My question is a simple and boring one: How do I find love? And, more importantly, how to I cultivate self-esteem? I'm in my late 20's, and I tend to get into relationships with dudes that are only half interested in me, and then I badger them to death about their half-assed interest until the relationship slowly dies. What I want most, MOST, in the world is a happy family. Children that I feel joy with. A genuinely happy marriage that lasts until I kick the goddamn bucket. I grew up with very unhappy, miserable parents that immigrated to the states, and I don't even know what to look for in a partner or a relationship. I feel like if a guy is "nice," (i.e. doesn't hit me or call me names and has generally good character), then I should just quit whining and wondering about why they're not crazy about me, why they never pursue me, why they are always so goddamn tepid.
I want a big, passionate, happy, funny, fun love. I am afraid I will never find it. I think I am as likable as the next person, but I'm not sure how to make myself attractive to men. I guess I just feel ugly and unlovable, and I would like to stop.
I love your advice. (Is straight-up "I love you" too much? Probably, but still: I do!) I've been reading your stuff for a couple years on Rabbit Blog, and now I stalk you on The Awl.
I love you, too, mostly because 1) you love me already, 2) you've put in a little effort to follow me here, 3) I can relate to wanting to tear my hair out over tepid motherfuckers for years, and 4) when you ask me this very simple question, I feel like a mathematical genius or a historian whose thoughts separate into layers and then keep expanding to infinity, so that I don't know where to start because there are just so many possibilities, all of them rich and exciting. And even though a regular person who didn't love me and didn't follow me here and isn't frustrated over tepid motherfuckers will read that and say, "Jesus, lady, you're an advice columnist, not a fucking math genius or historian, and if even if you have fifty million approaches to this woman's totally mundane heteronormative fixations, that hardly qualifies you as one of today's great minds. I'm sure she creeps men out because she's boring or her ass is enormous, and you're creepy, too, because you're fucking old and you're still dedicating all of this time to twentysomething girl trouble when you could maybe be doing something vaguely worthwhile with your life, if you weren't so smug about your pathetic little interwebs hobby."
See how it works? You dig me, you put in effort, you aren't remotely tepid, we can relate to each other, and you make me feel like the things that are patently fucked about me are actually thrilling and vital and they somehow matter. (And I know you're exciting and I love your juicy booty, but that's not the point.)
Now imagine for a second that someone writes to me and says, "Look, you're just ok and you're old and you're wasting your time on this bullshit." (Um, no one does that, because this isn't Salon.) But imagine that someone does tell me that. And imagine that I spend several hours of my time explaining why I'm awesome and my work here is incredibly significant to the health of the planet, and I fucking matter and I have great ideas, brilliant fucking ideas, I'm a genius, and seriously, what the fuck is wrong with you? Suddenly this tepid bit of flotsam is taking up my time, and instead of turning away from it, I'm making claims that my work is deeply important (which, well, is a highly subjective stance).
I'm starting to sound just like Kanye.
I love Kanye, and he sounds the way he sounds on Jimmy Kimmel for a very good reason. He sounds that way because he's an artist with great ideas who not only lives in a racist world (Go read this awesome essay by Cord Jefferson on the subject) but who also lives in a world that isn't all that appreciative of someone who delivers a passionate, angry response to his critics. He lives in a world that devalues free-flowing, emotional discourse from a black man unless it's packaged very neatly into a rap. (Please note: this world also devalues free-flowing, emotional discourse from a woman unless she's also funny AND sexy. If you're not super fucking hot and funny first, you can go fuck yourself, ladies.)
