So, like I was sayin’:
With apologies to Tolstoy, what I learned from my dating years is that there are a thousand ways for love to be wrong, and only one way for it to be right. Here’s what I learned about both.
First, as to the thousand ways that romance can be wrong. I’ve been reading recently another WordPress blog , written by a single gal who catalogues the different romantic “relationships that aren’t.” She describes the guy who “doesn’t want a relationship” but sticks around for the sex ; the guy who acts like a boyfriend but won’t commit; the gal who allows herself to be taken out on dates but isn’t interested in a romance. I’m sure that more examples are coming.
Fact is, these are only the tip of that very cold iceberg of false romance. The book “He’s Just Not That Into You” lists dozens of other ways that men (the topic of that book) hem, haw, tap-dance, dissemble, clam up, and practice passive aggression, benign neglect, and truthiness when they are in romances that are too wrong to commit to but not wrong enough to leave. Although the tone of that book is breezy and witty, I didn’t smile during the twenty minutes it took me to read it. It was too depressing to recognize all of my tricks, which were called out by some pop-lit self-help book, and to know therefore that roughly four hundred million other men had pulled those same tricks in their dating lives.
Yes, I had done it all. I’d done the “sweep her off her feet though you barely know her” trick, just to keep a gal pinned like a specimen butterfly while I decided whether I was interested or not. I had kept my distance, metered my calls and emails, gaslighted, and tried to maneuver my partners into breaking off with me first. I was never interested in one-night stands — after all, I fancied myself a gentleman who was looking earnestly for true love — but instead I did something even worse: I stayed in lukewarm false romances for years at a time, giving well-meaning and earnest women every reason to believe in my love but never actually offering love.
And, I could have continued these masquerades for decades. Why? Because the decks are stacked in favor of us guys. It is, as Bill Clinton would say (and he would know), simple “arithmetic.” Here’s why. Assume that what Mehitabel wants is a committed relationship and marriage. She and Archy meet cute and begin dating. Shortly, she and Archy are sharing a pillow, and she is writing “Mrs. Archy” over and over on foolscap. Yet, for at least a year or two, perhaps longer, Archy isn’t expected to decide if Mehitabel will become Mrs. Archy. Any time he wants, Archy is free to leave the romance, so sorry it didn’t work out, hello I must be going…and no one can criticize him for it. For some guys, this is a pattern to be repeated just about as often as an oil change or a haircut. They get the thrill of the chase, the swoon of new romance, the blueberry-muffin phase (“YOU like blueberry muffins?? I Like blueberry muffins, TOO!!!”), and then the easy exit with absolutely no repercussions.
Based on the gob-smacked tone of the above single-gal’s blog, you would think that this pas-de-deux is a matter of complete mystery to women. This leads me to believe that we genders really don’t know one another too well at all.
Freud, notoriously, considered women to be “a dark continent” and moaned “what does woman want?” Maybe he was snorting some powdery substance at the time, because I don’t really think it’s all that esoteric.
If you ask me, Sigmund, it’s like this. Our primitive brains (in men, this is known simply as “the brain”) point us to mates who can produce and raise children. That translates to women preferring men who are physically strong, tall and fit, and who also have certain character traits that mean Husband And Father Material: Responsibility, compassion, courage, and a certain James Bondian element of cool mastery (or at least the ability to fix a flat tire). To a certain extent, it’s still a jungle out there for janes, and women therefore appreciate men who have some Tarzan qualities – they hold fast to their values, believe in family, make plans, honor their promises, can change a fuse, are generous to others, and give some a sense that they know how to give their hearts to someone.
And, as is only right, this brings me back to Barbara, the true romance that taught me the real from the false.
Here, alas, the only lesson I can offer sounds like it could have come from my Aunt Tillie: “When it’s right, it’s right.” My single friends vent to me about the problems with their latest romances: He’s balancing the good in his romance with the bad and trying to decide where the balance tips; she has major misgivings about whether he is the guy for her but wants to give it some time; they are “redefining their relationship.” And, my feeble response is, “when it’s right, you won’t have those questions.” But, it really is that simple. When it’s wrong, a romance is confounding, unsatisfying, and constantly unsettled. When it’s right, a romance is easy, obvious, and firm.
I have no insight into how to find that true romance. I plainly stumbled into mine, fresh from three years of a false romance with a gal I’d expertly kept at arms’ length and an exotic short entanglement with the mendacious Russian. I don’t know whether some stormy relationships, full of conflict and apology, might be true romances. It happens that Barbara and I are by our nature not fighters, so we tend to compromise easily and to approach our disagreements as practical problems that we need to solve as a team.
Really, after all of these 2000 words, the Third Lesson That Changed My Life is the dumb-as-a-bag-of-hammers insight that unhappy romances are each unhappy in their own way, but happy romances are all alike. It’s just that it took me so many years of not knowing that I was unhappy, of believing that I could somehow alchemize right out of wrong, and of having no idea of what I was missing, that I’m thinking there’s a value in telling the tale.