“I can make it work with anyone,” I used to say, in the carefree and foolish days before my first marriage. I believed that if you just loved someone enough, if you were patient and tolerant and a good listener, if you cleaned up and saved money and gave the other person enough massages, then your love could last forever. I was wrong – that one lasted three years. It turns out that you also have to choose the right person, at the right time, for the right reasons, and carefully negotiate what you want from one another. On the other hand, while there isn’t a way to “make it work” with just anyone, because people aren’t interchangeable, there are lots of ways to mess it up that are nearly universal.
Jealousy is the worst. Jealous people will cite ‘proof’ that they need to be suspicious, even paranoid, because someone cheated on them in the past. What they don’t realize is that unwarranted jealousy drives people to cheat. The suspicion comes first. I had a jealous boyfriend when I was 19; I told him I wouldn’t be calling him for a couple of days because my uncle was in town and he was staying at my apartment. “WHAT?!” my boyfriend roared. “You don’t have any UNCLE!” He went off on this rant about how I was cheating on him and making excuses for having a man over at my place. I tried to placate him by giving every detail I could think of about this relative, and all my others. I come from a vast extended family; in fact, at the time I had five uncles. It didn’t work. I told my uncle about this odd conversation, and his response made me question why I was with someone who didn’t trust me. That’s what happens to people who display irrationally possessive behavior. Their boyfriends or girlfriends talk to anyone, anyone at all, old or young, male or female, friend or family, and they realize that nobody else treats them this way. A paranoid lover will make the first rational, mildly cute, even slightly nice available person who shows up into a paragon of sexiness and desirability. A jealous person who is “always getting cheated on” is too demanding, maybe too creepy, to keep anyone’s interest.
Rudeness is another character trait that will eventually wear anyone down. Rudeness comes in many forms, but in its essence it is a display of contempt for others. Even if this contempt is not aimed at the spouse or lover, it erodes the respect this person feels. Shouting at anyone, in person or over the phone; insulting people; going on angry rants… It’s tiresome. All the opportunities for sweetness, generosity, and good humor are missed or burned up by irritation and rage. I watched a woman in my circle waiting on her boyfriend one weekend. Something set off my antennae and I started counting, waiting for him to use the words ‘thank you’ or ‘you’re welcome’ or ‘please’ or ‘excuse me,’ even once. He never did. She would make his coffee and meals, asking questions about his preferences, and he would answer ‘yeah,’ or ‘okay.’ He never reciprocated. Not a word, not an action. I had no idea what she saw in him, although I kept my observations to myself. Indeed, they eventually split up. Courtesy can be a high art, full of subtlety and depth, but surely anyone can attempt even the simplest gestures?
Lack of accountability is a trait that will not only end a romance, but will also cause a revolving door of roommates and lost career opportunities. Immaturity is another way to put it. I think it feels like vagueness. We just don’t feel the responsibility or awareness that other people feel in the same situation. We run up debt; we don’t pay our share; we don’t clean up after ourselves; we don’t pitch in; we don’t apologize. We take more than we give. We burn through other people’s goodwill without even realizing we are doing it. Anyone who has been romantically involved with a careless, selfish person will never forget a single line item on the list. The dirty socks on the dining table. The crumbs left on the cutting board that is then shoved back under the kitchen counter. The last slice of pie that was eaten without an offer to share. The secret debt. There are a lot of people trapped in arrested adolescence out there; it’s a dangerous position, because eventually other people grow tired of being the adult and shouldering all the responsibility.
Emotional disconnect is a relationship killer that works more slowly. FoMO is one root cause. The Fear of Missing Out can lead us to believe that there’s someone “better” out there, somewhere, or at least there might be, a dumb fantasy that keeps us from growing close with the person who’s right here, right now. The truth is that we either need to give ourselves fully in any friendship or love relationship, or we need to pass on it. There are a billion absolutely lovely people who have nothing wrong with them, but who wouldn’t suit us. We can’t date them. We can give people our attention, our focus, our interest, our kindness, our friendship, and our best attempt at listening deeply. We can’t always give our hearts. In the meantime, why are we hanging out with people we don’t feel deserve our full attention? Maybe we’re better off going somewhere dark and private, where we can fondle our phones in full privacy. What would love do right now? There is a level of romance that fiction convinces us we should feel. It exists. It doesn’t fall from the sky, though. We can only feel it after we’ve learned to kindle it, breathe it into a flame, and continue to feed it, even on rainy nights.
Love is a lot like activating your lats. It’s hard to figure out, even from photographs, until someone comes along to show you. Suddenly you feel it. It’s like sprouting wings, or the nubs of wings. Then you walk around all day, knowing it’s there, and you can never forget. Everyone has lats, but most people hunch over and ignore them, unaware how much they’re missing. Most people want to feel a perfect love emanating from someone else. That’ll never work because it doesn’t work that way. Perfect love comes from only one place, which is near the lats, and that’s the inside of your own heart.
The opposite of love is indifference. The world needs more indifference. We should detach from most of the ideas we have about how other people ‘should’ behave. Most of the time, what they’re doing has nothing to do with us, unless they are reheating leftover fish in the office microwave. For instance, there are a lot of people who feel a sense of moral crusade about late merging. Dude, there are two lanes there for a reason. An engineering-based reason. I don’t even drive on the freeway; I’m just telling you. When it comes to romance, we need to start from a position of indifference, drawing closer by tiny increments after something has awakened our curiosity. What kind of person is this? What is this person like? How does this person behave? So much heartache could be avoided if we only learned to see each other before we started, well, ‘seeing each other.’
Of course, I don’t expect anyone who has read this to have any of these issues. This post was really a stealthy way to raise awareness of red flags. People who act in these ways don’t think they’re doing anything wrong. They can often be quite defensive about their behavior, how it doesn’t matter, or how it’s really everyone else’s fault. If they ever change, it’ll take more than the steady love of one kind-hearted person to make that change happen. It takes challenge. Every time someone ignores someone else’s bad behavior, it perpetuates that trait. More people should speak up, saying, “That’s mean,” or “He didn’t deserve what you said,” or “You’re out of line,” or just, “Hey, what is going on with you right now?” We need more love in this world, but we also need more friendship, more neighborliness, and more manners.
There have been an uncountable number of lost loves since the world began. What if we met our soulmates, and we screwed it up, because we just hadn’t grown or matured enough to be ready on time? There is never a wrong time to start trying to be more considerate, more conscientious, more interested in others. We start from the position of wondering what the experience of spending time with us feels like to other people. Are we easy to talk to? Are we fun to be with? Do our friends understand how much we care about them? Starting with the question, “Would I date me? Why or why not?” is a good beginning.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.