Date, fall in love, or otherwise put yourself out there in this crazy world for long enough, and you will eventually develop some kind of narrative about your romantic behavior: You’re a serial monogamist. A manic pixie dream girl. A ungettable man-eater. An expert on the emotionally unavailable. But what happens when that narrative is abruptly upended?
Such is the situation in a thorny question posed by a reader called “Shaken Convictions” over at NYMag’s Ask Polly. Shaken lays out her situation: for most of her life, having noted her mother’s ill-fated multiple marriages, she’s kept men at arm’s length. Vowing never to repeat her madre’s mistakes, she’s more or less avoided commitment, doesn’t want kids anyway, and has, despite a few relationships that went on for too long (unavoidable), remained one chill little pill when it comes to love. Shaken hangs out single and likes it just fine.
But then something happened that knocked her off her admittedly self-satisfied perch of detached judgment about others’ bad relationship choices, the quagmire from which she envisioned herself to be above forever.
And then, one night at a dinner party, I met a guy. We stayed up all night talking and made another date the next night. The next night, same thing. And while he tells me how much he wants a family, I find myself thinking what a great father he’d be, and maybe having children wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, if they were had with him. This goes on for several weeks, falling fairly deeply, before he unceremoniously drops me and reunites with his ex.
My question for you is that, as a result of this last little fling, I’ve started to really deeply distrust my own judgment. In a matter of mere weeks, this man had me reconsidering positions I’ve had my whole life (not having kids, never leaving New York City). A friend later said, “Can you imagine if you’d been together long enough to leave the city and get pregnant and THEN he took off?” And that’s the thing: I’ve spent the majority of four decades being so certain of what it is I want that when I thought I wanted this guy, and this guy was terribly, utterly wrong — how can I trust my instincts now? What the actual fuck happened to me?
What happened is that she realized one day she was majorly, totally, butt-crazy in love with Josh. Only Josh was not at all Paul Rudd and instead was some rebound sad sack, and now Shaken must grapple with the fact that she is a mortal who wants true love like all of us.
It’s a simple realization, but the questions it brings up are huge and universal: self-perception, the influence of family history, choice, the illusion of choice, and the ultimate question of what love is even any good for half the damn time. What are we doing? Who are we doing it with? Why do we need what we need so badly? And Shaken’s question also gets at something really true about life that everyone has to experience for herself: You spend a good chunk of your early existence laying the groundwork for a worldview and way of being, only to have to spend the rest of it slowly unraveling what you built as life happens to you and undoes everything you thought you knew about how to be a person. (Just me?)
I would argue that you can’t ever hold too dear to perceptions of yourself formed in your teens or twenties, or god knows, even your thirties. I also think this is why we sometimes get wildly waylaid by people who are wrong for us. There’s an argument I’ve come across quite a bit that we are often attracted to people for reasons too deep or confusing to understand—that certain, really intense, really immediate attractions often point us to people who, for reasons we may not be able to articulate or even be aware of, meet a need that has shaped us unconsciously. The essential idea—and I’m paraphrasing—is that we all have some kind of unfinished business when it comes to romance, and it’s deeply rooted in our family of origin, and the drama that produced in us. We look for lovers who help us, in essence, pick up where we left off.
This may be why you’re drawn to someone emotionally unavailable like your mother was, or someone with a temper like your father—even if at first you don’t even see these traits in your intended. This may be why relationships that are complicated or difficult may also signify a certain amount of healing that awaits you if you work it out under safe cover.
But sometimes there’s no deep logic at work within the person, just around them; sometimes you just picked someone who may very well represent what you need or want, but doesn’t actually contain that something. This is where the rejection part comes in, and it’s always painful. Polly cites a perfect example from her own past, when she got swept up quickly in a relationship with someone who seemed perfect—only to crash and burn:
The one time I met someone who talked this way, it was hard not to get caught up in it. “So this is how it feels to finally meet The One!” I thought. “You both just know, immediately, that you’re meant for each other!” After years of encountering caution and hesitation from dates and even boyfriends, I was thrilled to find someone who could recognize in an instant HOW GREAT I WAS.
Even once I discovered that he was newly separated and still reeling from his wife’s sudden exit, I didn’t give up. I didn’t recognize that he was handling his sadness by escaping into something new, something that HAD to lead to marriage to make up for what he’d just lost. Looking back, I can’t believe I could be so dumb. But at that point, I had never experienced that kind of confident intensity from a man. He was also older than me. After years of dating one man-child after another, I thought I was meeting a mature adult male for the first time.
Let whosoever has not committed this blunder cast the first man-child, is what I say. The rejection that comes after an infatuation this intense is incredibly painful; it is also good. It is a gift. I hate sports metaphors, but here we go: When life throws you a curveball, you don’t always have to step up and take a swing at it. Sometimes you should just let it hit you square in the nose and experience the pain of a real gusher. Get totally creamed by something or someone. Don’t even get back up right away. Just let everything fall apart and just fucking sit there at the very bottom of the wreck like a chump for a while. (PS: This, like all good advice, is only given with the clarity of hindsight, but still, file it away.)
Being lied to, or fucked over or tricked in the game of love—these are painful but critical lessons on the path to personhood that tell you something about yourself. Becoming vulnerable and subsequently revising your self-conceptions are both essential components of falling in love. (And so is protecting yourself from a gargoyle who says all the right stuff but has no intention or ability to back it up with real love.)
So Polly astutely reminds Shaken that she’s merely been humbled, not destroyed:
But that doesn’t mean you’ve lost ground or regressed or that you shouldn’t trust your instincts anymore. Making a big mistake with love doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you or that you’ve been ushered into the realm of the eternal loser and reject. …
But it’s not the big wins that lead you to happiness; it’s the events that show you that you don’t BELONG on a perch. And actually, when you climb down from there, you can finally start to feel your way through life instead of staying safe. Being humbled means understanding yourself as someone who fumbles, someone who is often weak, someone who doesn’t know what comes next, and loving that person anyway. Humility means treating yourself with kindness and respect, and learning to open up and give that same kind of love to other people, so they don’t have to be good all the time, they don’t have to be heroic, they don’t have to have everything figured out.
For people like me, and like Shaken—people who prefer at all times to be 20 moves ahead, like Bobby Fischers of wise and prescient love visions—well, this advice is painful. But that’s exactly how I know it’s the truth.