People say they want to fall in love the way they do in the movies. They want grand gestures and epic poetry, knockdown dragout fights and passionate lovemaking. We like to pretend only women want this, but it’s men, too. It’s everyone. We’re all taught through observing beautiful, passionate stars on the silver screen that love is meant to be an emotional rollercoaster that ends in fireworks.
But, as one of my favorite Avett Brothers songs will tell you, “In the movies, they’re not in love at all. With a twinkle in their eye, they’re just saying their lines.” This is what that explosive “love” is like. This is what the obsessive cathexis that those of us with complex-PTSD believe love is like. We chase it and, when we find someone willing to go along with it, we manufacture it. We know the lines, and we know the plot, and we create it for long enough to implode.
I met Craig in my first semester of graduate school in 2013. He was handsome, dressed to teach in a pair of jeans and a well-fitting sportscoat. He had sandy blond hair, bright blue eyes, and a dazzling megawatt smile. He was in his third year of the program, and the enneagram Achiever in me became determined to make him notice me. I was 26, still reeling from years of feeling disfigured from multiple reconstructive eye surgeries and discarded from the shift away from the drinking buddies you have in your early twenties into the lull before making real friends in your Saturn return. A fling with an attractive, intelligent man nearly a decade older than myself seemed like a good idea at the time.
When I found out a mutual friend was holding a Friendsgiving at the end of the semester, I jumped at the chance to see Craig outside of the bland, beige walls of academia. I styled my hair, followed a makeup video tutorial that took me three tries to look semi-presentable, and pulled on my only little black dress—a pretty plain shift that also happened to have a plunging neckline. I went with a new friend, the two of us gossiping about our department and singing along to Christmas carols the whole drive over. And, in the only luck I thought I was having that semester, Craig did attend!
I’d been listening to the random bits of gossip and conversation I’d caught about Craig all semester. I knew he had encyclopedia knowledge about a vast array of topics (hot) and had a penchant for lurid affairs with large-breasted, combative women half his age (less than hot). Still, it was somehow exactly what I thought I was looking for.
In truth, I’d been listening and observing people around me all my life. Growing up in an emotionally volatile household, I’d learned quickly how to survive by watching and anticipating the whims and needs of those around me. Want to get to school on time? Make sure to have the pot of coffee brewing an hour before we need to leave. Don’t want to get slapped? Look at the floor and keep from crying when the yelling starts. My favorite Disney movie was Beauty and the Beast 1. Because I loved Angela Landsbury, and 2. Because I had this insatiable need to tame the beast who wouldn’t be loving for anyone else. Easily one of the worst lessons we taught young women in the 20th century.
In hunting my Beast, I showed up to a lovely party with a pecan pie and lots of cleavage, and I set about ignoring and avoiding Craig for the better part of two hours. I waited for my opening… and waited… and waited… and waited. Until, just as we were all digging into desserts, I heard some playful banter from Craig’s side of the living room.
“Deep Space Nine was potentially the best of the Star Trek series.”
Here was my chance. You like argumentative women? I thought, I’ve got that covered.
“I’m sorry, but Deep Space Nine was probably the worst Star Trek series.”
As his eyes settled on me, Craig’s shock quickly turned into a playful smirk. “Clearly this woman is nuts. Who let her out of the kitchen?”
Rolling my eyes at the comment clearly meant to get under my skin, I pressed on, “The ferengi were the most annoying part of Next Generation. Why would I watch a series dedicated to them?”
“Hah!” He let out an incredulous guffaw. “So, you haven’t seen it.”
“I have not.”
“And you call yourself a political scientist?”
“Well, then,” he walked closer, “I bet you $20 that if you watch the first season of Deep Space, you’ll love it.”
I never did watch a single episode of Deep Space Nine, but by 10:00 the following morning, Craig had found me online, reached out to flirt with me through banter about Dostoyevsky in a private message, and asked me out for a drink that night. In a near-empty sports bar, we bared our souls—describing the difficulties of our childhoods, exposing deep secrets, laughing over past relationship mistakes. When he walked me to my car, he brushed the hair from my face and asked to kiss me. The December air was cold, but his lips were warm against mine. We stayed there, locked together for only a few moments. It felt so perfect.
But after our second date, he told me he wasn’t looking for a relationship. We’d shared two nights of banter and laughter and heightened sexual tension, but he suddenly shared that he’d just gotten out of a five-year relationship that had been extremely tumultuous, and he wasn’t emotionally available yet. Of course, the Belle in me saw this as a challenge, an obstacle to be conquered, not the red flag that it was. It was as if he saw this need in me to achieve difficult goals early on (maybe the PhD program was a clue?), as if he saw clearly my desperate need to avoid abandonment. He’d go on triggering that complex for years to come any time he felt me slipping away.
In early January 2014, there was a snowstorm in Atlanta. Everything shut down, and I took a train to the suburbs to stay the night with a friend. But, even though he’d told me point blank that he wasn’t interested, Craig reached out and wanted to see me. The young, wounded girl in me who still craved her emotionally distant mother’s attention couldn’t say no. My friend drove me down to the city, and we met Craig for a few drinks on Decatur Square. We bantered and laughed till last call, when my friend discreetly stepped out, leaving Craig to drive me home. And drive me home, he did. He deposited me with my overnight bag, sobbing and screaming at him, on the snowy driveway of the duplex where I lived with a wonderful friend who consoled me and did their best to explain that Craig was right; he really wasn’t worth all the tears.
