“How was your Halloween weekend?” one of my students asked yesterday. I replied that it was great, and then he asked if I wore a costume, and what it was. The answer was simple but, somehow unprepared for such a question, I turned bright red, stammered that I bought a pair of ears at the dollar store across the street, and then I quickly changed the subject.
I have always worn my embarrassment publicly in the form of immediately and fully flushed cheeks (and ears and neck and chest). In middle school, my classmates made a game of trying to make me go red. Adulthood has, thankfully, made these occurrences less common, but it still happens in front of a classroom at least once a semester. It’s unpredictable and awful—and I have learned, in the eight years I’ve been teaching, that the best thing to do is to just keep talking.
I woke up this morning and saw my mouse ears hanging on the radiator and wondered what it was about the phrase, “I was Minnie Mouse” that seemed so impossible to confess to a classroom of eighteen year olds.
The truth about my weekend is that I spent a significant portion of it thinking and talking about the space between loving someone and being in love with someone, and how, exactly, one can traverse that space. And one of those conversations took place in a bar very late at night while totally intoxicated and wearing Minnie Mouse ears. And maybe it was that—maybe it was the disjunction between chugging PBR by the Skytrain station on Saturday night and assigning a research paper on Monday afternoon.
Maybe, in that moment, naming the costume felt equivalent to confessing the whole thing: how happy I was all weekend and how strange it is to sit in an almost-empty bar and say to the person across from you, “I totally love you but I am a little bit terrified at the prospect of being in love with you.”
I have written before about the limits of the language of love. Our love vocabulary isn’t quite adequate for discussing all the ways we can be deeply invested in one another, but for the sake of this conversation, let’s call loving someone ‘friendship,’ and being in love with someone ‘romance.’
As far as I can tell, you can get to a romantic relationship either way—you can love someone first and then fall in love with them, moving from friendship to romance. Or you can do what I think most people do, which is to pursue someone as a romantic partner first and hope a friendship develops. But you have to have both, I think–friendship and romance–to create something durable.
A friend of mine is deep, deep in romantic love. And it’s that messy, overwhelming, anxiety-ridden kind of love. The kind where you send a message and then spend minutes or hours staring into a blank screen, willing it to light up. The kind where you are high for hours when it finally does. That kind. When I am with him, his anxiety is palpable, heartbreaking. His euphoria is contagious.
I think of the times in my life when I’ve felt that my entire well-being hinged on a single word or phrase or email or text message. When I’ve been gutted by silence. Times when I’ve had to remind myself of my own sanity. I wonder now, because I can no longer be sure, was it ever worth it?
The first night I went out with the person I am now dating (I know*), he said to me, “If you can fall in love with almost anyone, how do you choose?”
There is some convincing research that suggests you can fall in love with any number of people. But, there is less information on how to choose. In the age of internet dating, where we have access to more potential mates than ever before, this feels like a problem. Do you choose the person whose (even momentary) silence feels like a knee to the gut because it must be significant for it matter that much? Or do you look for someone else because, eventually, that anxiety—and that intense ambivalence—will wear you down?
From a neurochemical perspective, we’re more likely to make the first choice. If heartbreak looks like cocaine withdrawal to an fMRI scan, then the euphoria that arrives with the “I miss you, too” text is the drug. It’s hard to kick that habit.
I was talking with another friend about the question of whether or not to stay in a relationship that’s functional but not perfect. It’s a variation on the “how do you choose” question. And I think, after much discussion, we arrived at a pretty good answer: if you can’t be kind to someone, if they aren’t kind to you, the relationship isn’t very durable. It’s better for both parties to end it.
The day I decided to move out from the house I shared with J was one of our best days together (to be clear this was after a significant period of discussion and some public crying on my part). We played tennis and shared a beer in the hammock on the porch. We took the dog to the park and went out for burritos and sangria. We were united for the first time in weeks (if in the project of dismantling our relationship) and it seemed as though, relieved of the burden of trying to make something that wasn’t working work, we tapped into a deep well of kindness. That kindess buoyed us along—and kept us from fully ending things—for months.
John Gottman, a psychologist devoted to studying successful romantic relationships, has written a lot about the value of kindness. This article on the Gottmans (his wife Julie is also a psychologist) from the Atlantic is great:
Kindness, on the other hand, glues couples together. Research […] has shown that kindness (along with emotional stability) is the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in a marriage.
What I want, and what I never quite experienced in the past three years of off-and-on online dating, is the version of love that doesn’t create much anxiety or alienation because there is, underneath it all, a foundation of kindness. And I’ve been thinking lately that maybe the best way to find something like that is to start with friendship, to know and trust someone first, without expectation.
But maybe this is a nearly-impossible thing to do. It requires luck and patience and very good timing. It requires one to be open to falling in love with a friend—something I’ve historically avoided. It always seemed the stakes were too high, that you had to be sure you wanted what you were getting into, because there would be no getting-to-know-you period. You would just suddenly be in a relationship.
When I think about where love and romantic love overlap, and where they do not, I end up with two uneasy conclusions:
- You have to feel like love—especially romantic love—is something bigger and more forceful than a choice if you’re going give yourself over to it. Otherwise it’s too scary.
- Love is always a choice. Or, at the very least, your expression of love—be it romantic or friendly—is a choice. And sometimes, especially when things are difficult, it’s imperative to remember that loving is a choice.
I read this fantastic essay on kindness today, which is not really about romantic love, but is fantastic and relevant in every other way. It’s long. Read it anyway. I’ll leave you with his (Cord Jefferson’s) thoughts on love and kindness:
It’s easy to respond to a broken heart with a devastating comment, one that cuts so deeply because you know everything about the person to whom you’re speaking, including the exact thing to say to crush them. […] Conversely, waking up each day and devoting yourself to being kind, even and especially to people who are not kind to you, is actually incredibly difficult. It is arduous and deliberate work, and the doing of it will at times make you feel small and foolish. What’s more, in the end, it will on its own merits almost never yield a person awards or honors or riches.
*I have real reservations about writing about my romantic life as it’s happening, though I guess I’ve done that—either directly or indirectly—since starting this blog. And it’s becoming increasingly obvious to me that the times I feel a mild panic when pressing the publish button (because I am being very honest) are the times I get the most and best responses. So I’m trying to figure out a comfortable—but not too comfortable—way to navigate this stuff. I guess that’s a nice analog to this whole post. I hope you’ll bear with me. (And yeah, I totally get to hold his hand now. And it’s the best)