What I Learned From My 3 Deepest Romantic Connections

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I never appreciated how much I could learn from my failures. None of the insights from expensive, time-consuming therapy, discomfort, pain or suffering provided actionable answers.

Instead, I made progress when I was honest with myself about my choices with three major failed romances.

Then, I eventually saw the patterns and underlying ambivalent motivation I had, instead of blaming the seemingly disparate guys.

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The power — and empowerment — of romantic experience

The great advantage of such personal insight was that my efforts resulted in making freer, more informed choices for myself. In contrast, trying to find external explanations takes time and power away — just as looking for sources of happiness and success outside oneself distracts from authentic choices.

This focus on personal insight is not meant to shift the blame to oneself. Better, it avoids the lost time and illusions of trying to change others’ behavior or find a perfect match.  Both could be endless or impossible; people, situations and their interactions are dynamic. Looking within also saves wasted energy on detours, mistakes and unrealistic hopes.

Given an open mind and curiosity, finding the blocking themes, in retrospect especially, is not so hard. Timing and readiness also contribute to well-chosen outcomes.  

Unfortunately, I developed these insights later than was immediately useful. But maybe they will contribute to your own effective choices.

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First love — senior year of college

At the time, I had no idea I was suffering from watered-down stages of infatuation, crystallization and deterioration. 

Nusret was a visiting Turkish Ph.D. post-graduate student four years my senior. We were part of a small, tight social group within our smaller college of Cornell ILR, including labor union organizers studying on loan for a year as well as foreign and American students.  

This propinquity and shared interests strengthened the appeal of exoticism of differences in ages and backgrounds. The first excitement of physical exploration also provided bonding that passed for intimacy with Nusret.

Over the year, I hatched a naïve plan to join the Foreign Service and get stationed in Turkey. To save money for an early visit to him and his family, I would live with my parents and work in New York City. Over that year I taught myself some basic Turkish, learning proper pronunciations and using English associations. For example, “tel” meant wire.  

I will spare you the details of getting there on a Greek freighter docking in Naples to visit with Italian family friends in the area. The closer I got to Turkey, the less I heard from Nusret. Only two days before departing I received his confirming letter.

No wonder I had not heard from him. He lived in a basic apartment with his mentally ill mother and sweet sister in a small town outside Istanbul. No running water, bedbugs, squatting toilet — you get the idea. Yet, I had warm, welcoming experiences getting to know Turkey and other Turks as we visited nearby locales and traveled around the hinterlands.   

But when the paperwork to take the test in Ankara did not arrive, my resourceful, intrepid mother intervened, wrestling it from the State Department in time. 

I passed that test and the oral one about a year later at the United Nations in New York. By then, experiences with the realities of Nurset’s values, veracity and way of life led to the deterioration stage of limerence. I had returned home from Turkey, knowing the relationship was over.

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Lingering with an unexpected man

Back in the United States after two foreign assignments in Quito, Ecuador and Calcutta, India, I met Richard at a classy Georgetown party. Staring at me as I walked somewhat late into the main room was this short, dark man leaning cockily against the fireplace mantel. What an arrogant guy, I remember thinking.

And what place was left to sit after I helped myself to food? Next to Richard! We fell easily into what I call erotic conversation: stimulating eclectic content, flowing with intensity but not sexual. Next, we moved to an engaging piano bar. Typical of Richard’s boldness, he then said, “My place or yours?” Propriety won at my place.  

His emotional inaccessibility and our on-and-off relationship bumped along for years. It continued to rekindle, in part by our far-ranging but overlapping interests, his as a journalist and mine as a diplomat, eight years younger.

The relationship eventually petered out, due in part due to my hesitancy to discuss and confront lingering issues and his avoidance. Nothing of deep, sustainable meaning could develop from such interesting yet inconclusive tendencies, but I had engaging times meeting his famous friends and stimulating excursions mostly through matters of the mind.  

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Almost a conventional connection

Finally, there was Allen, four years younger. We got as far as literal engagement v. actual attention to many real issues ranging from differences in the background to his annoyance with my talking to dogs on the street.  

They broke whatever bridges existed from our common profession and the rubber band tensions of often appealing yet inconsistent togetherness. One of my best, lingering memories was skinny dipping in a posh pool where he was house-sitting. That occurred when I had let go of expectations of commitment after too many on-and-offs, including an iffy engagement. 

Playing was then free and uncomplicated by expectations. To free us both, I finally encouraged Allen to make a true commitment to another woman we both knew whom he eventually married.  

My first impression of Allen was confirmed when I met him during our early morning assignments preparing briefing materials for the Secretary of State. What a twerp, I thought at the time, not realizing that he looked something like my father until I noticed some resemblance in photos I had taken. 

What did each of these anecdotes of romance have in common? It was difficult to see it as it happened, but obvious in retrospect: 

  • Curiosity about and experiences with exotic, different, smart generally older men
  • Excitement with dramas, stimulating explorations and juicy conversations
  • Tendency to stay way too long with unpromising situations, in part due to sunk costs, comfort even with the established ups and downs and possibly my stubbornness about letting to
  • Lack of attention to and imagination beyond relationship dynamics to elicit themes for learning, avoid questionable matches and note symptomatic problems
  • Focus on the limitations of the men, rather than patterns of underlying motivation, choices and behavior

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How imprints of earlier relationships shaped later romantic choices

Though I wonder about genetic predispositions, I believe most of us are imprinted by significant early experiences with people and situations. I was imprinted and left wanting by unfinished “business” with three older, smart capable and naturally flawed (as we all are) men. They were my father (I was born when he was 40), my dark Uncle Dick and my short, dark and fascinating high school English teacher. The latter two were all named Richard!

In part due to generational differences and norms of behavior, as I was growing up, it was not until we were both much older that I was able to engage my father in a frank and comfortable conversation. He mostly chose the teacher role with me.  

Poignant and irreversible that so much time was wasted until we had been able to connect as individuals. Yet, I treasure the few adult conversations we had before he died, often prompted when I asked him personal questions.

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Let experience guide your decisions

Similarly, at the end of my intellectually deepening learning connection with my English teacher, I mustered the courage to insist on a meaningful comment in my yearbook instead of his first, “Good luck.”  Perhaps scarfed up from his other writing, he wrote this: “Quiet fire, hot flame, a mind of light and permanent warmth.”

I did not confront journalist Richard (another writer) until the coda when I had him captive as he drove me home from his then home on Maryland’s eastern shore.  

I wonder what would have happened if I spoke my mind and heart earlier in these relationships. Perhaps improvements and greater authenticity, but more likely earlier or better endings with less wasted time.

Bottom line: Listen to initial intuitions about significant relationships and have honest conversations with oneself as early as possible. For example, why did I continue to choose such unlikely men? Not just habit and imprinting. Maybe I didn’t want a conventional relationship, even marriage.

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Ruth Schimel, Ph.D. is a career and life management consultant and author of the Choose Courage series on Amazon. She guides clients in accessing their strengths and making viable visions for current and future work. Request the first chapter of her seventh book Happiness and Joy in Work: Preparing for Your Future.