Yes, I know what you’re thinking, but you did read that right: my live-in boyfriend, who I’m madly in love with, share parenting duties with, and am planning a future with is also, strangely, my step-brother. And while that may sound like the headline of a Daily Mail article, the reality is much less dramatic.
Look, I’ll be the first to say it: dating a member of your step-family is a little weird. The idea seems at best, irresponsible, and at worst, inappropriate on so many fronts. Though we’re not blood-related, it initially brings to mind The Hills Have Eyes mutants, or, for those who are a little less horror-movie inclined, the history of the Egyptian Pharaohs, known to have often married their actual siblings to keep the bloodlines pure.
But I’ll also be the first to say that I didn’t choose this; rather, in typical fashion, love chose us.
Let me explain.
Finding and losing My Safe Place
The thing about an ugly divorce is that the aftershocks usually don’t end when the papers are signed; rather, they can rise up again and again, refusing to die (or being deliberately kept alive) for years, decades, even lifetimes and beyond. Luckily, my ex-husband and I didn’t have one, and our daughters won’t have to experience those vibrations through the family current, haunting their past and future. But my own parents did, and I think the awfulness of it—watching my known world become unknown, violent, and frightening—left me with some major trust issues, particularly towards men.
While my mother and father split when I was twelve, those unavoidable aftershocks kept coming, and at sixteen my family home was still mired in chaos, despite my dad no longer living there. It had, for a long time, been a home of male-dominated violence that we desperately attempted to ignore and normalize, working around it like you might a sinkhole in your living room. And consequently as I neared the end of high school, my ability to sense danger had become massively overdeveloped; my fight-or-flight response was in a near-constant state of activation, to the point that I couldn’t focus in class, slept too much, and was inundated with debilitating stomach cramps—later diagnosed as an ulcer. And naturally, I remember promising myself that one day, when I had the means to support myself, I’d never again live in an environment that caused me such terrible, suffocating anxiety.
So when I got together with my now ex-husband six years ago, I barely hesitated to leap into a full commitment because I knew he was gentle, predictable, and kind—highly underrated traits that to me, the product of an explosive and uncertain youth, were extremely appealing. The men I’d dated before him had been in most ways entirely normal human beings; however, they’d also had tempers, and moments of wild instability, and at some point it had always become too triggering for me and I’d ended it. But during our short time together my ex-husband was the safe place that I’d sorely lacked as a young adult; after we separated I found myself wondering how I could ever trust anyone the same way again. Part of me was convinced that underneath every seemingly sane man lurked a monster who my love would eventually unleash, and I’d wake up one day back in the home I grew up in, realizing with horrible clarity that I’d never really left.
Finding the Good again
However, the universe works in mysterious ways, and it turned out there was a man in the world who managed to possess both strength and goodness; fortunately for me, he recently married my mother. Their wedding was nearly three years ago now, and while her new husband isn’t perfect, he is kind, and funny, and stubborn, and proud, and somehow manages to have control without being out of it. He is reliable, and loving, and someone I feel I can always go to for help and he’ll provide it, unconditionally.
And he has. So I suppose it isn’t entirely surprising that when my broken heart began to mend, I fell head-over-heels for his youngest son.
The first time I met my current partner, and, incidentally, my new stepbrother, I was twenty-four—a married mom of two with minimal confidence and even less life experience. My now-boyfriend was twenty-eight, recently out of a rough engagement, and enjoying his bachelorhood to the fullest. Our situations couldn’t have been more different, but almost immediately I liked him. We laughed easily, my daughters tugged at his hands, and within him I sensed that same inherent goodness I read in his father, the impossible knowledge that he was someone who could be counted upon. And as our friendship developed, over time he became as close to me as a brother, calling or texting randomly to ask for relationship advice, or impart a great story, or laugh about our parents’ antics.
But love finds a way. Later, when my marriage unraveled, the calls and visits became less superficial and more supportive; he’d send me funny videos in the morning so I could wake up and laugh, or he’d pop by with the pretense of needing help himself but would quickly press me about my own emotional state. In the midst of my divorce, a situation where it felt like all the men in my life were disappearing—alongside losing my husband, my own father wasn’t speaking to me, my brothers were hurt and distant, and I no longer had in-laws—finding a man who witnessed my worst and accepted all my imperfections without judgment was nothing short of miraculous. He was handsome and kind and infuriating and wonderful, and restored my shaken faith in the male population at a time I desperately needed it.
Were we supposed to fall in love? Probably not. In an ideal world we both would have found more sensible partners—ones who weren’t, as my sister later joked, “swimming in the family pool.” But the older I get, the more I begin to realize that nothing happens the way we expect; people change, and make wild choices, and fall out of love, and go to rehab. We are living in an incredibly strange time, one of overwhelming change and tragedy and almost debilitating uncertainty, and all anyone trying to survive it can do is to listen to their instincts and hold on tightly to a personal sense of moral truth. For me, that means paying attention when my heart speaks to me, and being brave enough to acquiesce to its demands.
And ultimately, there’s something to be said for a love that endures despite overwhelming odds; a love that persists beyond your own prejudices and established beliefs. While my partner and I aren’t actually related and didn’t meet until our mid/late twenties, there’s still a weirdness to dating a member of your step-family; the fact that the pull we had toward each other pulled right through that enormous mental block says something about its power. And though Josh and Cher made it look easy in Clueless, and Kathryn and Sebastian gave it a manipulative twist in Cruel Intentions, the reality is that for us it’s neither of those things; it’s something infinitely more complicated and special. Finding a partner who decides you’re worth taking such a colossal risk for—who is willing to shoulder the burden of public criticism and rejection from the beginning—is someone with inarguable strength and courage. And to me, those are character traits I can’t deny or ignore.
While I won’t go so far as to claim that dating your step-sibling is normal, there is something about all of it that feels serendipitous, that gives me faith in a larger, still shadowed plan for my life. And of all the unknowns swirling around the world today, that is one of the few I can get behind.