Find man, lose him, repeat cycle

The thinking girl's guide to serial monogamy.

Published January 28, 2003 8:21PM (EST)

Despite the looming threat of repeated failure, people as a people are wildly optimistic about their prospects for love. In fact, get enough drinks in them, and just before they try to hug you, a surprising number of people will confess to a heartfelt belief that love is all there is in this crazy, mixed-up slag heap of a world.

While this belief is not entirely our fault, it's nothing to be proud of, either. Children who watch too much television harbor similar beliefs about sugary breakfast cereals, and we don't think them adorably romantic. What is love, anyway, aside from a liquor-fueled period of psychosis counteracted with a lifetime's worth of received romantic notions and a tingling sensation in the pants? Of course, it's love's mysterious qualities that account for a large part of its enduring entertainment value. Most of us are attracted to rare and mysterious things, like truffles and Greta Garbo. Too much information is almost always a turnoff. (Note how "Foie Gras" sounds delightful, yet "Spreadable Ruptured Liver" does not.) In fact, love is a nightmare of compromise and generosity.

Still, when it goes wrong, when it fails to appear, or when it comes home blind drunk at three A.M. and pees on the bed, we experience disappointment and a crushing sense of failure. This causes many of us to suffer from what my mother (a picturesque foreigner) amusingly calls "low self-steam." We blame ourselves. We vow to embark on a vigorous self-improvement program the very next day. We may even purchase a self-help manual, or maybe a mug with an encouraging saying on it. But the path to self-improvement can be an expensive and hazardous row to hoe, assuming one would even want to hoe a row in the first place. Most of us, on consideration, would prefer not to.

In such a climate, it is not easy to talk about serial monogamy. For one thing, we don't have the words. Look up the word "relationship" in the thesaurus, and right away you'll see the problem. "Blood relation" doesn't do it, unless you have an attractive cousin and have decided to take advantage of recent changes in the law. "Connection" seems a weak and rather tepid alternative, given the highly volatile nature of this particular type of "connection." "Dating" -- an antiquated word that refers to something people did in the fifties and stopped doing once it became okay to openly sleep around -- doesn't describe it either. Relationships can begin as early as the first "date," even if that "date," as such, never takes place.

But where are the words for that thing that happens when you meet someone (say, in college or at your first job or through a friend), hang out for a few weeks, keep hanging out for a few more years, and move in together, making sure not to purchase any big-ticket items together without holding on to the receipts? And what box do you check on your insurance forms when you've been living with the same person for five years but still aren't sure you want to get married because there are some things you have to work on first?

You know. Relationships. What's another word for them? It may very well be a semantic problem. As words go, "relationship" is conveniently elastic, and can be used to describe any number of associations, connections, affiliations, dalliances, flings, flirtations, long- and short-term bonds. In almost every instance, it is used to describe ambivalent sexual liaisons that are neither legally binding nor particularly exciting.

It is not known, exactly, when the word "relationship" came to replace other, more descriptive, terms like "courtship," "engagement," "marriage," "illicit extramarital love affair," and "rebound." Experts trace its modern usage back to a time when people were no longer forced to conduct their love affairs in private, but were still too embarrassed to use the word "lover" in public. Thankfully, this is still the case.

I do not claim to be an expert in the field of successful relationships. But if any subject lends itself to the sort of indolent, poorly researched, and whimsically half-cocked theories I will put forth in this mercifully slim volume, it's the practice of segueing from one committed relationship to another without pausing to consider why one is segueing from one committed relationship to another.

Is there advice contained in this book? Yes, but it's terrible. On the other hand, it's probably just the sort you generally give yourself, so there's no hard work involved. If you follow it, you will learn how to leap blindly from relationship to relationship, how to ignore your better instincts, how to drag out a doomed affair, how to enter into an exciting rebound, how to make the most of your ex-girlfriend persona, and more -- just like you've been doing all along. The fact is that serial monogamy is now the norm. Consequently, there's no reason to keep looking upon it as some kind of repetitive failure pattern. Maybe we should just start regarding it as a flower pattern or paisley.

So, whether you're sticking it out in a halfhearted entanglement or jumping into the arms of the next emotional disaster to come along, just remember: whatever your justifications for choosing "toxic," "dysfunctional," or just "long, difficult, and ultimately doomed" relationships over fun, supportive, carefree love romps, an unbroken string of failed relationships will not earn you frequent flier miles, but it is not without rewards.

The world is a treasure trove of possibility. Perhaps you will inherit a million dollars someday and spend your life traveling to far-flung, exotic locations. Until that happens, however, why not make the most of traveling to exotic emotional states and flinging yourself face-first on the bed? After all, if it weren't for so-called "bad" relationships, many of us would have no relationships at all.

Someday your prince will come. And if he doesn't, some other dude will. In the meantime, why not milk the drama for all it's worth?

