I met Brad* a few months after my first serious relationship blew up in my face. He was pretty much everything my ex wasn’t, and after getting a few rebound flings out of the way, I thought maybe I’d found someone I could really feel safe with. True, he didn’t have the intellectual prowess my ex had; he wasn’t terribly charming or adventurous, and as far as I could tell, he didn’t have much passion for anything other than golf. But he was nice and respectful … and comfortable. My grandmother once described him like “an old shoe,” and that actually wasn’t far from the truth. He was completely different from my usual type, and therefore, I figured he’d never hurt me the way my ex had.
We were friends first for a couple of months. He managed a bar I frequented after work and on the weekends and slowly a flirtation developed. One night there was a meteor shower and I suggested to Brad that we drive outside of town and find a place where we might be able to see the show better. That night I counted 18 shooting stars and as we had our first kiss under the twinkling sky, I convinced myself he could be the one. Things moved quickly over the next few weeks and soon — before I really had much time to process it — we were exclusive. Not only that, but we were planning a move together from our little town in Missouri to Chicago. He knew from the get-go a move was on the horizon for me and when I said, “Are you OK with dating me if you know I’m moving soon?” He replied: “Maybe I’ll just have to come with you.”
The truth was I didn’t really want to make that kind of move by myself. Actually, I didn’t want to be by myself at all. I was only 23, but I wanted someone to share my life with, if not forever, at least for now. And so I pushed aside my doubts about him, about us, and told myself: “This will be an adventure!” And it was … at first. I can still remember the excitement in seeing our town fade to a small dot in my rear view mirror as we drove to Chicago. He was in the rented Ryder truck; I was in my own car and periodically during the nine-hour ride, we’d pass each other and wave, or pull over for a short break and a bite to eat. “This is gonna be great!” I kept repeating. I don’t know if I was trying to convince him or me.
In Chicago we got a two bedroom apartment and we each had our own room. It was my idea, but he seemed all for it too. Company raised their eyebrows at the set-up, but we told ourselves we were just doing things “our way.” We usually slept together at night, taking turns in each other’s bed, but having our own space seemed like a good way to keep our separate identities intact and honor our differences. In truth, it was just one more way we kept from getting too close. Even in the beginning, I think we were both probably subconsciously preparing for the end.
It took four years for that end to come. Four years of increasingly separate lives. We were always “friends,” but we slowly drifted apart until we weren’t too much more than just friendly roommates. In fact, the last two years of our relationship were almost entirely sexless. You read that right: no sex … for two years. Looking back, I can’t believe I stayed in a relationship like that for so long. I was in my mid-20s; I should have been having a great dating life! Instead, I was stuck in a relationship that was neither sexually fulfilling nor emotionally satisfying. But it was safe, and … comfortable. I may not have had anything in common with Brad; I may not have had much fun with him. But he respected me and he was loyal and I knew he’d never hurt me the way that ex once did, so I kept telling myself he was right for me and that we’d work everything out eventually.
I certainly had thoughts of breaking up though. I’d see happy couples my age or hang out with my single girlfriends and envy the lives they had. But I told myself I was lucky. Brad and I never fought! He never made me cry. I didn’t worry about him leaving me. All these things that my limited dating experience had shown me relationships could be like, I’d managed to avoid with Brad. I worried that by leaving him I was opening myself up to being vulnerable again — being hurt again — and I wasn’t sure I was ready for that.
Eventually, the denial that we weren’t right for each other became too big a burden to carry anymore. If he felt it too, he didn’t say anything. I was the one who finally addressed the pink elephant in the room. “I don’t think we belong together,” I summoned the courage to say one early fall evening, just a few weeks shy of our fourth anniversary together. He didn’t argue too much; he never did. There might have been some tears, I can’t remember. For the first time in ages we really talked to each other. We shared our feelings, perhaps naming them for the first time. It was sad, but it was cleansing, and at the end of it I felt a big, big weight lifted from my shoulders.
Our lease wasn’t up for a few more months, so we continued living together, much as we had for the last couple of years: like friendly roommates. If anything, we were actually a little closer than we’d been in a long time, which seemed ironic. We remained respectful of each other like we always had and didn’t start dating anyone else until we’d move into our own places. Brad moved out a few weeks before I did. I still remember him filling his car with one last load to take to his new place. I remember the way he handed over his keys and kissed me on the cheek, as I struggled for something to say besides just “see you later” or “so long.” How do you sum up four weird years together in one short good-bye?
“Hey, take this!” I said, handing him a house plant near the door.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “It will look nice in your new place. Put it by the window.”
And just like that he left, and I shut the door behind him. Suddenly the future was wide open and I vowed never to confuse “comfort” for genuine happiness again. I promised myself to take risks for love, even if it meant opening my heart to possible pain. It took a long time to get there, but it was a lesson well-learned, and it’s made all the difference.
*Not his real name.