I’ll Take What’s Behind Door #3

Not too long after I finished my first blog post, which was a little like giving birth with no epidural, someone sent me a message and said, “Hey, how about writing something for us single people on your blog?” I replied that I would be happy to, and I’ve been struggling with it ever since.

When you’re young and beautiful, dating is fun and exciting. You’re free to go out anytime and stay out until the wee hours. If you don’t hit it off with this one, there’s another one just around the corner. Your skin is dewy and smooth, your energy is endless, and you have all the time in the world.

Not so when you’re 50. At 50, the game is a changed one. What once was an ocean of potential lovers, has become a wading pool of the potentially tolerable. Dates are scheduled around your children’s ballgames, school projects, and job obligations. Forget beautiful, we’re just hoping for passable. Our once luminous skin is dull and wrinkled at worst; freshly exfoliated and wrinkled at best.

After a crazy work week running kids to extracurricular activities, doing laundry, and cooking (okay, full disclosure: picking up takeout) we’re just hoping to make it through dessert without falling asleep in our tiramisu.

Too often, what was once an exciting process of getting to know someone and their hopes and dreams, has morphed into spending an entire evening listening to a one-sided account of how and why, your date’s former spouse is cheating scum and now married to their former neighbor/boss/best friend/best friend’s spouse. Its torture; and suffering through the unabridged version is rarely worth the cost of the meal.

My dating history is long and storied. You know the part of your brain that made getting a Rave perm a week prior to your senior pictures seem like an excellent idea?  That’s the part of my brain that’s been responsible for the majority of my relationship choices.

For me, college was a time to focus on doing the bare minimum to keep from ending up on academic probation, regularly changing majors to avoid graduating, and a record-setting amount of fun. While other girls were settling down and flipping through issues of “Brides”, I was systematically eliminating any man who could even spell responsible. If they had Peter Pan syndrome, struggled with monogamy, or had career aspirations that included living in a hut on the beach so that they could jump on the best waves first, I was in.

While other girls were quietly scooping up the responsible, level-headed men with a secure future; I was running from them. I remember this med student, in particular. I went on one date with him. He was cute, outgoing, quick-witted, and pursuing a surgical career.  I ran from him like he was Ted Bundy. To someone like me, who had the emotional maturity of SpongeBob SquarePants, marriage and children sounded like some sad, last resort for people who lacked creativity and a sense of humor.

Many years later, when I had run out of single friends to have fun with, I married. Remember that part of the brain I mentioned earlier, that part that made the Rave perm a week before senior pictures seem like a great idea? It was working overtime. I won’t elaborate because I want you to finish reading and still think me sane. It ended, not a moment too soon, and I focused on my nearly perfect children, and insuring that they never felt like they were competing with anyone for my attention or affection.

Some years passed and, as fate would have it, I became reacquainted with a gentleman from my college days who was a genuinely nice man.  The timing was right and we began dating. I couldn’t imagine a better situation. I already knew him so I didn’t have to worry that he was some sociopath, he was handsome, attentive, and we still shared mutual friends. We lived in different cities and our work schedules weren’t the same, but I was committed.

Our relationship moved along fairly effortlessly. It wasn’t too long before I knew he was the love of my life. My heart was home. He felt the same way and over the years, we settled into a life of driving back and forth between houses and becoming a long distance family, of sorts. I looked forward to the future and growing old with him. We would still hold hands when we were 80, make each other coffee in the morning, and our house would be full on holidays. He loved me just as much as I loved him. I really believed I had it right this time.

When he proposed earlier this year, I was over the moon. He had two children and a family I had come to adore, and was clearly choosing to overlook my ever-expanding wrinkle collection and the fact that, despite my endless squats and running, my butt seemed determined to take up residence somewhere around the backs of my thighs.

Less than six months later, about a month into our 6th year together, he broke off the engagement. There was no “deal breaking” behavior; no infidelity, no lying, no substance abuse or physical abuse. He just felt that our obstacles of distance and differing work schedules were too great and he wasn’t happy anymore.

Saying I was devastated would be like saying Mother Teresa is a nice lady. I wanted to be angry with him, but I couldn’t be.  This man is a good man. He didn’t want to hurt me, and I’ve no doubt in my mind that he gave me everything he was capable of giving me.

I spent the first few days ugly crying in the fetal position, before it finally occurred to me that not everyone’s “forever” means forever. The hard truth is, if he were going to give up on us this easily, there is no way we would have ever made it all the way to the warm family holidays, and the coffee-making and holding hands in our 80’s.

You, dear reader, are going to be the beneficiary of the soul-searching and contemplation that resulted from the excruciating pain I suffered. In order to survive, I had to make sense of it all.

Life is brutal. It comes at you from all sides.  It’s tempting, you know, to think of every single undesirable trait you have when a relationship fails. I know I “go internal” when I have a problem and shut people out, I forget to return phone calls, I hate to cook, read when I should probably be talking, and don’t know how to s-l-o-w d-o-w-n.  There are a million negatives to offset my wit and charming personality, and render me undeserving of love.

