After you've been single for...well, forever, being single becomes an identifier, a default, a way of life. You get used to brunching solo or watching rom-coms cuddled with a blanket and a glass of chardonnay--maybe throw a bowl of popcorn sprinkled with M&Ms in there. You're happy to be the friend who other friends complain to about their boyfriends. You get to decide exactly how you want to spend your time. In fact, being single becomes very, very comfortable. And then, all of a sudden, when you least expect it, being in a relationship has suddenly transitioned from something you always thought you wanted to something that maybe terrifies you a little bit (or a lot).
You won't notice it at first. You'll still think the cute guy in the bookstore would make a great boyfriend. I mean, he's wearing a cable-knit sweater and thick-rimmed glasses. Who are you kidding? He's perfect. You'll listen to love songs on the way home and play out you and bookstore boy's entire fictional relationship in your head--how he probably loves dogs and coffee and his mom, and how great would you two look on a holiday card, with snow falling all around, your arms wrapped around each other, grinning smugly. That just seems to be something couples do. It's like an unspoken stop on the guidebook of relationships: photograph you and your significant other in all your couple-y glory.B
But back to real life: you still love the idea of being in a relationship. In fact, you think it's at the top of your list of things you'd like in your life. But then as opportunities for actual relationships appear, you find that maybe you're not as ready as you thought you were.
It usually starts by you writing off perfectly amiable guys for some reason or another. Maybe you really are too focused on work to balance a professional and a social life right now. (People say that as though it isn't a thing. Being too busy for a relationship is a shitty reason, but it is a reason--you want to be able to devote time and energy to this other person, not just a couple of hours once a week. Never feel bad or uncomfortable about putting yourself first.) If you ever feel like the relationship you're in should be easier, you're probably right. You don't want to force something to happen when it's clear it just isn't meant to be.
When this series of events starts to unfold, it's easy to start to wonder if you suffer from gamophobia, or a fear of commitment. I never used to think I had commitment issues, but over the past few weeks I've come to realize something very upsetting.
Becoming a girlfriend is literally one of my greatest fears.
I don't know how to be a girlfriend. It's been so long since I've maintained any semblance of an actual relationship with someone else (meaning more than just a few first dates). And you know when you know you probably shouldn't be getting into a relationship? When the thought of never being single again is unimaginable.
I'm the type of person who will set aside an entire night to just binge watch TV alone, drink a huge mugful of tea, and go to bed before 10:30 PM on a Saturday. Frankly, I like being alone. It's comfortable and familiar.
Being single is my default setting. And the idea of never being single again is quite frankly the most terrifying thought I've ever had. So what do I do when I meet a guy that might actually be worth dating? Usually, I sabotage it or lose interest.
Perhaps I do this because most of the relationships I see that I want happen to be fictional. Rom-coms have helped me to learn what I want out of a relationship, and the tricky part is finding a reality that can compare to those expectations. Novels distorting our realities and affecting our abilities to have real relationships is not a new concept. In fact, you can find traces of such ideas in more than one of Jane Austen's works, including Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, and, of course, Sense & Sensibility.
Ever since I can remember, people told me that art strives to imitate life. And yet Austen herself does not strive to imitate life. According to Felicia Bonaparte in her article "Let Other Pens Dwell on Guilt and Misery: The Ordination of the Text and the Subversion of 'Religion' in Jane Austen's 'Mansfield Park,’" Austen has been known to give her novels some "verisimilitude" (meaning the appearance of being true or real).
Not infrequently in the narrative, and often in a mocking way, [Austen] calls our attention to the fact that she is structuring her story not in imitation of life but in imitation of fiction.
This leads me to an important question: Am I letting a caricature of fiction affect my real-life expectations of men? I'll take Scary Thoughts for 300.
Let's consider Marianne and her unrealistic expectations of her future suitor (pre-Willoughby). Upon meeting her sister's supposed suitor, Mr. Edward Ferrars, Marianne is actually quite critical of him.
[Edward's] eyes want all that spirit, that fire, which at once announce virtue and intelligence...He admires as a lover, not as a connoisseur. To satisfy me, those characteristics must be united. I could not be happy with a man whose tastes did not in every point coincide with my own. He must enter into all my feelings; the same books, the same music must charm us both.
The girl has some lofty suitor goals.
I don't think it's particularly realistic to project such expectations onto another person. I'm not sure if what Marianne describes the perfect love of novels, or, a more realistic supposition, a desire for conformity on the behalf of her suitor. Of course, such ideas of conformity seem improbable when Willoughby does eventually come onto the scene, for he seemed to be exactly what Marianne was looking for: "His person and air were equal to what her fancy had ever drawn for the hero of a favourite story." But Willoughby did not turn out to be the man Marianne wed. In fact, his leaving her--the shattering of her fantasy--seems to be just what she needs to settle happily. Perhaps then, in Marianne's eventual union with a more mature love in the character of Colonel Brandon, Austen is gently dissuading us from putting unnecessary constraints upon our love lives.
But, to be quite honest, it's difficult not to put such constraints upon our own love lives. I read about love, and those ideas start to infect my reality. I'm not sure it can be helped--unless I quit reading altogether (which most certainly isn't going to happen anytime soon!). Perhaps Austen is guiding us to look for more realistic, real-life examples of love to emulate. After all, "Marianne could never love by halves; and her whole heart became in time as much devoted to her husband as it had once been to Willoughby."
The Germans have a word for the disillusionment we feel between our reality and our fantasy: weltschmerz. This word--meaning a prevailing mood of melancholy and pessimism--arose among poets of the Romantic era, and is thought to have typified Romanticism. Weltschmerz seems to be exactly what Marianne experienced as she was torn between reality and her fantasy. I think the best way to handle welschmerz (which is a word I hope you all try and use at least once today) is to just let yourself feel the way you want to feel.
If you want to watch a rom-com, then pop When Harry Met Sally into the DVD player and just go for it! Liking romance novels and rom-coms doesn't mean that you're eternally doomed to be single. At some point, you will find something that fulfills your fantasy within a realm that reality can meet. It's cliche to say, but eventually you'll find the right balance, and gamophobia won't be something that you even think about anymore, let alone worry about or fear.