A woman holding a paint brush in front of a wall and a wall clock

I still remember the thrill of his attention.

It was attention I was working hard to get and even harder to keep. His eyes would light up when he saw me. It felt like actual electricity running through me. Then, just as quickly, he’d be distracted. Like everything else was just as interesting. Like everyone else was just as interesting. 

I concluded, like many young women, that I needed to work harder—look cuter, be funnier—to find a way to somehow keep his gaze on me. It was exhausting. 

I concluded, like many young women, that I needed to work harder—look cuter, be funnier—to find a way to somehow keep his gaze on me. It was exhausting. 

The weather of his affections would change with no warning. Sometimes, the sun was shining on me—a warm spotlight, a circle of attention I soaked up. Then, without warning a gust of wind would blow through and he was gone, and so was his attention. A chill would run through the air, and I was left after the gust, alone and wondering what I had done, missed or changed to cause him to leave.

Then, just like that a new storm of attention—like loud lightning and thunder—he would rush back and grab my attention from who I was talking to or from what I was doing. Pulling me back into his unpredictable patterns. It was maddening. 

You see, I knew better. I knew better. But I didn’t. 

I knew I shouldn’t put up with his unpredictable attention. I knew I shouldn’t wait around for him to rediscover me after he’d flitted away. What I didn’t know, however, was the most important thing—the thing that kept me locked in this pattern was that I thought I had to earn a place in someone’s heart. What I didn’t know was that my attention for him was a much more precious gift than I was recognizing. What I didn’t know was that I deserved to not compete, but instead to hold my place, in someone’s gaze. 

The thing that kept me locked in this pattern was that I thought I had to earn a place in someone’s heart…What I didn’t know was that I deserved to not compete, but instead to hold my place, in someone’s gaze. 

Just like a key fitting into a lock, his varying affections perfectly fit and confirmed my own self-doubt. Just like that, I was locked into earning his attention because I believed I wasn’t good enough. That is how it happens so often for so many of us. The key someone holds, just happens to be the perfect fit, for the doubt we carry.  

What kept me locked into this pattern—the key turning and sealing my fate—was not the power of his attention, but the power of my self-doubt. 

As my frustration with myself and my exhaustion with his patterns grew, so did my journey of self-discovery. I started to find that the answer to how to exit this pattern and to unlock myself lied in more attention for myself. The more I focused on becoming who I wanted to be, the less entrancing his varying attention became. 

The more I focused on becoming who I wanted to be, the less entrancing his varying attention became. 

It wasn’t that the pattern didn’t still exist or that he didn’t still play the same games. It was just that I wasn’t playing anymore. I realized it was never fun, and the locks on the door of my heart began to change. The same game that would have drawn me in was no longer alluring. The same keys no longer worked.

I still remember how I surprised him and I surprised myself when he proposed we begin a relationship, and I told him I wasn’t interested. I watched myself, almost in slow motion, as I turned down the very proposition I had been holding my breath to receive for so long. There was just no way that the key he offered would work for who I was becoming and I wondered why it had taken him so long. I wondered even more why it had taken me so long. And I walked out of the door, down the hall and into the rest of my life.

What I wish I would have known then is that love is not the same as earning something. I wish I had known that anyone who sets it up that way for you should not be invited in.

No, love is more like a homecoming, and that homecoming starts with you. The locks you are carrying around, unexamined, may look as if they are waiting for the keys of someone else to unlock them and affirm you. As you learn to recognize, know and love yourself, the availability for someone else’s games will start to change. The change starts with your locks, not their key. 

As you learn to recognize, know and love yourself, the availability for someone else’s games will start to change.

When I really did fall in love, it felt like two homes merging as one. It felt a lot less like earning and more like coming home. My hope for you, dear reader, is that you come home and that you change the locks if you’ve been in a relationship that doesn’t treat you as you deserve. Because your home, and you, are a very lovely place to be.

Have you ever been in a toxic relationship that is hot and cold? Why did you think you allowed yourself to stay in a cycle of mistreatment? What does love not look like?

Image via Kathryna Hancock, Darling Issue 11

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3 comments

  1. Thank you for this. You’ve described this dynamic perfectly. I’ve wasted far too much time engaging in this dynamic, although like you, the self awareness and growth that came from this resulted in being at home with myself and with love.

  2. Thank you for unlocking this profound truth! Decades of trying to store up enough capital to earn the love of those I wanted to be with left me exhausted. Pattern played out in all aspects of my life. But, thankfully, others shared their love with me so that I could feel secure. This, though, explains the deep beliefs I held. Priceless!

    1. Joy, thank you so much for sharing your story. We so relate to your experience, and we are better for Monica’s wisdom and writing. She is so talented at conveying truths we can all relate to and learn from.

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