• Cover: July 30, 2014
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Love Lessons

How His Surgery Helped Me Get Over My Insecurities

In what can only be described as either a bizarre coincidence or very bad timing, every guy I've dated has had his wisdom teeth out during my tenure as “girlfriend.” I certainly didn't expect my current boyfriend, Greg, at nearly 29, to keep this streak going. But after almost a decade of delaying the inevitable (what is it with men and medical procedures?), he decided it was time.

In earlier relationships, I had gladly played the role of caretaker, often feeling more like a mother-life coach-therapist than like a girlfriend. But I dealt in emotional messiness, not the physical, post-op kind. So when it came time to caring for the exes, I was hands off. (One's mother even flew in from the East Coast to oversee his recovery.) With Greg, it would be different. Given that we live together, and given that I am — as the grocery store clerk who called me ma'am recently reminded me — an adult, I would serve as Greg's faithful nurse, a task I had hoped I was up for.

I suspected my trepidation stemmed partly from a fear that my caretaking skills were out of practice. In the past, there was nothing on which I'd prided myself more than being an indispensable girlfriend: I thrived on that rush of feeling needed by them, focusing my attention on the guy in question — his happiness, his career, his emotional well-being.

Unlike with the dynamic in my past relationships, Greg and I are pretty self-sufficient. Part of the reason I'm “codependent no more” is because, one, I've gone to therapy, and two, I've found a relationship in which my boyfriend doesn't really need me. We don't depend on each other to make individual decisions; we both have solid — and very different — careers. He's one of the few people I know who actually had what most would consider a normal childhood, so he's not “working through” any issues, the way the guys I was attracted to before him always were.

Greg and I hadn't yet faced a challenge like the one his surgery offered. Truth be told, the only body-related caretaking we'd done thus far had come in the form of sympathizing with the occasional cold and commiserating over hangovers. (And even those hazy Sundays somewhat faded in frequency, as actually feeling alive began trumping mindless pizza inhalation and Netflix instant queue trolling.) The only real example I can point to is the time Greg held my hair while I puked into a bush outside a football tailgate at my alma mater. (A sight that, to quote my mom, must have been quite unladylike.) ...Read More

As part of my effort to be that indispensable girlfriend in the past, I'd long tried to keep imperfections such as puking under wraps, subscribing to the keep-your-relationship-sexy-forever school of thought, which suggests that once you and your partner reveal your humanness, romance would surely fade. How husbands and wives married for fifty — heck, five — years were able to shield each other from their bodily realities, I'd never know. But if they'd tried half as hard as I have, then I bet they'd be exhausted. I was a gal who used to sleep with gum in her mouth to keep potentially sour breath at bay (and I'd hide another stick under my side of the mattress for the morning).

Perhaps due to my post as a relationships editor, or because I can't resist the chance to overthink a situation, I look at every new experience that Greg and I share as an opportunity to learn about how we function as a couple. In this case, I supposed I could gauge if we really would be able to execute those “in sickness and in health” vows to each other some day.

While I don't presume to think that helping someone after oral surgery is nearly as important or as grave as, say, changing a colonoscopy bag or turning him so he doesn't get bedsores, I figured that taking care of Greg when he was unable to take care of himself would allow us to see sides of each other we hadn't yet seen.

The morning of the surgery, we rose early and dressed quickly before making our way to the oral surgeon's office. (To Greg's credit, having a guy named Dr. Needle extract his teeth made the postponement totally worth it.) I had been taking advantage of the waiting room's surprisingly robust selection of magazines when a nurse informed me that she had detailed post-op care instructions to review with me. There were handouts explaining the medication Greg would need every four hours for three days. There was icing and hot salt-water rinses I'd need to oversee. There was blood-soaked gauze I'd need to replace with fresh cotton until the holes in his mouth stopped bleeding. (And, if we happened to run out of gauze before the blood flow ceased, there were instructions to use a dry tea bag.) While I clung to the optimism of finding a teachable moment within this caregiving experience, I fidgeted with the instructions and wondered how I'd fare in my duties.

Before the procedure, breaking from his standard self-assured demeanor, Greg asked me — half-jokingly — if I'd still love him when his face swelled up. (A somewhat valid concern: When my ex's cheeks engorged to rival the diameter of a larger dinner plate, then subsided into a golf ball-sized puss growth that had to be drained for weeks, I was, I'm not proud to admit, embarrassed to be out in public with him. I'll never forget going to a movie and seeing the guy I'd dated before him — who'd dumped me — at the theater.) So, I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I wondered if seeing Greg in a “state of vulnerability and non-attractiveness,” as he later defined it, would change anything between us.

