girl surrounded by guys in bar
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Before she met her fiancé, Paul, there was Mike the musician. And that skinny premed guy. And Thomas, who occasionally wore skirts. Stephanie Dolgoff, a soon-to-be-married journalist, revisits four boyfriends who helped her become who she is now.
I'm getting married in two months, and now I see why checking into a mental facility is likewise called "committing yourself." Luckily, not one of my mini nervous breakdowns since accepting Paul's proposal has been about him. Deciding to pledge my 34-year-old troth to this man is the smartest move I've made since ritually burying my scale in my garden and holding a funeral service for it.

No, what gives me pause about making such a huge commitment is the long and twisted road of relationships I've taken to get to this point. My mother sees my parade of exes like that human evolution chart where the ape on the far left gradually becomes more and more upright, until he's an actual human male in a 1950s business suit who can perambulate without dragging his knuckles. She tends to remember the real winners. But while I've yet to live down the self-styled radical who gave me his self-released CD with a photo of his mohawked self urinating on the American flag, I've also been involved with a great number of sweet, smart, relatively conventional men with whom it simply didn't work out. When I was with each of them, things felt right. Maybe not forever—I didn't think that way until I realized my eggs had an expiration date—but with each boyfriend, I couldn't imagine myself with anyone else. Now I'm planning on committing to one.

To that end, I tracked down four of my formers—both those who had dumped me and those I had dumped (in particular, the ones who I thought hadn't burned me in effigy and might call me back)—and made dates to dine with each of them. I was curious as to what they were up to, how they'd turned out, if they still had their hair. Would there be any remnant of a spark? The woman who will stand up in front of God and the caterers at the wedding is the sum total of many, many (many) less wisely undertaken relationships over the decades. I really wanted to know how I'd grown since I'd been in them and to reinforce the fact that there'd been good reason to split up. I was also terrified—I feared dredging up painful memories and being asked to account for some of my own missteps and wrong decisions. Here's how it went:

Sick Puppy Love

In 1983 at age 16, I was a screwed-up and secretly bulimic high schooler, but even then I had a self-preservation instinct that led me to Rich. A skinny, sweet, nervous senior with a shock of brown hair parted Jackson Browne–like down the middle, he spent much of our time together cracking jokes to get me to smile and driving me around in his maroon 1972 Chevelle Malibu Classic. At 17, he had only a vague clue what kind of a sad puppy he was dealing with, and I had even less of one. All I knew was that he made me feel secure, didn't ask too many questions, and kept me out so I didn't have to spend much time at home.

A few months ago, I met Rich—who has matured into a Rick—at the Palm restaurant in Philadelphia, not far from where he lives with his wife and two daughters. When I heard that he'd become a gynecologist, I knew my vagina had not been his inspiration. He didn't seem particularly vagina oriented back in 1983 and '84, when we were an item. To be fair, I didn't know what to do with it either. The poking around we did on each other's bodies as teenagers was about as fumbling and unintimate as the rest of the relationship was, but neither of us knew the difference.
Still skinny and funny, he had every strand of his thick brown hair, now fashionably spiked up and out of his round brown eyes. As we exchanged sincere you-look-greats, the warmth I remember feeling about him half our lives ago washed over me. After updating each other on our careers and who from high school finally figured out they were gay, we set out over a laughter-filled lunch to reconstruct as much about our relationship as possible. I recalled that we made out listening to Phil Collins overlooking the lights of the Bronx. He remembered the Billy Joel concert he took me to. I had only pretended to like both Phil Collins and Billy Joel, which reminded me that I wasn't all that assertive at 16, especially with boyfriends. (Boy, I thought to myself, Paul would never believe that I ever had a hard time expressing myself.) I teased Rich about how much he used to eat. He said he didn't remember me ever eating. I confessed that was because I'd never eaten in front of him. Then I told him about the starve-binge-purge shuffle I'd been doing the entire time we were together—and for years to follow.

That pretty much killed the good-humored banter.

"I guess 17-year-old boys aren't exactly sensitive," he said apologetically. I assured him that he couldn't have known: I was not underweight and did all I could to keep my frightening habits to myself. I'd also never told him about my autistic brother and my warring parents, who I made sure weren't home when Rich came over. Which is why we were able to have sex in my mom's bed. He vaguely remembered that part, which got us laughing again.

All the same, over lunch I realized we hadn't been close at all. Reconnecting with a love from your teen years makes it clear how well you have to know yourself—and like yourself—to really let another person love you. Rich—Rick—dropped me at Amtrak, and we said our goodbyes. I felt enormous relief—not that our visit was over, but that I no longer worked so hard to keep myself to myself anymore.

I'd Die Without You

In 1990 I fell flat on my face for Mike*, a moody nicotine-stained musician who had an explicit appreciation for nonskinny women. Among many other things, I loved that about him—by then I was no longer undereating or throwing up and no longer thin.

We went home together one night after a dive-bar gig of his and began our torturous yet glorious and operatic affair. I'd never felt better in my entire life. Or worse. That's what I thought love meant—any intensity of feeling, extremely good or bad, as long as the potential for good was just around the corner. I was convinced he was in love with me but unable to express it. In 1991 our relationship imploded after many embarrassing and desperate acts, mostly on my part.

I hadn't seen him in more than six years when we got together for lunch in Washington, D.C. He met me at the train, gray haired but healthy looking, no guitar strapped to his back, and without a cigarette dangling from his lips. He'd quit that habit years ago, just as I'd stopped going out with men who couldn't show their love. He's now in a PhD program for clinical psychology. "I love my work, and I want to do it well," he told me. It was as if an alien had abducted the brooding, bitter, adorably antiestablishment Mike of a decade ago.

