The heart has its reasons which reason does not know. – Blaise Pascal
From the moment I set foot in my first corporate job – in 1995 – I knew I wanted to work for myself. I couldn’t exactly articulate why – I just knew. Of course, it took 10 years, a lot of detours, and a fuckload of courage to do it. Though I’ve told anyone who’ll listen that the reason I finally made the leap wasn’t so much about courage as it was that I’d lost everything else in life and was truly not in my right mind when I did it. I’d also just watched three friends – all under 35 – become widows. Three friends deliver stillborn babies. I was reeling from my divorce, my father-in-law’s passing, my own father’s three brushes with death, and my mother’s battle with cancer. My life was by no means tragic, but I’d become painfully aware that it was horrifically short. Even if all of the struggles weren’t mine, it was foolish to not heed the lessons each imparted. There’s something about surviving – or witnessing – the upending of life that makes you realize how very little is permanent or predictable, and suddenly you don’t want to waste time. You become very much about “Why not?” – or as we improvisers call it, “Yes, and.” You stop questioning and start nodding. Stop analyzing and start moving. Stop fearing and start living.
For me, the greatest lesson was divorce, which is as much – if not more – about shattered expectations and the loss of a dream as it is about the loss of a person, a relationship. You feel completely disillusioned: “What? I thought this was supposed to be forever.” Here was someone you swore – in front of God and everybody – you’d stick with ’til death, for better or worse. And suddenly, the worst has happened and you haven’t kept your promise. And you feel like shit and a liar and completely naive for believing there was a guarantee.
But there are no guarantees. EVER. Because, even in marriage, despite the ceremony and the vows and the marriage certificate, it’s all a choice. Relationships are a choice. EVERY DAY. You have to actively wake up each and every morning and choose this person. Someone once explained to me why she hadn’t married the father of her children, with whom she’d been in a relationship for over a decade. Until that point, I’d always thought people like that were really weird and commitment-phobic and fucked up. But her point resonated with me:
“I think people get lazy when they’re married. Like once everything is signed and sealed and tied up with a bow, they stop working at the relationship. They stop choosing each other. It’s very easy for me or my partner to walk away because we’re not married. Every day, we HAVE to choose to be here and work on it.”
Upon hearing this, I realized I hadn’t continued to make that choice in my marriage. And although I’m not sure perpetual cohabitation is an option for me, I now understand the importance of choosing to be with someone, whether you have a ring on your finger or not.
And who should that person be? How do you determine the qualities of a suitable partner? Years ago, I spent a good deal of therapy sessions talking about what I wanted in a partner, making note of my “must-haves” (intelligence, ambition, work they’re passionate about, integrity, dark hair) and “dealbreakers” (mental illness, substance abuse, no life or friends or interests of their own). Then one afternoon, my friend Jill looked me square in the eyes and said:
“Nicole. All that matters is how someone makes you feel.”
Oh. RIGHT. How do you feel with someone? Do you feel happy? Do you look forward to seeing them? Do you think of them often – and fondly? Do you feel – dare I say it – safe? Jill told me that her boyfriend “feels like home” to her. None of these descriptors are particularly sexy, but really – this is all that matters. When a friend of mine was clinging to a woman he wasn’t really into – going through his checklist of what was good and not-so-good about her, I finally said to him, “How does she make you feel? Do you like her? Do you like being with her? Stop overanalyzing and check in with your heart.”
One of my dearest friends is twice-divorced and has been with her current partner for six years. I once asked her – after having been married to two very different men – what she believes is the #1 ingredient in a relationship. Her response?
Not necessarily “tearing-your-underwear-off-with-my-teeth” passion (although, really, who can complain about that), but passion for the other person. Strong feelings of respect, admiration, love, and desire – desire to be with them, near them. She said, “Without that, it becomes very difficult to work through tough times.”
Relationships aren’t a careful calculation of qualities and traits and hobbies and likes and dislikes – as the fucked-up smorgasbord “perfect person is just a click away” world of online dating would like us to believe. Every site out there tries to convince us they have the ideal formula for helping you find your soulmate, when the real challenge is to just trust your feelings – and then make a choice. It’s not anything that can be measured or explained. It’s how someone moves you – rocks you to the core. It’s knowing the difference between intuition and fear, which is another little inside voice that sounds a lot like intuition, but isn’t. It’s False Evidence Appearing Real. So how do you make the distinction, especially when it comes to love? There’s lots of kumbaya shit out there about how to “go inside yourself” and “get quiet within” in order to distinguish between the two. If you’re like me, you’re too hyper and impatient to crunch on that granola. So here’s a simpler solution, in the wise words of my friend Janya’s father near the end of his life:
“Don’t choose someone you can live with. Choose someone you can’t live without.”