Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Imaginary Boyfriends

In her book The Girl's Guide to Break-ups, Delphine Hirsh makes the reader broken up with go through a reality check. If the girl has never actually been on a date with the guy, Hirsh advises counselling.

It is true, funny and sad that sometimes a certain woman believes that she is in a serious relationship with a man when that man has no idea of it. It is less funny, and just scary, if this woman becomes a stalker. But I'm not talking about women with mental illness today. I'm talking about ordinary women who are so in the grip of wishful thinking that they temporarily lose their own grip on reality.

I have a ghastly memory of a conversation in Paris, where I met up with a high-school era acquaintance many years after we had both left school. For many years I had had a serious crush on him, based almost entirely on my own confused ideas and feelings, and now it had returned. In this conversation, over a plate of blood sausage, I mentioned how marvellous it was that we had been friends for so many years.

"But we haven't," he said. "We barely know each other."

He might have added that we weren't exactly pals as teens, either. We might have run into each other weekly, but we had never had a serious, amiable conversation. It was all "Hey, how's it going?" and "Are you going to the dance?" and "So what are you doing this summer?"

His honest remark blew up the edifice of my imaginings like a dynamite-stuffed truck, and to this day I can't think of Paris as the city of romance. Now, Florence, that's a city of romance. Edinburgh is definintely a city of romance. Paris--no. Paris is a train station with North African men standing on the steps shouting in French at passing women. It's a performing artists' canteen with steaming subsidized mashed potatoes and blood sausage. It's feeling exhausted and overwhelmed in front of the tiny Mona Lisa. It's dyspepsia after too-rich a hot chocolate. It's where I hit reality with a bump.

One of the many, many problems with crushes, especially if they are allowed to go unchecked, is that they blind women to reality. Reality hurts, but suck it up, sweetheart, because living in a fantasy is a waste of life. And falling in love with a real-life man who really has fallen in love with you is so much better than fantasizing about Crush Object, that I don't even know where to start.

I'll start with ordinary human interactions. The fact that Mr. Brown next door, who is a genial fifty-two, smiled and said "Hello" to you is better than whatever dialogue you wrote in your head for Crush Object. What you got from Mr. Brown was real human interaction. Mr. Brown is real. God made him. Crush Object in your head is not real. You made him. And the more you refine Crush Object in your head, the less likely you will be able to see the man you're basing him on, the man, like ordinary Mr. Brown, made by God.

My great regret in life at the moment (regrets I've had quite a few, a few too many to mention) is that in my youth I placed too little importance on real, ordinary human interactions, and too much importance on my own imaginings. And yet real life is fed by real, ordinary human interactions. These are that to which we must pay attention.

And now I'll end with my usual realist advice. At this point, I should write it in verse form and have it set to music, but here it is.

1. Men are attracted to women they think are beautiful and elegant, so don't leave the house without making an effort. Accept that you might appeal to a niche market instead of the mass market. Play up your most distinctive features. Wear flats if you are tiny. Wear heels if you are tall. Think Audrey Hepburn if you are thin. Think Queen Latifa if you most definitely are not.

2. Men want what they want, and if they want it badly enough, they will make an effort to get it. So there's no point in you chasing them down. Go where your sort of men are and see what happens. Smile at the men who talk to you, and don't talk too much. Show polite interest in what they say. Say things a stranger would actually find interesting in reply. Pretty is half the equation, smart seals the deal.

3. If you think a man might be interested in you but needs a bit of encouragement, invite him to a party hosted by you and your friends. Touch his arm when you talk to him at this party. Air-kiss him good-bye, if you are the type who can get away with such shenanigans.

4. Wait.

5. If he does not call you up or text you within three days, forget him. FORGET HIM AT ONCE. Do not hanker for what-might-have-been. Be open to embrace what-will-be. God knows better than you 100% of the time. Save your fantasies for short stories, and change all the names.


Julie said...

Oh blush blush blush. This is a hard teaching because I always seem to fall into it and then it is so demoralizing to have to realize it and fix it. Not to mention that one is doubly alone then at the end.

Don't get me started on Mr Brown, though. You (early 20s, a little heavyset, femininely dressed) will keep up the chit chat in order to be friendly and then one day he will bring up his ex-wife who was such a bitch, feminism really ruined society but you don't believe all that do you? And then it's either an invitation to dinner or unsolicited advice about being "more available" in order to catch a man. And then if you ever want to be able to walk to school in peace again you will have to say that you have to get home to plan your father's 50th birthday party. Yet another demoralizing experience.

