By Juana Garcia
One of my favorite quotes on love comes from Thich Nhat Hanh. “You must love in such a way that the one you love feels free.” I love that it doesn’t single out romantic love as the only kind worth preserving, and that love, in this case, is synonymous with freedom.
I’ve spent a lifetime yearning for someone to love, in a romantic way, who would make me feel the freedom I’ve yet to find as part of a couple. Too often in my intimate relationships, there were too many unexpressed desires and unmet expectations. I’ve often felt unable to create the freedom expressed in this quote in my intimate relationships, though I’ve wanted this freedom for as long as I can remember.
As a girl, I looked at my parents’ marriage and thought, I never want that, but I didn’t know how to create what I did want. How does one release the chains of fear that come from growing up seeing such suffocating “love” playing out in front of you? Neither one of my parents seemed to have time to follow their passions, never mind to share their passions with each other. They had tense arguments where my father’s fits of rage played like a daily matinee in my household. My mother constantly bemoaned her bad luck in love when she told me her stories. I wondered if I could ever write the story I wanted to be true, where I was happy with someone who loved me and respected me. I wondered if I could ever have the safety my mother didn’t.
As it turned out, I acquired my methods for creating my own safety, independent of a partner. In my early twenties, I started doing yoga, which gave me a sense of awareness I hadn’t had before. I became more in tune with my body and what it needed. I also fell in love with Middle Eastern dance, and that path took me places I thought I would never get the chance to go. Through dancing, I learned to enjoy being in my body, and to not be afraid to show myself to an audience during a performance. These things didn’t come about magically, though, as these stories are often presented. It is a process to feel comfortable and free in your own skin, and to feel rooted in yourself. While I made a lot of strides this way, it hasn’t been a linear journey.
After feeling trapped in my own suffocating partnership where I gave up the dance I so loved because it was always so healing for me, I felt compelled to make a change. I kept thinking of my childhood dream to find a partner with whom to create safety. After three years of struggling to breathe, I decided that if I was ever going to have the freedom to love as I wanted and to be loved for who I truly was, I needed to walk away and write my own story. I needed to be entirely myself in love. I needed to stop hiding. I needed to stop wearing the mask I’d so often put on for my lovers: “I don’t need anything from you.”
Under the mask of needing nothing, there was quite a lot of need, a vast desire inside of me I never felt anyone would be able to fulfill. I wanted true love, a sanctuary from the outside world, and the empathy and compassion that would help me feel safe enough to take off the masks I wore for the world. I wanted the freedom to be completely myself, exactly as I was, and know that I would still be loved.
When it comes to romantic relationships, I find that vulnerability the toughest part. It’s much easier to be vulnerable and open with friends, because you know they accept who you are and aren’t asking you to change on their timelines. It’s much, much easier for me to be open with my children, because I feel a responsibility to model for them something entirely different from what my parents did for me. But in romance, I still stumble. It feels like I am expected to be someone entirely different for a lover. I am expected to wear so many masks and to change in and out of them with ease at a moment’s notice that the dance of love feels rushed, hurried. There is no pausing or suspense, no space to breathe.
In love, I think, our freedom is found in the pauses, those spaces where a breath of mindfulness can be injected. The spaces where trust, joy, and safety can be cultivated are exactly the spaces we so often seek to fill with noise because of our discomfort in the emptiness. Over and over again, I would ask my partners to sit with me in the discomfort, and over and over again, the rawness of the emotion I displayed would make them rush for the nearest exit.
I couldn’t understand why over and over again, I would be abandoned after sharing my deepest truths, showing my most vulnerable side, and opening my heart to someone who didn’t know how to hold it. I see now, after cultivating my own solid foundation, that there was nothing wrong with me, like I used to think. Only now, after a decade of heartbreak, do I understand the why: my partners’ discomfort with the truth, and my uncensored honesty, was too painful for them to witness.
Only time will tell if the freedom I’ve been seeking for so long is actually a possibility in a romantic partnership, but I hold out faith that someday, someone out there will be willing to dance with me. I hope that at the end of the night, we will be able to fall onto our pillows and take off the masks we wore at the ball, and that, in the safety of each other’s trust, we will challenge each other to wear those masks less often.
Author bio: Juana is a mother of two still stumbling in love. She writes about trauma recovery, domestic and sexual violence, racism, and immigration. Read more of her writing on her website and on Medium. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram for updates on her work.