The Rules of Engagement
I’ve been thinking about the rules of attracting a mate lately. You know the ones. Some are probably holdovers from the days of courtly love. I’m talking about the ones no one really teaches us, but we can quote them more quickly and accurately than we can the First Amendment or the Ten Commandments. (Pick your politics.) They are:
1) Love comes when you least expect it.
2) Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
3) You must love yourself before love will find you.
4) Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free.
There are variations of the above but all fit comfortably in one of the four above groups. For instance, if you’ve read enough self-help books or watched movies like Runaway Bride, you’ll recognize a combination of 1 and 3. That is, you might love someone, but until you quit being devoted to your love of them and learn to make hideous lampshade art on your own like Julia Roberts almost always does in whatever movie she is in, you will not find true love. A variation of 4 that I prefer because I am mildly lactose intolerant is that you must withhold your love if you expect the object of your affection to return your warm feelings.
I’ve followed most of these rules, off and on, with some regularity, and I can’t say that any of them work. For me. That’s fine. Single is okay, so don’t think this is a blog of self-pity. It is not. For instance, I had a flash last night of all the horrible décor I’d be forced to live with if some of my former loves had come to a point of cohabitation: dogs playing poker, posters of Johnny Cash, farm implements as art, eagle blankets as window treatments….
It annoys me when people explain their newly found love by relying on these platitudes, usually because they are not true. You cannot believe anyone who says they weren’t looking for or expecting love. They were. Okay. They were. We all are. If you are between the ages of 12 and dead and you spend more than 15 minutes a day watching television or listening to non-talk radio, then you are expecting at some time to be “surprised” by love. If you weren’t expecting to be surprised by love, you wouldn’t have the good underwear and you would never shave your legs. Don’t kid yourself and don’t try to kid me. You might not have been expecting it today between 12:00 and 12:15, but you were expecting it eventually.
What annoys me even more than this, though, is when someone willingly breaks one of these rules and finds true love in spite of it. For instance, I know a woman who loved a man who did not love her back, even though they had sex regularly. By all accounting with Price Waterhouse, this relationship was doomed, she was being used, he would never respect her, and thus she would never win his love, no matter what acrobatics were involved. It’s the cautionary tale every young girl hears from her mother or Sunday school teacher. Yet after a year of this FREE and FLAGRANT milk giving, the guy realized he loved her and couldn’t live without her. They are now married and have matching tattoos celebrating their eternal love. Not only this, but the power balance has shifted and his own mother refers to him as “whipped.” When you have been a rule follower your whole life, this is one of the jaggedest little pills to have to swallow: rule breakers win; rule breakers do not necessarily go straight to hell. (Though this is a young marriage, and so the verdict is still out on that one. Hell has many manifestations.)
What is the MOST annoying, however, is when someone willfully breaks the rules but presents her story of love as if she were adhering to the above. Recently, my mother befriended the wife of the first boy I loved, grades K thru 3. He was cute, smart, skilled at kickball, and was regularly awarded the title of “Good Citizen.” His wife (an excellent and good person by all accounts) tells the story of how she was not interested in dating anyone and told the friends who set her up with him that she wasn’t. She told him she wasn’t interested in him repeatedly on that first non-date, and three days later she moved in with him and they’ve been blissfully happy ever since. She followed those rules of courtly love and rejected him multiple times, but still, she went on the non-date. Still, she answered the phone after the non-date when he was calling to tell her he wanted to see her again. And when, later that same night, he drove through the country looking for her house so he could kiss her soundly and show her that there was something between them, she told him how to get to her house.
So, at cocktail parties, she can tell people that she wasn’t looking for love and in fact discouraged love, but even so, she gave it directions.
I just hate that.
My luck with absence making the heart grow founder has been no better. It can make the heart grow fonder, but only in people who weren’t into you enough in the first place to realize they should stay put. Them joining the military and then realizing they really miss you is not really a testament to how lovable you are so much as it is a testament to how miserable it is in a desert. Or Duluth. People have had good, long marriages based on this absent, fond heart mythology, so perhaps I should not judge it so harshly. But I do, primarily because I am the kind of person who feels that the separation by just a two- mile stretch of road is too great a separation. I do not need to go to Duluth to realize I am in love.
Also, statistically speaking, what absence does is make people unfaithful. They’re lonely, Van Morrison gets played on the jukebox, and they bump up against another lonely some body.
Am I too cynical? Bitter? Frustrated? A case could be built for any of these. But I don’t think so. I’m just wondering, that’s all. How is it that other people know when to follow the rules, when to break them, when to break them but pretend they didn’t? How is that whatever I do seems like exactly the wrong thing to do, but then if I switch to the exact opposite tactic, it immediately seems like the inferior one?
These are rhetorical questions, you understand. I’m beginning to suspect the truth is that no one knows anything, and the platitudes we rely on and untruths we tell are simply needed because it is an unbearable thought that our lives and loves are a crapshoot, that it is, at it’s very basest level, just an issue of timing: who was available at 12:15 on a Monday afternoon.
No, this version is even less satisfying than the lies. I find myself once again in the precarious position of needing to quote Fleetwood Mac: Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies.