How ‘Titanic’ helped me figure out the kind of relationship I want

In late December 1997, my friend Kevin asked me if I had seen Titanic yet. He had already seen it, and with all the hype surrounding the movie, he figured I’d line up to see it too. But I told him I wasn’t sure I wanted to see Titanic because I didn’t feel like crying for three hours.

“But don’t you ever feel like you want to cry?” he replied.

I realized he was totally right. I did, and I needed it now.

That was the beginning of my relationship with Titanic as a form of therapy. I was in a strange place in my life at the time. I was involved with a man who was in an open relationship, and I struggled with it. Deep down, I knew I didn’t want to be in this open relationship, but I wasn’t ready to admit that to myself.

I needed to find some release, and thought, based on Kevin’s comment, that Titanic could be it. I had told my boyfriend that I wanted to see the film with him alone, because I knew I would be letting myself go emotionally. But when his girlfriend invited herself along, he didn’t have the guts to disinvite her.

The rules of this open relationship were well set. They had shown me a contract and everything. She was the PLI, Primary Love Interest, and I was the SLI, Secondary Love Interest. As the name implies, the PLI comes first, and anything done with the SLI has to be OK with the PLI. It doesn’t matter that there was practically no love left in this primary relationship—it had technically ended years before when she fell in love with someone else and, rather than set him free, requested open relationship status. Faced with this test of our open relationship rules, I realized that though the rules I agreed to may be better for the primary relationship, they were ultimately not good for me. And I’m the person I should be caring about the most. I called him and told him I wasn’t going to go to the movie with them. They could go by themselves. Shortly after that, he called me back and said he uninvited her, and that he and I would go alone.

When my boyfriend and I finally saw the film, it thrilled me beyond anything I imagined. It was intense, romantic, exciting, and horrifying, and I didn’t expect it to be so good. I remember how silent the theater was during the movie’s first 20 minutes. It was like people were afraid to eat their popcorn. We all were instantly enthralled by the story, knowing at least vaguely what was to come (spoiler: the ship sinks and everybody dies), but still enjoying it as the story unfurled. And yes, I did cry. A lot.

I became obsessed. Not just with the film, but with the whole Titanic disaster. I had no idea going in just how fascinating the story was. There are so many reasons why the sinking never should have happened, and yet it did. It’s obviously a devastating story, and this telling of it allowed us all to relive it in a way we would never dream—not that we’d want to.

Once I saw that first viewing of Titanic, that was it. The floodgates were open. I allowed myself to cry. I allowed myself that release, that flood of emotion, that excitement and experience. I allowed myself to feel, and I needed to go back, several times. And when I couldn’t go to the theatre, I listened to the soundtrack at home, and the specially created version of “My Heart Will Go On” with the movie dialogue spliced in (I got a cassette of it from the DJ at my soft rock radio station).

There’s a certain exhilaration, a high, to getting that emotionally invested in a film. I was never one for action movies, but Titanic is definitely an action movie, as well as a sweeping romance. I love to watch it, and I love to breathe. Seriously. I pull the air in deeply, filling my lungs all the way down to my hips (using all that voice training I had in school). My head spins from the oxygen. I love holding my breath as Kate and Leo go under the water with the ship, and I only exhale when they do. It’s exciting to be in the thick of it, yet terrifying at the same time, because I know that I’d never have survived.

I remember thinking, that first time I watched Leo and Kate gripping tightly onto the back of the ship as they stared down into the watery abyss, that I can see it now: Universal Studios presents: Titanic: The Ride. Part of me is still slightly disappointed that it never happened.

I saw the movie six times in the theater, something I hadn’t done since Star Wars, when I was about 11 years old. I also discovered a dear friend of mine had been a Titanic fanatic since he was a boy, so we bonded over the movie and swapped all sorts of Titanic trivia. He even named a character after me in his time-travel card game where players can prevent the Titanic’s fate.

I drove my friends crazy with constant talk of Titanic, always expressing my desire to see it again, and seemingly incapable of discussing anything else. My friend Kevin, marveling at the monster he created, once quipped to me that I needed a 12-step program to get over Titanic. I looked him in the eye and said, “Kevin, Titanic is my 12-step program.”

While I allowed myself to feel and express my emotions through Titanic, I also learned more about myself. I realized that I did not appreciate being second to my boyfriend’s girlfriend, even though that’s what I signed up for when I entered into the relationship. While I’d somehow always played the part of “the other woman,” because I had the bad luck to meet a great guy when he’s already involved with someone else, here I had a chance to try that kind of relationship in a way that’s supposedly open and honest. Yet what may sound great on paper ultimately was not enough for me, or for the others in my relationship (though it took them longer to figure that out). I realized that we were still lying, but this time to ourselves. No matter how much we convinced ourselves we were happy with this seemingly perfect situation, we weren’t. More importantly, I learned that I deserved better. While it still took some time before I actually broke up with him, I was on my way to that turning point.

This past April was the 103rd anniversary of the sinking, and I’m still just as obsessed as I was when the movie taught me about it. I’m now happily married (in fact, my husband and I met at my ex’s wedding to another woman). But I still sometimes feel that need to cry, to free that stifling in my body and expel some pent up energy and emotion. Titanic, my original 12-step program, can still help me get there.

[Image via Universal Pictures]

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