I was speaking this week with a dear friend about relationship trials we’ve waded through and are currently working through, and it made me realize something.
At some point about 10 or so years ago, I stopped seeking support from my friends and family when going through things in my romantic life.
I brought the tough stuff to my therapist and eventually my life coach… but I had created a barrier in me to that kind of vulnerability with even my close circle because I was afraid.
Afraid they would judge me.
Afraid they would judge my person.
You see, I had some past experiences of friends and family showing up for me in difficult moments, but then (1) giving me advice to end the relationship when I didn’t want to, and (2) holding grudges against my partner or me if I didn’t take their advice.
In hindsight, I don’t hold anything against those supporters who just wanted the best for me and who felt defensive of my heart.
But at the same time, what I needed was an open space for me to figure it out – and what I got were people’s opinions.
So I just stopped talking about it.
From one angle, my husband Matt’s and my love story is devastatingly romantic and a testament to not only our love but our willingness to show up when it’s hard and build the relationship we each want.
From another, our story includes wounds, regrets, and broken trust that at a few pivotal points along the way could have been the end of “us.”
I attribute both my personal growth and our growth as a couple to the priority we placed on breaking ingrained patterns, facing difficult conversations head-on, and learning that true love and respect can only come when we each know how to respect and love ourselves. My hope is that by sharing the good, the bad, and the grey in between, you find something for yourself to connect to or try on for size.
Let’s start at the very beginning…
Chapter 1: College
Matt and I met the day before college started. I had walked over to the boys’ dorm to see my two friends from high school and find out how their orientation week had gone.
I found them standing in a circle of some of their new friends… and one of them was Matt.
We all clicked instantly and decided to meet for lunch the next day, so none of us had to face that slow, searching stroll through the dining hall, desperately looking for someone we knew… or worse, sit and eat alone.
Before we knew it, we met for lunch every day. And then dinner. And then partied together.
These became my people.
So come fall break, when I introduced my parents to my friends and my mom offhandedly mentioned, “That Matt is pretty cute,” I quickly dismissed it and said, “We’re just friends.”
I always joke that the day everything changed was the day I straightened my hair for the first time in college. I had gotten a perm senior year of high school that was in the process of growing out when I went to college, so I wore my hair in loose waves most of the time.
But one day, I straightened my hair, joined my friends for lunch, and it was as if Matt and I had never seen each other before.
We locked eyes… held it a second or two longer than ever before… and darted our gaze away, playing it cool the rest of lunch.
Soon, it became a regular thing for us to walk each other to our next class, just the two of us.
And then one Friday night, Matt kissed me.
I can say without a shadow of doubt in my mind, it was the most electric, soul-melting kiss I had ever had.
The day after that kiss, we took a walk around the lake at the center of campus. Matt said that while he liked me, he’d never really dated anyone before, he wanted to prioritize our friendship above all, and that he wasn’t ready to jump into a relationship this early in college.
I agreed and took his words to heart. We soon went on Thanksgiving break back to our families, and I took that time to “get over him.” I declared to myself I would come back ready to just be friends and put the kiss behind us, and that’s what I did!
We were back at school for just barely 3 days when Matt asked if we could be boyfriend and girlfriend. So much for our lake talk… ha!
Now, we were crazy for each other.
But we also had no freaking idea who we were, what we wanted, and how to be grown ups. We were, after all, just teenagers.
Our fun, amazing, larger-than-life college experience was also a blur of drunk, disrespectful fights and fake break-ups.
We loved each other so damn much… but we simply didn’t have the skills, tools, or frontal lobe function to create a mature relationship.
This became glaringly apparent when we decided at the end of school to commit and try long-distance.
Although we spent that year building a stronger friendship and falling more in love with each other, we also realized that the habits we’d developed in college were very hard to break, and each of us had very different work to do on ourselves.
So we decided to get some support. Matt flew down for his spring break from dental school, and we found a “life coach” (before they were really a thing and before we even knew what a coach did) who had helped some friends of ours from college in their relationship. We met with our coach every day for a week, hoping a ‘relationship intensive’ could fix what wasn’t working.
At the end of the week, however, our coach recommended we take a conscious break. She encouraged us to take 6 weeks apart, work with her individually, date other people, and then come back together to see where we each were.
