On Being Out of Love
Not long ago, I got dumped. I want to believe I practice what I preach when it comes to being a good partner. But the fact is, at times, I can be a right royal pain in the ass. The man who left me didn’t like my occasional squalls, otherwise known as anxiety and misplaced anger. I reasoned a place as beautiful as Antarctica was worth crossing the notoriously choppy Drake Passage. But he was a calm water man. So I’m trying to accept it and move on.
But this breakup threw me off my game. Though I jumped back into online dating, it was clear I was there for the ego boost more than any desire to actually date. A friend used to tell me, ‘The best way to get over someone is to get under someone else.’ And that has often been my MO. But an email from another friend, arriving on the heels of a few tepid dates, felt like the best advice I’d ever been given.
She wrote that three years ago she’d had an epiphany; a clear vision of the man she wants to be with. He is driven in his career, engaged with the world, and a team player. She realized she won’t ever meet this man until she herself becomes what she wants to attract. “In order for him to notice me when our paths cross, I must be on his level – so we can see eye-to-eye. I cannot attract someone being poor and pathetic and not absolutely AMAZING, you know what I mean? So I’m just working on myself. When the time is right, I will attract exactly what I’m looking for.”
A few days later, I deleted all my dating accounts. I’m not even close to amazing right now. Nor do I resemble the kind of person I would want to date. Only recently I was still slumped on the couch nursing a bottle of wine and a bowl of popcorn. No Prince Charming is going to be attracted to that mess no matter how sexy my bed head look. And even when I put on lipstick and a little black dress, I can feel the unprocessed grief surrounding me like a stinky pheromone cloud.
So I’m taking a hard look at my own shit. Too often when love ends, the people who adore us will insist we’re still wonderful and the person who left us the idiot. That’s all well and good. But honestly, we are likely just as offensive in our own way as the one who no longer loves us. Let’s get over this incessant need for self-affirmation and take a cold, hard look at how we need to improve. It’s pointless to focus on someone else’s ass-holiness when we could be using our energy to discover our own. And though I understand there are plenty of men who wouldn’t be bothered by my occasional tempests, I owe it to every person in my life to soften my bitchy side. Here are a few of the ways I hope to do so:
THERAPY: Someone suggested I look into EMDR therapy. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing has been credited primarily with helping people who suffer from PTSD. It’s widely used now to treat anxiety, depression, stress and eating disorders. EMDR is thought to work by helping us detach from our emotional traumas through visual distraction as we recall a specific memory. It’s a fairly new method of psychotherapy, one stumbled upon by a clinician in 1989 after she discovered her own distress around a painful event diminished when her eyes darted from side to side while walking in the woods. Whatever your life’s tragedies; the horror of sexual assault, a critical or abusive parent, or the simple humiliations of growing up in the world, EMDR may relieve the triggers of past wounds and reduce our habit of acting deplorably because of them.
READ: I’m taking a crash course in life with the Swiss born Alain de Botton, a contemporary philosopher who has written 167 epistles on attaining self-knowledge. (He also writes extensively on love, sex, relationships, work and sociability in the regular and worthy ‘Book of Life’ newsletter.) He’s a champion of Romantic Realism, defined as “an awareness of what can legitimately be expected of love and the reasons why we will, for large stretches of our lives, be very disappointed by it for no especially sinister reasons.”
Some call him cynical. But given we are so often frustrated by love, perhaps our initial optimism about the rewards of love should be tempered by some realistic cynicism. For instance, acknowledge we are all difficult. Our humility and likability increase the more we understand the what ways in which we are challenging. De Botton writes:
“A good partnership is not so much one between two healthy people (there aren’t many of these on the planet), it’s one between two demented people who have had the skill or luck to find a non-threatening conscious accommodation between their relative inanities, in large part because they have a good grasp of how they are difficult to live with.”
De Botton also penned the wildly popular essay, ‘Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person’. Attraction and infatuation, as I discussed last month, are nature’s way of making babies but is a poor judge of long term compatibility. We seek partnerships because being single in a world of couples and families can be intensely uncomfortable. The desire to belong, to raise children with someone, to feel normal within the traditions of our culture, means we very often make choices that may not bring us long term contentment, simply because we fear not fitting in.
“We make mistakes, too, because we are so lonely. No one can be in an optimal frame of mind to choose a partner when remaining single feels unbearable. We have to be wholly at peace with the prospect of many years of solitude in order to be appropriately picky; otherwise, we risk loving no longer being single rather more than we love the partner who spared us that fate.”
Wholly at peace being single? Yeah, that’s scary – like confronting a solitary White Walker standing at the door to my future. Instead, I’m going to channel my Arya Stark, fly through the air and obliterate that buzz kill warrior with my dragon glass dagger. I’ll accept the specter of loneliness and focus instead on parenthood and friendships. There are plentiful ways to keep practicing love without needing a romantic partner. My son would be delighted if I’d stop swearing at him every time he argues for more video game time. Being single means I can essentially parent exactly the way I want to. I might as well put some effort into doing it better.
EXERCISE/EAT WELL: This is a no brainer. When you’re curled up with Kleenex on the couch, your body suffers. Nothing says, ‘I’m on the mend’ better than a good workout and a green smoothie. The link between exercise and elevated mood is well established. Harder to swallow (and less supported by the data) is how bad food may deplete your energy and turn you into a sourpuss. In my own experience, sugar in excess makes my body ache. And when my body aches, I’m not pleasant. So, I think I know the solution…
VOLUNTEER: Don’t you want desperately to get out of your own ruminating head after a break-up? Those obsessive thoughts of revenge or reconciliation; all the snarky things you want to text your ex; imagining the moment you run into each other and he realizes what a colossal mistake he’s made. These all play on a continuous feedback loop due to dopamine’s withdrawal in our brains when love ends. Until you do something to engage your mind on things other than your own woes, you’re going to keep feeling inadequate and angry. I’ve started taking my son to one of the local churches to make sandwiches for homeless people. We have fun with the other volunteers and the volume on my own hurts gets turned way, way down.
CULTIVATE YOUR YUM: This means self-care, though not for the purpose of attracting a mate. It’s what you do to have fun and feel good with no other motive than to feel deeply satisfied with who you are and to attain new skills. I want to play with women mountain bikers; practice my ukulele; take a dance class. Sometimes I’ll go to a brewery by myself. Last time I did so I struck up a conversation with a few people who got me sorted on summer activities with my son.
MAKE THE BED: It shows you’ve accomplished something. It makes you a better person. Do it.
Even after all this work I won’t be perfect. But I’m pretty sure I’ll be more patient and less bristly, the kind of person I might eventually want to date. When love ends, we should spend at least as much time figuring out how to address our unsavory bits as we do reminding ourselves we’re still lovable. We are always a combination of the two. We have 20/20 vision for the faults of our exes and myopia to our own. Culture asks so little of us, champions self-aggrandizement and unapologetic arrogance. Yet these things are not only the enemies of love but of civility. Admit your mistakes, find your faults, and take a good long time, on your own, to work on not repeating them. Only then will you attract exactly what you’re looking for. And what you deserve.
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