it's complicated

The Struggle of Learning How to Be a Girlfriend for the First Time

Photo: J.V. Aranda

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“You just … left me. It’s like I’m some random person. You didn’t ask if maybe I wanted to leave too. Or get food with you. Or come over and be with you. You just left.”

I stood there with the phone in my hand, frozen as the words hit me. My boyfriend had called to let me know he was heading back to his apartment, over an hour away, and not coming to my place like we’d planned. He was too upset. And he was justified, to the point that I couldn’t even muster up a defense.

Earlier that night, he had driven an hour to come support me at an event I was throwing. About an hour into the after-party, I let him know I was leaving — and then left before he could tell me that he wanted to come with. It didn’t even cross my mind that as my boyfriend, he would probably rather leave with me than hang out in a random club with people he didn’t know, at an event where I was his only link. It wasn’t until later, when he called me about it on his ride back, that I realized I’d done something stupid. Again.

In fact, this was just one item on the embarrassingly long laundry list of slipups in our first few months together. At age 27, I was in my first-ever relationship, and I was way behind on the learning curve.

* * *

It wasn’t like I’d never dated. I had, frequently and consistently, my entire adult life. When I moved to New York after college graduation, I reveled in the attention I got from men, exchanging numbers with someone or other almost every night out, juggling multiple guys at a time. When I moved back to the West Coast a few years later, I dove right into dating apps, regularly swiping my way to Thursday night happy hour dates. I met a lot of people I liked, but no one appealing enough to make me think I’d be happier being exclusive.

Until I met my current boyfriend. For the first three months, we just talked — twice a day, sometimes three times, and for hours on end. He lived in another country at the time, so talking was all we had. We would fall asleep on the phone together and both wake up with the sun. He eventually moved to the same country as me, then the same state, but as the distance between us grew smaller, I realized that it was only a matter of time before I’d be exposed: I didn’t know how to be a girlfriend. After spending most of my life looking out for just myself, there was so much — too much — that I had to catch up on, and so many habits I had to unlearn. I was so content with my life before my relationship that having to learn how to accommodate another person felt like a near-insurmountable challenge. At times, it felt like I was destined to be the asshole in the relationship.

Case in point: Two weeks after the night I left him, I slipped up again. There was a movie we’d talked about going to see, but I went the day it came out instead of waiting for the weekend, when we could go together. I didn’t think it was such a big deal, but in conjunction with my history, it became one — suddenly, the movie was a metaphor for my inability to prioritize him. I feared I would never learn how.

What ended up being my wake-up call was his final straw. I’d already promised I would come visit for the weekend, but as I was getting ready to head over, a friend I hadn’t seen in a while texted me asking to hang out and I agreed. It was still early in the day, and if we met up soon, I could see her for a few hours and still make it to him early enough to keep my promise. That’s what I told my boyfriend when I called, anyway. But then hours passed, and I heard nothing from this friend. As the early afternoon became late evening, the guilt crept in. When he finally called to ask where I was, I felt the same way I had on the night I’d left him at the club: frozen under the weight of his disappointment.

Later, I found out my friend flaked on me in favor of hanging out with her boyfriend. The irony was not lost on me.

More importantly, though, the whole thing scared me into realizing that the possibility of losing him wasn’t just hypothetical. Slowly but surely, without meaning to, I was driving him away, and my 27-year history of singledom wasn’t a crutch I could use much longer.

I still stumble here and there, and there are some mistakes both of us just wish never happened, but we’re working past it. Lucky for me, I have a partner who’s realized what he’s up against, and he’s up for the challenge: He takes me to task, but he also understands and works with my relationship learning curve. Those are the best kind of teachers.

The Struggle of Learning How to Be a Girlfriend