The ex-files: to all the men I’ve loved before (Part 4)
John has the dubious honour of being the most good looking man I have ever had a relationship with, and the man who did my head in almost as much as the Italian. I met him when Tessa was four, almost five. I was still teaching—and it was early on in my teaching career—so it must have been around 1998. I would have been 34 or 35. I met him through a teaching colleague. I needed some odd jobs done around my home, and my colleague recommended John, who had a handyman business. They played squash together, hence their acquaintance. My colleague left the school a few short weeks later, and I used to marvel at the fact that timing was everything when it came to me meeting John.
I arranged for John to come out and quote for the work and when I gave him my address, was bemused (weirded out?) that he literally lived on the same street as me, albeit a kilometre away on the other side of the main road that divided our suburb. When he knocked on my door at the arranged time, I was stunned by the handsome man standing on my door step. He was tall, 6′ 2″ and I would find out later that he had not one extra ounce of body fat on him. His skin was a beautiful tawny colour, his eyes black and quick, like a bird’s (when I publish my short story The One, you’ll see who the inspiration for the character and the story is). Of course, I hired him on the spot and kept him coming back over the course of a few months with more odd jobs that needed doing. We ended up being friends, and eventually became lovers.
He seemed oblivious to his handsomeness, and admitted that he had had very few girlfriends. While he was a tough nut to crack in terms of getting to know him, and while he eventually opened up and trusted me, he always seemed to be out of reach, and no matter how hard I tried, there was a part of him that was cordoned off. Our relationship always felt slightly off balance, like it would tip over or implode at the slightest whiff of trouble.
John was not an outgoing person; he was quiet, shy and introverted. He was in such excellent physical shape because he played competition squash, and had spent quite some time on the international circuit, living in countries like Germany and Scandinavia. I was surprised, when I got to know him better, that he was not very experienced, in both life and sex. He seemed oblivious to his handsomeness, and admitted that he had had very few girlfriends. While he was a tough nut to crack in terms of getting to know him, and while he eventually opened up and trusted me, he always seemed to be out of reach, and no matter how hard I tried, there was a part of him that was cordoned off. Our relationship always felt slightly off balance, like it would tip over or implode at the slightest whiff of trouble. He required less sexy times than I did, which had me questioning my attractiveness.
John and I were together for a good twelve months, and despite the out-of-balance kilter of relationship, we shared some lovely times. His parents had a large block of land in the middle of nowhere—about 2 hours north-east of Adelaide—that we would often escape to on the weekends. There was nothing on this block of land except thistles and a lean-to with a toilet; I can’t recall what his parents were going to do with it. Maybe build, but I’m not sure. We’d get there—Tessa would be with us—and light a campfire and cook our meal and sleep under the stars and go for long walks the next day before venturing home, our hair and clothes smelling of smoke. I spent a Christmas or two with mother and father and brothers, who were lovely people and made Tessa and I very welcome. We’d often sleep over at John’s house, which was actually his parent’s house because he still lived with them. I noticed that John always seemed uncomfortable around his family, as if he wasn’t one of them, as if he was an observer.
And John’s attachment style? Definitely avoidant, with some mental health problems thrown in too, which didn’t help matters. It was on a road trip to Sydney that his mental health became an issue, although I realised that something wasn’t quite right before then. He had been diagnosed with depression and was on some heavy duty anti-depressants which, he claimed, left him foggy and unable to think. He was hoping that the road trip would help clear his head and remove his need for his meds. About two weeks in, while we were staying on a friend’s property in the Hawkesbury, complete with rustic cottage, an open air bath and lyre birds on the doorstep, he had what I could only describe then as a breakdown, so we drove home, mostly in silence. He was distant, emotionally unavailable and withdrawn. Once we got home, he advised me that he didn’t think he wanted to be with me, because “I wasn’t the type of person he could be attracted to” and “he had to have some time away to think about whether he wanted to be with me” and “he would let me know in a few weeks”. Of course, I was devastated with this announcement. We had shared so much, and, despite his depression, we were working towards building a life together. Or so I thought.
I was miserable and upset and self-doubting the entire time he was “thinking about whether he wanted to be with me”, not least because he withdrew completely. No contact. When he got in touch with me a few weeks later, he said he still hadn’t decided whether he wanted to continue the relationship.
