When I was home in Virginia two years ago, my dad and I were driving around town when we drove past my friend Mitt’s* house. After his mom died and his dad remarried and moved to another town, Mitt ended up moving back into the house he grew up in. Later he bought the house from his dad, and then his long-term, out-of-town girlfriend moved in.
I asked my dad if he’d heard whether Mitt had gotten engaged yet. Marriage not only seemed like the next logical step, but like something Mitt would be good at. He’s someone people describe as “a good guy,” the kind of person everyone just likes. Because he’s friendly, uncomplicated, easy to be around. He’s kind of like my dad, actually, and maybe that’s why I can so easily imagine him married, settled and happy.
But my dad said no, Mitt was not engaged. And I made some comment about how the one time I met Nancy, I thought she was a real keeper.
“Well, what I want to know,” my dad said, “is when Reg** is going to ask you a very important question.”
This was a conversational detour I’d totally failed to see coming. My parents had never asked about me marrying Reg. And, because they’d never asked, I’d kind of assumed they were quietly waiting for things to fizzle out between us.
“Um. I hope it’s not too soon,” I said without thinking, “because I’m not sure how I’d answer any very important questions right now.”
Dad kept his eyes on the road. Then he said, “Well, honey, I’m sure you’ll make the right choice.”
And this, I think, is the problem. The idea that there is a right choice to be made about a relationship also implies that there are wrong choices, which suggests that one could make a very serious mistake with her life, which can make a person a bit panicked about love. But my dad is someone who has always inhabited a world of moral clarity. Almost anything can be labeled as right or wrong. The problem is that he’s not the only one who talks about love this way. We all do it.
“I got Lana’s wedding invitation in the mail,” my friend Erin said to me on the phone one day.
“What?” I’d asked, “Didn’t her boyfriend just leave last year with no explanation?”
“He did. But then he showed up three weeks later with a ring, saying he’d made a huge mistake.”
Lana was one of those women who seemed so sure of her place in the world, even in her early twenties. She’d worked in Central America for a couple of years, then moved to Manhattan for law school. She ran marathons. She was pretty without make up. That her boyfriend had made a mistake by saying “this isn’t working for me,” then walking out the door, seemed obvious.
I was surprised to hear they were getting married, but the subtext of the story was clear: sometimes you just know. You wake up one day with the knowledge that you want to spend the rest of your life with someone. It just dawns on you like that.
I’d always been envious of those people. Why did they get to know? And when would I know? Having been in love with the same person for so long, I couldn’t help but ask myself: How can you invest that much of your life in someone you still aren’t ready to commit to? I’d given him one third of my life, the entire adult portion. And I kept wondering if something was wrong with me. Or with us.
But what if the problem isn’t us? What if the problem is how we talk about love—not just my dad or me and Erin, but everyone? What if the stories we tell ourselves and each other—with their rights and wrongs, their subtexts of how things should or should not happen—are actually making us worse at being in love?
If this is true, I’m in trouble. I have spent my whole life telling love stories. Well, telling one story, really, to anyone who would listen: My mom was a cheerleader and my dad a football coach. I guess that’s the next blog entry.
I’m aware that this is 5 years old, but I am going back through your archives because I found you on Modern Love, and was really intrigued by your blog. Love is something I always wonder about, and I constantly ask myself if I am doing it “right.” I’m glad to know I’m not alone in feeling uncomfortable with being able to designate “doing” love as right or wrong. Thanks for writing this.
Hi Lindsay: Thanks for reading! I have to admit I didn’t even know this blog was five years old already 🙂 But, yes, even though I’ve obviously been thinking about the “right” way to be in love for five whole years, I still worry about it all the time. It’s funny because, since I’ve thought about this so much, sometimes I have the reverse problem: a kind of resistance to doing things in a conventional way for conventional reasons. It sounds so absurd typing it out, but I guess my point is that as much as you try to be rational about love, these powerful cultural narratives about how it should and shouldn’t go are hard to resist.