REAL LIFE RELATIONSHIPS: This is what ‘not love’ feels like

I was in an old bookstore on a warm Saturday afternoon in April. It was a place I was often drawn to, especially when I needed to think. I meandered up and down the aisles, slowly touching the spines of different books, silently reading the titles. Eventually, I reluctantly walked to the section filled with books on relationships. I grabbed a few with prickly titles, titles that made my stomach clench and my face flush. Chai latte in hand, I sat on the floor, crossed my legs, and rested my back against the bookshelf. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath before opening the first book.

I was nearing 30 and missing one significant thing: a partner. I had been on endless dates that had gone nowhere, often because of a lack of connection. I was tired of the process and often frustrated.

One afternoon, my father approached me about a guy he’d recently connected with on LinkedIn named Ralph. This was obviously not the traditional way to meet someone, but I decided to give it a try.

Our LinkedIn-arranged blind date was brunch on a Sunday afternoon. Ralph and I drank mimosas over shared pancakes, and the conversation was effortless. He was confident, assertive, and direct. He owned his own wildly successful business, and his strong sense of self drew me in.

Slowly, he became a fixture in my life. We would talk on the phone for hours, until we fell asleep to wake up, laugh and talk more. He knew all the best restaurants and bars in town. We would dance the weekends, and sometimes the weeknights, away. We read books together, watched political commentary every Friday night, and took intense fitness classes twice a week.

It felt like Ralph was trying to consume every part of me, know every part of me, see every part of me, and I assumed this meant we were falling in love. And oh, what a feeling it is to be seen, to be heard, to find your person.

About Real Life Relationships

Real Life with Nedra Rhone introduces Real Life Relationships, a monthly reader-contributed essay that explores the many ways in which we are connected and the attendant emotions — happiness, sadness, fear and anger — those connections can bring into our lives. Interested in contributing? Email nedra.rhone@ajc.com with the subject line “Real Life Relationships.” Here are some recent essays from Real Life Relationships that you may enjoy:

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Months passed, and I decided to broach the subject of exclusivity. Ralph said he wasn’t ready. He didn’t want to rush things. We went on this way for a while. I pretended it didn’t bother me. I’d found what I was looking for. What was the rush? After almost a year, I finally mustered up the courage to say, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” And, “This is confusing and painful.”

One week later, Ralph resurfaced with a desperate phone call. He needed us to be together. He had been afraid of commitment, but now, he was ready. I heard the urgency in his voice. “I’m sorry, and I love you. I am ready.”

I would mistake Ralph’s desperation for his grand realization of how special we were together. Surprised and a bit apprehensive, I agreed with one condition: We would start couples counseling. Something told me we would need professional help if we wanted to have a shot at longevity.

Almost immediately, a slow unraveling began. A few short weeks into our newfound relationship, Ralph asked me to consider breast implants, saying he would pay for them, but added if we ever broke up, he would have to “take them back.” One evening on my way to the gym, he demanded to speak to my trainer, insisting that cardio could no longer be a part of my workout regimen. I tried not to read too much into this behavior, but there was yelling, and he forced me to promise that, at a minimum, I would relay his message to the trainer. Then there were the insults. “You are from a broken home, you are insecure, you are immature, and you know nothing about how to create or sustain a long-term partnership.” And still, I stayed. We were in counseling after all, and I chose to believe that could fix us.

The counseling sessions were once a week for two hours. Some weeks, we needed an emergency resuscitation session, and the therapist would desperately try to pull Ralph out of his anger over nothing and everything and back in the direction of the us he claimed so emphatically to want. This went on for almost a year. In these sessions, I opened up in the most intimate of ways because that was a daily request of his — for me to show all of myself in every intimate way possible — and because that’s just how therapy works. One must share the most intimate spaces of mind and heart; it is only then that the real work can begin.

Everything I did to make things better made things worse. From the outside, things looked perfect. We were living together now, dining in Dubai, going on safari in South Africa, and sailing on a privately chartered boat in the Caribbean Sea for his birthday.

Around friends and family, Ralph was attentive and affectionate with me. He was charming with them, thoughtful and engaging. Alone at night when we weren’t engaged in physical intimacy, he insisted we sleep with a body pillow between us. When I touched him, he recoiled. When I expressed myself, he ignored me. I wasn’t myself. I doubted my own feelings. I needed him to love me. If I could just get it right, perhaps things would go back to how they were in the beginning.

During our time together, we traveled the world and made memories that would last a lifetime. But in the end, the bad times, and the bad feelings, far outweighed the good ones. It all ended on a ski trip in Colorado, a trip that we spent mostly apart, arguing over everything and nothing.

I still think of Ralph sometimes when I hear a certain song or pass a place we used to frequent. He seems like a distant memory now, a distant memory that taught me the lesson of a lifetime — what I can only define as not love. This not love threatens to ruin you, tear you apart, and often break you if you stay too long. And I am so thankful that I did not stay too long.

This essay is an edited excerpt from Amira Sabree’s book “Not Love, the Road Back Home”, about her journey towards love. Explore more at amirasabree.com.