When my girlfriend said she loved me, it always sounded like something she wished she could take back. An escaped prisoner. Or a fart.
Why so hesitant? What is she thinking? These were questions that the ill-equipped emotional cartographer in me needed to investigate, so I remained steadfast in my commitment to loving her. “I love you,” I would say confidently, looking into her eyes, projecting to the back of the room. “I love you too,” she would garble after a prolonged moment of sideways-glancing introspection.
Relationships usually die under these conditions. First there is a talk, then space, then nothingness. But sometimes, on rare occasions, there is adaptation. A tiny little solution that allows for a relationship to persist. Our adaptation happened on a Tuesday. We were texting and she had to go into a meeting. “I love you,” I wrote, expecting her to follow suit after thirty seconds of suspenseful ellipsis. Instead she wrote, “I know.”
“You know?” I texted back.
“Haha ya I know,” she responded.
“I know” was the adaptation, and it became her defense mechanism against my love. When we were at a nice restaurant and I would say I love you: she would pause for a second for dramatic effect and say… I know. When we were alone in her office and I would say I love you: she would turn her head and say… I know. And when we were cuddling in bed, whispering into each others’ faces: she would say… well, you know.
It worked because it appeared, on the surface, to be a joke. I know, like, you were expecting me to say I love you back, but instead I said I know. Or, I know, like I’m making a reference to Han Solo in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, you know? On the surface, I knew and I laughed.
Below the surface, though, I didn’t know. On good days, it felt like a sign of our emotional closeness. I know you love me because our inner beings are so intertwined that you don’t even need to tell me. I just know. But on most days it felt like a rejection. I know you love me, but I don’t totally 100% love you back. Or, I know you love me, because, well, I’m the shit and everyone loves me.
Knowing became a staple of our relationship, eclipsing things like loving and committing. I knew that she would know that I loved her, so I stopped telling her as much. We reverted to x’s and o’s and loving glances, and our relationship managed to subsist of that. Scavenging in this sort of non-committal, in-between space, always hedging, neither in nor out. Not wanting to be in a full-on, in-love relationship, but not wanting to be single either. We had knowingly locked ourselves in a lover’s purgatory, waiting for god knows what to save us.
But every now and then I would check in and say, “I love you.” And she, with a loving smile, would say, “I know.” And we were fine with that.
We were kind of, sort of, like in a committed relationship. We held hands, we watched Woody Allen movies together, we kissed in public, we did all the things that people in relationships do. We just didn’t give it a name. Because a name is a commitment. So we stayed there — me loving her, and her knowing that I loved her and maybe loving me back, but definitely texting me x’s and o’s. In-between. Always hedging.
When I told my sister, she said we were being stereotypical millennials. The ones you read about in those lightly researched op-ed pieces about exaggerated generational differences: we were afraid of commitment and always open to the possibilities. And as a millennial, I related to that. The reason I don’t like calling myself an advertising copywriter is that I can see myself doing other things as well. I could be a restaurant owner, I tell myself, or a CEO. I could even be a successful nonfiction writer if I tried hard enough. So I don’t call myself an advertising copywriter. I don’t like to commit to that perfectly respectable title because I am open to other opportunities. And I am open to other opportunities because there are other opportunities. It is a paradox of choice bestowed upon us by the modern world. The more opportunities we have, the less comfortable we are committing to just one.
The paradox of choice afflicts love as well. The more opportunities we have — on various dating apps or in various metropolises — the harder it is to commit. “I really like you, but I want to take it slow because I am always open to other opportunities” isn’t the most romantic thing to say. So love, like any other commitment, is hedged. “Do you love her?” I might ask a friend. “I don’t know,” he might respond, “but she’s really funny and smart and we’ve been happily living together for two years.”
The flipside of this fear — the fear of being committed and tethered — is the fear of being alone and untethered, floating out into the universe with a limited supply of oxygen. George Clooney in Gravity. Terrified of this prospect, we cling to things, not wanting full-on commitment, just for them to be there in case we get lonely. Most of our lives we spend balanced between these two poles, in an equilibrium of frustrating semi-commitment. Simultaneously afraid of commitment and afraid of not having anything to commit to.
I suspect that back in olden tymes, when we lived in small villages and drank unpasteurized milk, the fear of not having anything to commit to was the dominant one. There were two eligible girls in town and you had to convince one of them to marry you. That was the game. Since then, though, as the market of available partners has flourished, so too has our fear of settling. As with job titles and fancy cheeses, choosing just one among a wealth of options can be scarier than not being able to choose at all.
That’s why the L-word has become an L-bomb. Loud, earth-shattering, radioactive. When I dropped it on my girlfriend, six months into our relationship, she scrambled for cover and said she loved me too, not knowing what else to say to maintain our comfortable semi-committed relationship. Then came the adaptation — the “I know” Han Solo joke — which postponed the need to have a talk and allowed our relationship to persist a little longer. But eventually we talked. “Do you see a future with me? Are we in love?” All the big questions. Then we gave each other space. And then, nothingness. Just us floating out into the universe, in different directions, with limited supplies of oxygen.
I remember what it felt like to untether. I was sitting in my car outside of her apartment, thinking about the conversation we just had. It was Cinco de Mayo and my head was spinning, partly because of the repetitive, circular nature of the break-up talk and partly because I had consumed four homemade margaritas in less than an hour. Unable to drive, I just sat there in park and waited for the buzz to wear off. Inside, though, I felt myself floating away. No more Woody Allen movies in bed, no more Wednesday dinner dates, no more 8 a.m. wake-up texts. What was I going to do with all this time to myself? Was I going to lose my mind like a lonely chimpanzee in a zoo?
I made a mental list of all my single, alcoholic friends, and texted each of them individually, “Drinks?” Which is a great way to feel like you have a lot of friends. Most of them responded, “Yes. Tonight?” and I wrote, “Immediately,” and they wrote, “Where?” and I wrote, “The bar we always go to,” and they wrote, “Already here,” and I soberly drove out to meet them. I told them what happened, and they comforted me with the things you’re supposed to tell a friend who’s newly single: It’s shitty right now, but you’ll get over it. Have another drink. Next round’s on me. Don’t worry, I’ll drive you home. Stop shouting. Their company made me feel better, but eventually I had to go home and sleep in my lonely bed with my lonely pillows, which still sort of smelled like my ex-girlfriend’s shampoo.
For a few days, my sanity felt like a finite resource and I had trouble sleeping. I watched the ceiling fan in my bedroom for hours, spinning reflections of the moonlight, and I incessantly checked my phone for new messages that never came. But soon things got better. Because besides having a knack for the dramatic, millennials are also resourceful. Within a matter of weeks, using all available means of technology, my ex-girlfriend and I both latched on to other relationships, and we returned to our previous states of semi-commitment. Balanced, in-between, forever hedging. Kind of, sort of, in love with other people.
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