I have heard, on more than one occasion, a certain piece of advice about deciding who to settle down with in life. With what I’m sure are the best intentions, various women have told me, in so many words, “If you marry someone who loves you more than you love them, you’ll always be happy.” They tell me this with a kind of sage, “it sucks but it’s true” reassurance. They know better, they seem to say, and even if my idealistic visions of what long-term commitment really means won’t accept it right now, one day I will come to understand it. I, too, will partner up with someone who needs me emotionally in a way I don’t and never will quite need them.
What makes me sad about this, though, is not so much the implication of “settling” for someone with whom you always have the upper hand in the emotional power structure, but rather a sense of empathy for what it means to be the person who is loved in return slightly (or profoundly) less. To live the constant, quiet humiliation that comes with being dependent on someone in a way that is not reciprocated erodes the self-esteem like little else can. I know this, of course, because I have been the one who loves more.
When you love more, when you can feel that your partner does not return so much of what is essential to you, you start to love yourself less. You see yourself as worthy only to the degree that this person whom you love so much has deemed you worthy, and if they are not loving you with as much passion or conviction as you love them, there must be something wrong with you. There is almost no fault in them which you are not ready to excuse, ready to brush over with the incredibly forgiving rendering of your admiration — and yet your flaws all become tangible, justifiable reasons for them not to be happy with you. In many ways, the more indifferent they become towards your overtures, the more resolved you become to convincing them otherwise.
Suddenly, approval and affection from your partner become the only kind of currency that matter to you — the only thing capable of convincing you that you are good and worth loving. Because so much of you has been invested in convincing them that you deserve them, if they don’t recognize it, it can feel that no one ever will.
When you go out together, you can feel it. There will always be limits to how beautiful or confident you can feel while in public with them because there is an inescapable overtone of being a loyal dog who doesn’t even need a leash to follow at the heel of its beloved-yet-distant master. While being with them can give you a heady rush of pride and profound gratefulness at being allowed this time together — and to bask in the glow of being their chosen one, even for a moment — it always comes with a distinct wave of shame over simply being not up to the task. Everyone that walks by is competition, and is likely so much more deserving than you in your eyes.
And the treatment that you will accept from them knows almost no boundaries. Nothing, to you, is wholly inexcusable or something you don’t in some way deserve. Even if being loved by them comes with a thousand asterisks, or is accompanied by put-downs or bouts of complete apathy, it is better than not being loved at all. Slowly you begin to adjust yourself to what you imagine they are looking for, uninterested in pleasing yourself so much as getting that residual pleasure from making them happy, if only for a minute. By the time they leave you — and they almost always will — you will look around and realize just how much of yourself you had given away. Your interests, your style, your loud laugh, your crazy friends: they were all collateral damage in the face of wanting to make them love you as you love them.
So perhaps it does make for a better marriage to be with someone who loves me more than I do them. Maybe it would make my life easier, more secure, more malleable to my whims and desires. But it would also mean that, for an entire lifetime, someone would be living out a pantomime of what they think I want them to be. I want to be just as enamored with someone as they are with me — even if we need each other for different things — because no one should ever doing another person a favor by spending their life with them.