The first man I ever fell in love with was eight years older than me. He was on probation for stealing a video game, and his fingertips smelled like cigarettes and shellfish, having spent most evenings washing dishes at a seafood restaurant. At one point, he kept going to work even though his boss had stopped paying him. “Why don’t you start looking for a new job?” I asked.
“Cuz it’s fun just chillin’ with the boys, smoking cigarettes in the back,” he told me.
Jeff wouldn’t find another job for nine months, mostly because his unemployment allowed him to sit in front his PlayStation all afternoon. At age 26, he still lived with his dad, but couldn’t be bothered to sleep in the spare bedroom because all of his crap — a graveyard of sporting equipment he lost interest in and old surf tees — was piled so high, he couldn’t find the bed.
Instead, he slept on a makeshift bed-couch in the living room. It was here, with his father bumbling in to ask, “What’s going on?” that I lost my virginity.
Jeff and I were together for three years. When we first hooked up, I was just beginning my freshman year of college and by the time we broke up, I was juggling two internships, a bartending job, a 4.0 and a pretty serious partying schedule that didn’t include him. What kept us together wasn’t as exciting as sex or arguments over our incompatibility — but that I could show up at his place at 10 p.m. for a bowl of Cocoa Puffs and a snuggle in front of “Law and Order.” There was a comfortable fondness and security. I knew he wasn’t going anywhere, literally and figuratively.
Jeff wasn’t an anomaly. I have a history of dating guys who couldn’t get it together (and to their credit, weren’t too stressed out about it, either). My next boyfriend and my next and my next after that were all very good men, with great senses of humor and warm spirits, but they were also some version of lazy, dependent and unambitious. I had to write their resumes for them. I had to pester them to go back to college, or to pay their parking tickets, or to basically be the person I wished they were. But the one thing I never wanted to change was their loyalty, or their need for me. I would always be one to get fed up and walk away. Not them.
The easy, therapist-approved explanation for my being attracted to men like this is that I like constants. My parents were divorced when I was 10, my mother died when I was 25, and there was a lot of dropping the ball and surprise developments in between. Or you could say I get off by mommying my boyfriends. That it gives me a false feeling of superiority. And sure, helping (okay, nagging) them did provide me with a sense of usefulness. But ultimately, my exes’ personal-admin deficiencies were frustrating and usually what drove me over the edge and out of our apartment forever.
A more accurate layer to this dynamic would be where I was in my life when these guys had entered it. Often, I was in an emotionally unstable transition (starting college, starting my career, avoiding my mother’s illness), and these men showed up and made me laugh or feel like I was the most enchanting woman in the world and I didn’t want to leave. They would be there for me at the end of the day, when I wasn’t sure whether I was coming or going, or if I was making the right life choices, either. They were as much a pillar for me as I was for them. Until we could no longer act as each other’s safety nets anymore.
You could also argue my romantic preferences weren’t entirely preferences, but a modern conundrum: Today’s average straight, single gal is wading in a dating pool where she outnumbers male college graduates six to four, and where more than one in the six guysshe’s talking to doesn’t have a job (and two-thirds of those unemployed dudes say they’re not even looking for one). She is more likely to meet a Jeff than a Zuckerberg.
Years after Jeff, I was newly single and talking to my stepmom about how I wasn’t going to settle or fall into another relationship because I was comfortable. I complained about how I was able to take chances in my career and move across the country several times, high on the promise that I’d land a job and an apartment when I got there. But for some reason, I hadn’t taken the risk to dive into a deeper pool of dudes.
My stepmom confirmed this, in a strange, roundabout way: “Yeah, I always thought the rule was to date up.”
While my stepmom’s intentions were good, “dating up — and its correlating predecessor, “marrying up” — is an outdated and somewhat offensive idea, invented to encourage women to find a man of means and status who will carry her through because that man is the only way she’ll make it in life. Even if I did subscribe to such notions (which, as a 30-something feminist in 2014, I do not), according to those job-gender ratios above, “Real Housewife” aspirations are laughable nowadays (unless you’re a model/actress or living in L.A.). What my stepmom meant was “Date better” or “Date what you deserve.”
So I set out to be challenged. To be stimulated sexually, mentally and emotionally. To find someone who could hold his own and not get on my nerves. And the learning curve was slow. I went out with a guy who paid all of his bills on time, but who couldn’t stand up for himself. Another who was ablaze with self-confidence and sexual magnetism, but whose mom still cooked for him several times a week. I even dated a player type who seemed like he might dump me and he did.
Then, eventually, there was the guy I met while engaged in my passion — writing. Artist-residency guy was divorced but stable and educated and creative. His failed marriage didn’t make him defected, but a man who had been through some stuff and had been forced to grow — and that was refreshing. He took me to museums and talked about politics deeper than a 16-page New Yorker article, and at first I worried that he was too smart, too cultured for me, but once I got over my insecurities and learned to find my legs on this equal ground, I felt brighter to form opinions about his opinions, and more inspired in my own writing to see the artwork he was creating. I began to realize how important it was to be with someone who wasn’t dependent on me (or their mom), but who chooses — every morning when he kisses me on the forehead, and every night when I give in to his questionable Netflix suggestions — to be with me, and I with him.
We were married a year ago. Most of my life, I wasn’t sure if I ever wanted to get married — probably because it seemed impossible to be able to stand someone, anyone, for the rest of my life. But now I understand that when you have a bond that’s multi-faceted, and you’re with a partner who’s your equal, your best friend and your very own beacon of smoldering grins, you’re willing to drop the paranoia of who will leave first. There is security in the trust that you both adore and value each other. There is the risk — others, of course, might call it faith — that the two of you have what it takes to make it work, that you are willing to put in that work when one of you is a little irksome, even a downright shithead. These are the reward-heavy risks I learned were worth taking.
Jessica Machado is an associate editor at Rolling Stone. Follow her on Twitter.