Awhile back I took a stab at assessing the health of one’s relationship based on whether it most closely resembled an endothermic or exothermic chemical reaction. I was grasping at metaphors and my brain bent backwards trying to figure out whether my theory was logical. Not since organic chemistry gas laws had I felt so out of my depth. I vowed never again to compare love to the physical sciences.
But I’ve been discussing matters of the heart recently with an epidemiologist. Not only has he made science seem like a reasonable way to evaluate my questions about love, he’s done it with the eloquence of an empathetic data nerd.
The first issue we pondered was whether the rapid onset of arousal and emotion we occasionally experience with a particular person, for no logical reason, is any indication of how successful that relationship will be over time. I’ve had two lightning bolt beginnings over the past five years since my divorce. I would have sworn on all the holy books of the world that this last guy was ‘The One.’ From the moment his puppy dog eyes met mine – and his parenthetical dimples said, ‘Just try to resist me, sweetheart.’ – I was sunk. And, given the first time I kissed him he looked equally obliterated, I figured only death would tear us apart.
We all know how that ended. But plenty of people claim to ‘just know’ when they meet their person. Is my love barometer miscalibrated? Or should love at first sight always be met with suspicion?
Here’s how the researcher put it to me: If we plot a relationship on the XY axis with the vertical Y axis being emotional intensity and the horizontal X being time, you’ve very likely to see an inverse relationship between what initially feels amazing and what’s actually got long term potential. He wrote, “The lightning bolt version has this early peak, but then there’s (usually) a downward trend as reality sets in. When you think about the derivative (the plot of slope of the original function over time — that is, how your emotional response is changing at any moment), the lightning bolt tends to have a negative slope whereas the slow build has a positive slope. ”
I had to agree. After suffering the sobering effects of a plunging plot line, I have decided to stay receptive to men who initially register quite low on my Y axis.
He added, “The desire to commit is all about extrapolating where the excitement will be in a while – will I still want this person in my life in a year, in a decade – which incorporates the slope at least as much as the absolute value.” In hindsight, I see this too. Even before this last relationship fell to pieces, when I looked into the future with this man, I wasn’t sure I liked what I saw. He was nearly ten years older than I. Would I be taking care of his ailments rather than backpacking, mountain biking and paddle boarding, things he didn’t do? Existing within the intoxicating absolute value of love, I felt blind to the probability that the slope of a life with him may have flat-lined very quickly, especially if I denied my desire to be more active outdoors. His kids were also grown and I rather want to be with someone who has kids closer in age to mine.
Then I confessed to the epidemiologist that I was having strong feelings for a friend of ours. So strong, in fact, I wondered if I should tell him how I was feeling on the off chance he might be interested in dating me. I hadn’t initially been attracted to him, but we’d developed a friendship that began registering in my mind as a gradually upward sloping function over time. The sticking point? The man I was crushing on had just started seeing another woman. Do I confess my attraction hoping he might feel the same? Or do I simply slink away from his company so as not to feel the pain of unrequited desire?
The scientist told me to keep in mind that you’re only ever choosing from the options that actually exist. Identify those, and you might avoid driving yourself mad. As a writer, it’s handy to be able to make up conversations between two characters. But having imaginary conversations with a person I care about is creating non existent options. They’re just fantasy. But I can’t help it. So, as I was having an imaginary dialogue with the man I was smitten with, I was making up his side of the discussion and either feeling elated or crushed. But this was a pointless exercise, because I would have no control over his end of the exchange.
When I accept that my only options are to tell him or not tell him, that’s where my decision making ends. The imagined outcome should as well. I don’t yet have the option of having a relationship with him. So I’m being cautious about the way I approach this. I used to spend a lot of time doing or saying things that I hoped would influence someone to do or say what I wanted them to. But I control only one set of data. Trying to skew the other data in order to get the result I want would create a discordant outcome. This was especially true in my marriage. Had I spent less time demanding that something be a certain way, I may have avoided some epic arguments. I should have simply stated my opinion and asked my husband his own. The few times I did refrain from trying to influence his decision, I usually got what I wanted. This isn’t a manipulative strategy. I see it as speaking my truth and then respectfully shutting up.
It’s been a nice change of pace to ask others their opinion. I’m rather weary of passing off my own ideas as advice in a world where we are bombarded daily with people telling us how to do things. So if you do keep reading, thank you. Welcome to the revised ‘Savvy Love’ a place where I will no longer tell you what to do. You’re here simply because I have stories to tell. And perhaps the most important few words I can learn to say as I work to become a better lover, parent and citizen are, “What do you think?”
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