After my marriage ended about a year ago, I had no real intention of dating, at least not through my own efforts. As it happened, I ended up doing a surprising amount of dating that just sort of happened without my feeling like I’d gone much out of my way to cause it. In this willy-nilly fashion, I ended up getting into a five-month-long relationship, which very recently ended – again, without my meaning it to. The unexpected breakup, as these things do, has me trying to make sense of why I got myself into this in the first place and where I go from here. And so in this post, I wanted to take some time to remind myself what my goals are with relationships and what it’s all about for me.
Relationships (not just romantic ones, but all kinds of relationships between people), like a lot of things, can be said to have a form and a content. The form is the shape it takes: how often you see each other, what kinds of things you do when you meet, the words you use to describe it and each other – “marriage,” “dating,” “boyfriend,” or “friend,” or “the person I’m seeing.” And then there’s the content – who you both are as individuals, what you bring out in each other, the shape your interactions take, the emotions they provoke.
When I was younger, I think I tended to focus more on the form of romantic relationship I wanted than the content. I wanted a fling, or a relationship, or a boyfriend, or a fiance, or a marriage, and it didn’t matter as much who exactly filled the role as long as the role was filled by some acceptable candidate. I think I wasn’t alone in this. I would occasionally go on dating sites or look at personal ads, and they were set up a lot like shopping sites and regular ads. There were so many people to sort through that you almost had to start off with a checklist. You set your criteria for a person in a certain age range, having x religious beliefs and y political beliefs and z non-negotiable interests or aversions. Having decided on your preferred format of personal qualities and the form of relationships you were aiming for (long-term, fling, etc.), you then shopped around for a person who fit into it. It was a lot like having a certain pair of shoes in mind – strappy white sandals with no more than a 2.5-inch heel for no more than $80 – and looking until you found just what you wanted.
That is one way of going about things. And there’s a certain lovely idealism in searching for the grand love affair, the one that includes flowers, nights of passion, stimulating conversation, shared aesthetics and values, and progresses to a tasteful, well-attended wedding and eventually growing happily old together, watching your grandchildren play and sipping lemonade out on the front porch. But in the end, that, too, is just another checklist.
Then there are those who talk of “settling.” Which seems to mean accepting that you might just not get everything on the list checked off, heaving a sigh, and going ahead with it anyway, but never really putting aside your resentment or sense of inadequacy about those boxes on the list that didn’t get a checkmark.
At some point, though, I’d had my fill of looking for the perfect form, and I didn’t want to do it anymore. I had experienced all the main forms, and in the end, a form was just something empty, like a madeleine pan without any madeleines in it, or a jello mold without any jello. In the end, it was the organic shape the relationship took as it grew that made me and the other person either happy or unhappy. And so the goal stopped being a relationship of this or that kind, but authenticity in my interactions with the people around me and generally doing what made me and others happy (with all the caveats of ethics and social and moral responsibility). I decided I would try to just take the people I encountered for what they were and let that content dictate the form of my relationship to them. If I could love someone, I would love them, if I could like them, I would like them. If I enjoyed spending time with someone, I would try to spend more time with them, and so on. I’d worry less about what it was called and what it looked like to other people than about what it did for us.
So with the passing of this last relationship, I wonder what I’m mourning for. Am I more sad to lose the person, or am I just sad not to have a boyfriend anymore? I think even with my healthier philosophy of authenticity, it’s still easy to get caught up in the forms. It was nice being able to say I had a boyfriend, to put “in a relationship” on my Facebook page, to use plural pronouns like “we” and “us.” It was nice having an automatic date to bring to things like weddings and concerts. I will miss all of that.
But I have to remind myself that while the form might have fallen out of shape, the content is still there. We’re still the same people we were before, even if we’re no longer a “we.” The experiences and memories don’t lose their value just because they’re now of things I did with an ex instead of things I did with a boyfriend. And while nothing that comes to me in the future will ever take just the same shape that grew up with this past relationship, there’s an infinity of lovely, twisting and branching new structures that can form as I go on loving whomever I can love and liking whomever I can like, and spending time with people I enjoy being with, as much and as long as I can – or being alone when I need to be.
The pain of losing someone you care about can’t really be reasoned or blogged away, but still, I think it helps to remind myself of all this.