My anxiety, and Greg's for that matter, was less a matter of whether or not I would be capable of taking care of him and more about facing the reality that if we're really going to commit to each other, then we'll have to be prepared to see each other through some pretty gross, excuse my French, shit. Various social messages encourage us to be comfortable with our bodies, in our own skin. Clothing items are sold with “comfort” as their main attribute. (Pajama Jeans anyone?) But when it comes to our behavior around the one person (parents excluded) who is supposed to love and accept us unconditionally, the prevailing advice is to not to get too comfy. Don't become roommates when you move in together. Keep that mystery alive! If you were to compare your relationship to a piece of clothing, then you're better off being skinny jeans than libido-deadening sweatpants.

As I reviewed the nurse's instructions once more, I realized that it wasn't so much how out of practice I was when it came to caretaking, but more that I had never actually done the real kind of caregiving a relationship requires.

When the nurse informed me that Greg was out of surgery, she led me into the post-op room, where he lie woozily on a blue vinyl bed with ice packs bandaged onto his cheeks. I tried to indicate (via overly cheerful demeanor) that seeing my ski-slope dominating, Halo-skills-boasting, no I don't need any Neosporin boyfriend like this was no biggie. I mainly just got in the way as the nurse gathered extra gauze and ice packs into a goodie bag of sorts. Dr. Needle wished us luck as I put my arm through Greg's to steer him out of the office and to the car. Despite his slurred objections, I opened the door for him and buckled him in. Then I got lost trying to exit the parking structure.

Once we were home, it was time for Greg's first gauze changing. He protested when I instructed him to open up, making a pinching motion with my fingers. I reached in and pulled slippery, blood-soaked gauze from his mouth, cupping the soiled pieces in my hand while I grabbed fresh ones to replace them. I'm pretty sure I was supposed to think that this task was gross. When the changing was done, he fell asleep. I read until it was time to do it again. The process was overwhelmingly mundane. In a good way. The ease of the situation signaled that I'd (hopefully) grown to be the kind of gal who was capable of having one of those mature, healthy relationships I've heard so many good things about.

There's a piece of advice that still sticks in my head that came from, of all things, rushing a sorority in college, when I was told to choose a house based on which girls I'd want stand next to while I brushed my teeth every morning. This advice is just as, if not more, applicable to choosing a long-term romantic partner — the person I'd be standing next to while I brush my teeth every morning for the rest of my life (if I'm lucky).

Unexpectedly, it wasn't the actual caretaking part of Greg's surgery that tested my abilities both as his partner and as an adult (save the whole waking-up-every-four-hours-for-three-nights-straight-to-administer-medicine thing). Instead, I learned that, quite contrary to turning me off, seeing Greg's (adorably) swollen cheeks and (yes) even handling those slimy gauze pieces made me feel closer to him. Comforting him and feeling comfortable around him when he'd gone days without brushing his teeth, or taking a shower for that matter, created a sense of intimacy between us that neither of us could have anticipated.

Relationships are a series of tests for two. Greg and I had proven our ability to travel together, cohabitate, divide our joint expenses, and with his surgery, we were forced to assess our ability to handle vulnerability. Contrary to my past, with Greg, I am able to subscribe to Marilyn Monroe's “if you can't handle me at my worst, then you don't deserve me at my best” philosophy. Not to bring up my heaving-into-university-flora incident again, but Greg is the only boyfriend I've allowed to see me in such a state (lucky guy, huh?), as involuntary as such permission was. It had never occurred to me that someone who found me unlovable because of my unavoidable human imperfections wasn't worth bothering about. (Not that I ever trusted anyone enough to really see them.)

In fact, I've weaned myself from turning the sink on every time I go into the bathroom — in part because we'd opted to rent a place with two — but more because, weirdly, Greg didn't freak out (and peace out) after witnessing me wretch into a bush.

For my part, I discovered that I could extract bloody gobs of gauze from Greg's mouth and still find him stalkably sexy. I discovered that allowing myself, and Greg, to be vulnerable was more intimate than trying to conceal our humanness. At the risk of having too much of a personal moment here, I'll just say this: Maybe, in order to have a successful long-term relationship, I had to develop the capacity to love someone no matter how human (read: normal, flawed and stinky) they are.

While I don't think I'll be blowing my morning breath in Greg's face or going on a bikini wax strike in order to further prove my confidence in our bond, I'd rather have our relationship feel more like my favorite pair of sweats than like those oxygen-depriving skinny jeans.

  • Check back every month for our editor's "Love Lessons" column.

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Love Lessons
How His Surgery Helped Me Get Over My Insecurities
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