When I was twenty, my first husband and I owned a hole-in-the-wall pizza joint. We lived in a little khaki cottage trimmed white with wrought iron leaves. We had two Japanese magnolias, one in front and one in back, and an orange tabby named Beaux. I brought my son home from the hospital to that house, and spent my days nursing him, trawling livejournal, and keeping the house fastidiously clean. Every day, I'd stroll my infant son through the midtown streets. I had a meal planning calendar and a dusting schedule. I was exactly what I imagined good wives could be. Then I found out my husband had been hiding a serious and expensive addiction from me. We lost everything, including each other.
Gone were my husband, our restaurant, the car, and the house. I sold my engagement ring to buy groceries. My clothing size normally ranges from an 8 to a 10, but I wound up wearing a 0-2 from nursing my son with nothing in the house to eat.
And it propelled me into getting my GED, going to college, and going to therapy like it was an extra full-time job, because I knew my son didn't have anyone to depend on but me.
I got remarried a few years later, and we had another child. This time, I didn't get lost in my marriage. I stayed in therapy. I started writing in earnest, and got into the college of my dreams. I kept hold of all the things that matter most to me. And then, again, everything unraveled. I had to let go again. I had to walk away.
Walking away meant years and years of poverty. It meant food insecurity and housing insecurity. But I kept my kids close and my intentions for my life in sight. I kept writing. I kept my face in the books, graduated with a good GPA, won some prizes. I finished my MFA, moved on to a PhD. I've gotten good at walking away from people and things that aren't good for me, and all that walking away has brought me to a place where everything in my life, and everyone in my life, is there because they matter to me.
The one thing I haven't been willing to allow back into my life is partnership. It's been years since I've had a committed, close-range relationship that I actually wanted to last. I've dabbled and dated and played, here and there, but each time I was prepared from the start to let go.
This week, I decided to put myself through an exercise: if I were to have a committed partnership, what would that look like? I tried at first to think about what I wanted, and couldn't even begin, because I'm not in a place yet where I believe I can have the things I need from another person, if I were to try to need. Instead, I decided to make a list of things I'd want and need in order to stay, in order to quit letting go.
And so, here's the list, repetitions and anaphora abounding:
I want a partner who knows his or her own heart and is willing to stand up for what he or she believes in, regardless of what the rest of the world has to say about it. I want a partner with solid ethics and with nerve. I want a partner who is always searching for a greater and deeper understanding of the world, of him/herself, and the people around him/her.
I want a partner who can decide what they want and make the necessary sacrifices to achieve it, who decides what they’re going to do and then does it. I want someone whose word is solid. Who shows up when they say they’re going to show up, and lets me know when they can't. Who makes commitments realistically and holds to those commitments.
I want a partner who will take responsibility for their failings, who can own their own shit and not blame me or pick stupid fights when they feel guilty. I want someone who will call me on my shit, too, and be honest with me even when it’s hard. I want someone I can trust to do the right thing instead of the easy thing. I want someone who is willing to give me the choice to love them instead of trying to manipulate me into loving them. I want someone who does not lie to me to save face. I want someone who is more substance than image.
I want someone who respects me, innately, and who is someone I can respect even when we disagree or things get hard. I want someone who understands me, and who I understand, and who will work with me to reach understanding when our communication breaks down. I want someone who won't turn my apologies against me. I want someone who can apologize.
I want someone who loves my ugly seams as much as they love my beauty. I want someone who is willing to be vulnerable enough to show me their own ugly seams, and who gives me a chance to love them as they are, in their full, multifaceted complexity. I want someone who can admit their fallibilities.
I want someone who truly values my work and will never ask me to give up doing what I love, who will work with me and who will count my successes as their own success. I want someone whose sense of purpose is stronger than their need to feel good.
I want a partner who tries to be a haven when the world hurts. I want a partner who will let me comfort them when they are in pain, who will take solace in my arms instead of drawing away from me to nurse their wounds alone.
I want a partner who will work with me to make our home a sanctuary, who will tend to the domestic affairs with mutuality, who will negotiate with me to make sure that things get done in a way that feels fair to both of us. I want a partner who approaches problems with solutions instead of blame, shame, and animosity. Who, instead of getting mired in “this is your fault,” or, "this is my fault," can say, “This is a problem. How can we fix it?” or, “I’m not okay with how this happened. I need _____ from you.” I think I deserve this much because this is how I approach problems in my life.
I want a partner who communicates as thoroughly as I do. I want a partner who will actively work with me to communicate about problems instead of picking petty, useless fights. I want a partner who can recognize their own irrationality and talk through it with me to a place that’s rational and reasonable.
I want a partner who can detach from my trauma responses and understand that, while frustrating for me and everyone else, they are not to be taken personally. I want a partner who will listen to me when I say, “I understand that this is not something you caused, but I still need for you to do _____ so that I can get through this and build trust.” Who can understand that when I start to dissociate, the thing that helps is having someone who can bring me to a place of presence and safety, and that lashing out at me only exacerbates my brain’s trauma responses.
I want a partner who likes a reasonable amount of pdas. Who will hold my hand and match my pace when we walk. Who will snuggle up to me and caress me on the couch. Who will let me rub their feet after a long day. I want a partner who needs nurturing touch as much as I do, who will let me bury my face in their chest when I’m feeling needy, who will stroke my hair and tell me they love me. I want a partner who will be cozy with me. I want a partner who will vocalize their feelings for me regularly, and who will hear me with gratitude when I shower them with love and affirmations and mushy bullshit.
