The first time I asked a woman to marry me, I swore I meant it. Moments into meeting her, when I texted my parents, “I met the women I’m gonna marry,” it felt right. Three days into knowing her, sitting on her couch while she got ready, I blurted out, “You and me, we’re gonna get married.” She laughed and called me, “crazy.” But I believed it would happen. Three weeks from the day we met, when I packed up all my things and moved into her place, it felt spot on. Three weeks after that, six weeks from the first time we made eye contact, when I asked my mother to send me my late grandmother’s wedding ring, it still felt meant to be.

Forget what my friends and family were saying. Forget their concerns about how fast we were moving. Forget their reminders that we barely knew each other. This wasn’t about anyone else. In my mind, this was perfect. I would turn it into the ultimate love story, one I could write a novel, maybe even a movie, about some day.

I didn’t yet know that Esme* was one of many women who I would engage in “future talk” with — talks about children and our lives together, the homes we would have, and the art we would make. I promised and convinced everyone, but most of all myself, that this wasn’t a normal love but a destiny type love, a prophetic love. I developed a habit of letting this story take hold in my mind and refusing to let it go.

As for my time with Esme, I wish I could say that our relationship had a storybook ending, but the forces that pulled us together systematically and very quickly pulled us drastically apart.

Marcel Proust says, “It is our imagination that is responsible for love, not the other person.” In my case, my imagination has always craved, no needed, the kind of love I read about in books and see at multiplexes. I needed the epic meet-cute. I needed my relationships to be extraordinary, never ordinary. If I couldn’t have that, I couldn’t see myself as a successful dater. It was perfection or bust.

Why did I think I would starve otherwise? Why did I need every person to be the one? If I’m being honest with myself, it’s because, and I get this is corny, I was not the one. I had never been my one. I care too much, even now, about what others think. I see myself through society’s eyes and ideas about love, not my own. I tried to act the role of someone in love instead of actually doing the work to create and maintain love. Maybe it’s because the things that get the most likes are not ordinary, not the little everyday things, not the moments that aren’t so epic and pretty. I sought romance worthy of the approval of others. Early on, I received a blueprint for a romance goal that isn’t attainable, sustainable, or even of my own design.

After repeating this process again and again, after a string of these fantasy relationships, after enough rude awakenings when the high faded, the honeymoon period officially ended, and I was left unsure how I got here, I finally asked myself some tough questions. Why did I think I had to make all these promises that I’m not ready to keep? Why did I think I needed to be perfect? Why did I imagine that love must look, sound, and feel a certain way?

I now know that I’ve always dated the story more than the person. I now know that I can convince myself of anything, and that I sometimes take the tattoo on my leg that reads, “stories are the only thing worth dying for,” a little too far. I now know that we shouldn’t enter a relationship seeking the likes and approval of others. I now that know perfection is nonexistent. Striving for it closes far more doors than it opens, because it never allows a relationship to develop past the infatuation phase. But later, amongst all of the messiness, is where the real beauty and power of a relationship lies. It’s going through the muck together. It’s getting up, communicating, and creating together. It’s taking out the trash, paying bills, and Netflix and really just chilling. It isn’t always pretty, and it’s boring at times. But it doesn’t mean I or we are failing.

After all of the searching for perfect, I now vow that I am no longer looking to live out my fantasy love story. I am not looking for a better or more perfect partner or for someone who will understand me completely, but rather someone who I can be myself with and vice versa. No more allowing myself and my mind to take me to a place my body isn’t ready to be in. No more turning partners into muses. I am free.

*Name has been changed.