It was heartbreaking. We wanted nothing more than to make this work, and here our trusted advisor was telling us to separate.
We heeded her advice, following her individual program for us, and 6 weeks later came back together via Skype.
I said I was ready to get back together.
Matt said he needed more time.
We both cried like we’ve never cried before, knowing that this limbo couldn’t last long. After a couple weeks, I told Matt I couldn’t keep waiting and had to walk away. We broke up for real, and we both did our best to move on.
Chapter 2: Mellen 2.0
The year following our break-up was a very, very hard year for me. I had just started my masters in vocal performance with a high-stress schedule while navigating an unshakeable depression and frustrating health issues.
My heart was shattered, my body wasn’t well, and I felt lost.
But because of that work with our life coach, I now saw the work I had ahead of me. I needed to learn how to love and respect myself. I needed to learn how to break my deeply ingrained codependency. I needed to be whole and okay on my own.
I worked with a therapist consistently while investing my all in singing and building my own life.
I had finally turned a corner and started to feel more like myself than ever before… when I got an email from Matt.
I can still remember my heart lurching out of my chest when I saw his name in my inbox.
He had emailed me to ask how grad school was going, and to find out my address because he wanted to mail me a birthday gift.
Thus began a new phase… being friends post-break-up. Every so often, we’d check in and ask each other how school was going and congratulate each other on our successes.
After a few months, the emails moved to texts. The texts moved to phone calls. The phone calls moved to Skype.
We established boundaries early on about not asking each other about our love lives, since that was a great way to get hurt or frustrated. But we agreed that if there were ever a time one of us was considering going exclusive with someone, then we would tell the other and have to back off this friendship to give that relationship space to grow.
So the day came, and I told Matt that I was thinking of going exclusive with a guy I was seeing.
Matt was shocked. “So soon?” I can remember him asking with pleading eyes and a quiet voice.
“Yeah… I mean, we’ve been casually dating for a few months now, and it feels like it could go somewhere.”
Matt was quiet.
“I can’t let you do that,” he said.
“You can’t let me do that?” I said, rolling my eyes. “No one lets me do anyth– ”
“I want to be with you.”
My heart stopped. I froze.
“Wait… what? What are you saying?” I asked.
“I’m saying I want to be with you. I can’t stand the thought of you being with someone else. And I don’t want to be with anyone else but you.”
That weekend, I broke it off with the other guy. Not because I wanted to jump back into anything with Matt – my heart had only just begun to mend from our ended relationship. But I knew that I was still head over heels for Matt, and if it was between figuring things out with him, or starting fresh with someone else, I chose Matt.
However, I was cautious.
Our ground rules: we were going to wait a minimum of 6 weeks before seeing each other in person. I knew our chemistry, and it would be so easy to fall back into our patterns.
I wanted a whole new relationship, if we were really going to make this work.
I needed to break down, piece by piece, what happened before that must not be repeated. I needed to rebuild trust from basically scratch. I needed the kind of commitment that was heading towards living together and getting engaged. I needed to give and receive respect and love on my terms. I needed him to meet the new me.
Turns out, Matt needed some things too. He had grown, discovered new parts of himself, and wanted all in… But he needed harmony and freedom. He needed our worlds to blend but not enmesh. He needed me to let go of the past and learn to truly forgive with no score sheet.
We worked through it, piece by piece, until finally he came to visit me in Princeton, and we chose each other fully.
This chapter unfolded with another year of long distance (a grueling, but healthy transition for us), me moving to Boston, and us moving together to New York City.
But it wasn’t all peaches and cream. As was our pattern, I was often ready for the next step sooner than Matt. I was ready to move in together when I moved to Boston, but Matt really wanted the year to live with his friends after living at home with his parents most of dental school. The different paces we each walked through life kept feeling like we were one beat off from each other.
Moving together to New York was an unexpected twist in our story, and yet it was the push from the universe to help us jump in sync together.
What we found was that we loved living together.
Shortly after we moved to New York was when I hired my first life coach. By then, we had loved each other for 10 years, but even with things going well, I was still too afraid to consider marriage. I struggled to trust that history wouldn’t repeat itself. I was worried we’d get out of sync again. I wasn’t sure what I really wanted out of life, and if that aligned with what Matt wanted.