I want a partner who loves my sexuality and who will explore our bodies fully with me, enthusiastically and unabashedly. I want someone who is sexually curious and open. I want a partner who works with me to create safety around our sexuality. I want a partner who is satisfied with me, and who doesn’t need or seek other romantic dabblings to get their sexual needs and ego needs met. I want monogamy. I want a partner who will protect our bond and work to keep our relationship the primary center around which the rest of our lives can flourish.
I want a partner who will come home to me every night. I want a partner who will think I’m hot as fuck even as age takes its toll, even when I’m a little chubby or out of shape or stressed, even when I don’t feel my most sexy. I want a partner who will let me love their body fully, flaws and all, and not shy away from revealing their most intimate facets to me, who knows that I will cherish and protect and nurture all their vulnerabilities.
I want a partner who will love my children deeply and appreciate my motherhood. I want a partner who is open to the possibility of more children, but who can understand the very particular set of financial and career circumstances we would need to make that possible. I need a partner who can be okay with the prospect that more biological children might not be in our future, given my age and career constraints. I need a partner who will love and commit to me even if I can’t bear babies for them. I also need a partner who can be a decent parent and role model, and who wants to be so.
I want a partner who understands that showing up to social functions (familial functions, career functions, functions with friends, etc) is important, and being good to the rest of the people in our sphere is important, even if they don’t particularly enjoy everyone. I want to be integrated into my partner’s family, and I want to work to earn the love and acceptance of my partner’s family, and I want them to do the same for me.
I want someone who will be generous with me, and who can let me be generous with them without either of us feeling like we’re carrying the whole load. I want parity and mutual support.
I want both of us to be busting our asses, in the trenches, together, so we arrive together at our goals. I want my contributions to be appreciated and recognized. I want to be able to appreciate and recognize my partner’s contributions. I want us not to feel like things are so out of balance that anyone needs to keep score. I want my partner to take joy in my success and help me achieve what I set out to achieve. I want a partner who is driven to their own success, and I want to be invested in supporting them to realize their dreams. I want someone who is either as ambitious as I am or at the least who values my ambition and supports it.
I want someone who is reasonably financially responsible and who makes choices with their financial life that I can respect. Extreme compulsive spending is a dealbreaker for me. Living reasonably within one’s means is a must. I don’t want someone who is so frugal that it makes life miserable, though. I want someone that I can trust with joint accounts, shared checking and savings and investments and property, and who will share resources for our shared goals and livelihoods, but I also want to have our own separate accounts so that we can maintain some autonomy and not have to justify every dime to each other. I want someone who will treat me and surprise me sometimes, and I want to do the same for them.
I want someone who takes responsibility for their mental health and who isn’t afraid to seek outside help when they are struggling. I want someone who can hear me when I tell them that there is some problem with their mental health, and who will take steps to manage their mental health so that it does not become a destructive problem. I want someone who will tell me when my behavior is concerning them, and who will level with me if I get to a place where I need to seek mental health care.
I want someone who has enough self control that I don’t wind up having to step into an overly responsible role. Who can tell when they’ve had too much to drink and shouldn’t drive. Who can admit when they’re caught in some destructive cycle and need to break out of it. Who can decide that the risk of doing something isn’t worth the temporary pleasure it might bring. Who makes their decisions with a global perspective instead of from a place of temporary enjoyment. Who can keep their compulsions in check enough that they won’t destroy our lives or our connection.
I want someone who will never be emotionally or physically abusive toward me, and who will recognize when I need nurturing and care. I want someone who will cherish my tenderness and not take advantage of my softest spots. Name calling is a definite no. Not respecting boundaries is a definite no. Disrespectful language, raging at each other, and physical intimidation are all things I don’t want in my home. Language that essentializes eachother (you’re such a _____. you’re always _____) is also a no. I want to fight fair.
I want someone who will play hard with me. I want someone who will get wild with me. I want someone I can drag to poetry readings and shows and art openings and lectures, and I want someone who can be at home wherever we travel. I want someone who can hold their own with my colleagues, but who can also shoot the shit with a gas station attendant in rural Alabama. I want someone who is interested in everything, who is up for the next adventure. I want someone who is proud to have me on their arm. I want someone I can be proud to have on mine. I want someone whose worldview makes sense to me, whose judgements of other people and the world around us makes sense to me. I want someone whose judgement I trust, so I can relax and enjoy our playtime together.
I want someone who loves food. I want someone who takes reasonable care of their body, but who isn’t so wrapped up in appearances that they can’t take pleasure in the body. I want someone who can accept that when the semester is in full swing and things get hectic, fuck it, we’re getting takeout or eating ramen and protein bars. I want someone who also values my attempts to get and stay in decent shape, and who won’t let themselves go too far. I want someone who’s always working to improve and maintain their physical self, but not to the point that they’re sucking the pleasure out of life. Exercise yes, decent diet yes, but also fried chicken and cookies and beer yes.
I want someone who will drag me out of the house and remind me of the wider world when I get too insular. I want someone who likes planning excursions and will take control of making sure we get out sometimes, because I generally hate making plans for leisure activities.
I want someone who can recognize the gifts I bring to their life, and who will appreciate those gifts. Who is grown enough to acknowledge when one of us is more skilled at something than the other is, and who can work with me to divide the labor to suit both of our gifts and talents.
I want someone who will be as committed as I am to making things work, who is mature enough not to threaten me with divorce or with leaving when things get hard. The next time I make a lifelong commitment, I want it to stick. I want it to be truly lifelong. I don’t need these characteristics in all of my relationships, but I do need them in a serious, committed partner. Even if I have to wait decades for this person to show up in my life, even if it takes years and years to build this sort of trust with someone before we make any commitments, this is what I want for my life. Lifelong, sustaining, grown people love. Love that works with our own particular humanities, flaws and all.
One day I'd like not to need to let go.