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L.A. Affairs: Help! I can't stop calling my new boyfriend by my ex's name

The first time I called Scott by my ex’s name, we were lying side by side. The morning air was already heavy with the salty tang of Redondo Beach’s humidity. “It’s OK,” Scott whispered in saint-like understanding; seemingly unbothered by my blunder, he suggested we get out of bed and salvage our day.

We had been together for six months, and even as we grew closer, met each other’s families and became the couple known as "Scott and Cathleen," I continued to call him Paul. At the grocery store, in front of friends and when we were alone. With a dramatic wag of his finger, he would issue a “You did not just call me Paul again?” To which I would throw up my hands, as if Scott were the one to blame.

Why was I sabotaging my relationship with Scott, a man I loved so completely I felt whole, by invoking the name of a man I once loved so poorly? I knew it was more than a cognitive glitch. My broken, eight-year relationship with Paul held meaning: He was supposed to have been the one I was going to marry and start a family with, and I found it impossible to let him go.

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Paul and I met on a weekend trip to Palm Springs. He was brainy and clever and had a way of saying my name that sounded songlike in concert with his shy smile. He had a good job and was unlike any of the men I had dated.

He was the first to comfort and protect me. Falling for Paul was akin to having earned the respectability to be seen and feel worthy of someone’s adoration. Our relationship became my gold standard, and the word "Paul" began to define love for me.

Quickly I became the dutiful girlfriend waiting for the ring I was sure I wanted and the husband my friends told me I deserved. I set aside my yearning for a less structured livelihood to chase a traditional career housed in a glass-walled building in downtown Los Angeles.

The first two years slipped by quietly. It was as if I were trying on clothes without looking in the mirror. When I finally glanced up, the suit I was wearing was all wrong.

Paul and I were good at parties but not at home. In public, he held my hand and kissed my forehead. In private, he told me I was stupid, and I fumed because he was lazy. He criticized me for things I said, like calling rain "spit," and I repeatedly begged him to sleep with me, vulnerable in my prettiest underwear.

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Our relationship lasted six years longer than it should have, allowing his name to entrench itself in my vernacular. The word "Paul" became my substitute for endearments. I’d co-opted his name, and it encapsulated my longing for love.

During our final year together, my desire to leave was my dirtiest secret. Too embarrassed to admit my failure, I fantasized about cheating because I couldn’t initiate the breakup on my own. The closest I came to being unfaithful was awkward flirting with a co-worker on a ski trip to Big Bear.

“How was your weekend?” I asked as I breezed through the door, my cheeks a golden tan from the goggle line down. “Dad’s in the hospital,” Paul said, his jaw clenched in a hurt we both knew I couldn’t comfort.

One Sunday, after I’d spent much of my day on a solo bike ride in the hills above Malibu, my grandmotherly neighbor, Gail, greeted me at the curb.“I noticed you don’t spend much time together,” she said, nodding in the direction of Paul’s white pickup parked in the driveway. With her age-mottled hand, she brushed at a strand of hair that had fallen across my cheek, then caught my chin between her thumb and index finger. “It’s OK to leave,” she whispered.

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Her permission to surrender ignited the intensity of my yearning for a mate and the magnitude of my failure. Paul had become the large outcropping in the middle of a tangled landscape, the one I used to navigate my way home when I strayed too far. “He was my boyfriend” became “He was my Paul" and represented an intense ache I carried forward.

The end came with the help of a counselor who facilitated our goodbye. I kept our cats and moved into a 600-square-foot apartment that overlooked the Pacific.

There, my life was as loose as water — its direction influenced only by my indifference. I spent weekends running the sandy bike path from Redondo Beach to Manhattan Beach and back, sampling expensive wine and losing myself in books about someone else’s adventure. Slowly I rediscovered myself.

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Twelve months passed before I felt confident, and a parade of first, second and third dates reconnected me to the world beyond my front door. I called these men by their given name, never making the mistake of misnaming them Paul. I knew they weren’t worthy.

When I joined a kayak trip a friend had thrown together, I was paired with Scott, a professional photographer with rugged good looks and hair as long as mine. For 12 days, we shared every moment and, surrounded by the kind of beauty only a remote bay in the Pacific could afford, I felt something unfasten in my chest. The real "Paul" had come along.

The author is a freelance writer with a penchant for adventure. She now lives in central Oregon. She's on Instagram: @CathleenCalkins

L.A. Affairs chronicles the search for romantic love in all its glorious expressions in the L.A. area, and we want to hear your true story. We pay $400 for a published essay. Email LAAffairs@latimes.com. You can find submission guidelines here. You can find past columns here.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.