Where is the Soulmate I was Promised?
(and my Happily Ever After)
I was the first girl in my kindergarten class to get a boyfriend. I must have been only about 3 years old, but I had already entered a committed, long-term relationship, with a blonde boy named Kevin. We didn’t do anything special together, we just called each other boyfriend and girlfriend, but to me, that was all I needed. I remember proudly informing everyone I met that I had a boyfriend, from random kids on the street to my parents’ work colleagues. To me, having a boyfriend meant that I had achieved the most important milestone in anyone’s life: finding your soulmate. At least, that is what TV told me, and TV is how I learned about the world beyond what my parents cared to explain to a 3-year-old.
I didn’t believe every message I saw on TV. I wasn’t going to solve my problems with a gun, or start believing that diet coke tastes good. But there was one consistent message that seemed to be everywhere, from Disney fairytales to Edward Scissorhands. And if it’s everywhere, then it must be true. This message was: no matter who you are, even if you have scissors for hands, there is one person out there in the World who completes you in every way. Your soulmate. And if you want to be happy, you must find your soulmate. And then, if you stick with that person, you will live happily ever after. It is the only way.
My relationship with Kevin lasted several months, which is a lifetime when you’re 3. But then my parents moved me to a different school, and I had to break things off. Well, if destiny was separating us, he probably wasn’t my soulmate anyway. Not to worry! There were plenty of boys in the new school, and I quickly found his replacement.
I dreaded the thought of being alone, so I continued to embark on long-term relationships. In primary school, there was Miguel, a gentle kid who defended me from bullies. In high school, there was Filipe, a long-distance boyfriend who I met in an online chatroom, and who shared my love for the fantasy genre. In University, there was João, an awkward fellow physics major, who had the softest cheeks. While my friends and classmates were having flings for a few weeks and one-night stands, exploring possibilities and learning about what they liked and didn’t like, I was mastering the arts of couple routine and conflict avoidance.
And then came Tom. We met at a physics summer school, in the Summer of 2009. I was 21, and he was 31. I’ve always had a thing for older men. They are mysterious, they know more about the world, they make me feel safe. And Tom was all those things and more. He walked proudly, as someone who didn’t owe the world a thing. He voiced his opinions with a quiet confidence that I found mesmerizing. He was older than all the other students because he’d only realized later in life that physics was his calling, and I deeply admired his courage to just go for it. It also didn’t hurt that he looked like Michelangelo’s David, with dark curls falling over his eyes and a perfectly sculpted body.
What I felt for Tom was stronger than anything I’d ever felt before. Whenever I looked at him, loud fireworks went off in my brain and butterflies fluttered in my stomach. And I knew from TV that this was the sign of true love. I had finally found my soulmate!
The summer school was in the Netherlands, and we were both coming from abroad. Me from Portugal, he from Belgium. For those two weeks, we were neighbors in the student housing. We would hang out in the evenings after class, sharing dishes from our home countries, chatting about physics and philosophy, and watching funny YouTube videos. We would spend all our free time together, exchange looks in class… I could clearly tell that he was also into me, so I was anxiously awaiting the moment when he would make the first move. But it didn’t come. Even after that one time he romantically put his jacket over my shoulders to protect me from the cold! A classic moment to lean in for a kiss. I’d never been the one to make the first move, and risk the possibility of rejection. I was happy that society made that a man’s responsibility. So I waited. And waited. Until, at the end of those two weeks, I was standing with Tom at the airport, saying my goodbyes. It hit me that I might never see my soulmate again. And I thought “Fuck it, it’s now or never,” and kissed him. He stuck his tongue inside my mouth and moved it around like an insect using its antenna to sense the environment. It was a terrible kiss, and he was in shock. I, on the other hand, felt great! I was incredibly proud of myself for making sure my soulmate didn’t get away.
After I landed back in Portugal, and he arrived back in Belgium, we started chatting online. “Even though we’re living in separate countries,” I told him, “I want to see where this goes.” We then dated long-distance, while we finished our master’s degrees. Every day we video-chatted for at least one hour and sent each other a romantic goodnight text. I told him everything that went on in my life, so he would feel like he was a part of it. Every few months we’d meet in person, and as I jumped into his arms I’d feel a wonderful explosion of bottled-up emotions. And he turned out to be a good kisser after all.
One day, a friend of mine from University was feeling down, and I wanted to stay with him after class to try to cheer him up. I texted Tom to let him know our video chat would be delayed.
“I need you too,” he responded.
I could sense from the short reply that he was upset, so I tried to calm him down.
“He’s just a friend,” I wrote. “He is in pain and needs a friendly shoulder to lean on.”
“If you stay at the University today, it means you love him more than you love me.”
I read the text a few times to make sure I understood him. But I was still confused. How was he getting to this conclusion? I tried to argue back, but Tom’s logic was so twisted that it didn’t make any difference. I went home as he’d asked. I didn’t want to damage the relationship with my soulmate. But I told him I was upset, and after a lot of back and forth, he finally admitted that he felt insecure. The fact that we were living apart made him constantly imagine worst-case scenarios, which to him were variations of me cheating on him with any available men in my neighborhood. I’d never given him any reason to doubt my word or my faithfulness. I am a trustworthy person. I felt hurt. But I wanted to prove him wrong! Eventually, he would see that I can be trusted, and I’d be able to hang out with my friends again.
