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Erin Joy Henry Headshot

Love Affairs Taught Me To Love Myself

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I remember the first time I uttered the words "I love you" to a boy. I surprised him with a visit to his college for the night, which in retrospect is something you should never do to a 21-year-old fraternity guy. He handled my little surprise visit with grace, never letting on to me until later years that he had a girlfriend on campus wondering about his mysterious disappearance that night. He took me down to the dark and musty basement he was living in, told his roommates to cover for him and we drank cheap beer from the can and talked like the old high school days. We listened to Pearl Jam and lived in the present. We didn't have the stress we have today of worrying about the future or taking responsibility for things we'd done in our past. We were always in the moment back then, and I could talk to him openly about anything. I never feared he would judge me or run away if I said too much. So every thought that runs through a 19-year-old girl's mind flowed out of me unfiltered. There was no point in putting on any armor around him. He could always read everything I was thinking by just looking at my face anyway. When I told him I loved him that night, I said it shamelessly and never cared if he didn't say it in return (he didn't). It never mattered because I was just so filled with gratitude that he helped me open a place in my heart that gushed with raw emotion I never let anyone else see, that I never needed anything back from him. That was enough.

I always thought when I was done traveling the world as a model and he was done with law school that we would end up together. It was never even a question in my mind, so I felt like I had very little attachment to our relationship that ebbed and flowed, just as boyfriends for me or girlfriends for him trickled through our lives. I never felt jealous or threatened by his girlfriends because I knew what we had was untouchable. When I finally settled across the country from him in New York, it set in that white picket fences and marriage might not be in the cards for us. Yet still, our relationship blossomed into the closest and most meaningful I've ever found myself in. Through the years it began being less about sex, and more about honesty, vulnerability and true intimacy. The calls from me in New York sobbing from my kitchen floor to him at 3 am were always answered with a reassuring voice on the other end, and I supportively answered his calls when he struggled with the pressures to figure it all out and be financially successful at a young age. And on the rare occasion we would actually see each other in person, it was always unrestricted, carefree and fun. And he finally said that he loved me too.

By the time I reached my mid-twenties, the Western mindset and societal pressures had convinced me that this non-committal type of intimacy we shared was somehow not okay. Girls were telling me that we should have some kind of title and be "together" in an exclusive relationship if we were going to have the level of closeness we did. I listened, and our relationship began to deteriorate. I made the unreasonable request that we try to make what we had work on traditional terms, despite the fact that I was still living across the country, and we were clearly headed down different life paths. He said no to my request and soon after was engaged to someone else. I never felt heartache like I did the night he called me with the news of his engagement. My only reaction was to hang up on him and run aimlessly from my apartment in the East Village all the way to the Upper East Side in tears. I had ignored the voice inside my head that told me he was in my life to teach me how to love fearlessly and be in the moment, not to marry me.

I put up a good attempt at ignoring him for the next nine months, but I finally got a grip on my ego and let our relationship take on a new form. It is one that is not definable by words, but by the heart. He has been a great teacher for me in more ways than I can express. I may never see him again, but I will always love him and care for him, even if it's from a great distance. He taught me how to love freely, and how to feel my heart shatter into a million pieces.

I don't think you've lived until you've felt both.

There have been other affairs along the way that have taught me other invaluable lessons that make me the person I'm proud to be today. I feel lucky that I've laid in the lap of a lover and watched the sun set over the Virgin Islands and hidden away in a Costa Rican treehouse for a weekend learning about surfing and spirituality with a man it turned out I would never speak to again. Whether it was two days or two seconds, it didn't matter: the important thing was we helped each other tap into our authentic selves. That made the whole ride worthwhile.

Sometimes I tell stories of the fun I've had or the deep connections I've shared during these affairs, and I gain disapproving or confused looks from other women. They may say I've sold out for not asking for a commitment from any of them or that I was taken advantage of because all these men wanted to do was sleep with me. There is a time and place for commitment that is not to be devalued, but it can be truly innocent to love just for the sake of love. If anything, these love affairs have taught me to love myself more. I've been able see pieces of the other person that I admire and then unearth these amazing qualities in myself. In turn, this has given me the confidence it takes to gain access and listen to my inner guidance so I may distinguish what I do and don't want in a relationship when I feel ready for commitment.

As I get older, it has become more difficult to share myself with such reckless abandon. Fear of being hurt or vulnerable gets the better of me sometimes. But I'm proud that I'll always be able to access the place inside that takes me back to that rainy night I shared with my first love where I fully exposed all that I am. That's a memory I will always hold close to my heart.