I have spent much of the last year falling in love with a man who has also fallen in love with me. The details are not especially interesting except to us, but the pertinent fact that has carried unprecedented weight is our decision to keep our relationship extremely private, even among our considerable mutual acquaintance. The experience of seeing a love affair take root and grow outside the usual community support systems has been fascinating. In sidestepping the encouragement and celebrations of most of our friends, we have also sidestepped the assumptions, the judgments and the flights of fancy that often accompany the union of two people, especially when they both have complicated histories.
We live hundreds of miles apart, and we both have busy professional and personal lives that somehow failed to evaporate when we encountered each other for the first time and realized within hours that we had stumbled into something important. We are able to meet in person only every few weeks, and rely on telephone, Skype and Internet chat to continue the conversation that binds us together. We share our story with a few trusted friends, but for the most part this is a solitary path, enlivened by the precious days we are able to spend together, marked by heartbeats rather than hours. Our choice to make our romance a private affair has cost us the easy comforts of a public role, of fitting easily into our respective worlds as a couple, a known quantity. But we are also free to explore and define our relationship any way we like, to create a union based on our unique joys and fears and hopes, and to change it as our spirits move us. We are untrapped, untrammeled by the expectations of others, which makes our path far easier as we navigate the challenges of loving over distance, time and middle age.
There is a price to be paid for our privacy, and it cuts keenly at times. We are unable to enjoy the social rewards of new and well-matched love. We burden our few confidants with demands for secrecy, and lay ourselves open to betrayal by confiding at all. These are choices we made early on, when we realized that trying to craft a romance in the interstices of our complex lives was going to take a level of creativity that requires freedom more than it fears loneliness. Fortunately the distance between us makes the social cost more tolerable; over 800 miles, there are few opportunities for us to move in the same circles; our time together is too infrequent to allow for much socialization—although the few exceptions shine glorious bright.
I’ve been married four times and have left four husbands; I am piercingly aware of my own failings in the nurturing and empowering of love. Conducting this experiment outside the public eye has made my journey infinitely easier, helped me to avoid the waves of shame and smallness that engulf me when I think too long about my track record in matters of the heart. Making our plans and exploring our options outside the public eye has stripped away my accustomed excuses, forcing me to examine what I actually want and confront my fears without room for distraction. As a result, I have learned to speak the truth in a voice that may quaver, but does not fail. With an audience of one, I am able to hear and absorb another’s truth, and to offer up my own. In the sheltered space between us, where we have agreed to seek no other counsel, I must take responsibility for my own fears and weaknesses and move beyond them to where the real conversation begins.
In the dance of new love, there are a million ways to misplace attention. Taking the blossoming affair out of reach of almost everyone but the lovers themselves minimizes those distractions and allows the exploration to be inward rather than outward. Loving without the protections of a whole community means cracking myself open and looking deep within myself for the strength I need and the understanding that fuels growth. Because I am solely responsible for what I bring to this affair, I must be careful with my thoughts and my feelings, learn to distinguish between them and to determine which is most true and most necessary to express. I must hold up my end of a conversation in which comfort takes second place to truth, in which listening trumps speaking every time. I must find and maintain a level of self-awareness that is equal to the task of truthtelling, while being at the same time open to hearing the truth of another. It is a test of everything I know and believe in about being a person; it is love writ large by being writ in private.
One thing that is blissfully absent from a love affair conducted without fanfare is the outward pressure to conform to anyone’s expectations. We are under no obligation to stay up to a given hour, to attend certain kinds of events, to appear at anyone’s behest but our own. We can give free rein to our childishness, to our delighted laughter and our unhidden tears, and let their power soften and suffuse the realities that we must navigate every day. There is no one to judge us, no one to question the depth or potency of our connection, no one to gainsay our hopes or limit our dreams. Because we keep our love apart, we are free to find our own ways to keep its flame alight. We choose the music to our dance, and we choose the steps to suit ourselves. In this world where love is rare and fear is great, I have found a way to keep my step steady and my heart light. After a lifetime of mistakes, I am able to explore love in steps small enough to keep my balance. I can hold my choices gently and approach them in peace; I can love my lover and love myself in one breath and have that be enough. In this world where public and private blur so easily, I have found a refuge from which to watch love unfold. I am content.
©Mary Braden 2015