Bend Over: Assuming the Position of Compromise

As with most things in life, relationships are a series of compromises. If you find it easy to compromise your desires, your ideals, and your judgment, you're well on your way.

Step 1: Lower Your Standards

A general rule of thumb when it comes to looking for love in the modern world is to stop being so picky. If you include your nightmares, the person of your dreams is within your reach. Once you've expanded your horizons to include people you formerly deemed "unacceptable," including bosses, therapists, spiritual and political leaders, sworn enemies, and distant cousins, you'll find a whole universe opening up to you and you'll be well on your way to a series of delightful adventures, unexpected surprises, and astonishing displays of bizarre behavior. If you've already done this, do it again. You'll be amazed at the sheer number of unsuitable matches to be made right in your neighborhood.

Start by asking yourself the following:

Does he really have to be attractive?

Does he really have to be smart?

Does he really have to be financially secure?

Does he really have to be funny?

Does he really have to be clean?

Does he really have to be sane?

Step 2: Question Your Instincts

Your gut is telling you to run far away. Pretend not to hear it. If it insists, pretend not to speak gut. Conveniently store your better judgment under the bed until next needed, usually when the relationship starts to sour.

Step 3: Accentuate the Positive

Don't get bogged down in your negative emotions and judgments, as negativity may obscure a potential boyfriend's boyfriend potential. Before dismissing someone as "ugly" or "crazy," take the time to examine his positive qualities:

Is he wonderfully weird?

Is he thrillingly obsessive-compulsive?

Is he expertly medicated?

Is he relaxingly boring?

Is he delightfully clueless?

Is he charmingly vain?

Is he adorably childlike and helpless?

Step 4: Adjust Your Mental Image

It is important to avoid formulating any sort of mental image of an ideal mate, as this may prevent you from falling for the first person to come along. Having nothing to compare actual partners to, your standards will be more malleable, and with any luck will evaporate entirely.

Step 5: Keeping the Ball Rolling

In Mandarin, the word for "I want your things out of here by tomorrow morning" is the same as the word for "opportunity." A true serial monogamist never looks upon a breakup as an end, but rather as a shiny new beginning. She also plans in advance whenever possible. Below are some tips from the pros.

The Marathon

However exhausting and emotionally draining, dragging out a doomed liaison does have its advantages. It provides an excellent excuse for shirking actual paying work in order to "work on the relationship" and is useful in helping to extract large quantities of attention from family and friends in the form of meals, interim lodging, tea, and pity. Also, drawing out an inevitable breakup over a period of several years is an excellent way to avoid being single. In order for this method to work, your partner must be as insecure and dysfunctional as you are. How can you tell if your partner is in it for the long -- but not permanent -- haul? Various behaviors can tip you off, including a willingness to enter couples counseling in order to gain an ally and the habit of making popcorn at the beginning of each argument.

The Relay

Some people prefer to seek out their next relationship while securely ensconced in the old one. This is not unlike going out to lunch right after breakfast, just in case locusts decimate the crops. Because this practice is generally frowned upon, it is recommended that you display some serious agony over the shift. Explain that your new affair "just happened," despite your best efforts to the contrary. No one will believe you, but you should never admit the truth until your new boyfriend has become a permanent fixture at family functions and your old boyfriend is nothing more than a hazy memory. Once your old boyfriend has been forgotten by your friends and family, you can laugh about the whole crazy situation, coming across as adorably madcap and romantic. Everybody loves adorable madcap romantics, especially when the adorable madcap romantics' ex-boyfriends keep calling them in tears, searching for answers.

The Sprint

If the prospect of looking for a new relationship from the security of your old relationship makes you queasy, you might consider sprinting. Sprinters dash from one relationship straight into the next without so much as a backward glance. Sprinting has none of the ethical disadvantages of the Relay, while yielding similar results. On the downside, sprinters have less time to do their homework on new lovers, leading them to form dubious commitments very quickly. On the upside, arranged marriages aren't usually preceded by long getting-to-know-you periods, either, and they are proven to last longer and be more satisfying. Furthermore, sprinters will find that they can easily shift into marathon mode when the relationship begins to go south.

Singlehood and You

Maybe you are languishing in a monogamous relationship, toying with the idea of taking the leap into the yawning chasm of single life. Or you have already made the leap and are about to land in the outstretched arms of someone new. Naturally, you want to make sure to avoid mistakes. Any decision you make at this critical juncture will factor heavily in your future happiness, or at least in your happiness over the next two weeks, which could feel like forever. Meanwhile, you keep hearing things about the advantages of taking a long break between lovers. Friends begin to suggest that you consider "taking some time" to "focus on yourself," "reevaluate your priorities" and "heal."

Should you listen?

