Tuesday, July 28, 2009
We Live As We Dream, Alone: Part 3
My friend John only dates a woman for a year at a time. After a year passes, he starts to feel restless and depressed and needs to end the relationship. He is in his late thirties, and he has been following this pattern his entire adult life. I was curious whether this was a lifestyle that he maintains intentionally or whether he is just taking his time shopping for a more permanent arrangement.
“What is your plan?” I asked him. “To have a series of one-year relationships?”
“No, I don’t want to have a series of one-year relationships,” he said, repeating my words back to me in a wounded voice, like this was an insulting idea.
“So, what do you want?” I asked.
He shook his head and shrugged.
John is like many other people I know, taking the romantic middle path. He eschews the stagnancy and dependence of permanent relationships, but he doesn’t want to give up on companionship, affection, and sex. And so he is rather permanently situated in the state of romantic affairs known as dating.
At this point, for the sake of full disclosure, I must confess: I don’t understand dating at all. On my list of the most baffling cosmic enigmas, it is up there with mortality, the nature of consciousness, the purpose of life. If you were to look at all my journal entries on the topic, you would find a prevalence of entries ending with the words, I don’t understand.
Do you ever try to think about the universe and whether it is infinitely large, and if so, how could something be infinitely large, and if not, what would its boundaries look like and what could possibly lie beyond them?
That’s how my brain feels when I think about dating.
Dating makes logical sense as a way to shop for a permanent relationship. The goal is to stay together until you decided to get married or break up and go looking for someone else to marry. But what about people who don’t—necessarily—want that sort of relationship? People like John. When he begins dating somebody, he isn’t thinking, I will date this woman for a year and then we’ll break up, I’ll be alone for a while, and then I’ll go date some other woman.
Nor is he thinking, If things work out well, I will stay with this woman forever.
“What is he thinking?” I asked my friend Marie, who is very insightful about relationships, shortly after this conversation. “What does he want?”
“He doesn’t know what he wants,” she said. “When it comes time to decide what he wants, he gets scared and ends the relationship.”
Marie is married now, but when she was single, she didn’t understand the logic of dating, either. After a series of emotionally exhausting relationships and break-ups, Marie decided that she would date casually but never be anybody’s girlfriend. Temporary relationships seemed artificial and painful to her.
“Breaking up is horrible,” she said. “This person is like your family one day, and the next day you’re supposed to just cut off all those feelings and go back to being friends, or not speaking? It’s unreasonable.”
It does seem unreasonable, and yet, there do not seem to be better alternatives. No matter which direction we turn, the traps are set: denial of our independence and self-determination, denial of our physical and emotional needs, or some combination of the two. It’s a paradox that we can’t escape from. Ethical behavior calls for us to be independent yet socially connected, to be loving but not self-sacrificing, to honor some of our animal instincts and defy others. It’s complicated and confusing, but we don’t have a choice.