But that little, wounded girl in me needed him to be worth it, because only then, she believed, would I be worth it. Once my roommate went to bed, I drove on the empty, icy streets across town—yes, grand romantic movie gesture/psycho ex-girlfriend style—and showed up on his doorstep demanding answers. Why was he locking me out when it was clear he cared for me? Why was he trying to deny our connection? Why did he hate himself so much as to think he didn’t deserve me? Why didn’t I matter? I really wanted to know.
He let me in, and we screamed and cried and, in the early hours near dawn, we finally slept together for the first time. It was angry and sad, and I thought it was perfect. My upbringing had taught me that love could only exist in conjunction with pain and hurt and tears.
We continued this cycle for more than seven years. We fought, we separated, we tried to just be friends, we ended up in bed together, only to fight and begin the cycle again and again. No matter how much I blossomed in my professional life and my friendships, no matter how much I learned and grew in therapy, I could not seem to shake this version of myself when I was with Craig of someone small and desperate and insignificant. I needed his approval, no matter the cost to my own sanity.
When I finally walked away from him in the beginning of 2021—for the second time—I did look back, but this time, I never wanted him again. I had left for six months in 2019 and done so well for myself, but then returned for what became our last year together. In that year, the cycle had softened. The fights were resolved faster, and they were further apart, but in losing the emotional valleys, we’d lost the emotional firecrackers, as well. Things were almost… good. Except, the cycle was still there. And, the history was still there. We would never shake the years of turmoil and abuse. Like Ingrid Bergman at the end of Casablanca, it became very clear to me that I could never stay with or trust this Humphrey Bogart. Staying would mean the end of me.
When I was an infant, my father left, and my emotionally volatile mother built a trauma bond with me during the months of developing attachment style. She made me the sole beneficiary of her adoration and anger, made me the sole reason she lived and breathed, made me the sole creator of her happiness. And I had believed that to be true, believed that was my lot in life—to have the power to make another person happy without expecting the same in return. I recreated that bond with boyfriend after boyfriend, sacrificing for them when they never asked it of me, feeling abandoned and confused when they didn’t do the same in return. When things were stable, I threw tantrums and picked fights because emotional volatility was the only love I knew.
Except, it wasn’t love. As bell hooks explains in her incredible book, All About Love, someone can care for you and treat you poorly, but love can NOT exist where there is abuse. I was not loving these men, nor was I asking for them to love me. If someone had showed real love to me, I rejected it as foreign and unexciting and insincere because it didn’t match the only bond I’d know—one of trauma. In my family, the stories of love were discussed as fights—we knew our grandparents loved each other because they screamed and threw things and chased one another, and we knew our parents loved us because they cared enough to punish us. This was not love. This was abuse—trauma passed down from confused, wounded souls to the next generation of confused, wounded souls to be slightly softened but repeated again and again.
During the year after I left Craig for good, my little caterpillar heart began to spin a soft sac for hibernation and rebirth. When I fully shut him out, I burrowed into that sac and wove it around me. For the first time in a long time, I dated someone who was emotionally available and capable of loving. We weren’t right for each other and ended the relationship as friends, but we treated each other with kindness and respect, and it was with him that I learned what love could look like. In seeing this possibility, I finally saw the truth. With every man I thought I had loved, I’d built a world where I could recreate those formative wounds. I’d found cathexis in abuse. I’d sought comfort in pain and confusion, in the hot and cold whiplash that my mother had taught me was love—that Craig had likely also experienced as a young boy, and that we had recreated together again and again as we attempted to heal while stewing in our own confusion and anger and hurt.
Today, I am eight years into my therapy journey. I have worked with the same excellent trauma specialist, attended a support group for nearly seven years, practiced yoga and meditation and mindfulness, and, when it was necessary, I medicated for several years to help things along and balance out my chemistry. I finally learned how to form and then formed beautiful, truly loving friendships with amazing people who have stood by me and cared for me without the pain or confusion or abuse I’d once thought entwined with love. Today, I have finished building this beautiful chrysalis, and I am eager for the day when I will burst forth from it.
People say they want the grand romance, but in reality the heart doesn’t work that way. We need a slow build. We need time to discover, time to let our emotions settle and simmer, time to trust. Grand gestures and epic poetry feel incredible in the moment, but that moment passes, and you’re left with an empty shell of a relationship that cannot stand on the spindly, atrophied legs of daily care that grand gestures are intended to hide. You cannot build a life with someone on flowery words. You cannot sustain the rush of adrenaline from being swept off your feet only to be dropped in the snow. That’s not how humans are built, and it’s not how love is sustained.
If you ask me, I want a love like that of the supporting characters. I don’t want a Mr. Darcy, but a Mr. Bingley. I want a love that is steady, always caring, and stands the test of time (and jealous sisters). I want the love of Carl and Ellie, not Belle and the Beast. And, when my heart is ready, I know it will be there, waiting in the wind for me to fly.