How We Choose To Love
By Christina Tesoro
“It isn’t that to have an honorable relationship with you, I have to understand everything, or tell you everything at once, or that I can know, beforehand, everything I need to tell you. It means that most of the time I am eager, longing for the possibility of telling you. That these possibilities may seem frightening, but not destructive, to me. That I feel strong enough to hear your tentative and groping words. That we both know we are trying, all the time, to extend the possibilities of truth between us.
The possibility of life between us.”
M y parents have the relationship that I’ve always dreamed of — the sort of relationship, I think, that a lot of people dream of. It’s the kind of relationship we’re taught, through movies, TV shows and books, that we’re supposed to aspire to.
They met when my mother was 19 and my dad was 23, and they’ve been, for the past 31 years, each other’s one-and-only in every sense of the phrase. My mom has called him her soulmate and her best friend. She told me recently that if she hadn’t met him, she didn’t think she’d be with anyone at all.
My life, on the other hand, has been markedly different.
My parents married when my mom was 23. I’m almost 27, and my longest relationship tapped out at maybe six months, although that seems like a generous estimate. For a long time, my inability to find a person as effortlessly and providentially as my parents caused me considerable anxiety. After all, from the time I was little, I’d been searching for my soulmate, my best friend, the one for whom I could finally stop searching, before I’d even begun to look.
My relationship history, messier and more eventful than the ones my parents enjoyed, has been marked by fits and starts and contradicting phases: a slew of relationships that withered and folded and died, that were lackluster in part because the dudes I’d picked were duds — selfish, immature — but also because of the pressure I exerted in expecting each new person to be The One. A long period of self-imposed celibacy, post-college, to get my shit together and to stop making damaging, unhealthy choices when it came to sexual partners. A longer period of joyfully slutting it up (written without a trace of shame) to deal with said period of celibacy. The realization that I’m bisexual, and that I’m suited more to non-monogamy than any sort of monogamous script, even the one that has worked so well for my parents. Lots of sex, casual and otherwise, with lots of men, and lots of women, sometimes simultaneously, to practice saying yes, and yes, and yes; to practice, more importantly, saying no.
This history was shaped, in part, by what my mother has described as an intensity in the way I relate to people. Ever since I was little, she said, I was the kid on the playground who bounded up to other children and declared them my new friends before they could even tell me their names. She has been saying for years that I’m the same way in romantic relationships, and until recently I didn’t realize that this wasn’t a descriptor of a personal flaw or failing (though it’s often felt that way, this woeful lack of chill), but an accurate observation of my exhibited behavior.
Within weeks of dating one of my most recent exes, my then-girlfriend and I were on Craigslist, browsing houses in the mountains of Colorado, a place to build our perfect poly commune, where we would be smitten forever and free to pursue both art and becoming our best, most fulfilled selves. It was harmless real estate daydreaming to me, but when I told a friend of mine about it, she reacted with some very carefully worded alarm: Slow down. Don’t rush. One day at a time.
It’s only recently that I’ve been able to do this; to let my obsessiveness with finding the perfect love go, and to finally recognize that, for so many years, I’d been looking at things all wrong.
In an interview with Sandra Dougherty of the Sex Nerd Sandra podcast, marriage and family therapist Kate Loree says that the person you fall in love with will be an energetic combination of qualities, both positive and negative, from the three most important caregivers of your childhood and adolescence. This gravitation toward a certain partner parallels a kind of relationship therapy called Imago therapy. The word “imago” means “unconscious image of familiar love,” and this type of therapy asserts that part of how we choose the relationships of our adulthood is based on how we were shaped, fundamentally (but perhaps not entirely consciously), by the relationship and love styles we experienced in our youth.
My parents, it seemed to me, had had a significant enough influence between the two of them to count for my three; I couldn’t think of anybody else who had made a substantial enough impact on the way I’ve learned to love. But rather than trying to isolate the qualities inherent in each of them to see how the people I’m currently dating might measure up, I found myself thinking instead of their relationship itself. Perhaps their partnership was the third caregiver in this equation: this model of love that, as a I grew up, served as both a shadow and a shelter.
If my parents’ relationship is the third caregiver in the equation, it’s included everything popular culture says that I should want: security, fidelity, monogamy. Qualities, in other words, that I’ve never had in my own love life, and ones I’ve struggled to understand that I never want.
