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A Dangerous Phrase

August 18, 2014

There’s a troublesome thought I’ve had on multiple occasions. Well not a thought so much as a thought-category: a series of thoughts that all start with the same subjunctive phrase:

“I wish I had a boyfriend so that________”

(Wait! Stay with me. I promise this isn’t total Cathy Cartoon territory. It’s far darker than that.)

The first time this popped up I knew it was a sign of dangerous toxicity:

“I wish I had a boyfriend so that I could stop drinking.”

Right? Dangerous. My social abuse of alcohol stemmed from discomfort with my body, discomfort with sexuality, and with interpersonal anxiety. The delusion was if I could just get myself into a relationship, I could stop going to bars to find that relationship, and stop suffering all the consequences alcohol brings with it. Luckily, I dodged that bullet before the addiction-apple fully dropped from my family tree, but not without my fair share of embarrassing, sad, and damaging events in my pursuit.

The next time I heard it was equally problematic:

“I wish I had a boyfriend so that I could stop eating compulsively.”

At the point this permutation reared its head I had at least figured out that the root issue in the previous example was loneliness. There was no getting around that. And where the worst of my food compulsions were occurring at night – the time of day my skin most loudly cries for contact – it would follow that a partner would solve that. (I use the word ‘solve’ loosely and with great self-awareness.) Luckily, a drastic diet change proved my compulsions were chemical (look up Leptin Resistance – it’s fascinating), and I got out of this one easy (if you consider a gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free, sugar-free, legume-free, grain-free lifestyle “easy,” which at this point, given the alternative, I do).

Having kicked both of those habits, in the beginning of the year I had this rather heady one:

“I wish I had a boyfriend so that I could meditate better.”

First world problems. But where the dating arena has always felt like my least successful, and  sexual and romantic desire is one of the strongest forces in nature, there’s not much room for the Lotus when you’re full of Pin(e)ing. (It’s a stretch but it’s kinda funny, right?) Despite years of practice, no matter how long I sit most of my meditation sessions devolve at some point (or for the entire duration) into record-skipping repetitive thoughts about what man is or is not in my life at the moment. The idea here being if I could get into a secure relationship (is that a thing?) I could know what it’s like to have that piece of the puzzle out of the way so I could obsessively think about other things.

In this case, the problem is the solution – what is meditation if not an exercise in sitting with our compulsions, easing our relationship with them. Ultimately a clear pattern of obsessive thought is a gift in meditation – a box of (raging, pain in the ass, just shoot me in the face) goodies you get to work on every time you approach the cushion. So I just keep sitting and try to be grateful for the practice.

The most recent version that floated up into my consciousness is the saddest, I think:

“I wish I had a boyfriend so that I could treat other women better.”

Brutal. Painful. Embarrassing. Culturally pervasive? I willingly, if shamefully, accept personal blame that a sense of competition and poverty in this arena has caused me to be less warm to other women, like a dog backed into a cage uncertain if she’ll ever eat again, only instead of teeth and bark I have a biting sense of humor and a predilection for intimidation. We all have our defenses when deep down we feel inferior. But externally, I think we are raised in this culture pitted against one another, constantly swarmed with images of women who are thinner, taller, more successful, more quirky, more girl next door – whatever that means – more something than we are, ultimately causing the internal narrative to fail The Bechdel Test.

Luckily, I had a complete meltdown back in the spring! Really: luckily. My therapist asked me to look at exactly what would change were I to be in a serious, long-term, move-in-with relationship and I fell apart in a way I was not expecting. I was a puddle on her chair, having a certifiable panic attack, thinking about how the reality of a relationship would change some of the things I love most about my life. She sent me packing with a handful of tissues and the instructions to be gentle with myself, meditate on it, and see what comes up.

What I expected to come up was a sudden, flowery, saccharine opening of my heart, a welcoming of change to my lifestyle and shedding of my attachment to my independence. What happened instead, much to my surprise, was finally accepting that a relationship will solve nothing, only create different problems, and that I’m pretty damn happy with the way things are right now. Sure, at any moment I could meet someone who completely blindsides me and all that will change, but for now, I’ve got a pretty sweet deal in life.

In going through this deconstruction, I released a tension I didn’t even realize was there – a war between the conscious belief that I was “supposed” to be in a relationship with the unconscious pushing away of one.  In the months that have followed, a space has opened for a lot of great stuff to happen, both material and immaterial, not the least of which was connecting with some incredible, strong, powerful women in my field and other fields, liberated from that nagging, excruciating sense of competition.

Ultimately, I think I fell prey to one of the most tragic platitudes we feed our kids: Happily Ever After. We still preach, through our movies, our tv shows, our magazines, all of our trope-machines, that a mate is both the prize and the solution, that there is a “place” to get to, which can be achieved through diet, exercise, self-improvement, sex tips and any other industry’s carrot. No matter how I acknowledged the limited scope of this idea intellectually, (I mean, hell, I work for a divorce attorney!) the concept still had me by the throat, and it took a genuine and painful breakdown to get out of its grip.

I would be interested in the world’s consumable entertainment producers telling different stories. I don’t really care anymore How You Met Their Mother. What other questions can we ask? Because “Happily Ever After” is a dangerous answer.

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