(Is it just me, or do other readers seem to attract inordinate numbers of cynical middle-aged divorced men? Meanwhile, of course, I haven't been on an actual date in three years or a second date ever.)

Jennifer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jennifer said...

I was on the other side of this recently, and it was a bit disconcerting.

To make a long story as short as possible, I reconnected, through mutual friends and facebook, with a male friend from high school. We never dated in high school. Not even one date. I'd had a crush on him, briefly, in high school, but it didn't last once I realized he just wasn't as interested in me as he was in my circle of friends. We did go on one date in our sophmore year of college, but it was lukewarm at best - I just wasn't interested, but felt that I couldn't give him a firm no because we were friends.

Anyway, via facebook, he learned I would be attending a cousin's wedding about an hour from his current home, and suggested we catch up over lunch while I was there. About 10 minutes into this 'catch-up', he started a paragraph with, 'When we were dating each other in high school...' and it floored me. We NEVER dated in high school. I mentioned this, gently, and he was pretty persistent. He really remembered this thing that had NEVER happened. Even when my insistence became less gentle and decidedly firm, he was clinging to this misbelief, and was calling me nearly daily for awhile (until my failure to pick up the phone most of the time helped him understand my lack of interest).

It was both sad and a little creepy. Understanding the turns his life has taken in the time that we had not been in touch (20-some odd years) helps me to understand that he's probably just messed up from two drama-filled marriages that ended abruptly, and is engaging in some 'comforting' false nostalgia. But the end result is that my contact with him is now very limited, and I do not opt to catch up with him when I am visiting relatives in the area anymore.

theobromophile said...

(Laughing) at the last comment to "change all the names".

Wear flats if you are tiny. Wear heels if you are tall.

Since I'm almost 6 feet tall in heels... I <3 this! :)

Sheila said...

I love your comment that "you might appeal to a niche market." Very true -- why go for "basic pretty" when we all have our own little traits? Instead of short people trying to be taller and tall people trying to be shorter and fat people trying to look thin and thin people trying to look heavier, shouldn't we show our real selves so that we can find a guy who actually likes us without all the concealing makeup and carefully-chosen clothes?

After all, when it comes down to it, you only need one man.

Jennifer said...

I second that the advice that you might appeal to a niche market is so true. Besides, you are who you are - unless the things you are trying to correct can and should be corrected, why waste your time trying to be someone you are not, and failing at that? Because if that's not who you are, it's not going to work for long.

Seraphic said...

Oh dear, poor Mr Brown! He's just hurting. Bless his wee heart! No, you don't have to go out with him or any of his fellow 50-something divorced brethren, but bless his wee heart. He's Single, too, and without the advantages of being only 20-something.

Seraphic said...

Jennifer, that was just bonkers. But, given his two drama-filled marriages, perhaps not so surprising!

Theobromophile, my buddy Trish is also 6 feet in heels. And she looks fabulous in them!

Maggie said...

"Wear flats if you are tiny; wear heels if you are tall."
I'm 5'11 and have a closet full of 3-inch heels.


Seraphic said...


Seraphic said...


theobromophile said...

Oh, shoes are fun, and some of the most fun shoes are heels, so it's 6-foot-tall land pour moi. It's also fun when around men to be eye-level with them, but sometimes I feel like I'm towering over women, especially the shorter ones!

fifi said...

I too am 6 feet or over in heels, but mine is a sad tale indeed. I had some really high heels in college, and some really terrible winter boots, and the two of them combined gave me a stress fracture in my foot. So ladies, unless you want to spend a good four years in recovery, at least one of which will be pretty painful, unable to find shoes that are comfortable, and stuck with only certain kinds of athletic shoes and boring loafers, be very careful how much you abuse your feet! :(

Jessica said...

Not to turn the conversation away from shoes, but... :)
Auntie, do you have any advice for us on how to handle the fact that "fantasizing" is a common narrative arc in a lot of stories? I'm thinking of Jane Austen's "Persuasion," LM Montgomery's "Rilla of Ingleside" (and the Anne/Gilbert relationship), heck, even Odysseus and Penelope. It sounds so romantic: You're separated from your One True Love by circumstances or miscommuncation, but continue faithfully loving him (or her), until the situation is resolved and you can tearfully tell your lover, "I [read your letter/wove my rug/thought of you/etc., etc.] every day, and I never stopped loving you!"
Awww. Cute. But probably not a healthy model of relationships, right? What make those stories so attractive to us?

Alisha said...

I think what makes those stories attractive is that we are longing for the infinite - for the Love that is constant and doesn't we grasp on to the pale shadows we find of it here on earth.

