This morning, I stood waiting at the bus stop, debating whether to pull a book out of my purse, or pop earbuds in my ears and listen to my NPR Addict app. NPR, I decided. You didn’t read any news yesterday; you need some culture. So I reached my hand in that little pocket of my handbag where I keep my iPhone and fished around for my phone. Nothing. Damn it! I left it on the dresser! Oh, well. No NPR for me, I guess. I scanned my busy avenue, no sign of my bus in sight, and resignedly pulled Some Girls: My Life In A Harem out of my bag to bide the time.
It took me about three seconds to get lost in my incredible book. But all of a sudden, someone appeared right in my face, startling me. I winced for a second, then realized it was my boyfriend. David’s just-showered hair was sopping wet and he was only wearing a tee shirt on this chilly New Jersey morning. He was holding my iPhone.
I kissed him, thanked him, and told him to get back inside because it was cold. And while I watched him dart across the avenue back to our apartment, I flushed with a familiar feeling. He’s too nice for me, I thought. I don’t know if I deserve him.
Intellectually, I know David isn’t “too nice” for me. Intellectually, I know I do “deserve” him. Intellectually, I do believe I am a catch and to paraphrase something Kate Middleton supposedly said about Prince William, he is lucky to be with me.
But insecurity isn’t intellectual. Insecurity is something more psychic, something that taps into the scripts we read about ourselves. I spent so many years dating narcissists, a**holes and liars — pretty much a decade of jerks, with a few nice guys sprinkled in — that being in a healthy, happy relationship with someone who respects me and loves me the way I am is honestly a new experience to me.
My guy friend, Ben*, calls this “the black swan” theory — which I will explain in a second. Ben has been my friend since the 8th grade, so he’s watched me date all these unworthy men and he’s disapproved of 98 percent of them. I would always argue that since Ben has been in a relationship for, like, five years, he had no idea what it’s like out there. “Dating in New York City is demoralizing,” I would tell him. “There’s millions of people here but that means there’s so much competition. You are lucky that you are still with your girlfriend from college. You don’t have to deal with any of this crap!” But Ben would still make the point that even if dating was difficult, I shouldn’t settle for anything less than a great guy.
One year ago, my terrible choices in men blew up in my face and seriously damaged my friendship with Ben. What happened was I fooled around with Ben’s best friend, who was in a long-term relationship with one of Ben’s other friends. (Clearly, great boyfriend material.) Understandably, Ben was livid with me. He pretty much told me he didn’t want to be friends with me until I learned to make better decisions for myself.
I took Ben’s ultimatum seriously. I went to therapy. I read Elizabeth Lesser’s brilliant book, Broken Open: How Difficult Times Help Us Grow, which was much better than therapy. I got serious about how I was not treating myself as a woman of value. When I dated men who had girlfriends, who were emotionally unavailable, who lied to me, who crushed my hand in their own when they got angry with me, I was devaluing myself. I was affirming to myself that this was what I deserved, that this was the best I could do.
And about a month later, in the most brilliant stroke of luck in my life, I met David at a birthday party. It was “friendship at first sight,” but grew into genuine love. He got me and I got him. He thought I was sweet, smart, and beautiful, and even thought my silliest jokes were funny. He treated me chivalrously and with respect. Almost immediately, I could realistically see myself raising children with David and growing old side-by-side — not because I wanted babies, per se, but because he seemed like a good, responsible provider and great potential father. Three weeks after we’d met, I brought David to my mom and dad and later that evening, he told me, “We’re going to get married.” I knew it was true.
I didn’t see Ben for almost eight months. But by the time we finally caught up, David and I had moved in together in New Jersey. Even though we moved in with each other fairly quickly, it was definitely the right decision. David didn’t just treat me with sweetness, love and respect in the first few weeks and months of dating, like some kind of “good behavior” honeymoon period. This is who he really is. And when my friend Ben and I met up for dinner after a long, long, long time (for us) of not talking to each other, I told him the truth: I was incredulous that a relationship could be this good, this happy, this full of spirit-enlivening moments. I had never, ever had that before.
Maybe choosing to be with a man who treats me with respect was like believing a black swan exists because you’ve seen one, Ben told me. He told me about some book he had read about explorers who had only seen white swans before. Swans only came in the color white, they thought, because that is the only thing they had ever seen. Of course swans are white! But then they saw a black swan and, well, it knocked them on their asses. Swans come in the color black, too?!?! Holy s**t!
I know this probably sounds sentimental and saccharine, but David is a black swan to me. And after so many years of dating men who weren’t deserving of being loved and cared for by me, it’s so important to me that he knows he is worthy, he is special. I spent years and years and years being an overachiever at school and being a workaholic at work, but in the almost-year that we’ve been together, I realize and respect the benefits of having a healthy, happy relationship be my first priority.
I can’t scrub the white swans away, though. White swans were all I knew so long — all the way into childhood, if you really want to start mucking around with my relationship with my parents — that sometimes that insecurity gains control again. And I hate it when it does; I really, really hate it. The years that I wasted being controlled by insecurity were not happy ones.
While I know that I probably won’t ever stop feeling insecure entirely, I want to be strong enough to have intellectual control over it. I have to remind myself at times — like this morning — that I do deserve David. I do deserve to be loved well by him. I do deserve to be respected by him. And I need to stop acting like he is perfect and can do no wrong. I should be asking myself — indulgently selfish as it may sound — is he worthy of being loved by me?