My teenage years will always be an important time in my life. There’s so much that happened during high school and community college that forged the person I am today. Looking back, I can plot my own layered progression from adolescence into young adulthood. One of the more important layers involves the emotional intimacy of interpersonal relationships, which really matter in your formative years. I recall a number of personal experiences – both platonic and romantic – spread across a broad continuum. As you might expect, some are more meaningful than others, however all of them compose the foundation of my being and imbue my interactions with people.
Love is an enduring theme in the human condition that many have tried to convey through different mediums with varying degrees of resonance in popular culture. Film directors like Cameron Crowe depict many aspects of the white, suburban teenage experience rather well in their work. When I watched Say Anything (1989), I rooted for Lloyd Dobler. When I listened to Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes,” I ruminated about the girl who broke up with me after she went away to college. Films and songs like these touched me in a way that very little else could back then. Consequently, I’ve periodically wondered if they inculcate impressionable minds with idyllic visions of relationships that don’t really exist. Yes, I question what love is and feel a bit confused. Can a person disconnect from an internalized cinematic illusion that’s been reinforced over decades with repeated exposure through entertainment? What do we make of the romantic haze?
“I’ll save my best for someone else…”
In the wake of disillusionment, many of us persist in our quest to find a partner. This means we have to brave dating. From my own observations, people appear to have a few different motives. Some are simply looking for sexual gratification, i.e. a hookup, where they don’t have obligations to the other person. This is often the fodder of romantic comedies (e.g. Friends With Benefits). Other people treat dating like a social outlet where they get to meet someone and partake in a variety of activities (e.g. hiking). This may or may not involve sexual intimacy. Finally, still others are looking for a connection that will lead to a committed relationship that has the potential to last for an undetermined amount of time.
Contrary to the common stereotype about men, I’ve never had a purely physical relationship with a woman. No, not even in college. Emotionally speaking, I’m not wired to have casual sex with an acquaintance and never talk to the person again or pretend that you have a friendship until your next sexual urge. I’ve never understood how the latter works. My take is that it doesn’t in many situations (again, see Friends With Benefits). As for dating simply to socialize (i.e. to get out of the apartment), well, I have tried that on occasion. I won’t do it anymore because it feels hollow and directionless. It has nowhere to go. Plus, I’m not looking for an activity partner to join me at a punk show on a Saturday night because I already have friends who are into that. Truthfully, I’ve always preferred a monogamous relationship because I like the idea of sharing my life with someone. The difficult task is finding the right person.
If you’ve done any amount of dating, then you’ve encountered a variety of people who have different levels of self-awareness. Nobody ends up emotionally unavailable by accident. One thought that occurred to me is how an individual’s family has a major impact on who a person becomes. Did he or she grow up in a stable environment where his or her parents regularly demonstrated, i.e. modeled, love and affection? This is important because households where there are issues such as neglect, physical abuse, substance abuse, emotional trauma, parental absenteeism, and/or codependency frequently cause serious harm to a person at important stages of development. The damage that results often manifests in maladaptive behaviors that undermine the very human connection we seek in adult relationships. Perhaps you’ve experienced the effects of this firsthand. If someone refuses to come to terms with his or her problems, then the likelihood of them bonding with a partner is severely diminished.
Another thought that I’ve had arises from a great conversation with a friend last winter who told me about attachment theory. She explained its major tenets and then referenced her own dating history to further illustrate certain elements that she has observed. According to the theory, there are four different attachment styles: secure; anxious; avoidant; and anxious-avoidant (Levine and Heller 2010). When it comes to dating, my greatest concern is meeting avoidant people because they often dismiss your feelings, intentionally keep you at a distance, only miss you when they’re preoccupied, and then act in a passive aggressive manner when confronted. Also, they have a tendency to emphasize their own independence, which initially sounds normal until you discover that it’s a means of concealing their inability to be in a relationship with someone. They can’t get too close because the fear of doing so is too strong (Cohen 2017, September 19). Now, we each have emotional, social, and physical needs that drive us to find a partner, however avoidant people leave you wondering if yours will ever be satisfied. In short, the relationship feels off-balance. To make matters worse, they’re over-represented in the dating pool as you age because their attempts to couple up repeatedly fail.
“And the grand facade so soon will burn…”
At 44, it’s difficult to think about love the way I did as a teenager. While vestiges of my younger self will always remain, my mindset has shifted as a direct result of all that’s happened over the years. This is inevitable because our experiences affect us in ways that we can’t always anticipate. Sometimes it’s a challenge to reconcile our thoughts and feelings in an effort to grow. Life, in general, and relationships, in particular, can be rather complicated. That said, I refuse to look at the world through a distorted lens. Bitterness will never eclipse my heart. Maturation doesn’t have to render one jaded. Instead, we need to examine the roots of our behavior to better understand ourselves. Then, we need to act differently moving forward. When I think about the relationships I’ve had since high school ended, I’m forced to confront the mistakes that I’ve made. Here I have to be brutally honest: if I’m single in my forties, then it’s partly (mostly?) my fault. In some instances, I should have been more supportive and patient. Other times, I should have been more flexible when it comes to my ideas and values. What’s more, I should never have dated certain women. Alas, yesterday is over and gone, but tomorrow is waiting where the lessons can be applied.
So, what do I need from a partner if I’m going to open up myself to the vulnerability that accompanies being in a long term relationship? Several months ago I adopted a new mantra: I want to be understood, validated, respected, and loved. This makes perfect sense to me. I want someone who is emotionally aware. I want someone who knows how to forgive and how to apologize. I want someone who grasps the importance of, and knows how to maintain, healthy boundaries. I want someone who assumes the best about peoples’ intentions. I want someone who elevates a partner to the appropriate position that he deserves. I want someone who is genuine, intelligent, mature, ethical, communicative, and thoughtful. I want someone who inspires me to be a better human being. She exists; I just have to find her.
Cohen, M.T. (2017, September 19). “Attachment styles: The connection between childhood attachment styles and adult relationships.” Psychology Today. Retrieved on December 29, 2017.
Levine, A. and Heller, R. S.F. (2010). Attached. The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find-and Keep-Love. New York: Penguin Group.
Photograph: I don’t believe in accidents. I believe in physics. Yes, that happened by chance one morning while making toast. The knife slipped while spreading the vegan butter.