Sometimes It's Not You, But...

This post is a response to “ Sometimes It's Not You, or the Math: Modern Love “ in the New York Times by Sara Eckel, who lives in Brooklyn and is working on a book about women who marry after age 35. http://saraeckel.com/

This "Married Guy Response" by Dave Carter is the second in a series. To read the first post, click here. To read the third post, click here.

“Did we find love because we grew up, got real and worked through our issues? No. We just found the right guys,” Ms. Eckel asserts.

Really?? They just found the right guys? Or did they just (finally) give them a fair chance?

I agree that, for singles actively seeking a relationship, sometimes it's NOT you, but it's also true that a slight change in your attitude or expectations can make all the difference.

I'm a married guy who went on his fair share of dates with women in their 30's before settling down (for the second time). After my “starter” marriage (which lasted five years), I enjoyed seven years of singledom in my 30's.

Like many divorcees, I embarked on a soul searching journey, hoping to become aware of, and change, any toxic behavior patterns.

A few dozen shrink visits revealed three things: I had a mild sleep disorder, I was “addicted” to dark chocolate, and I had a recurring pattern in which relationships ended, but while people were not mad at me, they were also not sorry to see me go.

I was alienating people somehow, but I didn't know how. It was the fear of my two-year-old daughter someday not being sorry to see me go that made me willing (humble enough) to do whatever needed doing to find out.

I was and still am an agnostic (though my children are gifts that test my lack of faith), so I had deep reservations about attending any church-sponsored classes. But with assurance from a dear friend that my philosophical stance would not be an issue, I decided to attend a weekend-long “personal transformation” seminar that was created by two former Episcopalian ministers (who are also shrinks).

During the class I discovered that I was allowing fear of shame to compromise my personal integrity, which is why people were not sorry to see me go. In a pinch, I was unreliable, because my self image was more important to me than any friendship. To change this, I needed to work on diminishing my fear, mainly by facing it head on.

I'm still working on this (20 years later), but in the class I also learned that I can make a marriage work with just about any reasonably reasonable woman. And so, I began looking for a reasonably attractive, reasonably reasonable woman who was interested in building a future with me.

I made a list of 10 attributes that were Must Haves. For example, she should be reasonably attractive, reasonably reasonable, and interested in building a future with me. (Is there an echo in here?)

I also wanted her to be willing and able to have a baby or two. And to have some sort of credit history and/or a modest nest egg by the age of 35. And no pets that sleep in the bed with her (I have allergies). And an easygoing sense of humor.

There was nothing unreasonable on my list. I figured I was a catch compared to most guys, all things considered, but I also know I'm not perfect, so I wasn't seeking anything close to perfection. Basically, I was looking for a mirror of the attributes I was offering. I just wanted a girl willing and able to reach back across the chasm.

So off I went, searching for her. I was proactive and assertive, but not overly aggressive or pushy, and I tried a lot of different singles events. I gave a fair chance to several dozen women who crossed my path over the next six years.

I didn't want ladies to think I was a cheapwad, so I usually brought them flowers and took them to decent restaurants, but sometimes I kept it low key. I went with whatever seemed to set them at ease.

Finding a mate is partly a numbers game, but there is a point where the number of dates works against a rational adult's ability (not to mention their wallet's ability...) to proceed with confidence. The more people you meet, the more you wonder what you'll miss if you lock in...

A hundred years ago, typical adults had only a few dozen images of the opposite sex imprinted on their brain during their entire lifetime. Nowadays we are bombarded with hundreds of images per hour. Making a choice, and being certain of it, has never been more difficult.

Still, I endeavored to remain openhearted, even after getting bit by the occasional wounded animal. Most of the gals I asked out met at least 6 out of 10 criteria or I wouldn't have asked. Some scored higher, but inevitably a promising candidate for Ms. Right would reveal some “tragic flaw” within a few dates. Like: she didn't want kids. Or: she had an incurable STD. Most often, though, the tragic flaw was that she just wasn't interested in anything close to exclusive -- with anyone.

Granted, I live in Silicon Valley, where women have far more options, not to mention upwardly mobile and desperate men, from which to choose...

Ms. Eckel's article reminds me of the lyrics to "Falling Slowly" by Glen Hansard, when he sings “You have suffered enough and warred with yourself, it's time that you won...”

Yes, finding a mate is sometimes a numbers game, but it also requires timing. The right mate is often the one who is ready when you are ready. I'll wager that folks “find” the right mate when they become willing (for whatever reason) to stop assuming that the best mates are taken.

