I could still show you the spot where Gail introduced herself to me back in the eighth grade at Jasper Junior High School.
It was just a few weeks into the school year. I was near the library in a downstairs hallway. It was between classes, so the hall was crowded with students. But within seconds, it would seem as though there was nobody there other than this beautiful blue-eyed girl and me.
Gail said she had realized that our fathers worked together, so she wanted to introduce herself. I don’t remember what else was said. But it was love at first sight for me — or whatever it is that a 13-year-old boy is mature enough to feel.
For the next three years, I was crazy about her and worshipped her, mostly from afar. By the time we were high school juniors, the fever had ended and she was just another classmate. When we were seniors, we were casual friends. In the second semester of our freshman year of college, we started dating. We were together for three years and even got engaged before eventually going our separate ways.
I didn’t know it then — and rarely realized it later — but my lifelong pursuit of the right woman to love me had its roots in an unconscious childhood need for love which I couldn’t find.
I came to identify love with painful longing.
I’m not the first person to realize that his adult romantic relationships have been influenced by his or her relationship with an opposite-sex parent. You can read dozens of articles and studies in psychological and sociological literature about it. (For a couple of random examples, see this or that.)
It took me many years — and a lot of work toward understanding my complicated feelings related to my mother — to see that I have kept setting myself up to need to earn the love and presence of a woman who I adore.
When I was a child, I had a wonderful and loving mother in the beginning, but she soon abandoned me. I understand now that there were reasons for her actions, but that didn’t change how I felt at the time — and it didn’t change the fact that it wrote a script for me which I’ve followed in relationship after relationship.
I was hurt too badly by my mother’s loss to let myself feel what the abandonment did to me. I told myself and others that I didn’t care. I said very clearly that I didn’t care what happened to her or whether I ever saw her again. I eventually angrily told her — when I was about 15 or 16 — to leave us alone when I realized she was trying to get my sister to come live with her.
I tried as an adult to resolve the relationship with her, but it wasn’t possible. She had become someone I didn’t know. She had become a child-like and irresponsible person by the time I knew her later. Eventually, she died — just a few years ago — and nobody bothered to tell me when it happened.
So this was an emotional script that had no resolution. I can see now that I have been trying to resolve this old childhood script ever since. It’s not that I wanted or needed to marry someone like her. It’s simply that I needed the right woman who would play a role in this hurtful script full of longing — but resolve it in the different way at the end.
I haven’t had many really serious relationships, but in each one, I have longed for the one who would finally allow me to feel loved and accepted and valued — in the ways I had been wanting to feel again since my mother walked out of my life and left me feeling empty and emotionally numb.
I was such a meticulous teen-ager that I kept extensive notes about Gail and my attempts to establish a relationship with her. I was completely inept — and I was terrified the entire time. My notes and plans make me cringe to read today, but they remind me just how early this pattern started.
I have a small box which is filled with papers related to Gail during those years. They’re almost entirely from my eighth and ninth grade years. Sometime during one of those two years, I tried writing poetry to express my feelings and my longing. It’s painful now to read that poetry, partly because it’s terrible poetry and partly because I can feel the huge separation I felt from someone I never thought I could win.
I finally shared one bad poem with Gail years later while we dated, but nobody else has ever seen this. It’s terrible, but it points out something I hadn’t really seen until now. This one is called “So Near, But So Far.”
Shining brightly, high above,
You’re like a distant star,
You’re shining brightly, like a beacon,
But I’ve no way to get that far.
You’re like the lights of the safest port,
Seen from the deck of a sinking ship.
I’m like the captain, I must despair,
The lights are so near, but so far.
I’m like a prisoner behind bars,
You’re like the keys to my cell,
Just barely out of reach,
The keys are so near, but so far.
You’re like the star,
You’re like the lights,
You’re like the keys,
You’re so near, but so far.
You can see why I stuck to writing prose after this brief flirtation with poetry, but you can see so much from the pattern here.
With my mother’s love, I always knew where she was. There were even times I could see her. But I never felt as though I could be secure in her love or my attachment to her, because I knew she was leaving again.
I played that script out with my “puppy love” for Gail. I saw her at school every day. I couple of times, I even managed to go on dates with her. We weren’t old enough to drive, but she went as my date to a church banquet one time and we went to a couple of other events. Afterward, I was always so insecure and shy with her that I never followed up and tried to turn it into something.
For the years when I had a crush on her so badly, she gave me chances, but I mostly viewed her as someone who I could see and long for — but as someone who forever remained out of my reach.
The lines of that horrible poem are full of that symbolism. I longed for her, not as someone who didn’t want me or who could never love me, but as some who was always just beyond what I could grasp — just as I had felt with my mother.
In various other ways, I see how I have invited other women to be involved with the same script. I invite someone to join me in this delicate dance — and she joins because of her own patterns that are completely unrelated to mine — but I have never found the resolution I’ve been looking for from the beginning.
The emotional script calls for me to love and want a woman — for me to long for her and need her — but the thing I’m still waiting for is for someone to play out the last act of the script.
The story with my mother ended unresolved, but I’ve been unconsciously searching for the woman who would help me write and live out the end of this script. I’ve been looking for someone for whom I could yearn and someone I would need — and then who would join me, letting me finally find resolution to the old script.
To use one of the metaphors from the poem, I’ve been waiting for someone who I’ve chosen to love — the very few who I’ve wanted — to come to me eventually and say, “I’m the key to your cell. Come with me. We can escape together.”
We don’t necessarily “marry our parents,” although that does happen at times. More typically, we learn emotional patterns that are either healthy and worth emulating — or we experience unhealthy things which we emulate and then have to struggle to find our way out of.
I felt alone and unloved — in relation to the central woman in my life — when I was a child. I felt unlovable. I felt shame at being abandoned. I felt that I must not be good enough.
And now — all these years later — I realize I’ve done the same thing with other women at least three different times.
I’m not looking for a woman to be like my mother. I’m not looking for someone to become my mother. I’m simply looking — quite unconsciously — for someone to help me to find a healthy ending to the unhealthy emotional script which was all I knew as a child.
It’s very difficult for me to find a woman who I love, but I always know instinctively when I’ve found her. I now understand that this is why I don’t give up easily when a more reasonable man would fall out of love and give up.
I realize now that I have to go through this painful longing for awhile. But in the same way that something in my heart didn’t want to give up — when I was a child — with the possibility of being loved and accepted, I do the same thing today.
I wait and I hope and I long. It’s incredibly destructive to me on the inside. It wastes a huge amount of time. It hurts and makes me feel lonely and unloved and unworthy. But it’s all because I’m still waiting for that one woman who will help me write a new ending to a very old script.
I’m waiting and hoping and longing for the one amazing woman who will love me and accept me — and who will never abandon me.
After that, I can throw the script away for good.