearing her winter coat, he was in a jacket that his mom probably told him would not keep him warm in March’s frigid air. But, independence at all cost. Especially at 16. 

There were things others would stereotypically assume of them. It was 8:34am, so they were already running late to school, what does that say about them? She was smiling more than he was, does he really love her? He had his phone turned to her for every time he looked at the screen, was that his version of a smile? 

I wondered more about their hearts. What were they going to need to unlearn to make an adult relationship work in 10 years. How were the scars that their parents burned into their skin in their teen years going to impact whether they learned to pour gasoline or cement? 

Her right hand met his left hand on her left shoulder. They intertwined their fingers. To love so easily, sometimes it was more a handhold at the right time than sex every night. But when teen rebellion and angst kick in, whether you’re 16 or in your twenties, it’s running you’re getting high off of. It’s surface area of a body instead of depth in a heart. You navigate life by way of hiding from the the realities that would fulfill you because, well, what’s the bra size? How wide are his shoulders, what size shoe does he wear? 

I look at them and see parts of myself. Myself at 16, a little too shy, already pretty aware of what she wanted, therefore way too reluctant to date for surface area. Not much has changed in 9 years, other than my bra size, it’s the right kind now - god bless bralettes - and the fitting into jeans a bit better. There’s also the growth, the one that comes with years out of college, years of establishing a reputation I’m proud of, figuring out my values, years out of being impressed solely by a nice face. There’s a comfort in knowing my body and owning my sexuality that was not there as a teenager or even in my barely legal to drink stage, and that confidence means there’s more room in my mind to focus on everything else I am. 

I focus on how a man views my heart, my emotional intelligence, and my independence, more than I care about what he sees when I’m walking up the stairs in front of him. We both know what’s there, it’s beautiful, but there are more layers to me. I look into his heart, can he handle a partner who doesn’t choose to look past his humanity or who isn’t afraid to speak her needs out-loud or ask that they be met? Who isn't afraid to stand up to him? Can he exist confidently around someone who knows she doesn’t need him, but simply wants him? 

She ducked her head. Hid behind her hand. For some reason the girl had started crying. He leaned in closer. Covering up the green streak in her braid from my sight. It may be puppy love, they may end up married at 23, it didn’t matter because in that moment he showed her that she should always expect a man to lean in when the tears started falling.

In a lot of ways my heart has stayed pretty constant. There’s a necklace I’ve worn for 15 years whose definition will tell you that I have apparently always been a bearer for unconditional love and checking my own ego at the door. But there have been things I’ve needed to unlearn, just like the teens in front of me will need to do. I don’t give up space as easily as I once did. Giving up space makes sense if you’re on the train and you give a seat to a pregnant woman, but in a relationship it’s indicative of a power struggle. To learn to surrender to being equals in a relationship, to not introducing arrogance and ego and selfishness on my end, it was a struggle but a worthy one. For every time I left pride at the door, I walked in with self-respect and acceptance of every inch of myself. To show up whole in my relationship will be my pride and joy, to bring myself back to wholeness when I shrank, my greatest example of an underdog comeback. 

I've had to welcome the reality that my career is anchored in vulnerability, emotional resilience, and diving deep — I made a clear decision to not expect my partner to meet all of those needs. Being emotionally mature is important, but talking to me about Brene Brown's latest book isn't what I need when I come home from a long day of emotional work. Reprieve. To not carry all the emotional weight. That's what I need. To accept this I had to let go of what everyone else thinks I need from a partner and to understand that me wanting a partner in Mario Kart and laughs and adventure is okay. It's acceptable. It's love by way of me. 

Honestly, we tend navigate through our own personal growth almost in a vacuum. Completely unaware of how that growth will manifest when we’re in a relationship. More and more I’m realizing that we grow as individuals, anchor our self-worth, because when we do fall in love, it needs to mean surrendering, it needs to mean unlearning so much of what we know about love because our parents are human and most times, admittedly, fell short of how love should be shown. I’m 25 and don’t have kids. By 25, my mom had a two-year-old, my older brother. She knew what it was to be abandoned and to have to answer to a child who was abandoned too. 

I don’t have that weight on my shoulders. I’m learning to love from a place of peace and of being responsible for just myself. Sex is fun, especially when you’re on birth control. Relationships are anchoring, but only worth staying in if you’re both fighting on the same team. 

If the teens had looked up at me long enough to be engaged, if they had randomly - magically - asked me my thoughts on what love as an adult is like I’d tell them this: 

To love in your twenties is to admit defeat before you even start the battle. It’s to understand that the only way you will come out the other side is to unlearn all you think you know about love and to start with a clean slate. You learn to love someone not by imposing on them, but by learning them. You learn to love someone not by running, but by staying and sitting even when it’s uncomfortable. There are a lot of self-help books read, if you’re a bookworm like me. There are a lot of conversations had, if you’re like my friends. There are a lot of bad voices that will challenge the love that you know is real. There are just as many moments when you trust as there will be you feeling betrayed. He will exasperate you every time he leaves his stinky socks everywhere. You will cause him to roll his eyes every time you tell him to add a layer under his jacket or go on about your eyebrow pencil. You’ll ultimately decide whether his idiotic qualities are ones you can live with forever (the answer, if you’ve read this far, is that you will because it’s him). He’ll decide if your annoying OCD quirks of beds made perfectly is something he can live with for eternity (the answer, if he’s noticed your annoying quirks, is that for every three times he finds them annoying he finds it cute at least once). Then just when you think you have it somewhat figured out, it’ll crumble, all you know will disappear, and you’re left to start again. Alone. With him. With someone else. 

You will have survived love though. You will have walked through. You will have learned more about the feeling and the man. It’ll be beautiful to see him in the worst light, as broken as you are, and understand he’s still worthy of your love. It gives you permission to show up whole, with him, or the next one. Because if he’s worthy, so are you. 

It’ll be magical to know how broken you feel and yet feel the strongest you ever have. That’s how you know you’ve loved well, when you unlearn how to love, learn to love, surrender to love, watch love fail you, and still, survive, and still, love. You know you've loved well when you're willing to do it all over again. Because you are so worthy of that time, those moments. You know, the ones. 

Hers was when he leaned in when she started crying on the train. 

I know what mine is. 

What's yours?