I received an email from a longtime reader (I’ll call her Shay) the other day, who wanted advice on whether she should continue to invest in a relationship that had a very rough beginning. Like many of us, she’d overinvested in love before and didn’t want to make that mistake again. I feel her. I’m grateful for the battle scars I’ve received from being a soldier of love, proud of them even. But I can’t say those experiences haven’t made me more cautious, a bit fearful if I’m honest, of investing in a relationship where I’m uncertain of what the outcome will be.
The fact that we can never be certain of outcomes is a conversation we’ll save for another day. I’ve fought fear and apprehensions in my own relationship, because my partner and I have had our share of ups and downs from the very beginning. It’s been quite a challenge, especially post divorce.
But back to Shay. I gave her advice I continually have to give myself (often): we cannot fly with one hand over our hearts. We have to be willing to love freely and invest fully if we are to love at all, because as Toni Morrison reminds us, “thin love ain’t love at all.” If we can’t invest fully, even if we have apprehensions, then we have to be willing to walk away. The question becomes, how do we determine if a relationship is worth investing fully in (because we know by now—’cause we’re grown—that all of them are not worth investing in long term).
Our hope is that our relationships begin as magic. After all, we’re all fed those fabulous princess tales about love and being swept off our feet almost from birth. And even if we don’t want to admit it, we often want our love stories to match the fairytale. I won’t say that fairytale romances don’t exist, at least the ones we witness from the outside. But I will say that just because one’s love story doesn’t rival Cinderella’s doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful, significant, and lead to a lifetime of joy and wonder.
There are couples that fold enchantingly and instantly into one another, but for many of us, the gelling process takes much longer. And honestly, many times the slow-starting relationships that make the lovers invest in hard work from the beginning end up being the relationships that last.
Of course, I’m not advocating that Shay, or anyone, be a (complete) sucker for love. So I encouraged her to ask herself the following questions while deciding if she should stay or go:
1. What do you want? And more importantly, do you honestly believe the person you’re involved with wants to see you have those things? Is the person you’re dating going to make the process of you having the things you want easier of harder? If, for instance, you want to have a child, dating a man who has commitment issues might not be a wise investment of time for you. Even if he agrees to the kind of relationship that one needs to produce and nurture children, will he be able to commit to being a present father once the baby is born?
2. Where is the work? For a long time, I didn’t believe that people could change. Gratefully, I now understand that all human beings have the capacity to change; we often simply don’t have the commitment to do so. If we decide to stay in relationships where we feel we’ve been mistreated and hurt, we have to demand that our partners be accountable for taking the steps necessary (counseling, mentorship, authentic remorse from maltreatment) to change those negative behaviors.
3. Can you forgive? The advice I wish I would have been given before I married was that the person whom you love the most likely has the ability to hurt you the most, and he probably will. We are all beautiful messes. We often damage others because we’re damaged ourselves. If we don’t understand this fact and don’t learn how to forgive and move past that hurt, we shouldn’t waste our time or anyone else’s pretending we’re ready for a long-term or lifetime commitment. If we cannot forgive those who have hurt us and move forward from the past, the work a lover does to mend what’s been broken will be in vain.
Relationships that start off rocky can sometimes lead to the most strong and solid unions. Why? Because love and change is always possible.
Josie Pickens is an educator, cultural critic and solider of love. Follow her musings on Twitter @jonubian.