Reconciling these differences — and ones concerning my sexuality — has taken time. When I was young, my father was the the kind of patriarch who wanted to ban me from watching my favorite TV show when one of the main characters came out as gay. Years later, when I complained again about poor treatment from someone I’d cared for, my father replied that I would find a guy someday who respected me, before adding “ . . . or a woman.” The casual allusion came months before I’d come out even to myself.
When I came out as polyamorous, it incited a blow-up worthy of daytime television — or a Very Special Episode, at least. I was sitting in the back seat of my father’s car, speaking to the backs of their heads. He shouted about commitment, about how he was so sick of these people who refused to take marriage seriously. My mother cried, worried that I was being taken advantage of. She went home and read all the worst the Internet has to offer about polygamy and asked me, very seriously, if the couple I was dating at the time treated me like their “unicorn,” which shouldn’t have made me laugh, but did.
Yet later, they asked me, calmly, about jealousy, security, my future. They agreed to read the sources I picked out for them (my favorite one is More Than Two by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert, poly pioneers from the ’80s and ‘90s), and listened to my answers with less judgment than before. I told them that the only time I wanted to be monogamous was when I felt insecure or afraid, and how those didn’t seem like very good reasons to choose anything, let alone how to build my life or structure my relationships. I spoke about how fiercely I regard my autonomy, my freedom; how protective I am of those things for any prospective partners, too.
Recently, I sat down with my parents to talk to them about their relationship, something we’d never done before. I asked my dad how and when he knew he was in love with my mom. “When I was tutoring her,” he responded. They’d met when she was in high school. She was the quietest and most studious of her peers, and he liked that about her: her determination to do well, and to prove another teacher, who thought she wasn’t smart enough for the more advanced classes, wrong. He respected her ambition, her tenacity, her grit. I pressed him on it — how could he have loved her then, when they hadn’t even started dating yet? “Love happens gradually, over time,” he said gruffly, backtracking a little, as if he hadn’t just admitted to me, his most intense of daughters, that he fell in love with my mom before their first date, like that answer wasn’t something I would have understood in my bones. “But I knew then that I wanted to know her better.”
My mother, for her part, was shocked when he asked her out. “He was my teacher,” she told me. (And lest you read scandal into their relationship, remember: he was only a few years older; it was his first year teaching; and he knew enough about power dynamics to wait until after she graduated to ask her out.)
I was curious about how she learned to love. She came from a turbulent family, living for years as the daughter of a single father in Lima, Peru, while my grandmother was living with and working for strangers in New York City, waiting until she could send for her family to join her. My grandfather, though now feeble, was not a demonstrably loving nor lovable man; he was proud, easily frustrated, sometimes violent.
When I asked my mother who taught her how to love, it was quiet at the table while she considered her answer. We were stuffed full of the broccoli calzone my father had spent hours cooking, Mom and I flushed from the wine we’d drunk, lips stained and numb. She seemed almost shy as she responded: “Your dad.” She talked about how different he was from the boys she’d dated before him: the way he respected her, made her feel heard and seen, and paid attention to the cues, verbal and non-verbal, that she gave in his presence. My mother and I have a shared history with men in a way I’m certain nearly all women do. She didn’t have to describe it, though she did so anyway: “He didn’t push. He let me set the pace of our relationship, and if I was uncomfortable, he gave me my space. He made me feel safe.”
The night of our conversation, it became clear to me that despite how different I am from my parents, they have fundamentally shaped my conception of love. It should have been obvious, I guess, but it wasn’t evident until I’d begun to ask that night: there was no meet-cute to my parents’ relationship, no quirky montage, no sequence of sweet but frivolous events accompanied by the pop song du jour to illustrate the course of their romance. Their relationship, culturally sanctified as it undoubtedly is, is still a series of choices, day in, day out, even now. And while I don’t necessarily believe in my mother’s concept of soulmates, or that if she hadn’t met my father, she would have lived her life alone — I believe that love is more abundant than that — I treasure the way they’ve learned to love, because I see it in what they’ve taught me, despite our differences: how we choose to love consciously, bravely, one day at a time.
Lead image credit: Yuliya Libkina/Flickr