If you’ve come here looking for the final explanation of the confusing world of relationships, I’m sorry to disappoint. I don’t have the magic formula. However, I sort of believed in one. Not literally, of course, but when Mike and I were engaged, I kept having a funny feeling that ‘this was too good to be true’; I was looking for the catch. Upon reflection, and being asked by my mom what my hangup was (!), I realised that I did have some notion that there was a magic formula, inaccessible to me, that would make a relationship turn out right. There was, I thought, a minutely right way of doing things, combined with a chancy but precise kind of chemical reaction that would *pouf* result in marriage. Where on earth I got such an idea requires some dismantling, but at the end of the day, I really had come to feel that marriage must be for the few initiates who had some special access to the skills and charm necessary, and consequently that if I ever had the chance to be married, it would be an illusion.
As for the magic formula, what I realise now is that over the years I had accumulated so much advice, so much from culture, and so much from my own observation or imagination, that in my mind the ‘ingredients’ for a successful relationship were innumerable:
- The existence of a man who generally shared my beliefs, values and goals
- The likeability of that man
- The willingness of such a man to put up with me
- Some kind of parity in our ages
- The almost miraculous collusion of time and place to enable us to meet each other
- Somebody having enough interest to initiate…something
- The precise deployment of myself as The Perfect Girlfriend (nice, charming, supportive, loving but not needy, involved but not impinging, interesting but not overbearingly blunt with my intelligence…the list is endless)
- Laser-vision insight to efficiently and accurately size up the boyfriend in order to reach an incontrovertible decision on whether to marry him
- The boyfriend behaving enough like Mr Right to be recognisable (otherwise how would I know?)
- Falling in love and all that jazz
Honestly, sometimes I thought through what was necessary for anyone ever to get married and thought – it’s a wonder it ever happens to more than about 5% of the population.
No one ever sat down and, at one time, told me that this was the case. No one book or article proposed that there was one, vastly complex, minefield between singleness and marriage and that it was hopeless to try to navigate it. So where did I get this notion of the magic formula?
For some reason, I’ve always loved dating advice – even for years when I wasn’t dating anybody. I did try, at times, to limit my consumption simply because it made me want what I couldn’t have. However, for certain phases I read blogs, articles, books, and eagerly talked with friends about ‘What would you do if?’ kinds of questions, or discussed real-life dating situations pertinent to themselves or even their friends. Actually, I think a lot of this was simply a way to get vicarious enjoyment from a kind of drama my own life never had.
But the thing about advice, taken in wholesale, is that it gets removed from its specific context and becomes part of a vast assemblage – something like a decision tree diagram. One ‘dear reader’ kind of advice letter might tell a girl to stop being so clingy and give her suffocating boyfriend some space. That’s probably good advice for that situation. But from things like this, I distilled: ‘don’t be needy.’ It was easy to find a counter-example: ‘Dear Reader, you need to show your boyfriend that you love him by being more involved in his life and asking him to be involved in yours…’. From this, I gleaned: ‘be involved!’ Taken out of context, though, these two opposites become a theoretical balancing act: be involved, but not too involved or you’ll end up being needy, and you shouldn’t be needy…
And, frankly, plenty of the overt advice given to young women is contradictory from the start. Sometimes you hear that to attract a guy’s attention you need to be more outgoing and interested; others will tell you the opposite, that you should be a little mysterious, not give too much away, don’t be too ‘easy’ a catch. Some will say that you need to ‘get out there’ more, do stuff to meet men, be active, be outgoing; others will say you need to relax, wait, be patient, and the right guy will just appear eventually ‘when you stop looking’. (My personal theory for this contradictory advice is that different people give the advice they needed for their own situations; women of my mother’s generation who felt like they were too passive would tell me to be more active, and vice versa.)
This out-of-context mental catalogue of advice, as well as the naturally contradictory tidbits I received, became more confused simply because I had no practical outlet for it. I thought a lot about dating, about relationships, about ‘What would I do if?’, but at a point, the theorising becomes crazy-making without any real-life outlet (like a boyfriend).
My head was full of ‘shoulds’ and ‘don’t evers’ and ’10 mistakes women make’, which were so confused and contradictory that I did feel that doing anything right in dating must be nearly impossible.
I’m not an avid consumer of either romance novels or movies, and never have been, so I was surprised when I realised that so many of the components of my mental magic formula actually came from popular culture. Romance narratives everywhere follow a few formulaic patterns with such pervasiveness that I think we often absorb them as a model, not so much for how things should be done, but how they should unfold.
