For about twelve years of my life, I thought I was incapable of love. I lost interest in everyone I dated. The irony is that the reason I felt incapable of love was because…. I was already in love.
When I was 12, I fell in love with a peripheral figure in my life… someone I could love from afar and on whom I could project a Pygmalion fantasy. I really believed it was my destiny to marry him and it wasn’t until I got sick of missing my real life that I moved on… to an unhealthy four year on-and-off relationship. Maybe I just used them as stand-ins for romantic connections before I was ready to form a real relationship. Maybe I really loved them. It doesn’t matter. What matters is this: when I was fixated on them, I wouldn’t give myself permission to love anyone else. But once I moved on from the second relationship, my heart was blown open.
“The best way to get over someone is to get under somebody else.” This mantra works under one condition: you WANT to move past the last relationship. As in, maybe you still have residual feelings and you think about that person every day, but if there were a button you could push that would ensure that you never dated/slept with that person ever again, you would push it. Or, if you were never able to talk to that person again, you’d be really, truly, OK. Because otherwise, this is the dialogue you’ll have on a new date: “This guy is nice and cute, but he’s not Ross.” Or more to the point: “This person is great; but if I fall in love with her, it will mean saying goodbye, forever, to Rachel.”
You will not fall in love until you give yourself permission to. I could not love again until I replaced “Loving you means saying goodbye to Eric” with “Let me find out if you could be the one.” It sounds like obvious advice: you have to get over your ex before you can move on to someone else. But it’s more actionable than you think. Break it down. What is the sacrifice you’d be making if you invested in a new person? Is it the chance to reunite with an ex? Is it the chance to reach out in two months to that guy who wasn’t ready yet for a relationship? Or does it have nothing to do with another person? Here are some other reasons I haven’t given myself permission to love: “A relationship could prevent my planned move to New York. It’s cheaper to be single. I think he’s hot, but my family doesn’t. We wouldn’t have the financial security I’m looking for. If I invest now, I could miss somebody else who’s out there- and I’m too young to risk that.” None of these reasons have anything to do with the man’s attributes or our connection. It’s all about a sacrifice that I don’t want to make. So how do you let love in? Give yourself permission.
Arranged consensual marriages in cultures that support them (i.e. NOT “Married at First Site” or “The Proposal”) report higher satisfaction and lower divorce rates than free-choice marriages. Here’s my theory: when there is strong social support around a union, and you have confidence in the “rightness” of your decision, you are able to orient yourself contentedly towards it. It is a culturally sanctioned match, and the onus is on you to accept, rather than to decide. You accept the other person; you don’t decide whether they are worthy. Once we are oriented towards accepting, it is so much easier to view the other person favorably and to participate in their growth- instead of seeing them as an extension of our ego.
There is something so moving about this to me- we are capable of falling in love with so many more people than we think, just by giving ourselves full permission to. But it begs these questions: Why don’t we give ourselves permission? Why do we expect to collide with love, instead of creating it? Why do we conflate dopamine with fulfillment? I think we can certainly turn to culture. Media explanations are so exhausted I won’t go into them, but it does seem true that American culture pushes the idea that we are supposed to find the very best partner possible, and that you can’t succeed in love until you achieve your own self-realization. I think that’s absolutely insane, because it assumes there is an apex to this process and that it is achieved sometime in your 20s or 30s. But it also undermines the idea that people can grow together and because of each other. My therapist keeps telling me to stop flipping to the end of the story and instead read it with the expectation that it will develop. So how do you open yourself to love? Forgive the person for not being your own personal Galatea. Have faith in development. And orient yourself towards accepting them. Want to like them, and you probably will.
….Unless they are just too out of sync with your values. This is the actionable part of permission: figure out when you can and cannot give it, and stop wasting time pretending like you’ve found an exception to your rule. I have a friend who is older but wants kids. Every time he dates women in their 40s I tell him to cut it out: he will fall for the initial dopamine rush of the connection, and then he will turn against her because it would mean sacrificing what he really wants. If you require financial security? Don’t date young partners with uncertain careers. You will associate them with stress and guilt and the connection will die. And don’t feel bad about it either, it’s a waste of time. If you are moving to a new city and not open to a long distance relationship, if you need to experience being single, if you need to “focus on your band,” just DO THAT. But if you think (and not in the haze of infatuation with some new flavor of the week) that you could budge on your values, then sit down and give yourself permission to do so. If you’re still hurting from a past relationship, but truly want to move on, push the button. Visualize it. Make it out of cardboard if you need to. If you could live with fewer children, with a lower salary, with someone less than your current rigid standards of attraction, or someone with a different sexuality or gender identity, then say it out loud. Make that permission official. And don’t hold it against whoever you meet. Once you give yourself permission, you commit to curiosity. Instead of “prove why I should give up what I really want/am comfortable with for you,” it’s “let’s see where this goes.”
Quick tie-in with The Bachelor? You give yourself permission because that’s what you’re there to do. Falling in love with the lead aligns with your entire purpose during that time. It is the best way to have a full, intense experience. It is the best way to last. It’s the best way to get airtime. It’s the only way to win. I remember saying “I think I could make the decision to fall in love.” I knew Arie and I had some fundamentally mismatched values. But I also thought I could accept him for who he was if I allowed myself to, and I saw the potential for tremendous growth together. Ultimately, though, I wanted my work more. I pulled back from the precipice of that decision, and went home.