‘I’m trying to free myself from the collective illusions of what a good relationship is’

Statue of Max Kisman

Liz (65): ‘Sometimes I think: how would my past relationships have gone if I had experienced them with the gentleness of the present? If I had approached the other women in my life as I approached this woman: without expectations, without imposing my wishes on her, just being amazed by what happens and not indignant at what doesn’t happen? If I had realized earlier how, when you have no judgment and no template for an ideal relationship, you notice all the beautiful things better?

I met this woman, much younger than me, six months ago with a mutual friend. She asked if I wanted to go sailing sometime. For that trip I brought everything, something to eat, something to drink, but I had no hope of more than just a pleasant afternoon. As much as I liked her, it lacked the insecure feeling of wanting someone very much; a feeling that is somewhere between heightened awareness and being scared. What exactly does she mean by that one word? Is she smiling because she likes me or because she’s cute? And what does the hand that leans on my knee mean? No trace of such thoughts. We just ate and talked and I loved it.

hate myself

When I got into a relationship with an 18-year-old girl when I was 21, it was very different and I was limitless in my surrender. We moved in together after two weeks. But when sixteen years later she went to work one morning and never came back, I was nobody. It was December 3, 1993, and she left for good. And that while we had grown up together, so to speak. Everything I owned belonged to the two of us, I once owned a toiletry bag yet.

After her I have had several relationships. The first was characterized by a wild desire to catch up with puberty. The woman I was with was fine with it, but eventually it didn’t work anymore, I was increasingly pushing the boundaries of decency and hating myself. The second ended just as abruptly as my first love, and it was as if the pain of that breakup came back full force. Like a disgruntled predator that had been quietly waiting for its chance to give me the final blow. A lot of anti-depressants had to be used to help me.

That is, I can now conclude at 65, possibly one of the indicators of a relationship. The question is what qualities it brings out in you. What part of yourself is revealed by the association with one partner? And is it a part that you are happy about or would have preferred to keep hidden?

Small sensations

After that cruise, some quiet dates followed. I really liked the calmness of it. Unperturbed by grandiose emotions, we talked hand in hand about our past relationships. She is slim with curly hair and brown eyes. The Amsterdam lesbian world is small. Laughing, we found out that we had once dated the same woman. “Do you want to be in a relationship again?” I asked her during our fourth meeting. “Yes,” she said, “with you.” And only at that moment did I realize that I wanted to do it myself. I was surprised and mildly benevolent.

It is now months later and I am amazed every day at who I have become in this relationship. Less sloppy, less waste of love than before. I no longer take it for granted that someone loves me. The first time we kissed was so overwhelming that I gently pushed her away from me. Stop it, stop it, it’s too much at once. I will dose the love, the tenderness, never to be blown away like a storm again. And also to be able to experience all the little sensations individually. Every time I see her, I am happy. I am training myself not to push when she goes home on Saturday afternoon as I had hoped she would continue to eat and sleep.

The way she is, that’s how I’ve come to love her. And I will continue to love her as she is. She can’t help that I need contact more than she does. I immediately call myself when I feel the disappointment bubbling up and a moment later – this is the crazy thing – I’m completely at peace with it and the disappointment is already gone. Those were my expectations, she hadn’t once said that she intended to stay. I had filled it in myself, conditioned by ideals as I am.

A better version of myself

This new insight, so mature that I am almost proud of it, must be maintained daily. Don’t trust your thoughts, my yoga teacher once said. I have never forgotten that. Just like you keep your body in shape with weekly workouts, I keep practicing with acceptance. I am reading a book: If the Buddha got married. About all the suffering we cause ourselves by resisting illness, divorce and infidelity instead of realizing that no life is without pain.

There are so many collective illusions about what a “good relationship” is. I’m trying to free myself from it. When my girlfriend says she wants to be alone on Saturday night, I almost start hugging him. But when a little later she lovingly says that she is super happy for me and that this relationship is also very healing for her, I am glad that I could keep my doubts in check and not spill out like a cloud of poison. Because I know how devastating the unbridled expression of insecurity can be. And yes, who can say how those past relationships would have turned out if I had the emotional maturity I am now. I am happy for this opportunity to discover a better version of myself: I listen better, judge less and am more patient. We have never had a single conflict. But I remain alert. I keep asking myself.’

At the request of the interviewee, the name Liz has been changed.
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From single adventures to long-term relationships: Corine Koole looks for stories of all kinds of love and special experiences that have led to new insights for this column and the podcast of the same name.

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