My understanding of attachment styles now leads me to believe the John’s attachment system was protesting from too much closeness and intimacy, and mental health issues aside, his breakdown on the Hawkesbury was symptomatic of his avoidant attachment style. And it sent my attachment system into a tail spin. I was miserable and upset and self-doubting the entire time he was “thinking about whether he wanted to be with me”, not least because he withdrew completely. No contact. When he got in touch with me a few weeks later, he said he still hadn’t decided whether he wanted to continue the relationship. Me, being true to form and realising that this relationship was not doing my mental health any favours, told him that if he couldn’t make a decision, I would. And I ended things with John. Of course, as these things go, we kept in touch for a few months afterwards, and I was always hopeful that we would be reconciled. There was talk at one point about moving to Perth, and even getting married. Eventually, though, it ran its course and fizzled, and John exited from my life.
I always look at the year I spent with John as one of opposing forces. On the one hand I couldn’t believe that such a handsome man would be in a relationship with me. On the other hand, I experienced so much doubt about my attractiveness as a woman that my self-confidence took a huge knock. Even though we spent a lot of time together camping and going on road trips and enjoying nature—and he often talked about adopting Tessa and becoming a family—I had not felt so alone in a long time. And in twelve months, I went from being completely in love with this man and wanting to spend my life with him to almost hating him at the end. In a weird way, though, John was my training for the Italian, who came along almost four years later.
(You want to hear something weird? Well, here goes. While I was on my run this morning, I noticed a man walking toward me on the path. He was carrying a an open, pale blue umbrella, wearing old, grey tracksuit pants and an oversized blue and white checked shirt and munching on a packet of Scotch Finger biscuits. I looked at the man, recognised him, and slowed down.
Oh, hello… it’s John, I said to no one in particular and stopped right next to him on the path.
Hello, I said.
Hello, he said. He looked neither surprised to see me nor overjoyed. I had the vague feeling that he was heavily medicated. His hair was the same unkempt length it was 15 years ago, but streaked with grey; his face was still handsome, his body still lean under the oversized shirt.
How are you? I said. What have you been up to?
Travelling, he said. Up north. Doing some volunteering work, but mainly travelling.
He continued eating his biscuits and paused before asking: What about you?
Working, I said. Writing, publishing, travelling. And running half marathons. Tessa’s all grown up now. She’s 22…
Half marathons, he said, munching on another biscuit, the crumbs leaving a tell-tale trail down the front of his shirt.
That’s right, I said. Look, I’d better go. Don’t want to cool down too much. See ya!
And that was the end of the conversation. He kept walking and I kept running. I thought to myself: I used to be in love with that man and I’m writing about him in my blog. How weird.)
I have written A LOT about the Italian. Hell, Part 1 of the Love & Other Stuff series is all about how he broke my heart, so there’s no need to go into all over again in this post. What I will do is look at his attachment style, which, I believe, is avoidant, despite his warm nature and sunny disposition. There were any number of smoking guns, had I known what to look out for: things like mixed messages, in particular his “taken” status in the beginning which he conveniently omitted to tell me, the stop-start nature of our relationship and specifically, the yes, we’re getting married… no we aren’t towards the end; keeping me separate from his family for close to a year, withdrawing when I tried to get close; keeping his distance via no sleep overs or shared holidays; being unavailable to me because he needed to be available to his family; the difficulty he had assuring me about my place in his life. No wonder my finely-tuned, anxious attachment system was on constant, high alert!
The reality is, though, even if we had married and had a family, we would have made each other desperately unhappy. My need for closeness and intimacy would have clashed with his desire for emotional distance.
My relationship with the Italian was doomed from the start because of our attachment styles, but I didn’t know it. I blamed him for not manning up, his family for not making things easy for us, and myself for not being enough. I beat myself up for investing too much in him and his promises of a future. The reality is, though, even if we had married and had a family, we would have made each other desperately unhappy. My need for closeness and intimacy would have clashed with his desire for emotional distance. So even though I was devastated and bereft and broken when we split, it was for the best. Funny how things work out.
This going over of old ground has been an interesting exercise to say the least. I can see that I have made many poor decisions and choices about the majority of the men I had relationships with, relying on chance meetings and fate and chemistry as the foundations for partnerships. I always felt disempowered and insecure because I believed that the relationship lived or died on the behest of the man I was involved with. He had to power to say whether things would continue or not, and I think this would be true of most avoidant-anxious matchings. At the same time, I have been in a small number of relationships that could have been long-term and satisfying and fulfilling, if only I had known. It is fleeting, long ago relationships that give me hope, because if it has happened before—and it has—it will happened again.
The next time, though, I know what to look for.
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