As much work as I had done on myself in therapy, it wasn’t until coaching that I truly started making progress with self-love, figuring out what I really wanted and needed, and learning to trust myself and Matt.
You see, despite my best of intentions and love for Matt, my own brutally conditional self-love was inevitably how I loved Matt too. When mistakes were made, I was cold and harsh – to myself especially, but also to Matt. I couldn’t seem to learn how to put the score-keeping down. I was always racking up evidence for some story or another that proved the latest doom-and-gloom outcome in my mind.
Halfway through my life coach training program, sitting on the couch in our apartment, I asked Matt if he would marry me. It was technically our “first engagement” (since he still wanted the opportunity to ask me back), and it was a huge step for me.
If there was anyone on this planet I wanted to trust and spend my best and worst days with, it was him. I wanted to put the work into growing with him.
I knew I had someone who saw every crevice of who I was, and somehow still loved all of me (I hadn’t come so far as to love all of me yet, but he showed me I deserved it).
Every time we overcame another hurdle and took another step in life together, the sweeter life was.
When he asked me, it was the easiest ‘yes’ I’ve ever said.
Chapter 3: Marriage
We got married a few months before the pandemic lockdown.
Our wedding was magical and took place in a castle-like fairytale venue with all our dearest family and friends — although, to this day, I still roll my eyes at Matt for ending our fairytale day with a mosh pit, crowd surfing, and a ripped shirt. Matt’s idea of fun can be a little wilder than mine sometimes.
We went on the most amazing trip of our lives for our honeymoon… Fiji and New Zealand. A week in a secluded villa on the Fijian crystal clear beach, followed by a week road tripping across the Kiwi island. Every minute of that trip was bliss.
And almost as soon as we got home, the world locked down and our lives changed dramatically.
At first it was like our honeymoon got extended, and we flourished together. Matt’s dental practice was forced to close for 3 months, so during that time we worked on furnishing our new home, scaling my coaching business, and launching Matt’s new dental coaching company.
Our life felt like an adventure, despite the heavy fear and sadness that the pandemic posed.
But slowly, a shift started to happen until what felt like a tectonic plate moved underfoot. Matt’s dental company started to take off, and his business partners were campaigning hard for us to move out west and grow this as big as it could be.
Matt’s views on government policies during the lockdown and after also started to change… as a brick and mortar small business owner in the medical field, there was a lot of conflict in him.
We went from being totally on the same page to deeply out of sync (a great fear of mine, coming to life).
You see, we have done the work to define our core values as a couple… and at the top of the list? Supporting each other to grow.
But growth means change. And change brings the unknown.
And when our partner grows, but in a way that feels like it’s creating more difference than alignment, it can shake us to the core.
Boy, did we rumble.
Political debates almost daily. The back and forth of “Let’s move!” and “I want to stay!” Grieving the loss of both my grandfathers. Assessing risks.
These were growing pains unlike anything we’d experienced, and all of it underpinned the biggest leap of all… what about children?
The whole year and a half that followed was defined for us by confronting, difficult conversations. We wanted and needed different things. We were becoming new people and a new couple in a new world all within our first couple years of marriage.
“Should we get divorced?” was a gnawing intrusive thought for me.
But every day, one day at a time sometimes, we chose to show up. For our own desires and needs, and for the other’s.
We walked the long and winding road from “me vs. you” to “us” again.
Instead of the either/or of moving or staying, I turned our home into an Airbnb. We designed a cross-country lifestyle that gave us both what we wanted. We became snowbirds at the age of 31.
Instead of talking at each other about our views on the pandemic, we learned to practice respect and deep listening on a totally new level. We took disagreement and turned it into a dialogue.
Instead of allowing fear and grief to separate our lived internal experiences, we learned to walk at different paces without expecting the other to be exactly where we are too. We stopped defining what growth looked like for the other one, and focused on just being their unwavering support.
Being this man’s life partner has been the journey of a lifetime. There have been wild and wonderful highs as well as treacherous and thorny trials.
When people say “relationships take work,” I guess this is what they mean.
There were so many opportunities for one or both of us to choose out. But that’s all it comes down to… choice.
If we got out of sync, we stepped on each other’s toes until we found a new rhythm because we chose to keep dancing together.
So that’s our real love story, friends. The good, the bad, and the grey in-between.
And the beat goes on.