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January 22, 2013

He Read My Diary!

When a writer's boyfriend found her secret tally of pros and cons about their relationship, she was forced to confront her true feelings.

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"I found the list, Amy," said Neil, my boyfriend, from the doorway of the bathroom, watching me step out of the tub.

At first, I didn't know what he meant, but as I stood there naked, staring at his crestfallen face, it hit me: The List. Months ago, while trying to decide if I wanted to stay with Neil, I'd begun writing down the pros and cons of our relationship on a piece of paper. Obviously, I didn't want him to see the list, so I'd stuffed it between old towels in the linen closet. My head buzzed. How did he find it? And where were my clothes?!

"That was ages ago," I stammered, my heart racing. "And hey ... did you read all the pros?"

"I read enough," he said, dropping the evidence on the floor and turning to leave.

A little more than a year ago, I met Neil through friends. I was 37 and deep into dating exhaustion, having been mostly single for the previous four years. At first, I wasn't attracted to him. But he was kind and hilarious and brought me flowers. And we both wanted marriage and family.

As time went by, though, I found him uptight and skittish. The fact that everyday hurdles could so easily unhinge him annoyed me. I couldn't decide if I wanted to break up. So after three months, I sat down to make a decision — and for me, the best way to do that was to start a list, something that's always made me feel organized and motivated to act. For example: Go to grad school? Pro: I'll be smarter. Con: I'll feel old fraternizing with Gen Yers.

But this was the first time I'd kept a list on a relationship. At the time, it didn't seem like a red flag; I just wanted to clear my head. I began logically — pros included Neil's thoughtfulness, humor, and the fact that he loved my small boobs. Cons: his neediness, pessimism, and passive-aggressiveness. But then I started adding ridiculous cons whenever we had the slightest of tiffs: wears a belt with shorts, hates avocados.

When produce showed up on the list, I should have known that the relationship was over, but I was determined to make it work. So for every con I added — unstylish, moody — guilt urged me to bolster the pros: loves his family, good teeth. Now holding the list, I cringed. The final tally: 41 pluses and 39 minuses.

That night I went to Neil's apartment to talk. He was stoic but hurt. "How would you feel reading everything you hate about yourself written down by the person who's supposed to love you?" he asked.

"I'm sorry — I was just processing," I said. "You can make one about me."

"That won't help," he said. "But, look, this honesty could be good for us."

I was shocked — he still wanted me. Me, whose imperfections could fill a database of cons. But maybe he was right. Maybe the airing of my concerns would help our relationship.

The honesty that was supposed to bring us closer had clearly created resentment. When he lost his temper in traffic, Neil would glance at me and say with mocking sincerity, "Is this going on the list now?"

One day a male acquaintance tagged Neil and me in a Facebook post, gushing that he hoped to find a love like ours. The portrayal of our "perfect love" forced me to confront the truth: I didn't love Neil. And I should have realized that when I was scribbling trivial things like "can't drive stick" on my list of gripes, which, in truth, was more about me than him. We stayed together for five more months, but I eventually broke up with him, and I learned something invaluable, too. I don't need a list to tell me what's in my heart.

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