20 years ago today I married Kate. I’ve expressed enough gratitude for that and for her that people are likely bored of it. BUT very few people have heard the story of the day 5 years prior when the opportunity to have a love spell cast upon me set the wheels in motion.

It was my freshman year of college, and I was the embodiment of lovelorn. Even more than loneliness, the persistent ego bruises kept accumulating. Every infatuation led to some form of rejection and every rejection reinforced the sense that I was somehow unlovable damaged goods. I was utterly convinced that a change in those fortunes would bring about a change in my self-concept, that if the next person with whom I fell in love (or really even in like) returned the favor, all of my insecurities and other negative feelings about myself would go away. I still remember my first-ever therapy session a few months later, telling my new counselor that my self-esteem was GREAT, thank you very much, and the ONLY problem was that others didn’t respond in kind

So you can imagine how intrigued I was when I heard about the love spell. My best friend at the time had a roommate, let’s call him Guillermo just in case he doesn’t want his identity revealed. Guillermo was an insightful reader of tarot cards and generally something of a man of mystery and mysticism. My friend informed me that Guillermo could cast love spells. Aside from a healthy dose of too-good-to-be-true skepticism, I was pretty giddy over the prospect and arranged a phone conversation.

Guillermo explained to me that when he put the spell on someone, the result was that person finding their perfect match within 30 days. He went on to cite several examples of past spells, case studies of sorts. He described a range of outcomes, all falling under the “perfect match” umbrella. In one case, a decent person met another decent person and had a decent relationship. In another, a psychotic person (whose pathology was unknown to Guillermo when he agreed to cast the spell) found another person with similar issues and fireworks ensued. He warned me that compatibility was measured by the spell recipient’s traits at the moment the spell occurs, not good intentions or potential.

With little contemplation I graciously declined Guillermo’s offer. Not because the idea of a love spell was cockamamie and not because I was any less desperate, but because I wasn’t ready. Even though the conviction that I was one relationship (however finite, even) away from eternally solid self esteem would remain for another year or two, and even though my longing for companionship and affection remained desperate, and even though I’d never read a book about relationships or heard the word “codependency,” I knew I had work to do. If I took Guillermo’s explanation at face value, I’d need to be able to look in the mirror and know with confidence that I was worthy of and equipped to meet the needs of someone who I really wanted as a partner. I wasn’t and I knew it.

I can’t overstate how consequential the three years were between then and the point when Kate (for whom my slow-burning infatuation was already a year old by the time of my conversation with Guillermo) and I became an item. There was a lot of therapy and a lot of frustration and a lot of demon confrontation and a whole lot of stubborn determination to become that person who I knew in 1993 I needed to become.  And because of all this there was liberation. I didn’t consciously use the love spell itself as motivation, but that conversation was the moment that I was invited to face the truth. And the truth was that I wanted a relationship that was good enough that it would demand me to be a better person, not unlike the way I didn’t just crave gigs, but rather craved performance opportunities on a level that would demand me to be a much better player. What I further came to realize was that I wanted to be that person regardless of whether I put that to use in a long-term relationship or spent the rest of my life alone.

By the time the stars aligned for me and Kate to get together, I was still a work in progress (and still am), but things were different. I knew I could be fulfilled and have strong self-esteem without a relationship – goodness knows I didn’t always succeed, but at least I knew it was possible and indeed preferable to putting my ego and quality of life in someone else’s hands. I knew I was able to be a fully contributing participant in a partnership in which I could reasonably have high expectations. And maybe most importantly I knew that whenever I fell short (as I have approximately a gajillion times) I had the wherewithal to adapt, grow, and continue the painfully slow but vital process of proactive evolution that had gotten me to that point.

By the time we got married I was all the more confident in these things. I know that the same grudging self-awareness that kept me from taking Guillermo up on the love spell offer in the first place would have kept me from making vows I didn’t feel confident I could keep. Interestingly, soon after the wedding, Guillermo told me that once he and I became friends he love spelled me anyway, without my consultation, and that it had taken years to come to fruition. Basically, by his framing (without my ever having told him the reason behind my initial choice to decline or what that conversation catalyzed), I was too stubborn to let the spell take hold, but once it finally did, boy did it. If that really is why the stars aligned for me and Kate to have this sacred opportunity to put in the work to sculpt and refine this relationship and marriage with each other, then I guess that’s two things for which I owe Guillermo a debt of gratitude.