Kanye isn't perfect, but you pretty much either love him and think he's a genius and then he makes some sense to you, or you don't get it and he seems crazy. Maybe you don't love him because you don't love his music or some of the mistakes he's made in the past, or maybe you don't love him because you're a racist, but those two responses actually look the same to him, and why shouldn't they? Because the world is, verifiably, filled with racist motherfuckers, this is not a confused response. It's an emotional one. He doesn't love you either way. Maybe it's a mistake for him to keep talking about it. Or maybe he's helping everyone by being the symbol of a kind of anger that people are vexed by and afraid of. All I know is, I feel for him. Because lots of people don't understand what he's doing, so they belittle him. And he's right, they DO just want to meet him, leech off him, take photos of him, point at him, get him to sign some deal to do this or that, kiss his ass and laugh behind his back. To which he says, "Fuck you AND your Hampton house, I'll fuck your Hampton spouse, came on her Hampton blouse," etc.
I know, misogyny, added to my ass objectification. Look, I have to be my brutal self, too. This is the texture of the world we live in, and stepping around it politely makes me feel crazy.
So here's where we land: You need to tell tepid to fuck right off, Kanye-style. If you vow right now that the second you see tepid, you're going to back up and say "No fucking thanks," and move on without looking back, then your self-esteem will immediately bounce back from years of abuse. That means retiring the soliloquy about how great you are. That means no more badgering. Replace the badgering with a rap. Write it down, file it away, move the fuck on. (Fuck you AND your futon. I'll fuck your best friend Sean. I'll fuck him 'til the dawn. I'll make your man my pawn. Fuck having late-night drinks. Fuck playing tiddly winks. Fuck all your tepid kinks. Your half-assed shit still stinks.)
And you know what? OK, I'm stretching this Kanye metaphor beyond the breaking point, but bear with me. We live in some crazy fucking times. Sexism is everywhere and we're not even confused by it anymore, we're just drinking it down like water without thinking. How can we make enemies of people we want to get dirty with, and get love from, and make babies with?
And men are great, let's be honest. Those filthy, simple-minded, government-bungling ball-scratchers. We love those dicks. Love. Sincerely, desperately, quietly, devotedly. I have one in my own home, in my bed, of all places. Who let him in here? But he's great, really, much more honorable and kinder than me, as a matter of fact. Sharp as a tack and best all around.
But here's a little anecdote for you: I went out to a bar the other night with some women, and it was late at night (this is rare for me) and there were some men there, regular guys, reasonably ok looking, flirtatious high-fiving types? And they started shooting the shit with us. And we women were polite. Some were nice and others ignored them. Well, I like a high-fiver. You don't believe me, but I spent years around this species and I appreciate them. That said, though, I don't want to follow their meandering bullshit wherever it leads, and I don't want to flirt, and I don’t want to feed their egos. I want to engage in a give and take conversation while occasionally calling them on their shit.
But you know what? It's an accident of fate that I ever hung out with high fivers in my entire life. Because those guys HATE me. Hate. They find me physically repellent. I'm not saying I'm hot, and I'm not saying I'm disgusting, all I know is that to them, I am dipped in shit. Usually, this starts after I open my mouth, but maybe not? Maybe I'm just gross? It's hard to tell.
These particular guys, I couldn't care less about. But that's the soup I've been in, without knowing it, since I was really young and single. Most guys I met preferred my flirty lady friends to me. Now sometimes slightly weird guys, slightly smarter, stranger, maybe more damaged or maybe just more sensitive guys (or both), they were a little intrigued by my not-buying-it face and my assertive here's-what-I-fucking-think fat mouth, or maybe they just liked my ass, which truly was a force of nature for a time. So what was it, my ass or my big personality? My almost-pretty face, or my almost-smart words? I never knew. UNTIL THE BITCHES GOT TEPID. And by then we were already sleeping together, and hanging out around the clock.
But did I say to myself, "Oh. He doesn't like me. He likes my ass. A lot. Enough to put up with my bullshit for a while."? No. I didn't say that. I can look back now and see the truth. "That dude didn't even like me." Or: "That dude didn't even like women all that much." Or: "He liked my personality enough to date me, but he would've liked me a lot (A LOT!) more if I were about half as smart and half as talkative."
