By all counts, I had a good childhood. We had a nice house, enough money and enough food. I had my own bedroom and my parents indulged my every desire.
Importantly, my parents' relationship was strong, a contrast to the divorces and separations plaguing other families as I was growing up in the 1970s. Having grown up in a stable, loving household, I was supposed to become a stable, well-rounded person.
But instead, my parents' good marriage ruined my love life.
How can that be? How can two loving people in a good marriage ruin their kid? Here's how: My parents were great together. They were soul mates. I grew up watching their interactions and thinking how cool it was that my parents were still happy together and still held hands. But their strong relationship gave me unrealistic expectations about my own search for a partner.
When I was 21, my mom was in the hospital. She told me that I'd be the luckiest woman if I could find a man like my dad. At first I said: "You mean really overprotective and prone to anxiety?" Then I realized that she meant that I should find a man to treat me like my dad treated her: Doting. Protective. Willing to sacrifice anything for her happiness and well-being. Then doing the sacrificing.
That sounds great, but how many men do you know who put their relationship first, every day? They're probably out there, but I haven't found one. I can't even get a guy to keep me on the phone when his call waiting clicks in.
My mom used to tell this story about how she passed gas in public and my dad claimed it so she wouldn't be embarrassed. The men I date are more likely call attention to my public flatulence and have a good laugh.
My mom wasn't the only one to dole out high praise for her partner. When my mom died, the second thing my dad said to me was that he'd never marry again. He called Mommy his soul mate, and he spoke of their marriage as having been perfect. It did look perfect, too. I saw my parents fight only once, and it was a stupid argument about the dishwasher.
I never heard them say a bad word about each other. They joked about other people they could've married, but the sparkle in their eyes showed me that they were incredibly happy together.
And all this happiness became my role model for relationships, which is nice in theory but so difficult to put into practice.
After going out with a cadre of losers, I tried to find a man like my dad. I dated a man from Virginia because my dad is from there. I dated men who worked in blue-collar jobs because my dad never went to college and is one of the smartest people I know. I went out with men who held doors and chairs and coats, because that's what I grew up seeing.
None of these guys were right for me. Or even if they were, I've been so focused on a man being perfect that I'll likely miss someone who has just what I need.
I understand how ridiculous I sound: Woe is me, my parents stayed married and loved each other. I had it good. But I think of it like having an older sibling who's really smart and successful. You wind up trying to emulate them. You want their success. You want their accolades. But you're different from your sibling and will probably fall short of their accomplishments. That's me, the younger sibling who has tried but can't live up to the model presented to me.
At times their closeness made me, an only child, feel like a third wheel in our family. I have a memory of playing cards with my parents. After a few hands, I noticed that my mom and dad had an almost secret language of inside jokes and shortcut lingo that I suppose all people have after decades of marriage. I tried to make my own jokes, but they didn't react at all. They both seemed more preoccupied with maintaining their own groove than interacting with me.
I was flabbergasted. How could they ignore me? Wasn't I supposed to have their attention whenever I needed it? I threw my cards in and went to my room to sulk.
My parents might have prioritized their relationship with each other over their relationship with me. And that leaves me simultaneously in awe of their marriage and fearful that I'll never have one like theirs.
Maybe someday I'll meet the love of my life and we'll have a happy marriage. I'll learn how to fight fair and how to put my shoes where they belong. I'll try to focus on what qualities really make the best mate for me. And I'll stop chasing perfection. Because I don't need a perfect person. I just need someone whose imperfections work well with mine.