Appearing here Wednesdays, Turning The Screw provides existential crisis counseling for the faint of heart. “Sometimes when we touch, the honesty’s too much.”
This may be one of those “What’s my problem? IS this is a problem?” problems.
I’m 28 and I’ve been single for six years. Very single. As in, years going by where I didn’t have much sex and little to no romance at all. I would tell you about my last relationship but it’s not that interesting and to be honest I don’t think about it much. My parents fought a lot when I was little and drama ensued for many years, but we all love each other and are mostly nice to each other. Shit’s pretty healthy and I’ve worked hard to make it that way. I exercise and paint, I have a good job in public relations, I love my friends, and I think I’m basically pretty and nice and interesting enough. Someone described me as popular the other day (yes, apparently adults do use this word) and it made me feel really weird and kind of guilty, but I had to admit it’s true. Just not with men.
And the thing is, I love men. Being in a committed relationship, having a life partner and some babies with that partner, is important to me. Fun is also important to me, and meeting new people and being open. So in the abstract, either being in a serious relationship or dating sounds good, but I just find the whole thing so, so stressful. I never even get close. I think it’s because as a kid I felt alone, so I thought a lot about finding the person who was my love and best friend forever but now it’s like I can’t get involved with someone without it feeling like a big deal. And by involved I mean, go on more than two dates. For six years.
I don’t want to be this way. I believe that even if some man broke my heart I would be fine. Look, I just typed it! My problem is I can’t stop freaking out. I love how you so often tell people to just chill out. I totally think you’re right, we tend to make problems for ourselves and overdo it on the being-in-control thing. But how do I not do that?
I made a list of the ways I’m weird which are preventing me from finding someone who really likes and understands me, then deleted the list because I realized I sound just like everyone else (probably there are men out there who like tequila and art museums and hockey). I know this is probably the most banal asking-for-advice letter ever, but being single is this big thing making me unhappy and I blame myself. Some things are just better with a boyfriend, like adopting a puppy and traveling to Asia and having sex and becoming a famous painter.
How do people meet each other and balance a reluctance to get involved with an inflated conception of love? How can I get myself to date someone who doesn’t immediately seem perfect? How can I practice relaxing so that my life is more interesting and I can get closer to having love like I always wanted? Do you think I am crazier than I’m admitting?
Very truly yours,
Locked Up Abroad
Although I agree that having sex is better with a partner, adopting a puppy is way better on your own. Do it now! Don’t wait until you’ve got some dumb boyfriend who loves Jack Russells or Weimaraners or some other high-strung, inbred dog. He’ll make you write the $1200 check to the country cousin at the demonic puppy mill, of course. Then he’ll be a total control freak about everything the dog does, thereby making it even more high-strung and reactive than it already was. Soon, your days will be filled with shouting and barking and yanking and bitching about cleaning shit off the floor, and you’ll slowly grow to loathe your dumb boyfriend and vaguely resent your jumpy, fear-biting dog (who has digestive issues and hip problems, to boot). And when your stupid boyfriend dumps you for his Bad News Jane coworker, Madeleine, he’ll insist that you keep the dog he ruined, because Madeleine already has two very possessive Shih Tzus.
You know what else is better on your own? Becoming a famous painter. Do it right now! Don’t wait until you’ve got some dumb older boyfriend who’ll always want to tell you which of your paintings are worthwhile and which aren’t working. He’ll stand around at your crowded art openings, shoving free brie and crackers into his gullet while holding forth on what a bunch of fake fucks are in attendance, and whenever your melodramatic (but meaty!) artist fanboys draw near, he’ll say something aggressive and repellent to scare them off. Plus, he’ll try to coach you on creating mystery around your “brand” by saying portentous but vague shit all the time, just because he took a class in how to obfuscate provocatively to the media when he trying (and failing) to get his MFA in Fine Arts way back when. “Don’t say ‘I’d been working so hard to find a core concept for my show,'” he’ll tell you, helping himself to your last cold Peroni. “No. Say ‘Death subsumes the mundane.’ Or ‘Never confuse emotional molting with integrity.'” Hours after that opening, you could be throwing back tequila shots with a sculptor who looks like this but instead you’re listening to your control freak boyfriend babble incoherently about intricacies of his fragile soul while puking into a trash can.
Finding that special anyone can seem so romantic when you’re younger. When you’re older, you look back on the most “romantic” times in your life—falling in love with this or that dipshit—and they don’t seem that romantic at all. But the times when you were single? Those were the truly romantic times! Not when you flirted with this or that stranger or put something in your mouth that didn’t belong there. No. When you painted the dining room in your rented apartment that excellent turquoise shade, or when you spent all weekend reading Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose just because you felt like it, or when you threw a dinner party and invited 10 people who didn’t know each other and made lasagna that was delicious and everyone got drunk and played the version of Celebrity where you use less and less words, and your friend Steve pantomiming Dodi Fayed has been emblazoned on your brain ever since.
You ask, “How can I practice relaxing so that my life is more interesting?” Are you so unskilled at relaxing that you have to practice before you can manage it? And who should find your life more interesting? Some imaginary male spectator? Fuck. I hate that guy already.
Look, I’m not trying to imply that you’re crazier than you admit. I don’t think you’re crazy at all. But it sounds like you’re a little high-strung, like a Dalmatian that really wants to please her harsh, overbearing master, but she can’t figure out how. His nasty tone seems to imply that everything she does is wrong. And as long as you expect your own prospects to “immediately seem perfect,” you’re going to apply the same impossible standards to yourself, thereby coming across to any man who meets you as a high-strung animal who’s trying very hard to behave.
