When they say ‘I love you,’ don’t take it personally.
Some years ago I was having dinner with my girlfriend, Liz; among other items on my plate was a heaping mound of mashed potatoes. When Liz noticed I had finished eating all of my potatoes, she instantly ladled another scoop onto my plate, without asking. She had done this before, and I felt I needed to say something:
“Please don’t automatically give me more food without checking first to see if I want more.”
It was a short-lived but friendly relationship, and about six months later she was living happily with a new man, one of my housemates, Steve. He had apparently been climbing out of his upstairs window, descending from the roof and sneaking up the block to Liz’s house for several weeks before it became clear that I didn’t mind passing the torch to him, and he started using the front door. Before long, I was invited to join them for dinner, and I observed an astounding phenomenon. As fate would have it, we were again eating mashed potatoes. Steve was a robust guy in his early 20s with a hearty appetite, and no sooner had he devoured his potatoes, I watched with great interest as Liz immediately served him another portion. Without missing a beat, Steve dug in and happily finished those off as well.
Meanwhile, I was formulating a theory about love: it’s nothing personal. Love is generic. Unromantic, perhaps, but I am asserting that Liz’s style of expressing love manifested, in part, by doling out mashed potatoes freely and with a certain reckless abandon. What she needed in a mate was someone who loved receiving as many potatoes as she could dish out. Steve was the man of her dreams.
I began to reflect on my previous relationship, with Cathy. Her way of expressing love was to make me beautifully crafted cards, containing little feathers pasted onto homemade rice paper, with three-dimensional, pop-up flaps and folds hiding fragments of poetry and mystical messages. Each card was both a masterpiece of art as well as a maze filled with surprises. Several years after we had separated, we got together and were running errands. We stopped into a crafts store where she loaded her basket with an assortment of baubles, fixatives and unusual miniature artifacts she needed for something she was creating for Jim, her new boyfriend.
Again, I got it: love is generic. Cathy just needed somebody out there to serve as an excuse for her to enjoy her creativity. It could be virtually anyone. Now Jim was the lucky recipient of all the little cards with the feathers and poetry. It made little difference to Cathy; she was happy as long as there was someone to make cards for, just as Liz needed a potatophile. So the next time your mate says, “I love you,” don’t take it personally. They would love anybody in your position.
My personal idiosyncrasy in love is that I like for both of us to have the same cute little pet name for each other. With Cathy, it was “George.” She was George and I was George. Later, with Tammy, it was “Noodles.” She was Noodles and I was Noodles. Sometimes we were both Noodlebrain. We had conversations like “You’re a noodlebrain.” “No, you’re the noodlebrain.” “No, you are.” (When we reached the point of actually naming each of her toes, however, we broke up.) But it doesn’t matter who I’m with; I am eventually compelled to introduce this element into the relationship. If I remain with the same partner longer than a few years, the name is bound to evolve. About a year ago my wife and I finally graduated from our “Plunky” stage and moved on to “Schnaby,” a diminutive derived from noted director Julian Schnabel. (I can’t really explain it beyond that, except to say that it did commence after we watched The Diving Bell and The Butterfly.)
With Noodles, it eventually became clear that our generic love styles really didn’t match. She took it personally, for example, when, after love-making one night, I declared, “I find the human body absolutely disgusting.” Had she been a proper generic love match, she would have heard those words as post-coital terms of endearment. I mean, if Jerry said that to Elaine on Seinfeld (they were a romantic couple in the early seasons), would she have gotten all bent out of shape? Of course not; she would have agreed and chimed in. Another time I made the mistake of confessing to Noodles that I had dreamt that her head was a raisin and I had eaten it. Again, she got very upset. Fortunately, that time I was rescued by her best friend, a Brazilian woman, who understood and exclaimed, “No no, that very sweet, that mean he love you. He eat you like delicious raisin.”
The implication of all this is that if you’re still looking for your perfect match, just keep being who you are, doing things the way you’ve always done them, until someone basically slides into place. If your way of expressing love is to bicker incessantly about inane matters—”WHY DID YOU USE A PAPER CLIP WHEN YOU COULD HAVE STAPLED IT, FOR CHRISSAKES???”—keep it up; the wrong partners will not put up with it. But I promise you, somewhere out there is someone who needs to have that kind of argument; a paper clip libertine, perhaps.
I was showering at a friend’s apartment once, and he told me later that if I had stood there after showering for only three minutes before reaching for the towel, the towel would have gotten remarkably less wet, dried out sooner, increased his shower-per-towel stats and reduced his laundry loads. As a guest, I dismissed all this as pathology, but I couldn’t help considering his wife with profound curiosity. What was her half of this generic love exchange? Was she some kind of towel preservation nut as well? I pictured the poor woman shivering in the shower stall, silently counting, waiting for her three minutes to be up.
John Gray, the famed author of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus has an audiotape I listened to which revealed that generic love has reached a level of the impersonal that even I found staggering: for the literarily-challenged, he actually reads a one-size-fits-all love letter on the tape and invites male listeners to adapt the letter to their own situation! A mass-market Cyrano! Ladies, beware; the next time you receive a missive of love, demand a complete bibliography that lists all sources. Gray also suggests on the tape that a good idea for men to try, when their women are upset with them, is to buy them flowers. I was personally stunned by this information. (In any event, I personally think a more accurate title for his book would be, Men Are From Mars And Venus, And So Are Women, So Good Luck!)
I came to all these conclusions in my early 40s, nearly two decades ago; thus, when I reached the age of 44, still single and searching for a mate, I was no longer looking for romance or chemistry. My more modest goal was simply to find someone who could essentially stand having me around merely because of some utterly mundane connection we shared: we both, perhaps, learned in elementary school to imitate an elephant using both arms dangling in front of us with hands clasped, as the trunk, swinging to an fro, whereas the majority of the kid population uses only one arm; or perhaps the fact that I know all of the words to “The Beverly Hillbillies” theme song, and she does a decent rendition of “Gilligan’s Island”; I rarely floss, she has no teeth; I still have a slinky, she carries around bubbles. Something. All perfectly good reasons to marry. (And we did; it was primarily the elephant thing. And the slinky.)
There is a dialogue in Fiddler On The Roof that perfectly concludes this study. Yente, the matchmaker, says to her friend Avram,
“Avram, I have a perfect match for your son, a wonderful girl.”
“Who is it?” Avram asks.
“Rochel, the shoemaker’s daughter.”
“Rochel? But she can hardly see, she’s almost blind.”
“Tell the truth, Avram, is your son so much to look at? The way she sees and the way he looks, it’s a perfect match!”
This post was originally published on PsychologyToday.com.