I fell head over heels in love with Tiffani on a Caribbean island in my late twenties. Fate brought us together via working for the same family. She was a nanny. I was on the security team. Adorable. After spending months living on and off yachts together, it became apparent to everyone around us that sparks were flying any time we were in the same room.
Despite vehement denials of the possibility at the time of its inception, our relationship was not meant to last. It wasn’t until years later, in the last 48 hours in fact, that our relationship came full circle and I learned valuable lessons on partnership, healing, and the power of vulnerability – from a woman I had been in love with a half decade before.
Love May Not Be Enough
When our respective jobs came to an end, Tiffani and I both eagerly decided to see where our relationship would take us next. I was living in Los Angeles. She was an hour or so up the coast. We spent every weekend we could together until she finally asked about moving down to my neck of the woods.
Like many relationships, the next five years were a mix of laughs, tears, private moments, inside jokes, and lots of adventure. We moved in together, traveled abroad together, and enjoyed each other’s company immensely. Our house was one of laughter and love, back rubs, and fart jokes.
But like so many relationships, life took us in different directions. I started an intense graduate program, while she was finishing her undergrad. I went on to fight MMA, while she discovered rock climbing. Eventually, the differences became too great and our relationship ended rather abruptly one September evening.
The year that followed was a mix of questions, turmoil, and a near reconciliation, but also crushing heartache for both of us. No matter how amicably a relationship dissolution may be, the process itself guarantees both parties spend their fair share of time in the pain cave.
The winds of change blew new relationships into our lives, and Tiffani met the man who would become her husband and the father of her two beautiful boys. A few months after they met, a woman in my herb class at school caught my eye – and the on again, off again adventure of my now ex-wife began.
That backstory leads us to yesterday: Year to Live Project Day 8 when I asked Tiffani if she would be willing to meet me for coffee and share her experience of being in a relationship with me – now eight years removed.
A Year Of Self Exploration
Self-exploration is the predominant themes of my 2016 Year to Live adventure. I believe there are few better ways to learn about yourself than to ask someone who has had the experience of learning about you themselves – and doing so firsthand. In my conversation with Tiffani, what unfolded was beautiful, enlightening, and most importantly, healing for us both.
Two sips of organic Honduran Coffee and a bite of my gluten free banana nut muffin was all it took before the tears came as I embarrassingly filled her in on the years since we had parted. I told her of my marriage ending, of my battles with addiction, codependence, workaholism, and losing sight of who I was. Her jaw dropped at the story, but her loving smile let me know she cared enough to not judge me harshly.
The question I had come to ask her, the meat of my inquiry, and what I wanted to truly learn was tentatively asked next,
“What was most difficult about being in a relationship with me?”
She made no hesitation in telling me the straw that broke her back was realizing she would never be able to compete with my to-do list. That she always felt like my next project was infinitely more important to me than building a life with her.
At the time we were together, I was working for a real estate appraisal company, flipping properties with a business partner, selling mortgages, fighting MMA professionally, and enrolled full time in graduate school for Traditional Chinese Medicine. So I’m not all that sure why she felt there wasn’t room for her…
I can vividly recall pulling my truck over after an appraisal appointment while she and I were still together and grasping at my own chest with the thought, “If you keep living like this you’re going to have a heart attack as a 29-year-old professional athlete. This is insane, please stop.” I was pulling 18 hour days, living on Redbull and adrenaline.
But I felt powerless to stop it. Many of the relationship conversations I had back then with Tiffani ended with me begging her to “just hold on for just a few more months.” I would say, “Things won’t be like this forever. This is just a unique time in my life.”
But it wasn’t. One of the hard truths of my coffee date with Tiffani was the realization of how often I had told my wife five years later, “Just hold on for just a few more months,” and, “Things won’t be like this forever. This is just a unique time in my life.” Two startup companies, a seminar series, an acupuncture practice, writing for three separate publications, and a full-time teaching and training schedule all crammed into a marriage that needed far more presence than it was getting. All fueled by 5 Hour Energies throughout the day, then wine and weed to make sleep a viable option.
You know, Traver, an affair doesn’t necessarily mean there was another woman,” Tiffani told me later on in the conversation. “I never thought you were cheating, but whenever you were with me, you were somewhere else, with someone else, or doing something else in your mind.
Ouch. Actually, double ouch. Crapola. Shit on a shingle. My ex-wife said the same thing was one of her departure’s impetuses. Maybe, just maybe, she and Tiffani had colluded and shared notes and this wasn’t really my fault at all. Ok, probably not.
Lesson learned, a life without presence is no life at all. A relationship without presence is doomed to starve to death. I can’t go back and change the past, but I can make sure that from this day forward I am present. I can do this by refusing any substance or activity that takes me out of present moment awareness. I can do this by continuing a daily practice of meditation and present-minded living, dedicating myself to learning both the triggers of overwhelm, and being honest with my future partner about this potential pattern.
Love Lasts Longer Than The Relationship
I still love Tiffani. I’m not in love with her, but I still love her deeply. I told her so. I told her how proud I was of the life she had created, the mother she was to her two sons, and the woman she had become in the world. I looked directly in her eyes and said these words aloud instead of merely having them run through my head after seeing her latest Instagram post. It felt good to say them out loud. It made them real.
We laughed about the fact that I made her the identical breakfast for four years straight, and then Tiffani told me she still loved me too. That she had never stopped loving me although she was far from in love with me, as well. She shared the confidence to start her own company was born from our many pep talks, from hearing from me throughout our entire relationship that she could accomplish anything on this earth she put her mind to. She shared that she still thought of me, and had thought of me every day for a year after our break up.
I needed to hear her words. It reopened the part of my heart I had slammed closed at our break up almost a decade ago – closed and buried under the idea that I am easily forgotten. The wound still so nervy and raw today from the recent departure of my wife and the thought that she, too, has moved on to a place where all memory of me is locked away in a drawer easily left unopened. The wound that insists I am forgettable.
Coffee with Tiffani was a blessing. Not only will I always hold her in a positive light, but I am grateful for both the time we spent intimately in each other’s lives, as well as her willingness to share with me again years later.
If the best way to learn how we are in relationship is to speak with people we’ve been in relationship with, then we’ve all got experts in our lives we can reach out to. It would be a shame to miss out on the opportunity to grow in this way out of fear of what we might learn. I’m not saying it’s not a scary thing to do, but my life is forever changed from that coffee date with Tiffani. And yours could be, as well. Who would you invite to coffee? What would you ask them? And why aren’t you calling them right now?
Share your thoughts and your obstacles in the comments below.
Tiffani Ortega creates beautiful jewelry and artisan crafts through her company Mi Refugio Project, with proceeds going to local charities. Head on over there, I bet you’ll find something you like.