A couple of months ago, I published an essay on NPR.org about how many of us “fall in love with the story” of a person or relationship, rather than the person themselves. In response, I got a lot of enthusiastic notes from friends and readers who identified with my dilemma.
And then, there was one person–one of my best friends from college, in fact–who wrote to tell me that they could not relate.
Like me, this friend has a tortured romantic soul that is frequently, tragically, getting trampled upon: we understand one another.
But not, evidently, on this.
“I guess you’re more mature than me,” my friend wrote. “The story is still way more important than how I actually get along with someone. That’s stupid, but at least I admit it.”
When I first read the email, I felt a trace of reflexive indignation. And then, not long after, admiration.
As I realized when I dated an alcoholic who spoke daily about his drinking problem, usually with a flask somewhere on his person, there is a whole lot of distance between recognizing a bad pattern and actually doing something about it.
Not that relationship issues are anything like alcoholism. But still: as valid as it is to point out that the story is–theoretically and ideally–less important than the person, it’s not the same as acting accordingly.
I’ve been thinking about this lately as I try and evaluate the strength of my current feelings for someone, and to understand the provenance of those I’ve felt in the past.
In particular, I’ve thought about Bed Guy. I’ve mentioned him before: the one who spoke to me only via gchat and then told me he felt “freaked out” when I made the suggestion that he purchase a bed rather than continue sleeping on a hand-me-down recliner.
These two traits do not a compelling story make, I grant you. And yet, I managed to work myself into a pretty good state of certainty that I was crazy about him. On paper, he had a critical mass of qualities that I found appealing: a perfect balance of artist and intellectual, tall and cute, Jewish and witty. He took me to see obscure French films and burned me CDs of less obscure indie rock bands. In other words, he was the kind of guy I always imagined ending up with.
When we dated, we lived in separate cities: it was pretty casual. And still, I was so hung up as to I resist a perfectly adorable Argentine who tried to kiss me in the rain while visiting a friend in Buenos Aires.
“I just think he might be the one,” I told my friend, by way of explanation.
Not having met him, she encouraged me.
And then I got back, and talked to my therapist. She hadn’t met him either, but she did have a way with probing questions.
Such as: “How do you feel about him when you’re not together?”
“Anxious,” I said.
“And how do you feel about him when you are around him?”
I paused. “Anxious.”
She nodded in that gentle, therapeutic way that says “I know you know how delusional you are, and to make it clear I’m not even going to tell you–I’m just going to sit here and watch you realize it for yourself.”
It was, in fact, painfully obvious in that moment that my interest in him had little to do our time together. As I then realized, our time together was, actually, kind of painful. It wasn’t being with him that I was so attached to: it was the idea of being with him.
I think we all have ideas about who we ought to be with–what they should look like, what they should do, how they should think–that don’t necessarily match up with the kind of person, or people, with whom we can find happiness.
Sometimes, I’m sure, they do. But recognizing where one ends and the other begins, I’m afraid, is still something I–and, I’d guess, a lot of people–still struggle with.
I’m not sure that’s a habit I want to brag about, or even–like my friend–fully embrace. But it is certainly something I have got to admit.