*Indicates name has been changed.
Still wry and insightful, Mike had that same way of pausing disconcertingly to think before replying to a simple question, peering out with aquamarine eyes from under bushy brows. I'm sure he still sends many women inside the beltway to the ladies' room to splash cold water on their faces. But over fried calamari at lunch, I didn't turn to mush, and it's not merely that I'm in love with someone else: Seeing him brought me back to a time (for me, in my early twenties) when, as he put it, "you felt like you could die without the other person." And as much as I love Paul, I could never feel that way again. Being with Mike pretty much cured me of wanting to chase those highs because I crashed enough times to realize they couldn't be sustained. I began to see that it was safer not to rely on anyone outside yourself for something so fundamental as your happiness.

I'd filed this relationship under "learning experience" because it taught me how deeply I was capable of feeling, whether or not my love was reciprocated. But over lunch, Mike revealed that he had, in fact, felt as deeply as I had, though at the time he was unable to show it. My judgment may have suffered when I was 23, but it seems my heart knew what it was doing.

Warts and All

I saw Thomas as a fixer-upper. We dated and lived together for more than three years, from 1994 through '97, during which time my writing career was going swimmingly as I worked toward healing some family rifts and finally began to drive in the direction of life's traffic, not against it. Big, strong, and sexy, with baby-blue eyes, olive skin, and long straight hair, he was an artist when I met him, living with two cats and his Indian python, Sapa, in a roach-infested cave of an apartment. He frequently let adult tasks like paying Con Ed slip through the cracks and thought nothing of wearing a skirt home to Virginia for Thanksgiving at his mom's. He also had a chartreuse silk zoot suit that I tried in vain to get him to toss. Later came a crew cut and the eyebrow ring. Clearly, I got something out of being the "together one" (I had a good credit rating and adult clothing). Otherwise I wouldn't have been with someone who I felt required so much overhauling.

When I admitted as much to Thomas over dinner at a little French place in Brooklyn, where we both live, he just shrugged and smiled in that gracious, nonjudgmental way he always had of accepting and forgiving fault in others as a part of being human. And that's the crux of why Thomas was important to me: I was such a perfectionist back then, with impossibly high standards for my relationships, and he allowed me to be my own imperfect self. At 27, the idea that you could not do everything right all the time and still be loved was a novel one; or that you could get mad at someone and still love them. "In between the really, really awful times, we got along really well," he summed it up at dinner.

I don't think I felt entitled to a fully renovated mate back then, someone who was already in move-in condition. (For the record, he's now happily married and the president of an Internet company.) When things ended with us, we remained friends. And we still are, especially now that I don't feel any obligation to "improve" him.

*Indicates name has been changed.

Ready to Something

I met Marco* at a party in 1998, armed with hard-earned knowledge about what I wanted in a guy. It's a testament to his charm, wit, and intense magnetism that I ignored most of it and fell for him anyway.

Now a physician in St. Louis, Marco was brilliant, and his curiosity and passion about everything he devoted himself to—his dance classes, his study of maternal mortality rates in Africa, and his sexual experimentation—blew me away. Small of stature and completely bald, his enormous self-confidence made him seem larger than life. The fact that he aimed the force of his passion at me was overwhelming.

I so valued his opinion that I tried to be what I thought he wanted, losing what I liked best about myself and what I wanted in the process. I suppose his behavior fit into the broad definition of abuse. He craved closeness but flung me hard against a figurative wall when intimacy became threatening. Still, I didn't feel like a victim. I was as full a participant in that relationship as he was. And I learned from our clichéd little dance. After every makeup session, there would be a period of tranquillity in which we analyzed at length what went wrong, how it could be avoided in the future, and how it fit into the larger context of human nature. We intellectualized our feelings until they exploded again, in the exact same way, which set off the cycle on another round. After about a year, Marco moved to Boston for med school and wouldn't discuss our future, so I ended things, the official reason being that he couldn't promise me a future.

"I'm concerned you're going to paint me in that story as a commitment-phobe," Marco said when we met for drinks.

"Well, you are," I said, even though I'd realized since we'd broken up that I, too, had a terrible time committing, which is why I'd been picking such inappropriate men all those years. But I wasn't going to admit that to him right away. I found I still enjoyed getting a rise out of him.

"I've been thinking about this, and I don't know that I am," he said. "Maybe we just weren't right for each other." I felt the old pull to analyze things with him, which was a passable substitute for real closeness.

"We weren't. Because you're a commitment-phobe," I said with a smirk. Then I told him I was just teasing and admitted that had he invited me to move to Boston with him, I most likely would have been the one to freak out. I told him I'd had to face a lot of fears to commit to Paul—and the fears still come up. He appreciated that, and it got him thinking, which he's always up for. I commented on how we were very good at analyzing our relationship but not so good at having it.

At this point, you're probably thinking Paul deserves a medal for not minding that I had one last date with my exes. And truth be told, he doesn't exactly adore thinking about other men I've loved. After revisiting the past, though, I think we both realize that these guys and others were responsible for teaching me what I needed to learn in order to be the person I hope to be: a good partner for the long haul. My exes made perfect sense for their era, to me, if not to my mom. As Thomas once said, and I've often repeated, "There's only one road to now." And I'm happy where I am.

Next: How to know it's real love

*Indicates name has been changed.


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