Your project right now is to scrape that imaginary harsh possible-boyfriend voice out of your head forever. Focus on pleasing yourself. Tequila, art museums, hockey… You sound eminently appealing so far, like the adorable heroine of an insipid romantic comedy. There must be something legitimately unappealing about you. Chances are your flaws are closely related to what makes you the most interesting (to the right person). If you keep editing out the “maybe he’ll think this is dull” parts, and sidestepping the “maybe he’ll think I’m crazy” parts, your romantic comedy will be insipid. Think Jennifer Aniston, doing that terrible “Golly gosh!” thing she does, even though she’s far more convincing when she’s pissed.
There’s no question that some worthwhile man will love you eventually, whether you try hard to make that happen or not. What concerns me is your current inability to enjoy one of the most romantic times in your life. You must immediately start doing all the things that will be much less fun with a boyfriend. Trust me, you really are about to find someone great. The key is to really savor the time between now and then. SAVOR IT. List all of the stuff that’s best while you’re single: throwing interesting parties, staying up all night to read, watching as much hockey as you like, dying your hair purple, whatever.
And the next time you happen to meet someone interesting, don’t try hard to keep the so-called “weird” or “dull” or “crazy” parts of yourself hidden. Instead of worrying about whether or not he can tell how high the stakes are for you, just be extremely straightforward about who you are, and pay close attention to his reactions. If you say something that’s a little odd—odd in the way that you’re odd—don’t try to cover it up. Instead, watch and listen. Does he flinch? Is he turned off? If so, that doesn’t mean that you’re bad and will be alone forever. It means that he’s not worth your time.
I remember going to party soon after I’d finally figured this out. I was holding forth about something stupid and swearing a lot. “Ooo, potty mouth,” this cute guy said to me. I looked at him blankly, thinking, “Didn’t he swear half a second ago?” He got nervous. “Is this some kind of an act?” he asked. “Are you just showing off or are you really crazy? Are you crazy in bed, too?” In the past, I would’ve tried to cater to this guy’s imagination, or to correct his impression of me as a show-off. Instead, I told him, “I’m just your average bossy woman. I’m sure we’re not compatible.” This only made him more interested. But he kept making it clear that nothing I said made sense to him, and eventually he started to irritate and bore me. In other words, it was exactly like every bad two-year relationship I’d ever had, condensed into two hours. So efficient! After the party, I went home alone and ate a giant bowl of beet soup with some blue cheese on toast. Isn’t it romantic?
Of course I understand why you want to fall in love. Most of us want the same thing, and most of us aren’t all that great at pretending that we don’t care way too much about how every little encounter or date turns out. A lot of friends will advise you to pretend more, lie more, act like nothing matters. I don’t think that’s smart or good for you, and clearly those games of make believe are making you anxious. You have to own the truth—that you’d like to fall in love—and you have to make peace with the vulnerability inherent to that desire. You have to stand up for who you are. But you also have to embrace what you have, enjoy it, and revel in it. Your life is already very romantic.
So: Go get a puppy! But definitely get a mutt. Mutts know their place in the world, and they’re comfortable with their flaws. Mutts never try to be anything but what they are.
Since this is an existential advice column, I figured I might as well be the one to ask: Why keep doing this at all? If we are insignificant, if we are going to die, why keep living?
More importantly, why keep writing?
You don’t have to be an important immortal to enjoy a salted caramel. Is the question really “Why keep living?” or is it “Why not keep living?” Are you suffering? Because I’m not. I like breathing air. I like the sound of the crows cawing in the trees outside my house. I want to finish this book I’m reading.
Sometimes everything seems pointless, sure. You can’t be a writer and not stare down the barrel of that gun regularly. When Philip Roth recently said in an interview that he sat down and read all of his work, from earliest to latest, to see if it was worthwhile, that gave me a shiver down my spine. I imagined myself as a very old woman, re-reading my extensive coverage of “Paradise Hotel,” and then pulling out a shotgun and blowing my brains out.
But fuck that. Why should our lives be deemed “significant” at all? What if we’re just doing what we do reasonably well, and working to get a little better each day? What about focusing on enjoying your fucking craft, and leaving it at that? Our culture has been so fixated on psychology and happiness for the past few decades that we all have bloated expectations. Our days are marked by the neurotic dissatisfaction that comes from a constant examination and reevaluation of what really, truly matters in the big scheme of things. We must upgrade every dimension of our lives and ourselves constantly or reveal ourselves as mediocre. Even the common exhortation, repeated from parent to parent, to make every moment count with your child, has the unique ability to suck the joy right out of every moment. Does this moment count enough? How about this one? Each moment cannot be so important without inducing a coronary.
When I accept that it’s all pointless and it will all end far too soon, I can’t see any reason not to enjoy it. I kiss my kids a lot. I stick my neck out more. I don’t mind that my ass is showing. I try things that I might never be any good at. I appreciate breathing the air, listening to the crows. And that salted caramel tastes so good.
Did the holidays leave you sluggish and bloated? Are you chronically dissatisfied, or do you smoke too much chronic? Write to Polly and find out!
Previously: Ask Polly: My Boyfriend’s Ex Is Making My Life Hell
Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl’s existential advice columnist. She’s also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses. Photo by Ramón Peco.