Authenticity

Twisted Tree

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.

6 thoughts on “Authenticity

  1. Interesting and wise. In particular, I needed to read this:

    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.

    Thanks.

    And I hope you’re doing OK.

  2. Thanks for reading, Holly. You always seem to “get” my posts and I really appreciate that – it’s always nice to feel understood. And thanks for the sympathy, too – I am doing okay, although these things are never fun …

  3. It’s a good, zen place to operate from. But it can be tough to maintain when so many others don’t share it. They want to know what it means, what it is, where it’s going… when all you want is to let it ride and enjoy it for what it is.

    It’s lovely you found something worthwhile, even if only for a time. The ability to fall again, even if somewhat accidentally, is a great sign for your future happiness.

  4. Sometimes, it is hard to go back to being “me” after being “we”. Sometime the “me” you were before simply doesn’t exist anymore. I learned that when I went through my divorce years ago. I found myself alone with a daughter. I struggled to find “me” again and finally realized that the girl that existed before my daughter and my marriage did not exist anymore and I needed to be introspective and examine who I had grown into and what I liked and didn’t like about *that* girl.

    There are times when even a short relationship can change a person enough (for good or bad) to make it impossible to go back to who they were before.

    There’s a song that says “You’ll only miss the man you wanted him to be” and although I don’t really care for country music, I’ve always loved that line. Sometimes it isn’t the relationship we miss. We miss the hopes we had for that relationship.

    Writing it out has always helped me. As a teen I used to write out all my thoughts then burn them in the desert wash. Putting the words down on paper always seemed to be a release for me. I hope it is for you too.

  5. Erica, thanks so much, and all very true (hopefully also about it being a good sign for future happiness …).

    Sherri, really good to hear from you! I didn’t know you had been through a divorce too. It’s really interesting to hear how you experienced it and how you felt changed by it. Writing has definitely been helpful for me too, especially since I’ve discovered I have some some very nice and sympathetic readers.

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