Friday, October 20, 2017

A Pen Pal with Benefits

I’m happy to say that New York Magazine’s resident therapist gets it right today. It’s nice to be able to say so, since it does not happen all that often. 

Lori Gottlieb is responding to a letter from a woman who calls herself, Rock and a Hard Place. At issue is a relationship. The relationship, the best RHP has ever had, has failed because her inamorato is doing an executive training program and has been relocated to Paris, for four months.

The relationship was great fun, but not very solid before the move. It has not survived the move.

Anyway, for your edification, here are some choice parts of RHP’s letter:

Then, last September, I was visiting friends in New York (I live in Chicago) and one of my friends was having a party, and he happened to be there. We got to talking and he asked if I still lived in Chicago, as he was moving to Milwaukee for work that week. We exchanged numbers and I told him to let me know if he ever wanted to come down to Chicago and check out the city. About a month later, he did, and that was the first time I realized I was interested. He walked in and I saw him in an entirely different light. We ended up hooking up and then started dating a couple of months later, with him coming down to Chicago or me going up to Milwaukee on weekends.

His job, however, made it hard for us. He works for a large corporation in an executive-training program and so he moves around the world every four months, likely not knowing where he’ll be until two to three weeks before he leaves. He moved to Paris in early February for four months and by May, our relationship had gone downhill. I was gripped by anxiety about where he would be moving to next, how often we should be talking and FaceTiming, and when the next time we’d see each other would be.

We broke up a few weeks ago and I have absolutely no idea how to handle it. He initiated the conversation, but I agreed with everything he was saying.

We didn’t have enough of a foundation to build off of when he moved to Paris and were putting so much pressure on ourselves to make it work that it ultimately did not.

The thing is, we both acknowledged how absolutely fantastic we are together. When we are together, it is incredible. The best relationship I have ever had by far. We have a blast, we are always laughing, and we are so crazily compatible that it’s slightly scary for me. A main point he kept bringing up as we were breaking up was the possibility of us being together once this program is over — which could be in one year or in four years, he doesn’t know.

I want to keep that door open because of how much I care about him and how compatible we are, but also know and understand that I need to focus on moving forward at the same time. We were talking back and forth after we broke up, but I finally asked him to give me space as it was making it impossible for me to even begin to heal and move on. Now I don’t know if that’s the right choice.

I have no idea what to do and, truthfully, right now, I just feel like I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.

So far, so good. RHP might think it was true love, but she would have done better not to hookup so quickly and so soon. When a woman hooks up quickly, even effortlessly, she gives definition to the relationship and states her intention. She has told him that she is not in it for the long term. Of course, it might become long term, but she has gotten off on the wrong foot.

Be that as it may, Gottlieb gets to the right point. That is, that “Joe” has made no commitment. When he left, he did not offer a commitment and did not state an intention to forge a future relationship, no less a marriage. It is not a good idea to pretend that an offer exists when it doesn't. Instead he broke up… and, if I say so, this probably means that he is prowling the Parisian nightlife for other hookups. Some young women do not understand that one hookup is not that different from another.

Be that as it may, Gottlieb writes:

As I read your letter, though, I took away a very different “main point.” To me, the main point is that Joe did not say, “I care deeply about you and don’t want to lose you. How can we make this work?” The main point is that he did not say, “Please hang in there with me because I believe we have something special here.” The main point is that Joe did not seem to be “gripped with anxiety about where he would be moving to next, how often we should be talking and FaceTiming, and when the next time we’d see each other would be.” The main point is that Joe broke up with you. The main point is that this “happy-go-lucky” guy is being happy-go-lucky with your romantic future — maybe we’ll get back together in some undetermined number of years — a sentiment in which your best interests are nowhere to be found.

To which Gottlieb correctly adds that Joe was never a real possibility. He was a lot of fun for RHP. For him she was a lot of fun. That was all it was… no matter how much fun they had and how good the sex was.

Then, Gottlieb becomes harsher, but correctly. RHP did not really have a relationship. She was a friend with benefits:

If you hooked up in September, started dating in November, and he left for Paris in February, you were in an in-person relationship for a mere three months — weekends only. You spent approximately 12 weekends or 24 days together. That’s less than one consecutive month. You two know what it’s like to have romantic weekends together, to laugh and have sex and miss each other when you’re apart. You know what it’s like to talk and text and FaceTime, but that’s not a relationship. That’s a pen pal with benefits.

What was missing, Gottlieb continues, was what she calls the dailiness of a constituted relationship. An excellent point. As I have put it, true love, no matter how true it is, needs to be socialized and domesticated. Otherwise it will have a very short shelf life.

In Gottlieb’s words:

You learn about compatibility, on the other hand, through shared dailiness, and you two haven’t experienced the dailiness of each other. It’s like the difference between color and black and white, or three dimensions and two. Long-distance is “always laughing together.” It’s not, “who’s doing the dishes and picking up towels from the bathroom floor.” It’s not, “I need my space” — or, “I need a smile when I walk in the door at the end of the day, even if you just had a fight with your mom.” It’s not experiencing bad days, bad moods, or annoying habits that you can hide to a degree in a weekends-only situation. It’s not about the richness and texture of logging regular hours together. Compatibility is all of that, and it’s also knowing what it’s like to integrate your lives into your larger worlds — friends, family, acquaintances, and colleagues. You and Joe didn’t have a community around you as you communed. You were an island of two in your blissed-out universe during the 48 hours you had together.

She continues with another salient point. A relationship is never just about two people. It’s about merging two social worlds, creating an alliance between groups:

A relationship may seem like it’s just about two people, but it’s about the confluence of your respective worlds as well. How do your larger worlds mesh? How do they add context to the person you see only through your own lens? The long-distance romance is a rarefied experience, and I can see why it felt like “the best relationship by far.” Despite its loneliness, it protects you from the messier parts of courtship and dating. It’s not surprising that you and Joe are “fantastic” together, because though all new relationships are rooted partly in “fantasy,” a relationship that exists only on weekends is rooted even more deeply in illusion. (It’s possible that you and Joe didn’t have a substantive conversation about the reality of your logistics until Joe broke up with you because neither one of you wanted to puncture the illusion.)

Gottlieb concludes that Joe is not part of the equation. Thus that RHP  should move on. 

Good advice.

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