“He said he wants to maybe retire on a beach in Thailand with me,” says my friend over lunch. Out of context, it sounds like a pleasant enough idea. But she’s not thrilled about it.
“It’s so weird that he included me in that fantasy. As if I’m just an accessory. Like, he wasn’t asking if I want to be retired and living in Thailand. I’m just there to fill a role.”
I guess in the mind of the guy my friend is dating, she’s supposed to be laying there on the beach beside him, looking nice in a bikini, and always available for pleasant conversation or sex or whatever else. The scene doesn’t have any of her motivations or goals written into it. She’s a prop, not a character.
I see how that’s a problem. But… don’t we all kind of do that? Don’t we all have images of what our lives would ideally look like, complete with a cast of love interests and supporting roles and extras?
Supposedly, over the years, we learn that the people around us are actually people, with their own wants and desires. But, do we stop imposing our own list of wants on them because we recognize their inherent agency? Or do we simply renegotiate what’s feasible after having our demands chipped away by experience?
I used to want a woman that was “hot” in terms of my male gaze, built out of the intersection of received media and my personal lens. Having hypothetically matured, I would now tell you that I want to be with a woman who takes her physical fitness as seriously as I take mine.
Which might be an evolution of recognizing how people need shared values in order to be compatible. It is true that I take my fitness seriously and would find it hard to relate to someone who was completely unconcerned about their overall health. But all that might also just be a more diplomatic way of describing “hot”.
Maybe I drifted from pursuing “hot” simply because I learned the dark secret of hot people, which is that they’re people. It’s not that they necessarily fail at other dimensions as a direct result of being hot, though looks and personal development can intertwine. Even under the best of conditions, what makes people compatible or appealing on the inside will always be a lot more nebulous and hard to understand, let along get along with, than what you can assess in a moment with your eyes.
Which is a lesson we’re all supposed to know, but for me, to drive the message home, it took at least a couple dozen relationships with very beautiful people that failed in a wide variety of painful ways. I take responsibility for my part, but, I can also definitely point to a few souls that did not live up to their packaging.
So am I giving up or growing up? I suppose that depends on the degree to which the things I’m giving up on might have just been uninformed delusions in the first place.
I hope I’m arcing toward maturity, as I try to see potential lovers as actual humans. It’s the kind of thing that everyone says they obviously do as a matter of course. We all know the people around us are human beings with completely independent thoughts and motivations and hopes. Duh.
But, do you consistently act on that belief? Or do you get disappointed or angry that the person you love didn’t do the thing you assumed should be obvious to do when two people are in a relationship? We all have unwritten rules about what love means. After all, if you have to spell it out, then can you be sure the person did what you wanted because it was in their true nature? Or did they just follow your script to complete a transaction that has to be paid back some day? Communication may be healthy, but it doesn’t feel magical the way we’re taught love is supposed to be.
Maybe in some perfect Utopia, no one holds any preconceptions about the people they might fall in love with some day. Stay open to all the possibilities, and be delighted by the surprises and new directions. But that seems a little disingenuous to me. If you don’t give at least some shape to the future possibilities, aren’t you open to repeating certain mistakes?
One time I got back together with a girlfriend I had broken up with three years previous. We soon started arguing again, like we used to. Turned out I couldn’t be a new me with an old her. Or any her. Maybe she felt the same. We aren’t just who we are because of the wear and tear what we’ve been through. We’re also always inventing ourselves in every moment, using the immediate input as building blocks. To some degree, same immediate blocks, same output.
That girlfriend and I didn’t stay together long the second time round. The lessons were pretty much the same as any other girlfriend I’ve been with just one time round. Half of those lessons are about how the relationship exposed parts of me I’d like to change. The other half of the lessons are about how there are qualities in others that I’d rather not experience again with anyone else. The patchwork ideal lover we assemble in our heads is as much fear as fantasy.
I wonder if the beach in Thailand my friend was invited to retire on wasn’t just a place where she would be part of the scenery, but also a place intended to be free of problems. Without challenges, there are sides of the people around you that you never have to meet. Sides that won’t fit into our patchwork life. She wouldn’t just be her, but the the ideal her. Which, in his mind, would free him up to be the ideal him, for her.
Which sounds like maybe I’m justifying his placement of her in his fantasy. I’m not, I’m just empathizing because I think that kind of fantasizing is a typically human way to have hopes for your life. I suspect he wasn’t imagining her on the beach with him because he wanted her to have nothing else, it’s just that his fantasy took for granted that anything she might want to do of her own free will wouldn’t conflict with anything he wanted.
I used to mildly fantasize about future circumstances, about how I would have this kind of home and be with a woman with a set of traits I thought would be compatible, and we’d have a kind of family that would ensue from our shared values, and there was also the kind of work I’d be doing and the friends I’d have and all of it. But I’ve learned that no one else exists in order to fit into our lives. The people we get close to are going in similar directions alongside us. Not necessarily because of us, and definitely not for us.
I don’t know if it makes me any happier to know that. But the degree to which I’ve stopped imposing my fantasies on others has made me less unhappy.