When our relationship was still in its infancy, my ex accidentally discovered the handicap parking tag hanging from my rearview mirror: blue, the frozen color of permanence, issued to me by my doctor for the fatigue and leg cramps I sometimes experienced with my fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition that affects the nervous system. Rattled by a thunderstorm and running late, I’d completely forgotten that my ex might see it when he walked me back to my car later that night.
I am used to being multiple steps ahead at all times. I constantly predict how each decision I make might affect my body, which leads to some advanced forecasting skills. In this case, I could never have predicted that tag would lead to a greater lesson about love.
When I noticed the confused expression on my ex’s face, I quickly explained it to him. I don’t look sick, after all; most days, I work hard not to be. He never brought it up again, but his demeanor toward me changed after that: sharp, biting, curt, and then apologetic, kind, accommodating. These cycles continued throughout our on-and-off relationship. He’d withhold, cut me out, treat me like less, then return with apologies and reasons that didn’t fit. I quietly excused his behavior because I did not want to believe what I already knew.
We continued like this until a rainy April day in 2015. My gut finally forced me to confront the truth: I asked him if he resented my fibromyalgia, this aspect of me. He paused. He did not deny it. “I treated you differently because of it, yes,” he said.
We broke up a few weeks later.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still carry some scars about all the months I didn’t fully understand the root of his behavior (or was in denial). Much of it was emotionally abusive. But hidden within my analysis after our relationship ended was that aforementioned lesson: Find someone who loves you in full, for all the reasons you love yourself, including the reasons not everyone understands or accepts.
My ex did not love me, as he once claimed — at least, not in any way I consider worthwhile. My pain condition is so deeply ingrained in me, so deeply a part of me, that hating it is to hate the whole. You cannot hate the parts and love the whole. Humans don’t work that way — or, at least, I don’t. Just because he did, I don’t see the fibromyalgia as a flaw or even something I wish I could change about myself. I do not know who I’d be without a life of chronic pain — likely not a writer, an introspective person, someone who observes first and tries later. I would likely be a lot less concerned about narratives and stories, and journeys with meaning and purpose — all the things that fuel and excite me today. I would likely have a lot less empathy for others, a lot less understanding.
As the pastor and New York Times bestselling author Tim Keller once famously claimed: “To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear.” After being known and not loved by my ex, a big part of me wanted to play it safe and pursue a more superficial version of love. It was an instinctual reaction to full-scale rejection: Hide the more complicated parts of yourself that are harder for someone to understand.
For a while, I buried the darker parts of my story. The rich, layered brokenness that I loved so much was off-limits to romantic prospects. I only let them see the sunny side. Per Keller’s assertion, it all felt rather nice, but hollow.
I chase meaning in life. I look for experiences that hold weight. After experiencing both types of love — loved but not known, known but not loved — I eventually concluded that the only way forward was to find someone who could do both, who could truly “get me.”
Not everyone can. Not everyone will. But I want to be simultaneously fully known and fully loved. I want to be seen in whole, not just in parts. I want my flaws and so-called flaws to be acknowledged, and I want to be loved because of them, not in spite of them. Because they make me me. Someone can either hear about my experience with fibromyalgia and think, “Wow, that’s unfortunate,” or they can embrace me for the fragile, messy, infinitely complex human that I am.
During the time my ex and I were together, he asked me to “work with him.” He told me that I was introducing him to concepts and ideas and ways of being that were new to him, a different kind of relationship, and I needed to give him a moment to wrap his head around it all.
I’ve always been okay with that: working with people. Relationships are complex; no one is perfect all the time. We all have personality clashes, differences of opinion, issues to work on that could make us better partners. But on the issue of me, and the stuff that makes me who I am, I can’t work anymore with anyone who minimizes me in all my gritty glory.
To let down my guard, to reveal my ugly and pretty parts, to relax and breathe into someone else, is to feel really loved. It is a terrifying vulnerability. But it’s the only way to experience the kind of love that penetrates the surface and nestles into all those gorgeous dents and cracks. Anything less feels like a forced version of intimacy.
After writing a book about relationships and watching so many people live out some incredible love stories, I have a lot of hopes for those who are still searching. If that’s you, let me just say that I hope you find someone who makes you feel seen. More than that, I hope you find someone who loves you for those same reasons you love yourself: your pain, your past, your ambition, your strong opinions, your goals, your crazy family, your mistakes, your triumphs, your secret habits, whatever it is. I hope you find someone who loves you for the very qualities that others have questioned, who helps you accept the stuff you sometimes struggle with, and who recognizes that “flaws” are just part of your story. Oh, what a beautiful story I’m sure it is.
If you’ve ever been known and not loved, I hope you don’t let it stop you from revealing your full self again someday — hopefully to someone more capable of loving. Regaining that ability didn’t happen overnight for me, but I am back to trying complete vulnerability again. It feels infinitely more worthwhile than only sharing the surface-level pleasantries.
I feel quite sure that the right person will take all my pros and cons, flaws and smarts, expansiveness and brokenness, and help me appreciate it in full; I will do the same for them. That is the person, and partnership, I deserve. I will accept nothing less.