On the surface my life was perfect: in my 30s, I was working in fashion and living in London. It was the dream. In reality, I’d outgrown the insidious fashion business and was stumbling through a dysfunctional romance in pursuit of love.
I’d fallen into this relationship on the back of a bad one. With my previous partner, who was 10 years older, I had money and age on my side. We were ripe for building a future together. Yet, three years in, I found messages from another woman on his phone. When I called her she had no idea who I was but they’d been together the whole time.
In the aftermath, another man walked into my life. He was ruggedly beautiful and wild. After a few months of my relentless pursuit of him, we embarked on a sexual relationship and became an item – but we had little in common. He led cycling tours around the world and I worked in fashion. He detested my corporate career and I resented his carefree lifestyle. All things considered, what happened next shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
A few months into our coupledom I’d arranged a romantic dinner for his birthday at a restaurant in Mayfair. As I took my seat, he triggered the events that changed the course of my life. Looking into my eyes he said: “I had a one night stand. She’s pregnant. I’m going to be with her.”
It was brutal. I stared back in disbelief as tears rolled down my cheeks. All I could do was run outside. He followed me out and walked away. I was left hysterically crying on the street, alone. I would not see him again.
This second betrayal had a profound effect on me. I couldn’t brush it off as easily as I’d done the first one because this time around, my heart was broken. I wanted to erase it from my memory but more importantly, I wanted to change the person it had happened to.
I enrolled on a three-day group therapy, life-coaching workshop and learnt to hold myself accountable. As I took responsibility for my actions, I felt free from the burden of my past. One by one, I deleted things that no longer served me. My career was the first to go, followed by mutual friends I’d shared with my ex, acquaintances and unhealthy habits.
I contacted a women’s charity in Guatemala and took up a voluntary position helping marginalised women. I couldn’t get away soon enough. I slept on a camp bed in the office, dealt with those far less fortunate than I had ever been and spent my evenings and weekends strolling the beaches and making new friends.
When I returned to London six months later I found a job in fashion but with far less responsibility, which allowed me to prioritise my family, friends and more importantly, myself.
Yet one thing eluded me. I couldn’t form a romantic attachment to men. I found men attractive and felt sexual energy towards some. I enjoyed flirting but avoided sex out of fear it would cause an emotional attachment. For the next decade of my life, from the age of 35 to 45, I had no relationships, one night stands or dalliances that would throw me off balance.
In that time, loneliness emotionally crippled me. I craved the love and affection of a partner and yearned for the comfort of a stable relationship. But it also terrified me. I had rebuilt my life but lost the courage to share it. I’d lean on friends and family to fill the void, but in the end, I’d go back home and cry myself to sleep, wake up and reinforce the self-imposed dating hiatus. I could not break the cycle.
Even as I attended friends’ engagements, weddings and baby showers I still felt dread at the thought of committing myself to someone else in that way. I applauded their bravery but resented their happiness. I counted all the ways these relationships could go wrong and that was enough to send me running back to the comfort of my hiatus. Then the unthinkable happened. I lost my father to heart failure unexpectedly. He died within minutes while he sat on his favourite chair at home. I felt the full force of the impermanence of the things I loved. Nothing is forever. It never had been. I finally understood that I had wasted a decade of my life trying to control an outcome I had no control over.
With the help of friends, I joined a dating app and set up five consecutive dates. This time, I chose differently. I put into practice what I’d learned from 10 years of being alone. I would not choose the one who made my heart flutter. Instead, I would look for traits that might serve me well: empathy, intelligence and kindness. Appearance no longer held sway with me.
The first date went remarkably well, but I never heard from him again. I carried on regardless. My second date was everything I’d been searching for: smart, witty and interesting. We met and our connection was instant. I never went on the remaining dates.
Date Number Two and I have now been together for a couple of months. Just three months ago I couldn’t have imagined being this happy. Even if nothing comes out of it, I’ve finally broken my self-imposed dating hiatus. After a decade of denying myself tenderness, it feels good, not only to love another, but to accept it in return. I am aware I’m vulnerable but now I am also courageous.
*Name and places have been changed