I’m 24 and it’s been a couple years since I was in a serious relationship, in which I got my heart broken. (I know, common, who hasn’t?!) I think I could have been pretty close to being in another one in college, but I ran away from it as fast as I could because I knew it wouldn’t work out and he wasn’t “the perfect fit.” I have to remind myself every day that perfect doesn’t exist — but it’s hard when the world around you is constantly telling you it does. I was really taken aback when my boss called me a perfectionist. Mind you, I am an assistant at a major television network. Isn’t it my job to be perfect? But he was right. For a while, I truly believed I couldn’t ever find love or even a guy because I wasn’t perfect. I looked at other girls and thought, Well, of course he likes her, she’s perfect! I’m just not.
This has been a struggle for me, Polly. I’m a worrier, a thinker, a darker soul in the body of a girl who appears outgoing and maybe not so serious. In your column “What If I Never Find Love?” you talk about embracing the question mark. And that really stuck with me. Over the past couple of months I’ve really started to put myself out there in the dating scene. I’ve actually had a considerable amount of luck with dating considering I live in New York City and don’t use online dating (nothing against it, just really wasn’t enjoying it). I’ve met guys out, or through friends-of-friends types of things. Of course, most things seem to sizzle out after few dates — either on their end or mine. Which ironically, I’ve become okay with. I’ve learned to just shrug my shoulders and think, Okay, guess that wasn’t for me!
Now I’m in a situation where I’ve met someone who seems to be really kind, thoughtful, and truly interested in me and it could actually go somewhere. I met him through a good friend, which makes me feel more comfortable as well. I am beginning to like him, too. Of course, doubt and panic are setting in as he inches closer to me. The idea of first, second dates, sure! I’m an outgoing girl! I’ve gone on blind dates before! I’m bold! But the idea of being serious, committed … now that’s where I run. I feel like he is inching closer, trying to open the door into my heart and mind and I’m trying so hard to shut it. I’m so scared that maybe he won’t like what’s behind that door — a more serious, pensive, dark, moody girl. Who doubts herself, who has to remember to love herself, who isn’t perfect.
I know I have to love that girl first, and I am trying. I don’t know why it’s so hard. I am someone who is so forgiving of other people’s faults, yet I can’t seem to allow myself to have my own.
What if I do allow him to see what’s behind that door? And what if he’s the one who runs?
He will run or he won’t run. He will embrace your darkness or he will say he does and then later he won’t or he will hate your pensive, serious, dark, moody side and he’ll say so, openly, and you’ll cry into your hands and beg for him to stay but he’ll leave anyway.
The truth will come out eventually, whether you’re anxious about it or not. You could spend a few more weeks worrying about it or try to hide your dark side for a solid two years, but no matter, the outcome has already been determined. He is a lover of complexity or he isn’t. He understands darkness or he doesn’t. He is thrilled to see that you have weaknesses and that you’ll admit to them, because he has weaknesses that he’d like to admit to, too. Or, he’s disgusted by vulnerability because he won’t admit to his own flaws and he never has.
Let’s talk about how it feels to be with someone who hates complexity, who fears the dark side (to the point of stigmatizing anyone who is a little dark as “psycho” or “high-maintenance” or “too much”). Let’s talk about the slow, sinking feeling you get when you realize your anger and your sadness and your most fragile moments and your bleakest outlooks on the world will never be okay with this person you’ve chosen. As a perfectionist, you ALREADY believe that these things will always make you bad, weak, wrong, not good enough. You already partially buy into the notion that your No. 1 job is to keep things neat and pretty, all messy emotions tucked out of sight. “Who, me? I’m easy!” you chirp, as you push your dragons into the cellar. So when you meet someone who reaffirms these impulses, it’s dangerous. You will be tempted to meet his demands for a simple, shiny, cheerful, two-dimensional existence.
But all of your promise, all of your hopes and dreams and everything good about your soul is down there in the cellar with the dragons. All of your potential, all of your talent, all of those moments where you connect with another human being, all of the most vivid, gratifying, memorable moments of your life, alone or with someone else, are locked in a dark place.
I’m up at 4 a.m. this morning because I had a dream that my husband let our two dogs wander around on the street with their leashes trailing after them. I have a lot of “Oh no, the dogs are loose!” dreams. (Thank god I’ve never graduated to the children-in-peril dreams, because I don’t think I could take it.) This is just the shape my worries about losing control take when I’m sleeping.
