He was sweet, sexy and financially stable, and I told myself we'd be great together. I was totally lying.
I have always chosen badly in love. I wanted the perfect guy, which for me meant someone who would inspire me to become my wittiest, funniest, most adventurous self; who would raise kids with me and stay with me forever despite my nasty temper. Problem is, from college onward, I dated one creative brooder after another-men who had no interest in playing house and would sooner starve than procreate.
By the time I met the man I'll call Nick, I deeply doubted my ability to find a guy who both satisfied my rather predictable physical standards (tall, handsome, with strong hands and a deep voice) and could make my dream of domestic bliss come true. But when a friend introduced us at a party, I saw my perfect manly man, complete with adorably mussed-up hair. When I heard he was single, my stomach did a flip-flop.
In our first months together, I had inklings that we had some serious incompatibilities. I was a writer, interested in people and literary gossip; Nick was a computer and science geek, fascinated by gadgets and facts. I liked order, cleanliness, routine; he got parking tickets, bounced checks and was always late. Plus, he was living with his mother.
But I didn't want to think about all that. Instead, I focused on Nick's cuteness. He wasn't dark or moody like my previous boyfriends. He made me feel protected; he had a good heart. I liked that he could fix things and play guitar. And he was comfortable with commitment. Two weeks after our first kiss, he called me his girlfriend; five months later he moved in. Granted, he was desperate to get out of his mom's house, but still. He cooked dinner and bought me ergonomic computer equipment. When I felt sad, he comforted me.
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For the most part, I kept my bad temper in check, but even when I did lash out at him-for being late to meet me, for spilling beer on my rug-Nick wasn't intimidated. He apologized but said, "Don't get so worked up. You're making it worse." And then we'd have fun making up all night.
I quickly decided Nick would make a fantastic husband. Now that I was in my 30s, my desire for a family was all I could think about. About a year after we met, I gave Nick an ultimatum: "If we're not going to marry and have kids in the next two years, I can't stay with you." His response was gentle: "I don't want to lose you, but I have other priorities." I took a breath, feeling an icy river of fear rush through me. "I understand," I said. "But I can't wait."
Flash forward two years: We are married with a baby. Nick largely supports us while I care for our daughter. I have what I've always wanted. I am miserable.
When Nick proposed to me a few weeks after my ultimatum, I asked what changed his mind. "I'm a better man with you," he said. After registering the corniness, I threw myself into his arms. It didn't occur to me to wonder if I was a better woman with him. Now I knew: Not only was I not better with Nick, I was my worst self-judgmental, anxious, controlling.
All I saw was his inability to be witty and fun. I didn't enjoy being with him in social situations. He didn't seem to know how to connect with my friends, but he didn't have any of his own. At parties, Nick waxed on like an overeager child about outer space or nanotechnology; I watched people's eyes glaze over and berated him later for his conversational tone deafness.
We clashed constantly. He was a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants scrambler; I was a micromanager. When our baby had health issues, my panic drove him crazy; his yelling at me to calm down made me want to stab him in the eyes. Exhausted by our battles, we talked about couples therapy, but we both feared that it would just confirm what we already knew-we didn't fit.
Then one evening, shortly after I found out I was pregnant for the second time, I heard Nick's phone beep. Something compelled me to look at it, and I found a short thread of texts between him and a woman. Nick had texted her back: "I already miss you." In a shocked trance, I saw my fingers tap out a message: "Whoever you are, stay away from my husband."
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When I confronted Nick, the story came out: They'd had a few drinks, dinner; they'd kissed once, nothing more. He wasn't in love with her, had meant to break it off. "Please try to understand," Nick said. "She respected me. She was impressed by me. Maybe I'm weak, but I need that."
Somehow, I did understand. On our wedding day, we'd vowed to honor each other. Nick wasn't the only one who went back on that vow. I judged everything about him, from his taste in music to the neighborhood where he grew up; I rolled my eyes when he talked; I always let him know if he'd done something wrong. No wonder he'd looked elsewhere for validation. Despite all that, Nick never judged me personally. He didn't tell me I looked dumpy or that I shouldn't eat that third cookie, even though I wore pajamas at home during the day and hadn't exercised in years.
I watched as he composed an email telling the woman that it, whatever it was, was over. We fell into each other's arms, seeking comfort and redemption. After that, for a while, we did OK. I tried to stay in the present, getting our home ready for a new baby and enjoying Nick's renewed efforts to be an attentive, loving husband.
And then, the day after our second child was born, we got into a fight at the hospital. He wanted to get home and was driving me nuts as he bounced around packing things up, when all I wanted was to nurse my son. Downstairs, I watched Nick get into a shouting match with the valet who wanted to charge him $10 for parking our car. All I could think was, Why am I married to this guy? As we got into the car, desolation washed over me.
But as I gazed at my tiny sleeping son, so vulnerable and dependent, I realized that, unlike him, I wasn't helpless. I could either keep acting like a spoiled child, demanding that Nick be perfect, or I could be a grown-up. I knew that intact and miserable was no better than separate, and maybe worse. But I needed to try. And so, I made the most important choice of my life: to fully commit to my marriage. Not to an ideal of love-but to real, complicated love, where things are rarely easy and compromises are constant.
I slowly began to behave differently, to act like the person I wanted to be. It wasn't easy at first, and it still isn't, but that's part of the challenge of being married. The more I laugh, the funnier Nick is. The more I show my appreciation, the more appreciative of me he becomes. Having things my way, I've come to understand, is less important than having someone real to love. I've given up my fantasy of a perfect husband for the reality of a stable family, and, to my surprise, I'm happy-at least most of the time.
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