The first thing I did when my ex-husband broke the news to me that our relationship was not what I thought it was, and well, that he’d engaged in some extracurricular activities that did not include dodgeball or pottery making, was YELL. The second thing I did was pretend everything was totally normal — I carried on at all costs. And the third thing I did was call an attorney and get real.
With time, I started to think back on my past relationships and how each one represented a critical step in my learning, and how each lesson acquired brought me hurtling toward the day my ex and I said “I don’t.”
Stage One: The Disney Prince Stage
Starring Ariel, Belle, Snow White, and Cinderella, according to my primary Disney education, if I was perfectly pure, willing to give up my voice, frozen in a prone position, and/or could communicate with animals, I was absolutely guaranteed a prince. One who would love me within three minutes of knowing me, kiss me within five minutes, and marry me within 22.
Unhappy endings were just not a thing, even with the untimely death of at least one parent or a devastating forest fire. So when I played dress-up, house, and Barbies, there was always a swooning Mommy (me) and a male counterpart (Ken, G.I. Joe, or my BFF Becky whose turn it was to be the boy) ready to ride in and rescue me/serenade me from below a balcony while I wore sparkly shoes and a Rainbow Brite wig. True love seemed like low-hanging fruit if you just played the right part.
Stage Two: The Anne of Green Gables Stage
As I grew a little older, the “right part” came out of the instruction manuals known as Anne of Green Gables, The Baby-Sitters Club, Teen, Bop, Sassy, and Seventeen. And boy, was I a good study. I was quirky but not too weird, I laughed at all of the stupid jokes (be funny and open so he’ll notice you!), I stayed pen pals long after camp ended trying to decode each letter that came back to me (was that a heart-shaped bubble on top of the “i”?! Squeeee!), I drank illicit beers and watched movies I hated even though beer made me nauseous and I wasn’t entirely down with their sticky, gropey hands and weird pokey tongues. I created all of the scenes that the instruction manuals told me to write so that I would be just right for them. No one ever told me how to know if they were right for me.
Stage Three: The Mr. Big Stage
Eventually, Disney and Seventeen turned into Buffy, 90210, Ally McBeal, and Sex and the City. Again the rules told me that if I could be goofy, weird, stylish without trying too hard, and skinny enough, true love or at least an awesome heart-crushing romance would ensue — the hot vampire/furniture maker/Brandon Walsh would certainly fall for you. Except Carrie cheated on Aidan with Mr. Big and Dylan Walsh was absolutely the hottest guy on 90210.
Which brings me to the next phase of life: “Too nice” became an actual, valid reason to dump a man. In my head, I was so rooting for AidAn because really, Carrie, really? But in actuality, I see Big in so many of the men I loved fiercely in my 20s. I started to eschew the princes of my childhood, who, though vapid, were likely well-meaning and instead looked for the intense, dark stranger who needed me to save him in some way. It’s nice to be needed, isn’t it?
Stage Four: The ‘And Then I Won My Bad Boy’ Stage
And then my Biggest Mr. Big — the deepest, darkest, most desperate, irrational love of all — said yes when I talked about “forever.” We know how that story ends.
What I’ve finally come to understand is that those broken, intense men were all exactly who they showed me they were. There were no layers to uncover. These men were not onions. They were just actually not that into me. They ate up the devotion I bestowed upon them. And the doing of their laundry and the paying for dinner, they thought that was pretty cool too.
Sadly, the instruction manuals haven’t changed much in the last 20 years. As the mom of small boys, what do I tell them? Do I tell them to be the Prince? The Mr. Big? Who are their role models? I certainly don’t want them learning that true love means giving anyone’s voice to the sea witch in return for a pretty pair of legs.
Staring down the barrel of my late 30s, I don’t pretend to have many answers about love. But what I do know is that kind, brave, supportive, smart, and funny are now the traits I find sexiest and most worthy of love, the traits I hope to instill in my boys. Dark and brooding was cool for a moment, but for me at least, I think I prefer to live life in the bright, warm light.
This post originally appeared on Divorced Moms.