And remember about Kanye? Remember your badgering? When you suspect that a guy doesn't like you? YOU TALK TOO GODDAMN MUCH. Instead, you should be saying, "Fuck you AND your Hampton house." Yes, your first priority should be to keep an open mind, to listen, to observe men with a clear, uncluttered perspective. Your second priority should be to never, ever waste a minute of your time on a guy who's tepid.
Because tepid is everywhere. Tepid is the air we breathe. Listen to me: We can't do anything right. We can't say what we mean, we can't be ourselves, we can't age, we can't talk about feelings, we can't fuck up. This is how it feels to be a woman, motherfucker. The world is filled with human beings who want us to shut up and shake our asses, point blank, the end. Can you fucking imagine if we had our own Kanye? For her to have Kanye's power, and get invited on Kimmel, of course she'd have to be a mega-hot, funny as shit woman who walked around looking exactly like the chick in the short skirt who eats giant hamburgers on those Carl Jr. ads, but instead of eating a hamburger she'd be saying FUCK YOU, YOU ARE A SEXIST FUCK. I mean, sure, we have our women who look mortal and say this. Are they on TV? Rachel Maddow, she's on TV. How many people in that bar would even know who the fuck she is? Who listens closely to Lena Dunham, who is gorgeous by the way? No, she's not shaped right to listen to, right? She's too full of herself? She's too annoying?
Let's not fall down that rabbit hole. All I'm saying is, here we are in a fucked up world. And even when you find your species, or at least your genus, you still are sometimes just a piece of ass to the best of them. Not even because they're incredibly sexist—maybe they're just pragmatic, or ambivalent in this case. They don't happen to love you, is all. They don't think you're a math genius or a historian, and they're gonna call bullshit. They think that when you talk, you're wasting their time a little. That doesn't mean that they're bad. Sure, you want those guys and their futons and their best friends Sean to go fuck themselves, but that doesn’t mean they're evil. But once they don't love you, who the fuck cares about them? Were those dudes in the bar sexist, or did they just think I'm sort of bossy and repellent? Who the fuck cares?
You're hunting a very small group, that's all. Your target demographic, it's small. There's more than one of them, but they're not everywhere.
That doesn't mean your odds are bad! You will find love. Believe me. But in order to find it, I think you have to prepare yourself for a life alone, and be at peace with that. It's a real tightrope walk. I get that. But you won't tell tepid to fuck off if you don't believe in your heart that you will rock it out one way or another.
In order to tell tepid to fuck off once and for all, you MUST recognize that life among those who don't appreciate or understand you is bullshit. You don't want to live that way. You don't want to be badgery and lonely while you're with someone. You'd rather be alone.
What will make ALONE look good to you? You have to work on that. Because single life needs to look really, really good, you have to believe in it, if you're going to hold out for that rare guy who makes you feel like all of your ideas start rapidly expanding and approaching infinity when you talk to him. You need to have a vision of life alone, stretching into the future, and you need to think about how to make that vision rich and full and pretty. You have to put on an artist's mindset and get creative and paint some portrait of yourself alone that's breathtaking. You have to bring the full force of who you are and what you love to that project.
And then you go out into the world with an open heart, and you let people into your life, and you listen, and you embrace them for who they are. You make new friends. You do new things that make you feel more like the strong single woman who owns the world that's in your vision. And you don't sleep with anyone until things are much warmer than lukewarm. And you accept that, if things are lukewarm AFTER that, you will be forced to kick a motherfucker to the curb, with kindness, with forgiveness.
You have to do a lot. And you have to do it all against a backdrop of indifference that, as you get older, curdles into a kind of disgust. But you know what? We have each other. We have worlds within us, you and me. This mean, mean planet still rewards those who can see the depth and beauty of what they carry around inside of themselves. This indifferent landscape will rise up and give you love if you share what you have inside, if you dare to believe in your potential even as people tell you it's a mirage, if you ignore the ones who are allergic to free-flowing, emotional discourse from YOU. They are everywhere, and they don't matter. God bless them. Come on their Hampton blouse, and move on.
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 of Mr. West by Jason Lander.