I lived with my former husband for six years before we married. At the four year point I suggested I liked the idea of getting married. He was not so sure. When he agreed to talk to a therapist about his feelings he came home to tell me the therapist had diagnosed him with “Magical Thinking”.
“What’s Magical Thinking?” I asked.
“It’s thinking that if you’ve never felt those butterflies and excitement with someone, they’re not 'The One'.”
This came as a pretty big slap in the face to be told by the person I’d been building a life with that he’d never felt excitedly in love with me. And honestly I’d never, at that point, felt terribly smitten with anyone other than Scott Bayo in 1976 and a few middle school crushes. In my defense I said, “Well, I don’t feel that way about you. But we’re pretty compatible, don’t you think?”
“Yes, we’re compatible.” he concurred. I gave it another few years of equivocating commitments before I broke up with him. Then I enrolled in a graduate program on the other side of the country. Three months later, he flew out and proposed to me on the outer banks of North Carolina. Clearly, he had decided that Magical Thinking had sabotaged what was, by and large, a great relationship.
In hindsight, I still wonder if our lack of mutual infatuation was a harbinger of my eventual decision to quit the marriage. Had we been convinced of our certain destiny and experienced euphoria together, perhaps our conflicts wouldn’t have been interpreted by me as a lack of deep emotional alignment. We had plenty of good times over 23 years. And I knew if I fell off the boat in croc-infested waters, he’d be the first to jump in after me. Ours was a marriage high on compatibility. But it was ultimately low on respect and beset with hot hotheadedness. Was the absence of magical feelings to blame?
Then, shortly after becoming single at 49, I met a man who made me believe in soul mates. I felt a hypothalamus-flipping tingle shoot through my body the moment I saw his photo on a dating site. The day we met, all my past struggles to feel that somebody really got me evaporated, and I was consumed with the certainty this guy was my true and everlasting love. Within months we were discussing how to live the rest of our lives together. Yet, for reasons having to do with my mind-bending menopause, and the fact I had huge personal issues to work through, we parted ways after less than a year. I’ve compared every relationship since to that one. And it’s driving me nuts.
I’m vexed by desiring the infatuation again and assigning it significance. Yet I disparage the soul mate trope. The few times I’ve experienced those jacked up chemicals, the relationship has ended abruptly and I’ve had to dig myself out of a deep pit of pain. Now I’m a skittish critter, suspicious of that ecstasy yet secretly desiring it. Will I be settling for mediocrity if I stop looking for that sense of divine calibration and psychic sureness which accompanies such passion? Is finding a soul mate life’s greatest gift or its most certain disappointment?
Through the process of grieving the loss of this man, I came across a quote by Elizabeth Gilbert:
“People think a soul mate is your perfect fit, and that’s what everyone wants. But a true soul mate is a mirror, the person who shows you everything that is holding you back, the person who brings you to your own attention so you can change your life. A true soul mate is probably the most important person you’ll ever meet, because they tear down your walls and smack you awake. But to live with a soul mate forever? Nah. Too painful. A soul mate’s purpose is to shake you up, tear apart your ego a little bit, show you your obstacles and addictions, break your heart open so new light can get in, make you so desperate and out of control that you have to transform your life.”
Amen to that.
Besides, at midlife I’m beginning to feel I no longer have the wherewithal to express an uncynical level of adoration. It’s like losing the thrill for Christmas once we hit thirteen. Could this be emotional self-preservation? If I take it to an extreme, it would be the choice to live a single life, avoiding completely the possibility of conflict. The first time I got to renovate a house after divorce it was the most enjoyable thing I’d ever done. I had the design vision and didn’t have to compromise on anything from wall color to drawer pulls. Why should I put that kind of ease in jeopardy again by partnering with a man (who all have their own opinions, I’m told)?
Alain de Botton encourages us to abandon a romantic understanding of love in favor of a psychological one. After rebelling against arranged marriage and political unions, we have, for hundreds of years, been hung up on how we feel about someone rather than considering how we will best live in harmony with them. De Botton proclaims Romanticism has ruined love. And if you read this rational rumination, you’ll likely agree. But then I’ve got all sorts of Instagram voices shouting at me to listen to my gut. “True love feels like coming home to yourself.” writes Leisse Wilcox, transformational mindset coach. My ‘soul mate’ felt that way. But wouldn’t it be more interesting to come home to someone a bit different than myself, I ask myself?