As for not talking too much, I don't know what to think about that. I just happen to have a lot to say, so why shouldn't I say it so long as it's not rude or untimely? Likewise, why should a quiet girl desperately try to come up with interesting tales if it's not in her nature?
It's not that I necessarily talk about myself - I often ask a lot of questions to the other person to try to draw them out - but guys are always extremely entertained by my talking and I know this not only because they laugh and pay attention but because several have told me so, unprompted. If I was quiet, I would be bored because they often have less to say anyway, and they would be bored because they like hearing me's just hard not to see that sort of thing and think it resembles the kind of advice given to women in older times - i.e. that nice girls don't talk much or the equivalent of "children should be seen and not heard". Surely the creation of Anne of GG was in direct rebellion to these ideas - Anne is much more interesting, intelligent and spirited than the polite pretty girls, though she DOES get into scrapes and talks the hind leg off a mule.
I know that Seraphic is likely to say not to pay attention to me because I don't want to get married, but if I did, this would still be a question.
Do any of you ladies find you go where your type of men are - specifically if you are trying to meet someone who shares your faith and nobody seems to talk to you? I'd say it's much better to approach others - do it with a friend if you're shy - and talk with a whole bunch of people, so you'll be remembered as the nice, friendly girl, not to mention you won't be bored and lonely, and then the next time, others will probably be happy to see you because you came and spoke to them last time...

Seraphic said...

Anne of Green Gables, like other respectable women of the 19th century, did not approach strange men, except when canvassing for donations for the Avonlea Village Improvement Society. Montgomery contrasts her lively and straight-shooting friendliness with that of Ruby Gillis, who flirted and smashed hearts left and right.

Anne's lively spirits and friendliness were usually on display in non-dating situations. For most of the books, she is socializing with female friends--female friends of all ages. And, of course, she maintains social relationships with crusty old male neighbours, little boys, pupils, et al. For the most part, Anne is a great role model.

The one place where I think Anne was not emotionally developed was in her sexuality. If Anne did become a Catholic "bride of heaven", then I think we could say, yes, of course, Anne was called to celibate life. However, as everybody in the universe hoped, eventually Anne gets engaged to Gilbert and marries him three years later.

I've estimated that Anne was about 25 when she married, which in the 1890s was considered a bit elderly. (Most of Anne's same-age friends, you'll notice, marry long before Anne does.) Anne simply wanted to prolong her childhood, and I've often felt that she was very unfair to Gilbert, who wanted to get on with adult life. It's all very romantic that Gilbert waited for so long, and that he was willing for Anne to grow up.
But let's face it: Anne had some growing up to do. Happily, she did it. Come to think of it, Diana's patience with Anne was quite meritorious, too.

I think Alisha is absolutely spot on that we fantasize about these deathless loves because we long for the Infinite. We long for God, but we don't know it because we are scandalized by Michaelangelo's and Da Vinci's dumb depictions of God as a muscular, white-bearded old man. Our own erotic thoughts about eternal love despite all obstacles may be a better clue to God than the paintings.

The great mistake is thinking than men and merely human love are much like God and God's love. Our fantastic imaginary images become idols, not only distracting us from God but from His really, truly, particular creatures, the men we base these images on.

Really, a woman must always remember that man-in-crushing-imagination is never the man in real life.

Men must remember this, too. The saddest thing for my ex-husband, and it is a real tragedy, worse for him than for me, I suspect, was that he thought I was someone else, the girl in his imagination who had a lot in common with Jane Austen's Elizabeth Bennett. It was horrible for him to find out that I was NOT this girl. And it was horrible for me, who did love him to some extent, to see HIS horror at the reality of me.

You think being rejected before you are married is bad; try being rejected afterwards by someone who nevertheless is determined to make the best of a bad job. And then, when you leave, hearing from him and his friends how he keeps talking about BOTH (A) what an angel he has lost and (B) what a bitch his friends and parents say you were.

Goodness! What made me go there, I wonder? Oh yes--fantasy people, and the impossibility of living up to someone's fantasies about you. Ugh! Long live reality!

Seraphic said...

When I say "don't talk too much", I say it because many, many women do talk too much on a first date. They are nervous, and so they talk "the hind leg off a donkey", which Anne got told off for several times as a child and GREW OUT OF.

Talking too much about oneself is a major turn-off to both women and men, but very easy to do when you are nervous and afraid to allow a period of silence in conversations.

I'm not sure if it is worthwhile pointing out to Alisha that she is unusually pretty and feminine-looking and therefore, if she lost the ability to speak and sing, men would still find her madly attractive, either for her looks or for her dancing. (Hmm. I wonder if that is the perhaps disturbing message of "The Little Mermaid"?)

