I once (or twice) joked with friends that we are all allowed one really bad relationship to make us appreciate ourselves and others more. For me, that relationship happened a little over 10 years ago. I was in my early 20s, and I decided that it would be a good idea to date a woman I worked with. She was about my age, but she was divorced and had a child. That right there should have been my first warning that the relationship would be complicated.
Before I go any further, I need to clarify that I have nothing against single mothers being able to date. It’s just that for me, and in my situation, dating a woman who had a child was not indicated. The child’s father was always around, causing friction in more ways than one. He was a bigot, always proclaiming that my darker skin and Mexican accent made me inferior to him no matter what my education level was. (I think he was more jealous of my educational achievements, really.) They shared custody of the child, so I was always having to face the father and grin and bear it while he launched into tirades… He blew a gasket when the child spoke Spanish to him one day.
The second sign that the relationship was going to be complicated was that our coworkers said it wouldn’t work out. They didn’t say it because they wished us ill. They said it because they knew us, and they knew that we were incompatible on several dimensions. She was needy. I liked to do my own thing most of the time. She had not held a steady job. I had been at that job for three years since I graduated from college. The list would go on and on.
The other sign of trouble was her home. She lived with her mother, and they were both kind of “pack rats.” The house was in constant disarray, and at somewhat of an extreme level. They kept anything and everything that they bought. It was hard to walk from the living room to kitchen or to the bathroom at times. While my place then was not the cleanest, I did my best to throw out stuff I didn’t need. (Although I did manage to collect stuff in a storage unit.)
The reason I ended up dating that woman for about a year (maybe a little more? A little less?) is that I was young and male. I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. She was good-looking and everything else could be sorted out later… In my mind, anyway. In real life, all the other things that got in the way could not be sorted out later. Our constant eating at restaurants drained my checkbook. The constant presence of the child’s father drained my sanity. It all ended with an enormous blow-out and me running the other way.
To be honest, I don’t regret that relationship. It is singularly the one relationship that makes me treasure the woman that I’ve since married. My wife is a hard-working, organized adult without any excess baggage. (We all have baggage. It’s the excess baggage that makes it hard. Also, the child in question in that relationship was not “baggage.” Her father was.) My wife has a great education and an even better job. We could talk about everything and anything. She is my intellectual equal. I can’t say that for the woman in that past relationship. Some topics were too complex.
She also referred to the Governor of Pennsylvania at the time as “The Jew.” That should have been an even bigger red flag. But the biggest red flag was when she calmly told me (almost ordered me) to quit my master’s degree school and “just be happy being a lab tech.” That right there showed me how little she really knew me, and that the relationship was based on something else completely.
The saddest part of that relationship and its aftermath is that the child in question has grown up to see the mother dating one person after another, never really having a stable male presence in their life. From what I’ve gathered through mutual acquaintances, the mother has never really been single. She’s serially dated one man after another after me… And before me, too. And the child’s father has apparently not changed, either. His dislike of people of color was really something to see back then. To him, I was “the apple picker,” a derogatory term used in that part of PA because most Hispanics work in the apple orchards. When I corrected him and told him I was a lab tech, he got angry and said that I was acting like I was better than him.
All in all, it was a bad relationship. It was THE bad relationship.
This is not to say that I didn’t have other bad relationships in my past. I did. And I’m willing to bet good money that there is at least one woman out there who thinks of me as their one bad relationship. I’m okay with that.
I’m okay with that because none of us are perfect. Dating people is part of growing up and figuring out what you value in a person you’re willing to spend the rest of your life with. It’s a trial-and-error process that makes us better on different levels. It improves us for the person we’re eventually going to be with. Without that one bad relationship, I would have a hard time appreciating my wife, and being thankful for meeting her and falling in love with her.
It’s very much like when you’re shot at and missed. You appreciate your life a little more.
This is why I am sometimes worried when a young person I know says that they want to marry their first, second, or third boyfriend/girlfriend. While there are plenty of instances where these relationships work, there are also plenty where the two people don’t get to know each other and themselves as they grow. Or they grow together into something that neither of them wanted. They end up traveling toward an undesired destination just to please the other person.
Through it all, I wish that one woman from back then all the best in the world. She is worthy of being loved, and she deserves to find someone who will love her and be committed to her and her child. That child deserves a positive male figure in their lives. And the same goes to all the women I ever dated, even the ones who thought or think that I was (or am) overweight and overrated.
I’m happy. Everyone should be this happy too, mistakes in the past be damned.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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