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It seems like everyone’s breaking up in 2018, including me and my girlfriend who I thought was The One. Things were so easy with her, they just felt right, and then one day she was in love with our mutual best friend. It’s not just people I know, it’s people I’ve always looked up to in the community and considered “experts” like some of my favorite writers and speakers! How am I supposed to figure out who The One is if even professional queers can’t do it?? Should I even keep trying? What if love is really a lie after all?!
Ah, friend. I’m so sorry you’re having such a rough year, both with your personal romantic relationship and with watching people you care about go through the same pain. I want you to know you’re not alone. Lots of people in my own life are spiraling with the same kinds of questions for these same reasons. I think I might be able to help a little. First, let me burst two of your bubbles — in, I hope, a good way!
Bubble the first: The professional queers you’re talking about, the ones you look up to and love and respect, they’re not any more qualified to have a successful relationship than you are! They don’t have a pocket full of secret tips to make relationships work! They don’t have hidden wisdom unearthed from a fountain of knowledge in the Professional Queers Only thicket of the Forbidden Forest! There’s not even a Professional Queers Only thicket; I made that up! I’m saying this as a professional queer writing an advice column right this very second. These queeros of yours, I bet they are wonderful people who possess loads of knowledge about loads of things, and the fact that they’ve touched your life in a positive way is a beautiful thing, but really, every human being on this planet is just out here winging it. We’re all just doing the best we can navigating the hard and cold and dark places in this world with the resources and information available to us at any given moment. That’s me and that’s you and that’s everyone else we know.
Bubble the second: There’s no such thing as The One. Remember in Mad Men when Don Draper says, “What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons”? Well, that’s not exactly true, but there’s a searing kernel of truth in there. So many movies and books and TV shows and commercials and songs and poems tell the tale that there’s one single person in the world who’s gonna fill up our hearts with joy and when we find them — snap! — life’s a breeze. There’s a kind of comfort in that, maybe, but it’s just not true. Every day we make a zillion small choices that change the shape of ourselves and the course of our lives in a zillion small ways, and every other person is out here doing the same thing. How cruel that the universe or some deity contained within it would make a single match for us, give us both free will, and then sit back in apathy while we go about our lives hoping to make the one correct series of choices that will allow us to brush up against one exact person who has also made one correct series of choices, in a sea of seven billion people making eleventy kazillion choices. The odds that anyone would find their One are nearly impossible!
And believing in The One can actually do way more harm than good to us and to our relationships. It can cause existential crises when things inevitably get hard with our person: “Well, maybe they’re not The One. If they were The One, this would be much easier.” It can make us call our relationships into question if we have a connection with a different person than our person: “There’s no way I could have a feeling for someone else if my current person was The One. Maybe the person giving me the new feeling is The One.” It can cause us to believe there’s one single person in the world who can (and should) meet all of our sexual, social, emotional, intellectual, and pragmatic needs — and without conflict or compromise. It can cause us to believe that being happy together just happens. After all, we were made for each other.
That may sound discouraging, but let me flip that iceberg over and would you looky what we have here? Half of every iceberg is underwater and the other side of The One iceberg is the Love Is a Lie iceberg! It’s the same iceberg!
The idea of The One is that we cannot build a happy, healthy, soul-sustaining life with anyone who’s not The One. It’s out of our control. The idea of Love Is a Lie is that no one can build a happy, healthy, soul-sustaining life with anyone. It’s out of our control. Both of these ideas are bananas! They take the responsibility of our own happiness off of us and place it onto someone else or on the universe at large!
Relationships are choosing to do hard work. Not once, but always. It’s unpacking the way your lifetime of experiences has informed your behavior and how that behavior rubs up against your partner in good and bad ways. It’s figuring out when and how to put another person’s needs and desires before yours, and figuring out how to accept the grace of another person doing that for you. It’s not getting what you want sometimes. It’s not getting what you need sometimes. It’s making yourself trustworthy and allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to trust in return. It’s respecting your partner enough to constantly take extra care with your words and your actions. It’s tough but gentle honesty with them and with yourself. It’s especially apologies and it’s especially forgiveness. There is absolutely no way two human beings with their own insecurities and longings and pain and hopes and fears and ambitions can join their lives together without an enormous amount of friction. And there’s no way to ease that friction without a constant commitment — from both people — to work and to work and to work.
There’s a stage of love, real love, that’s endless sex and laughter and ducking into corners to kiss and kiss because you can’t keep your hands and eyes off each other; expensive dinners and all-night conversations and feeling oh so completely seen and understood; passion and promises and you are perfect in their eyes and they are perfect in yours. That’s the kind of love our culture celebrates in movies and on TV and it has its place.
And there’s an evolution where, yes, there’s passion and, yes, there’s fancy dinners; but no one’s perfect anymore. It’s reading silently in bed together and reaching out to touch their hair, and no one’s thinking about sex. It’s sharing a secret, knowing glance in the presence of their boss or their mom. It’s watching TV in your pajamas for hours and rehashing every detail of your favorite characters’ arcs while the pizza is on the way. It’s putting their coffee cup in the dishwasher. It’s buying toothpaste. It’s renewing the renter’s insurance. It’s picking out a graduation card at the bookstore and pre-stamping it so they’ll remember to send it. It’s standing in line at the pharmacy to pick up their prescription. It’s their books with your books on the bookshelf together for so long you don’t remember what belongs to who anymore. It’s putting their coffee cup in the dishwasher, again. You’ve wounded and been wounded by each other, you’ve seen and experienced each other’s biggest flaws and most damning weaknesses. And yet, with this person — your person! — you are without shame and completely accepted.
I’m only telling you what I know from my own life. The life of a person totally unqualified and unprepared for lifelong love.
I grew up with an abusive mother in a rural town in a repressive Southern Baptist church in one of the most homophobic counties in the country. I didn’t come out until I was in my very late 20s and I didn’t have a relationship with another woman until I was almost 30. I have ADHD, sensory processing disorder, generalized anxiety, and seasonal affective disorder. Lack of experience? Check. Emotional baggage? Check. And when I met my partner, Stacy, oh, she had her scars too. There’s seven years between us and we lived thousands of miles apart. My trauma and her trauma interacted with each other in the most painful, toxic ways. I fell in love with her and the alchemy of our connection was rare and I knew it — but every odd was stacked against us. We really fit together in the ways we fit together, but boi it was fire and a whole lot of crying in the ways we didn’t. So we made a choice, together. I worked on me. And she worked on her. And we worked on us. And worked and worked; and work and work; and will work and will work.
It’s scary to know we can do the work and still not find contentment with the person we’ve chosen. It’s scary to know we can do the work and be devoted to continuing to do it and have the other person decide they don’t want to do it with us anymore. But neither of those things mean love, itself, is a lie; or that you just weren’t doing the work with the one single person the universe chose for you. Even when we do the hard work, relationships don’t always succeed. And even when relationships don’t succeed, it doesn’t mean the love inside them wasn’t real.
But they can succeed. And when they do, it’s worth the pain that came before.
I’m sorry you’ve been hurt. I’m sorry you’ve watched the people you care about get hurt, too. Experiencing that sorrow and confusion and empathy against the backdrop of our current political reality has got to be damn demoralizing. It’s a hard time to have hope, I know. It’s a hard time to believe in love. But it’s a real thing, sweet friend. Don’t give up on it.