I described my dilemma not long ago with a reader who has become a helpful critic. I told him I had three choices: decide to live happily single (and perhaps get around to learning ukulele); commit to a companionable, comfortable partnership; or hold out for another knock my socks off experience (and then try to build that into something that might last). His advice, given mostly to encourage vulnerability in my writing, was something we could all use to question our concepts of love: “…go deep into the forces at work, [explore] some science. Go back into the emotions…”
He then suggested I read anything by Dan and Chip Heath, writers of books about organizational and personal change. I chose Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. What surprised me was that a book written largely for transforming a business mindset was helping me further cultivate a way of thinking about love. Switch employs the analogy of the “Rider” and “Elephant”, by psychologist Jonathan Haidt. The Rider represents our rational side trying to control the massive Elephant which represents our emotional side. My Elephant clearly wants to be swept away by another surge of dopamine and serotonin, triggered by that elusive ‘soul mate’.
But my Rider sees the folly of being controlled by feelings. The Rider is a thinker, planner, and helps to chart our path. However, the Rider’s weakness is her tendency to over-analyze problems. If there’s anyone guilty of over-analysis, it’s me. And yet, if my Rider and Elephant can’t agree on the Path, the powerful Elephant wins. And Elephants tend to destroy villages and denude landscapes. Not my idea of a good relationship.
What Switch also touches upon is the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. The man who abruptly dumped me last year told me people our age “don’t change”. His was a fixed mindset. In retrospect I’m glad we didn’t make it. I took my grief and made significant progress in overcoming my anxieties and anger. I’m a true believer in growth even though change can be really uncomfortable. It’s the only way we get to the kind of ‘Switch’ the Heath brothers describe. By understanding that the Elephant is the stronger beast but that the Rider is in charge, we become smart enough to convince our excitable Elephants to go the productive direction.
The relationship that has surprisingly benefited most from working through my concept of love is the one I have with my son. I’ve never been a fan of babies, not even my own. I actually felt a sinking dread the moment my son was born. But now that my baby is a pre-teen, I’m flipped out in love with him. The relationship with my son has become magical, rather than starting out that way. If you’ve been a parent and can look back at child rearing with a sense of awe and delight, it’s likely you’ll take a more generous view of love and what it takes to create something of value with another person.
What has also helped recently with this Magical Thinking question was a somewhat oblique conversation I had with a man I’m becoming increasingly fond of. I asked him, “Have you ever had a relationship you still idolize?” Without trying to mollify my possible fears or press me into confessing my own he simply said, “I think every relationship is a unique combination. So I don’t really compare them.” It was one of those moments when you realize someone your own age is actually a lot more grown up than you are.
I think we can experience the bliss of soulmate-ness through the gradual unfolding of small moments rather than a Big Bang of blinding certainty. Magic can develop after the time it takes to feel safe with someone, to feel that we possess a mutual respect and affection, to experience sex getting better the more we practice and connect emotionally (which has almost always been the case in my post-menopausal sensual life). We can create an abiding, imperfectly perfect, nurturing love without the sense that this person need trigger our tectonic plates. Will my life be good if I never again use cocaine? Absolutely. But maybe that’s a high some of us won’t give up seeking. (I’ve actually only tried cocaine once and the only thing it did was keep me up all night, a bit paranoid, but I hear some people like it.)
The fact is, I’m telling you this in order to convince myself it’s true, to get over the man who still haunts me and makes my Elephant want to rampage across the Atlantic. I may continue to be nostalgic for him, and certainly grateful we met. But I’m pretty sure I won’t let these past feelings get in the way of loving someone who creates with me a unique combination with potential to thrive. Business, parenting, love; all these things need to be governed by a blend of the rational and emotional. When I believe this, I feel less anxious. To me, happiness in love is an absence of anxiety. That may sound embittered and cynical but I can’t think of anything more important to my well being.
I want the slow ride to love. The consistent, unflustered, calming lover. And honestly, I look forward to creating a home again some day with a partner, even though renovations are easier done alone. I don’t want to feel this is a compromise but a choice. I will enjoy the cadence of a slow, lumbering Elephant, on a path with a long view, content with the memory of those fireworks but happy that my rational Rider is in charge.
There are no mistakes in love, there are only choices. Magical Thinking is to make a choice governed by impulse, chemicals, lust and cultural fairy tales. Real magic happens after years of being your best and worst self with another person and depositing more good times than bad into your mutual fund. Then choosing each other every day, butterflies or not. That will ultimately be true, deep emotional alignment.