The Narrative Arc

Posted on January 10, 2011


I recently found one of my high school best friends, H., on Facebook.  H and I were fiercely connected–I was her labor coach when she had her first baby at 19–but we lost touch after I returned to DC for good.  (The first picture of H’s I saw on Facebook was of that now-16-year-old baby and I honestly thought she was her mother.)  Since then, H’s story has taken a surprising turn.  At our ten year high school reunion, in 2003, H. was seated at the same table as her high school boyfriend, T.  They hadn’t seen each other for close to a decade; she was married with two kids, and he was engaged.

They moved in together within six months, and were married within a year.  They’re deliriously happy; she just posted a picture of them at their junior prom, and they both wear the same besotted grin on their faces then as they do in pictures taken now.  T., famously laconic and reserved since forever, told her shortly after they rekindled the romance that in all the years they were apart, he could never really picture himself being happy with anyone else, but he thought he was just being foolish until he saw her again.

Two of my college roommates wound up marrying each other.  They met, briefly hooked up, and became fast friends at the beginning of freshman year.  Over the next four years, they worked together, fooled around, dated other people seriously, and then eventually went their separate ways.  He moved in with his high school girlfriend, with whom he’d maintained a rocky romance throughout, and she started her predictably brilliant career.  More than two years after graduation, the rocky relationship crashed apart for its final time.  They’ d seen each other casually since school ended, but when she heard about this breakup my friend bought a plane ticket and went straight to him.  They’ve been together ever since, and just had a baby.  I think she knew all along how the story would go; I don’t know what happened that fateful weekend, but I know she seized the day.

My boss dated her husband for seven years before they got married.  He was a consummate bachelor, not interested in marriage and family life in the slightest.  Though he was nothing like the other guys she had been with, she says she just knew he was the one, and hung on to him through every feint and dodge he made.  She’s a knockout and a flirt; shoals of dazed men stumble in her wake everywhere we go, but he was the one she wanted, and so he was the one she got.  Her relationship advice is always, If you know what you want, ride it out.  Wait for it, if it’s worth it.

Of course, if these stories hadn’t had happy endings, they’d be merely cautionary tales about delusional people who gambled foolishly and lost big.  The guy who sabotaged all of his intimate relationships because he was hung up on his high school girlfriend.  The college sweethearts who were always left to wonder what if. The spinster who waited too long for the wrong man and missed her chance to find happiness and a create a family with someone else.

So how do you know if the journey you’re embarked upon is a fool’s errand or a hero’s quest?  When the chips you have to play–your tender hopes, your self-respect, your faith in other people’s goodness, your passion–start to dwindle, how do you decide whether it’s worth it to go all in and hope for the right cards to fall at the last minute, or to hold what chips remain close to your chest, and learn to make do?

What is the mysterious algorithm that determines who ends up alone and who doesn’t, and why can’t wishing and trying and bargaining change your outcome?  For as many people as I know whose stories turned out to be duets, I know at least as many who ended up alone, despite every effort not to.  What of them?  Never mind how society judges single people. especially women, and finds them lacking–how do you judge the success of your own life if the one thing you really wanted remains stubbornly out of reach?

An old boss and mentor of mine used to say, on days when I was frustrated or wounded by someone’s behavior, or angry over an imagined slight, You don’t know what their story is, so don’t judge too harshly. Would you be less incensed if you knew that she was preoccupied by an ill parent?  Or that the woman he loves told him it was over last night?  I still use this mantra when small things irritate me–a stolen parking space, an elevator door shut in my face, a nasty email out of the blue. And when I overreact, snip and snipe at someone who doesn’t deserve it because something else is on my mind, I try to circle back and say I’m sorry.  I was thoughtless and rude, and I should have been more kind.

Maybe if, in dating and love, we could all give each other the benefit of the doubt and extend the kindnesses we’d like to receive ourselves, we could manipulate the narrative arc somehow.  I hear people who have been in relationships for three or five or seven years say they’re “pretty sure” their partner is the person they want to make a life with, and I think, What the fuck are you waiting for, a personal message hand-delivered from God? The words “she’s the one” mysteriously burnt into your morning toast by a higher power?  For every lover who’s “pretty sure”, there’s another half of the equation staring sleeplessly at the ceiling in the wee hours, calculating risk and reward possibilities and gauging the fragility of their own heart like a tongue probing a sore tooth.

If human beings are social animals, wired for love and happier together–and I believe wholeheartedly that we are–why is it all so hard?

Posted in: Dating, On Love