Why are some people blessed enough to find the man of their dreams the first week of college when so many more of us have to wait what feels like eons until we find the right person for us?
If we complain about our doomed single fate to the happily-coupled, they’ll give us practical advice. “Get on the dating apps!” “Put yourself out there!”
In the swipe-right age of Tinder and astonishingly in-depth compatibility tests, it seems like there’s no excuse for being single. Of the millions of men at our finger tips, there has to be someone out there with whom we’re compatible.
Despite the seemingly boundless sea of possible partners, we’ll never find love if we don’t first do the difficult work of finding ourselves. In her tough-minded interview in Conversations on Love, author and transgender icon Juno Dawson suggests you can only discover long-lasting love after— as the old adage goes— you learn to love yourself. After twenty-nine years of living as a man, Dawson made the courageous choice to transition. Now as a woman, she has learned to embrace the truth of who she is, stop pretending in her relationships and ultimately create meaningful, authentic connections. When asked how her relationship with her fiancé Max was different from her former failed relationships, she made an astute observation:
“What I would say is that this relationship isn’t necessarily different— I’m different. There’s so much emotional literacy that goes into being with someone: instead of dramas, there are compromises. Instead of tantrums and storming out, you learn how to read signals and when to back off and which hills to die on. These are all things that are difficult to navigate without self-understanding.”
In the end, you are the common denominator in all your connections. The quality of your relationships is directly proportional to your self-awareness. You can find a handsome, intelligent, successful man who shares your love for Thai food and Otis Redding but— if you haven’t done the hard work on yourself— you’ll continue to encounter the same issues time and time again.
Say, for example, your first boyfriend cheated on you. Your current boyfriend might be the most loyal partner on the planet, but if you’ve never taken the time to cope with that first betrayal, you’ll continue to have trust issues. You might be so paranoid and distrustful that you snoop through your boyfriend’s phone. You might pick fights with him for staying out too late at the bars because you’re convinced he (like all people of the male persuasion) is incapable of keeping his penis to himself.
Your unfounded suspicions and rampant insecurity cause such an irreparable rift in your relationship that your boyfriend breaks up with you.
Rainer Maria Rilke once said, “For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks… the work for which all other work is but preparation.” Being in a committed long-term relationship requires basic compatibility but it also requires patience, understanding, forgiveness, mercy, compassion. Love demands we become the best person we can be. For love to last, we have to possess the self-awareness to know and communicate our needs; the willingness to examine and improve upon our shortcomings; the self-confidence to not be overly jealous or possessive; the selflessness to occasionally sacrifice what we want for the sake of maintaining harmony. We have to know when to bite our tongue, when to just listen and shake our head sympathetically, when to have a difficult conversation to maximize our chances of being heard and minimize misunderstanding (not right when our husband walks through the door or when either of us is sleep-deprived, hungry or grouchy).
Though love is our most demanding work, it should— to some extent— be easy. Yes, all couples encounter difficulties; however, we should never use the truism that “love is work” to rationalize staying in a tumultuous, dysfunctional relationship that is ultimately harmful to our well-being. Love should be a source of joy— not torment and anxiety. As Dawson writes with equal parts plainness and poetry:
“It’s like mixing paint: sometimes when you mix two people together you get a horrible color. Some people do bring out the absolute worst colors in you and, if that’s the case, it’s the relationship that’s flawed, not you. You’re not meant to lose sleep or cry over love. You shouldn’t have to fight for it. If it feels like a fight, don’t waste your time.”
Before meeting her fiancé, Dawson— like most of us— suffered a string of shitty relationships. After all the heartbreak, she learned one thing: have high standards for the person you’re with. You should never have to beg for the bare minimum. If a guy likes you, he’ll make the effort to make you feel loved and appreciated; he’ll shower you with attention; he’ll call when he says he’s going to. (One is reminded of Justin Long’s iconic line in He’s Just Not That Into You: “If a guy treats you like he doesn’t give a shit,” he tells a slightly pathetic Ginnifer Goodwin, “he genuinely doesn’t give a shit.”) In dating, there’s no excuse for someone to abuse/mistreat/neglect you.
Though this is obvious, nearly all of us have wasted precious tears crying over scumbags. I can’t count how many irretrievable hours I’ve frittered away dissecting men’s poor behavior. “Where is he? Why hasn’t he reached out?” I’d wonder weepy and inconsolable after some jackass I was dating randomly decided to disappear. How many weekends I’d spend, distracted and depressed, unable to enjoy myself! How many sleepless nights I squandered overthinking and obsessing, worrying that some guy I was seeing was secretly seeing someone else! After all the games, it’s a wonderful relief to be in a stable, long-term relationship with a supportive man who never makes me question his feelings and always directly expresses himself.
With humor and wisdom hard-won, Dawson reminds us dating doesn’t have to be a drama. Love isn’t insomnia-ridden nights or wondering “will he or won’t he?” It’s safety, security, and consistency:
“When [Max and I] met I was seething from a shitty relationship with an absolute time waster. He made me into a crazy nightmare person who couldn’t sleep, because I didn’t know if he was going to reply to my messages for three days. That’s an important lesson in love: no one is too busy to reply to a fucking text message!”
Need a sherpa to scale the Everest-like mountain of love? Read Alain de Botton on idealization as the opposite of love, Natasha Lunn on love, loneliness & the torment of not knowing, Sarah Hepola on books as a source of connection, companionship & community, Dolly Alderton on friendship as a more satisfying, everlasting form of love and Emily Nagoski on the myth of “normalcy.”