“It will go away once we live together,” he promised.
Two years later, we finished our masters. This was our opportunity to finally live in the same country, and experience a normal relationship. We both found Ph.D. positions in Belgium, Tom’s country of origin, and we decided to move in together.
Tom wanted us to move into the village of Schellebelle, where his parents lived. This made me a bit uncomfortable, as I’m a city person and I’d come to cherish my independence from my own family. But it was very important for him to live close to his parents (most Belgians seem to have this obsession), so I accepted it.
It wasn’t so bad in the village. We’d hang out with Tom’s family a lot on the weekends, and they were polite and cooked delicious food. But I was in a new, strange country, and I wanted to make my own friends. This proved to be a much harder task than I had anticipated, because of three main reasons: 1) I didn’t speak Dutch; 2) It took me 45min (on a good day) to get to the city of Ghent, where I worked, and where most people I knew lived; 3) Tom didn’t want me to have friends. Whenever I wanted to go meet people in the city, he would say “I don’t feel like going, I’m too tired.”
“That’s fine,” I’d answer. “You don’t have to go. I can go by myself.”
“If you go, you’re saying that being with those people is more important than being with me.”
There it was again. Tom’s closing argument. Moving in together hadn’t changed a thing.
Sometimes I wouldn’t care and leave anyway, but when I returned Tom would make sure to make me regret it, with incessant guilt-tripping.
One day, I finally convinced Tom to come with me to a dinner that my coworkers were organizing. I was over the moon! Finally, we’d be doing something with friends, as a couple. I felt like this was going to be a turning point in our relationship. The point in which Tom would see that it’s not so bad when we hang out with people, and my colleagues are cool, and I’m not going to cheat on him.
Throughout the dinner, I felt like I could finally be myself. I was relaxed, I laughed a lot. And so did Tom. Afterward, as we walked back to the car, I remember feeling thrilled. The dinner had been a success! Finally, we’d had what I considered to be a normal couple interaction. Hopefully, the first of many to come. I started making plans in my head: going out for a beer after work, hosting our first dinner party…
“That was fun!” I said, noticing that Tom hadn’t said anything since we’d left the restaurant.
He waited a few seconds, like the silence before an explosion.
“Well, it was definitely fun for you,” he roared. “I didn’t even recognize you! Your voice was different. You were flirting with the guys. Is this who you really are?”
“That was just… Me being me. I don’t know what you mean.”
“I don’t think I know you then. This wasn’t the Lara I know.”
I couldn’t believe it. Even when he was next to me, he didn’t trust me. And on top of that, how could such a smart physicist think that I’d be dumb enough to hit on guys right in front of him? Please, at least give me a little more credit than that!
This event was the breaking point for me. I was suffocating. After several sleepless nights, I decided I needed to break up with Tom. One of my colleagues said I could stay over at her place, so I could just leave after I gave him the news.
“I want to break up,” I told him as soon as he arrived from work, with as much determination as I could muster up.
“You what?” he raised his voice. He took a few seconds to think before continuing. “Where is this coming from?”
“Well, I’m not happy.”
Tom’s face was stunned. I continued with the arguments I had prepared, blocking the knot in my throat.
“How can you not see it? We fight all the time. You don’t accept that I do things with my friends. I just can’t be myself. Are you happy?”
“Living as a couple is not fun,” he replied. “It’s about compromise, and neither person in the couple is ever happy with the result. It’s normal to feel like this in a long term relationship, but you need to stick with it, in good times and in bad.”
He said this with such conviction that it raised a seed of doubt in my brain. I started to question my own judgment. Is he right? Is this normal? Is this the best I can hope for in a relationship?
We talked for several hours, about all the things that I felt were wrong in the relationship.
“I really want to make this work,” he finally said. “And I’m willing to change. Will you give me a chance?”
“OK,” I conceded. I also really wanted to make this work. I still remembered how amazing it felt at the beginning of our relationship. And that meant that he was the love of my life. My soulmate. And if I left now I’d probably never feel that way ever again.
It probably won’t surprise you that Tom didn’t change. It’s such a cliché: the man says he’ll change, the woman believes him, they stay together, and then he does it all over again. I was a physicist, a feminist, a financially independent person. I never thought I’d be one of those cliché women. But I was.
I became a pro at avoiding anything that could trigger him, and I never got the courage to break things off again. I was consumed by the fear of being alone forever, like the witch in the fairytale. I couldn’t possibly get any better than my soulmate Tom. And I’d been the one who started it by kissing him, so surely that was an even stronger sign that I wanted this. To accept my situation, I convinced myself that it’s normal to feel like shit all the time in a relationship. It’s what compromise feels like, as Tom put it. And I’d numb my misery with Reality TV and video games.
We stayed together for 3 more years. And then one day, Tom told me he’d started having feelings for another woman, and that he wanted to see where it went. Yet another cliché I didn’t see coming: the person having fits of jealousy is the one who cheats. And as soon as I realized that this meant we were breaking up for good, all the rationalizations I’d made for why I should stay with him came crashing down. My body trembled with excitement. What a relief, I was finally free!
For the following months, I experienced, for the first time in my life, being single and not looking for a relationship. I got my life back, my identity back, and it felt so damn good! Who would have guessed that my soulmate cheating on me would be the best thing to ever happen to me?