If Alisha were interested in slowing down long enough to be caught, I would give her an hour-long personalized lecture on how to do that. But she isn't, so I won't! :-D

theobromophile said...

Much as Alisha's advice applies best to women who are not looking to marry, and Seraphic's, to Searching Singles, this is directed only at extroverts who are dating (or befriending) introverts: please, please do a lot of the talking!

I used to be painfully shy - as in, found it somewhat painful and stressful to talk to people I didn't know well. Sometimes, people would come along and be more than happy to do the heavy lifting in the conversation, which was (in my world) a really wonderful thing. Usually, asking people about themselves can be a great conversation starter, but sometimes, asking about their take on the movie you just saw and adding in your own opinions is great.

Seraphic will probably take this advice and throw disclaimers, addenda, and footnotes onto the thing, which is a good thing.

You think being rejected before you are married is bad; try being rejected afterwards by someone who nevertheless is determined to make the best of a bad job. And then, when you leave, hearing from him and his friends how he keeps talking about BOTH (A) what an angel he has lost and (B) what a bitch his friends and parents say you were.

Oh, no. I've dated men who were trying to date someone else (someone they thought I was or ex-girlfriends or replacements for the ex)... taking that and extrapolating to marriage is horrific. Ouch, ouch, ouch, Seraphic!

theobromophile said...

Um... obviously I'm not running on all cylinders today. What I should have just said is, if you're dealing with a Matthew, channeling your inner Anne is a good thing.

Alisha said...

Ha ha! Very good points, replete with references to my beloved Anne :) A few thoughts:

Part 1
Anne may be a a great role model in some respects I don't find it useful to use her male/female interactions as an example (I just brought her up for the "excessive talking" issue), because we're not in the 19th century and I'm not entirely positive the way of interacting then was better anyway.
I disagree though that Anne wanted to delay adult life. She had, unlike a lot of her friends, ambitions that went beyond marriage - college, writing, learning to teach, and responsibilities she took on - like helping Marilla out.
I don't think she was unfair to Gilbert at all...first of all, it took her a long time to get past the humiliation of how he treated her - I'd say he had to grow up too. And when they finally were friends, she wasn't playing with his heart; I think she genuinely believed she wasn't in love with him and/or was also afraid of losing him if their friendship changed.
Ruby Gillis may have smashed hearts, but she also died of consumption after meeting her love. Yes, I know that has nothing to do with anything...but really, would you have continued to read books about Ruby rather than Anne? They would have been boring...

Alisha said...

Part 2
"Our fantastic imaginary images become idols, not only distracting us from God but from His really, truly, particular creatures, the men we base these images on."

Wisdom 13:1-9 speaks to this; one of my favourites.

The little mermaid? Of course! Remember the lyrics in the Sea Witch's song?
"You'll have your looks! Your pretty face! And don't underestimate the importance of body language! Ha!
The men up there don't like a lot of blabber
They think a girl who gossips is a bore
Yes, on land it's much preferred
For ladies not to say a word
And after all, dear, what is idle prattle for?
Come on, they're not all that impressed with conversation
True gentlemen avoid it when they can
But they dote and swoon and fawn
On a lady who's withdrawn
It's she who holds her tongue who gets her man!"

BUT it wasn't until the prince heard Ariel's voice that he was sure she was the one he'd fallen for :) All these redheaded protagonists - always talking or singing!
And thank you Seraphic for your kind compliments...I am very flattered! I firmly believe that no matter which way it looks, "A man chases a girl until she catches him" ;) the amazing Donald O'Connor sings here...I mean, seriously, how could Marilyn Monroe NOT fall in love with him? Enjoy!

Seraphic Spouse said...

Oh my, Alisa, are you saying that I am the Sea Witch in this scenario? :-D

Actually, I was thinking of the original Hans Christian Anderson tale, not Disney!

But, oh goodness, there is a world between being utterly voiceless and prattling on and on. Of course, one should put in one's own opinion in social conversations, but only with enough attention to other's opinions, too. And never underestimate the importance of intelligent questions.

Alisha said...

Of course you are not the sea witch...but in the HCA story, she never wins the prince but becomes the foam on the crest of the waves. If she hadn't given up her voice, she could have told the prince it was horrible of him to entertain her affections only to go off and marry the temple girl/princess. The jerk. He wasn't worth it - but as far as I'm concerned, she was on a losing path once she gave up her voice :(

Seraphic said...

Well, Alisha, EE-ZACTLY. I advise women not to chatter on dates, but I would never advise them to give up their voices! I have quite a bold voice myself, I daresay!