Sometimes I think they’ve all been the same, my lovers, versions of each other, which is cruel, because they would hate to stand in a lineup and be found indistinguishable from one another. But when it comes to love, we like our types, past behavior being a strong predictor of future behavior. I’ve realized that this whole time, some 14 years of dating, I’ve stuck with the emotional ones, the givers. Usually they’ve also been the shy ones, the ones I had to pull out of themselves, the ones who made me — shy, emotional me — feel brash by comparison. I think even the ones I didn’t think would be delicate turned out to be delicate, that under the right circumstances — me, I suppose — I could get them to talk, could get them to unfurl.
The problem, which has taken me more than a decade to work out: similar personality types can actually repel each other like oil and water. Because an emotional wreck can end up being simply too wrecked, most of the time, to take on another person’s inner turmoil. We think we want someone like us, but then we realize it’s like looking in the mirror, too much of the same thing. We realize that what we wanted all this time was someone to counteract us. Someone quiet, dignified, stolid, even.
It’s difficult for many men to talk, people say, which may be a stereotype, so let’s just say that there are millions of strong, silent types of both genders throughout the world, and there are the people who love them. Maybe it’s actually fine that they’re strong and silent. Maybe it’s ideal. Maybe there is so much chatter in my head that it is refreshing and relieving to sit in silence with another person, wondering endlessly what is on their mind, and realizing after a few years that it might actually be nothing — that this person has achieved a kind of kind of enlightened calm that most of us can’t even imagine for our own brains.
This is part of the thrill of the strong, silent type, of course: trying to fill their quiet void with our own desires, speculation, and convictions about who they “really” are (spoiler alert: strong and silent, and possibly repressed, but never mind). It is both admirable, the way these people carry themselves, and fascinating. It is both something to try to emulate, and something to be preoccupied by, because if you are emotional and overthinking, you like to find things to be preoccupied by.
Never mind that we ourselves are difficult, neurotic, chatty — being with a person who is none of these things makes life easier. Never mind that we are failing to curb our own noisy, dramatic habits. Being with a person who is neither noisy nor dramatic might eventually rub off on us. Imagine being with a person whose complaint about a tough day at work is one sentence long. Imagine sitting in silence for two hours reading different sections of the same newspaper. Imagine falling asleep immediately after sex, not having to have a conversation about how it was and how we feel about it. Imagine a relationship in which things, whether commutes or meals or conversations with co-workers, are not constantly being “yelped” with each other.
If we know that sexual desire for another person wanes for both parties over time (much research on this can be found in the book What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire by Daniel Bergner), surely one way to combat this is mystery is leaving some things to be discovered later, to be slowly coaxed out of each other over the course of several decades. Is the failure of so many modern marriages due to the fact that we have this fearful, knee-jerk need to know each other very well — too well — in order to avoid the mistakes our parents made? Perhaps. Perhaps in the digital age there is too much in the way of disclosure, of vetting, of dissecting. As my mother likes to remind me, People didn’t used to have so many choices, you know. Maybe two people decided they were meant for each other when one person unexpectedly grabbed the other’s hand as they were crossing the street one platonic afternoon, as happened to my grandmother when she and my grandfather were 20.
Speaking of strong, silent types, that was my grandfather. Perhaps that didn’t make for the best fathering; in all that static his children found ample room to second-guess themselves, to believe that silence meant disapproval, or perhaps worse, indifference. But he was a perfect match for my grandmother, who was strong in certain ways but definitely not silent. She felt much, cried often, and could bring a lot of emotion out of people who didn’t even know they had emotions to be unleashed. She was a confessional. Whether my grandfather much used her to make his own confessions, I doubt, but they tempered each other. They were, without a doubt, in love with each other until the very end.
This can backfire, of course, and not just when it comes to parenting. I have witnessed some painful incidences of so-called strong, silent people thinking they can absolve themselves of guilt or responsibility because they believe they are never the ones to stir the pot, to start arguments, to initiate conflict. They believe that everything would be fine if their partners simply stopped dwelling on every little flaw, on every hiccup in the relationship, if they would just let things go, that hateful phrase. To some extent this is probably true, but the strong and silent ones in this world often seem blind to the fact that all their silence can make their more voluble partner go mad. They don’t realize that just because their baggage is buried under the surface, muted, doesn’t mean the baggage isn’t actually there. Personalities are, fundamentally, just different ways of dealing with the same material — human life, which is often painful, often boring, and often conflicted. No party should have to do more emotional work than the other. And no party should create more emotional work for themselves or their partner than is reasonable.
If I found myself a strong, silent type, I fear I would inevitably start to try to “fix” them, which I think means trying to make them see things the way I see things, to try to encourage their deep, dark secrets and fears to come out. To be the one to bring it out of them, to be the one that enlightens them. Which begs the question: what would a strong, silent type want with an emotional wreck? Perhaps that they actually like to see the world through our eyes — just not all the time. Not full-time. We give some color, some excitement, to their otherwise emotionally temperate existence. We give the arcs to the stories that make up life. And their job is to teach us that not every moment of life is set to some dramatic soundtrack, an orchestra of urgent-sounding strings or the fearsome lowest notes of a piano.