You have a few options. You can have the good-guy-I-didn’t-notice-at-first narrative, where you fall in love with the guy who wasn’t your first love interest but turned out to be better, like in Picture Perfect and While You Were Sleeping. You can have the we-hated-each-other-but-then-fell-in-love narrative, like in The Shop Around the Corner and its more recent derivative, You’ve Got Mail.
Lori Gottlieb gives the best description of what this can do to your thinking process:
The messages about love that we take away from the media are as contradictory as they are counterproductive. […] Should we look for the person who annoys us initially or who attracts us initially? And if love comes when we least expect it, does that mean if we actively seek love, it’s not true love? That we shouldn’t even try because true love will find us only when we aren’t looking?
(Lori Gottlieb, Marry Him, p. 41)
One other thing, about movies in particular, is that most of the time the audience can tell who The Guy is from the beginning, even if the heroine can’t. If the structure of the film isn’t enough to make him clearly the hero, the choice of actor usually is. Whomever the hot hunk actor du jour is when the film was made…chances are, he’ll be Mr Right. And, narratively speaking, the film will not feel right if the girl ends up with the ‘wrong’ guy – the feeling of him being the ‘right’ guy is partly supplied by the ending matching up with our suspicions and our veiled recognition of him at the beginning. We say, ‘Obviously they should be together – it was obvious from the start.’
I think this feature of films, being able to tell from the start who the chosen guy will be, subtly suggests to us that that’s what real life should be like, too. That is, that we should somehow know, deep down, that a certain guy we meet is ‘someone special’ as soon as he comes onstage in our lives, regardless of the apparent obstacles – even if we’re dating someone else, even if we don’t find him immediately attractive, even if we think he’s a bit of a goof or if he’s dating someone else. If Colin Firth walks in, even if he’s got a girlfriend on his arm and hates redheads and the heroine is a redhead and obnoxious to boot…we don’t much doubt that these obstacles are irrelevant, because we know that he is The Right Guy. In films, the hunky actor and the structure of the plot and characterisation give us a ‘sign’ to point to The Right Guy; I suspect that, even subconsciously, in real life we long for some similar kind of sign.
But this kind of idea only adds to the inaccessibility of the magic formula. Not only do we need to do everything right, but somehow the situation needs to grace us with narrative and intuitive signs, following some sort of pattern that means we’re going the right way.
Personal theories and experience
I did plenty of damage to myself by compounding this advice and cultural expectation with my own theories, based on observation and experience.
One huge factor in my impression of the inaccessibility of the magic formula – of the impossibility of ever getting it right – was simply personal experience. Partly through my own bumblings, and partly through the bumblings of others, I’d had a few different occasions when I thought a guy liked me and would surely ask me out (maybe he dropped hints in that direction), only to wait interminably (being patient, like the wise women said) and eventually realise that he liked someone else or just wasn’t going to make a move.
What I extrapolated from those experiences was that men’s interest was simply an indecipherable and fragile thing. Mainly fragile. I came away from those situations thinking, ‘What did I say wrong? What did I do?’ I would think back and analyse my behaviour and recall our conversations and attempt to discern where the wrong turn had been. There was never any major offence, so I figured that some small gesture or statement had put him off. I know I made plenty of mistakes, and I don’t say this notion I extrapolated was correct, but my general conclusion was: one mistake, however small, and you’re out of the running. That kind of idea went into my magic formula, as I told myself I had to be The Perfect Girlfriend or the guy would just mysteriously, unaccountably, lose all interest, and I’d never even know why.
So, those are some of the ingredients of my old magic formula concept. At the end of the day, it was the accumulation of too much mental clutter from my single years, and it formed the conviction that I was somehow disqualified from relationships because the secret of them was too great a mystery for me. That was what made me constantly second-guess anything that went well with Mike, always looking for the moment when it would be proven that all the good things were just a ruse, and the spell would be broken.
The very notion of a magic formula for dating sounds ridiculous when put into words, as I’ve just done. That was what I realised when I put it into words to my mom.
I’m pleased to say that there is no magic formula for relationships. I do think there is plenty of advice and wisdom to be had, but the actual execution of a successful relationship doesn’t depend on being perfect or having the magic touch. The real keys are pretty normal things: you don’t have to be The Perfect Girlfriend, just have mutual respect and kindness; you don’t have to feel it in your gut when he first walks into the room, but just have enjoyment of each other’s company; and there’s no need for a super sign, just important and honest conversations to help figure out whether you’re compatible. I don’t think that makes the decisions involved always easy, and they certainly don’t always seem clear or obvious at the time, but there is no secret. You use your brains and your intuitions, wisdom and prayer and the advice of people you trust, the same as with anything else.
Do eat a lot of chocolate, though. Because, while I did eventually realise that there was no magic formula and was free from its imaginary tyranny, I really have no solution for the drama of relationships.