Here’s the thing though, every day people lose their jobs, battle exhausting, financially debilitating diseases, try to save their children from drug addiction, confess infidelity, and care for aging parents. In my world, love is what you combat the inevitable obstacles with. If I love someone, I don’t give up on them. That applies whether you are my lover, my child, my family, or my friend. “There is a solution for every problem.”  It’s my motto.  In fact, when you tell someone you love them, I believe you’re actually saying, “I will always give you the benefit of the doubt. I will stand beside you through the very worst of what life throws at us, and love you when you’re not very loveable. You will never face anything alone. I will be honest even when it hurts, and every single day, I will wake up and choose you.”  And I swear I did not rip that off from some Lifetime movie, or Lloyd in “Say Anything”. That little nugget is all mine.

When you get down to it, those married couples out there aren’t that different from those of us still looking. As individuals, most of us want similar things out of life. No one wants to die alone.  We want to feel safe, appreciated, and understood.  We want to know someone is out there who will celebrate our accomplishments, pluck us from the wreckage when everything implodes, and kick us in the ass when it’s required.

Ultimately, we want someone to share with that we can trust. The highs are that much higher when there’s someone else lifting you up; and when times are bad, they’re not nearly as overwhelming when there’s someone helping hold your head above water. Because, here it is: We are all imperfect.

Most of us go out into the world every day with good intentions. The problem is none of us are whole, so we use up our best behavior on the people we barely know and unleash the demons on the ones we love. Some of us do it a whole lot less than others, but we all do it. This is where it gets tricky, because we don’t choose WHO we love, but we do choose to STAY in love. This is where we single people differ from those couples you know that have been married 20 years.

No matter what we might think, they don’t have the perfect, blissful marriage full of sex, playful banter, and exotic vacations. What they do have are two emotionally mature people, who are doing their best to communicate their needs, and who are consciously choosing each other and choosing to stay in love each and every day.

My children are the reluctant recipients of my wisdom. I’ve told them time and again, “The good times will pass, and so will the bad. Don’t get too caught up in either one of them.” This is something people in successful relationships know instinctively….they aren’t always going to be happy, and they aren’t going to stay sad or angry. They expect the roller coaster, they ride it, and they never, ever give up. They CHOOSE to continue to love their partner.  Finding someone to fall in love with is the easy part, the challenge is finding someone who will always choose you, even when it might seem easier to walk away.

What we’re all looking for is a warrior. Someone who sees past our imperfections and the armor we wear every day, and loves us for our potential, our passions, and our own unique set of gifts.

What I’ve learned is that romantic relationships aren’t anything more than friendships on steroids with physical attraction. Aristotle believed that there are three main categories of friends:

  • Those who love you because you’re useful to them.
  • Those who love you because your company provides them with pleasure.
  • Those who love you because you’re a good person.

People who are a part of your life primarily because you’re useful to them, or your company provides them with pleasure, will always end up leaving. I don’t know about you but as hard as I try, I’m not always useful and my company is sometimes anything but pleasurable. Why? Because, I’m imperfect. Because there are times in my life I’m a dream come true, and there are times you would probably just want to fast forward through a couple of weeks.

Someone that loves you based on your usefulness and/or the pleasure you bring them, will almost always stop choosing to love you and abandon ship when they hit high seas. It’s category #3 you’re looking for; the relationships that are based on your partner’s ability to see you as a good person are the ones that last. The first two types of relationships exist when one person wants to “be loved” more than they want “to love”. They’re looking for someone to flatter them and fill them up. Real, lasting relationships are the result of two people who are more focused on the act of loving. When someone loves you for your inherent goodness, they love you through the times you just don’t have what it takes to be useful or pleasing, and their focus isn’t on what they are or aren’t getting from you. They stay focused on what they can give. They continue to choose you, even in the worst of times. While there are obvious differences in the physical properties of a parent/child relationship and a romantic relationship, the quality of the love we extend should be the same.

Just today, I read an article that a hospice chaplain wrote about ministering to the dying. She said that many people were surprised to hear that the dying didn’t talk about their religion or God. They overwhelmingly talk about love. They talk about the love they gave and received. They talk about love that they felt in their lifetime, and love that should have been unconditional but wasn’t.  Many talked about love they withheld, or never knew how to offer. Sometimes they talked about love they walked away from and shouldn’t have.

We’re surrounded by opportunities to choose love every day in our interactions with our family, our friends, and our children. I believe that every act of love leaves us more beautiful than we were before.

After a loss, our first instinct is to tell ourselves we’re done. We’re giving up. But let’s face it, there is no greater gift in life than love and the conscious commitment to choose that love over and over again. While I still catch myself at stop lights every now and again, drifting off and wondering where I fell short, I’m pretty sure that up until this point I’ve spent most of my time in relationships with men whose love was rooted in categories 1 and 2. And while my life is full of love from some amazing people, I’m still hopeful that someday I’m going to find a category 3 kind of romantic love, and join the ranks of all those couples who figured it out way before I did.

But you know, when you think about it, a full house during holidays, making each other coffee and holding hands at 80, are all rooted in giving love and goodness. Maybe, just maybe, I’m headed in the right direction.