In life, everyone needs those friends who have worse problems than you do, who put your life in perspective. If you get dumped, they’re around to have their entire family die in a fire or go on a car ride with Clemenza. It sounds selfish, because it is, but it’s a necessary part of existing in the world; you need your problem friend to tell you that you don’t have it so bad, as if they were a baby in Africa, and no matter what, your problem is a first-world problem.
I have a friend who walks around as if there were a constant dark cloud over her life and her history was a thousand years of myth and tragedy. When we hang out, it’s like she’s wearing a dark hood and counting wooden beads. She’s my Patronus. She protects me.
My personal trainer, Monica, is one of these people, whose life is a constant source of drama, and every time we work out together, I get the added benefit of helping to work out her problems. This combines my loves of a) helping people b) telling people they’re acting like an idiot and c) telling them what to do, so it’s a nice distraction from all the sweating and farting, which is unavoidable when you’re doing lunges. You just have to give in.
Monica is the kind of girl that most people can’t keep up with, between being constantly active and her fierce love of partying, so she tends to hold onto the guys that come into her life as if guys are going out of stock. You never know when (or if) the next one will come along.
Enter Brian. Brian is her on-again-off-again boyfriend, with an emphasis on the off. They break up at least once a month, because he’s a terrible person, but always get back together because a) he’s insanely hot b) she can’t stay away from him and c) they work together at the gym. He’s like one of those demons in The Conjuring. She can’t escape. And when they inevitably get back together, he usually shows up at her apartment, in some state of intoxication, confessing his love for her and that he can’t live without her.
However, the last time they reunited, when he was again drunk, he told her, and I quote, “I love you so much that it’s ruining my life.” This was expected to be an explanation for his rash behavior, the fact that he can’t be counted on or trusted. It’s her fault for killing him with her awesomeness.
When he woke up the next morning, he didn’t remember the conversation. He didn’t remember coming over. He didn’t even remember getting back together. He had blacked out.
They ended up getting back together independently and breaking up again, and as she told me about it, she swore she would never get back together with him, just as she had sworn me many times before. It’s not that she didn’t know he was bad for her. She knew that. The problem was that through all the shit he put her through, she still loved him. No matter what he did, love was always the explanation, the eraser that wiped his slate clean.
But as I listened to this, I wondered how different her need for him, her insistence on loving him no matter how many times he proved he didn’t deserve it, was from his need to be loved by her no matter what. This wasn’t love. This was co-dependency, enabling a constant cycle of dysfunction. Monica and I both knew that at the end of the day, he wasn’t the person she wanted to be with, someone who only made her feel bad about herself, as if she deserved the pain and wasn’t good enough for a real relationship. Who wants a guy who only calls you when he’s drunk?
And we both knew he didn’t really want to be with her. Who wants someone that makes you feel bad about yourself, like you aren’t good enough to earn their love? Sure, he isn’t good enough, but that’s beside the point. You need someone you’re on the same page with and that can appreciate what you have to offer — for the right reasons. Love should be something that makes you feel good, not another reason to cry alone in the bathroom. The world is filled with pain. Don’t make love a part of that.
As Monica told me about this love, I had a flashback to the movie Closer, starring a bunch of pretty people hurting people in the name of the human heart. None of the characters in the film really love each other, not in a way that counts, but enjoy abusing each other and calling it romance. So I asked her to show me this love. “Where is this love?” I said. “I can’t see it, I can’t touch it. I can’t feel it. I can hear it. I can hear some words, but I can’t do anything with your easy words.”
Just because you’re using the word “love” doesn’t mean that you know the first thing about what it really means.
The problem is that we all do this to ourselves, accepting less than what we deserve and calling it love because it’s easier. It’s easier to stay in a broken relationship because the depression becomes comfortable, like a blanket that’s secretly filled with razor blades. I’ve dated guys I didn’t even like only because I didn’t want to be lonely. I wanted someone to call at the end of the day or lie next to at night in bed. I thought that would help me sleep better, the almost impersonal fact of this body, less a person than a mass that fills empty space.
However, this almost love will never give you the comfort you need. It just makes you yearn for the real thing. It just makes you more lonely, that feeling of being alone in a crowded room where no one can see you.
That’s because love isn’t enough. We’re taught that relationships are simply about finding love and all that candles and bubblebaths and bullshit, but relationships are about more than sixteen-year-old passion. Building a life with another human person is about commitment and accepting your responsibility to someone with needs different than your own. It’s compromise, sacrifice and a lot of words that aren’t as sexy as love — but arguably a lot more important in the long run.
I can’t remember the last time I saw my grandparents kiss, but I consider their relationship the best I know because of how well they fit together. They’ve spent an entire life learning to accept each other’s flaws and challenging themselves to be better partners to each other. Falling in love with someone is a process of getting to really know someone, even the parts of them you won’t like, and figuring out how to work with them.
My grandparents don’t always get along, but when my grandmother does something my grandpa doesn’t like, you can see that sense of letting go in his eyes. This is what he signed up for. It’s not exactly love, but when you’re growing old together, it’s what counts. It’s the emotion you build a life around.
As a hopeless romantic by nature, I look forward to falling in love with someone and continually being awed by the person I’ve chosen to spend this part of my life with, but I also look forward to getting mad at them and storming out and hating each other for a couple days and working on things and talking it out and finding common ground. I look forward to those times he doesn’t call and things aren’t perfect and we have to struggle. I look forward to being pushed to be a better listener, a better partner and a better human.
That might not be in the Oxford English dictionary version of what we call love, but I’m ready for it, warts and all. It might not be easy, but I can always borrow those wooden beads when I need to sit with my demons. My friend can’t be using them all the time.