In the dream, I rounded up the dogs and then went to confront my husband. That’s when the “Who let the dogs out?” theme yielded to something far heavier and more personal. I was furious. I wanted to know why he was so careless. I wanted to understand. This is a weakness of mine, wanting a clear explanation for everything under the sun.
My husband wouldn’t explain. This is not his style in real life, but it happens a lot in dreams. I want answers, he clams up. I scream and wail, he backs away slowly and eventually says, “Fuck this,” and disappears forever and I think, HOW DID I MESS THAT UP? WHY DID HE LEAVE? THIS MEANS THAT IT’S TRUE, I AM TOO DARK AND MESSY AND TERRIBLE FOR ANYONE TO LOVE ME FOR VERY LONG.
Then I woke up and I heard snoring and I thought, That guy isn’t going anywhere.
In spite of being a natural-born worrier with abandonment issues, I trust that he’s not going anywhere because he accepts the pensive, dark, moody side of me. He has a pensive, dark, moody side, too. We talk about these things. They aren’t kept in the cellar; they’re on mundane display, like tchotchkes in our house. “Oh yeah, you’re afraid of being abandoned,” one of us will say, dusting off a sad dog figurine. “Oh right, you hate feeling invisible,” the other will say, examining a pewter mug engraved with the image of a troll setting its hair on fire.
Just the other day, I got mad at my husband for not bringing back the specific size of ricotta I wanted from the grocery store. This is the most common “My Stupid Husband” complaint at the wives’ watercooler, yet it makes me next-level nuts in ways I can’t justify. And over the course of our unnecessarily tense discussion about ricotta, I realized: Even though I feel secure in my marriage, somehow not being able to understand my husband’s decisions can feel like a precursor to abandonment at a freaky, barely conscious, almost dreamlike level. If my husband asks me what I want, then ignores my answer completely, that means he doesn’t respect my wishes, which means he might be slowly becoming someone I can no longer trust.
Asking and maybe half-listening but then disregarding the answer and doing whatever the fuck you want to do anyway: This is my dad. Asking and listening but deciding you know better so you should follow your own judgment instead: This is my mom. I love my parents so much, but they alternated between extremely loving and extremely callous in ways that were deeply bewildering.
Applying this heaviness to how many ounces of fucking ricotta someone buys at the store clearly makes me sound like the absolute queen of the batshit, but I offer it up as an example because THIS is where our damage usually shows itself, in the most minute details, in the most mundane missteps. If your dragons are in the living room instead of the cellar, eventually they burn a few throw pillows to a crisp.
I promise you that my husband and I don’t deep-dive into heavy analysis of every grocery purchase, every flickering perceived slight embedded in a lost receipt, every undercurrent and insinuation tied to a forgotten appointment. We bicker loudly over stupid shit once every few months. We both have issues so the occasional meltdown is necessary, like getting your oil changed.
We take some time, when things seem a little too shrill or grumpy, to pick through each other’s tangled psyches. And when we’re done we say, GOD I’m glad I have you, someone who fucking gets it and isn’t afraid of the darkness and the mess.
Because darkness and messes will never go away. Our stormy cells will generate more turbulence and more unrest. We are all complex creatures, whether we choose to recognize it or not, capable of love and rage and a capacity for joy that refreshes itself in spite of countless disappointments. We are built to despair but we’re also built for hope. The same forces that make me dream about lost dogs give me a pure surge of adrenaline as the sky goes from midnight blue to pink in the morning.
Your job is not to prevent this man from cringing at the sight of your darkness, Afraid. Your job is to gently but unapologetically reveal who you are, so that you know who he is, so that you will know if he’s strong enough to be weak, light enough to be dark, hopeful enough to despair. Not everyone is that strong. Your job is to be honest, and then watch, calmly, as he runs the other way, or he says he can handle it in a way that suggests that he can’t, or he tells you he’s relieved that you’re brave enough to show your fear.
Imagine a man like that. Imagine a man who could say, “Your ugly is so beautiful, and you don’t even see it. Look how optimistic it is of you, to admit your pessimism. Look how courageous you are, to admit that you’re frightened.”
Now imagine yourself saying that to him. See how strong that makes you feel? You are already that strong.
You are brave enough to show your fear. He is or he isn’t. Show yourself, find out who he is, and look with clear eyes on the truth. Welcome him in or lead him to the door, but don’t lead your dragons into some dark cellar, out of sight. Let them sit next to you on the couch and purr fire, happy to bask in the daylight and be close to sweet, faulty, sublime, unbearable you.