Part of the problem with the whole “being not alone” deal is that happiness, just like sadness, is simply a choice of how to react to the reality outside of your head.

Ask anyone you know who has been married (or even just “in a relationship”) long enough for the reality of living with another human being's flaws to pop whatever endorphine bubble exists (usually about three years is all it takes), and they'll tell you about tradeoffs.  How for every advantage of having a partner, there's a disadvantage.

Why do we constantly yearn for a choice we're not making?

For me, the desire to escape loneliness, to be profoundly understood by another human, is just a cross that I bear.

My current marriage, to the only woman I met in 6 years who got 10 out of 10 on my little list, has survived now for over 13 years, perhaps because my wife lacks a tragic flaw, but perhaps also because I stopped expecting her to fill my need to be profoundly grokked.

Yes, I'm still waiting to feel understood, even though I love my wife, and I believe that she loves me.  Loneliness doesn't care if you're in love or not.  (Ironically though, I'm not alone in this paradox!) (I think...)

Folks who have gone thru the challenges of raising small children with a spouse and have been together for at least 5 years know things that those who haven't simply cannot understand. In the same way, the core of what persuades me to continue choosing marriage over other alternatives is unexplainable.  

A buddy of mine who does ultrarunning events, where the point is to see how much distance you can cover in a fixed amount of time (usually 6, 12, or 24 hours), rather than how fast you can cover a fixed distance, explained it to me this way, when I asked WTF attracts him to the sport.  He said “If you've done ultrarunning, then you understand why I do it, but if you haven't had the experience, then there's no way I can explain it in terms that will make sense to you.”

(He's wrong.  I get it --- he's a friggin masochist! Running for 24 hours straight is totally SICK, am I right?)  But I digress. The point is, we don't know what we don't know. 

The philosopher Alan Watts described us humans as having a “spotlight consciousness”, as if we're sitting in pitch black darkness, shining a flashlight on a wall, scanning for patterns so that we can make sense of our reality. Since we cannot possibly be aware of everything happening around us, we sample our environment with our senses and extrapolate the data. 

But in so doing, we filter out most of what is actually happening.  And by necessity, we focus our attention mostly on patterns that seem to threaten our existence. As such, fear of what will (or won't) happen often drives our decision making (as opposed to being pulled by what we desire to create).

The question “What's wrong with you?” is a test.  You will fail this test if you lack the humility to notice and own the fact that you have real fears and flaws.

Testing becomes more and more subtle with age, too. Patterns of behavior, even with respect to choices made during the give and take of a casual conversation, reveal a person's priorities and which things they value more than others. We're all constantly probing and testing with our spotlight awareness, and that's OK if you're OK with yourself.

In my experience, relationship experts (therapists, counselors, etc.) often have bigger issues than most “normal” folks do, which explains why they end up in a profession that supports their lifelong search for healing. Nevertheless, avail yourself of whatever resources it takes to learn how to recognize and face your fears (and separate from your ego).

Then, even if you DO manage to see the person in front of you as they really are, know that everyone does The Math differently.  Each of us has a widely ranging ability to incorrectly solve even the most basic of equations.  And sometimes this works in a would-be mate's favor!

We all want a partner who has their act together (can pull their own weight), but who also has enough vulnerability to forgive flaws when they surface. Ya get what ya give.  If you're someone who tends to sit back and wait for “the right person” to notice your special qualities, you will spend the vast majority of your time being disappointed and sad. 

On the other hand, if you proactively seek to meet and understand others, and you are genuinely interested in learning from whoever life throws in your path, you will be surrounded by folks who seek to learn more about you, too. Even after you find a mate.

Just like plants seeking sunlight, water, and nutrients, people are attracted to life-affirming energy, and they shrink from toxic (or stagnant) energy.  We seek relationships that feel good, and avoid those that don't. 

Modern would-be mates are busy, perhaps busier than they've ever been, wrestling with a hectic life of their own creation, and thus, few are able or willing to pay adequate attention to every “opportunity for happiness” that crosses their path. So yes, sometimes it's just numbers and/or timing.

If you're worried that you spend too much time alone, it might well be that, deep down, you simply prefer to be alone.  And that's OK. Ask yourself what is REALLY attracting and/or driving you.

Make no mistake though, the mating game is a one-card game. And women hold the card. Nothing happens relationship-wise until and unless the woman decides she is ready for it to happen. So guys, get used to being patient. (It's training for marriage...)

In the end, the only person who can fill your lonliness void is YOU.

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