Romantic confidence is a rum old business. The very idea that you can gauge how well you’ll rub along with someone a year from now just because they make your stomach feel weird is, as a theory, worthless. If it wasn’t, we’d all already be blissfully wed to unripe apples and too much pizza.
But that’s all most of us get at the start of any relationship: a hunch about a stranger, and absolutely no handbook. No wonder so many of our relationships fail.
I’ve given this matter a lot of thought lately. You see, a few months ago I marched my history of romantic misfires and square-peg-round-hole relationships down the aisle, and said the words “lawfully wedded husband” to someone who has since only kicked me out of bed once (for snoring).
Which is a surprise because, to paraphrase Joey from Friends, I was not likely to take a husband. I never wanted to get married, or have children, plus I had a habit of dating penniless guitarists and, moreover, was a clanging idiot.
For instance, it never occurred to me that I didn’t actually love my first proper boyfriend. When we were 16, we split a Pizza Hut meal deal, then he whispered “I love you”. I really only reciprocated because it was the polite thing to do – but it set a precedent.
‘I must be in love,’ I thought, ‘Because I’ve said so’, and spent the next four years marvelling at how love seemed to involve a lot more privately fancying other people and accusations of neglect than I’d anticipated – then was surprised when it ended bitterly with the sudden arrival of a new, more attentive girlfriend.
After that I resolved to only date people I definitely fancied which, because I am a giant cliché, brought about the aforementioned string of penniless guitarists. You could always tell when a guitarist had entered the room, because I’d stop chatting and start shrugging. “Why have you gone all French suddenly?” My friends would complain. Then they’d clock the leather-jacketed figure lurking in the shadows and roll their eyes, because I was trying to mirror the cool, distant vibe he gave off. Again.
I’d spend entire dates just saying band names and the word “yeah” because I thought it was the thing to do. I felt like Patti Smith (a feat, because my natural demeanour is far more Elmo from Sesame Street). But I’d tire of all the faux-apathy or the guitarist would – gallingly – swan off with a girl as animated as I was pretending not to be.
Soon it was just habit to quietly turn down the volume on aspects of my personality to suit a relationship. I have no idea where I learned to edit myself – I was brought up to be myself. But I’d stifle an opinion here, tell a white lie there, present an “acceptable face” to my partner, and only really take a deep breath when I was among friends.
By the time my last relationship turned serious, I’d applied too much emotional Photoshop to accurately decide whether that was a good idea. Nominally, we got on – cackled at the same TV shows, shared a love of dogs – but something was missing. We’d argue every six months, begging each other to be less as we were, and more like something neither of us could quite define, but desperately needed.
Finally I realised it was at least partly to do with my edited personality, and attempted to reassert my individuality – but it was too late. Suddenly geeing my partner into paying attention to my hobbies or innermost musings when we were each already nursing years of private hurt baffled him and collapsed my self-confidence.
I met my husband when I was raw and vodka-soaked from the breakup. I tried the self-editing shtick, but was too exhausted to put any weight behind it. “I’m quite a cold person,” I told him once. “I’m distant.” “No, you’re not,” he replied incredulously. “You’re bloody Elmo off Sesame Street.”
And I am. I’m goofy and awkward and chatty, and about as romantic as a potato. Affecting a streamlined version of this didn’t work out, so I’ve spent the last few years trying to be myself. It hasn’t been easy – being yourself means facing yourself, and all the things you’d rather avoid about your past and your family.
But, although it can be painful, it’s honest. I am honest, and I am in a warts-and-all relationship, which – in a very practical sense – negates any editing. If I find myself slipping back into bad habits and, say, shrug a lot, my husband will unconsciously start shrugging back at me. Then we’ll just be stuck in a shrugging loop until one of us gets freaked out and asks what’s happening.
And I’m constantly learning about myself. I’d quite like to live overseas again, it turns out, and maybe write children’s fiction. Evidently, given my vintage Etsy ring, giant swollen belly and massive grin every time I feel a kick, I did want to get married and I do want children.
I wouldn’t know any of this if I hadn’t failed so consistently at relationships.
So I think the key to being confident in love is to fail as often as possible. Because it’s less of a case of being confident in love, and more just growing less crap at it. I’m still learning.