First, ask yourself who is doling out the advice. Chances are these people fall into one of three categories: single people who don't have your many opportunities and would sooner eat their own livers than see you fall in love again, single people in desperate need of other lonely single people to fill up their free time, and miserable couples with a stake in your unhappiness. Angrily reject their guidance, taking the opportunity to list their many failings in the arena of love and romance. Be sure to point out to them they are just jealous, as they may not be aware of it.

Next, try to determine whether you have the skills it takes to be single. Not everyone is equipped to handle the arduous task of tending to themselves without any outside assistance.

Can you reach all the high places in your apartment? Are you handy with a drill? Do you take life's little obstacles in stride, or do you crumble in the face of adversity? At parties, are you skilled at looking people in the eye and enunciating clearly? Or do you have a tendency to drink until you cry? Do you enjoy exciting hobbies like mountain biking, kayaking, and volunteering? Or do you prefer to spend Sunday afternoons curled up on the bath mat, getting angry all over again about the time your dad gave you an eleven P.M. curfew on prom night?

It is important that you answer these questions honestly before taking the big step into single life. The decision to become single is not a step to be taken lightly, as it can lead to all sorts of problems that could become serious down the road. Try to picture yourself, single, at a variety of functions such as siblings' weddings, high school reunions, and your own funeral. Do you like what you see? In your mind's eye, are you interacting graciously with others, with no regard to their availability? Or are you glued to the buffet table, interacting with the cheese selection? Do you look okay? What are you wearing?

If the images that have just run through your head give you pause, perhaps you should reconsider "taking that time for yourself." Let's be honest, you're lucky that anyone wants to take that time away from yourself in the first place. No matter how trying the company of your current partner, it is important to remember that your own company, undiluted, may be even more loathsome.

Behold the Wrong Boyfriend

Maybe you are wondering, "What if I have committed to the serial monogamist lifestyle, and suddenly, out of nowhere, I happen upon my soul mate? What should I do? How can I ensure that I don't start a relationship I can't finish?"

This is an excellent question. Nothing is more embarrassing to a serial monogamist than finding true love. The best way to avoid this is by repeatedly falling in love with one of the following types:

The Mingler

Charming, funny, and impressively skilled at working a room, the Mingler is a snappy dresser with a mouth that more than makes up for that nose/bald patch/walleye/gout. While you never thought you could feel sexually attracted to a guy like the Mingler, his puckish charm will grow on you. You find yourself gradually warming to the idea until you thaw completely and leave an embarrassing puddle on the floor, at which point the Mingler will excuse himself and move on.

Mr. Crusty

A proponent of the view that beauty is on the inside, at least when it comes to him, Mr. Crusty always has several projects of a creative nature cooking at once. He doesn't have time to shower, so don't hassle him. In fact, it is possible that Mr. Crusty may not yet own a shower. This is because Mr. Crusty lives in a warehouse, loft, or other formerly industrial, now stealthily toxic "space" with inadequate heating, which he is remodeling himself. This accounts for his interesting coloring, which is actually ground-in soot, and his shortness of cash.

The Trust Fundamentalist

The Trust Fundamentalist is very intense, having had years of leisure to devote to honing his intensity. Like many rich people who have never worked a day in their lives, the Trust Fundamentalist may have a slightly skewed view of the glittery universe that revolves around him. It's not his fault if he is easily distracted. He may ask you to marry him on the first date, a sure sign that he will not ask you out on a second.

Johnny Hurt

Johnny Hurt can trace the roots of his anguish for three generations. Naturally, he is cautious. Though willing to "do the work" from the second date forward, he is, unfortunately, far less willing to "do the fun." While at first you will want to care for and nurture Johnny Hurt, you will soon want to hurt him, too.

Mr. Successful

Are you the other half in the power couple he envisions? Are you beautiful enough to make his friends want to rip their own heads off? Does your father own a media empire? Does your mother own a Brazilian coffee plantation? If you cannot answer yes to any of these questions, you might want to reconsider your interest in Mr. Successful. Mr. Successful does not fool around. That's why he's Mr. Successful.

The Urban Outdoorsman

The Urban Outdoorsman loves nothing better than being alone in the woods, which is why he moved to the city. Clearly, the urban outdoorsman has many issues, which will not soon be resolved. Do not be confused if the Urban Outdoorsman expects you to keep up his jaunty pace while you are shod in heels. The Urban Outdoorsman is a great believer in sensible footwear, even when attending well-heeled events at well-paved locales.

Child of the Universe

The Child of the Universe is a great person to meet after life has beaten you down. He will impress you with his willingness to ask the universe for everything and anything he needs. Unfortunately, the universe is usually busy and rarely gets back to him. He will then impress you with his willingness to ask you for anything and everything he needs, including the rent money.

The Aspiring Genius

The Aspiring Genius has certain priorities, none of which include you. Highly sensitive and emotional when it comes to his art, his greatest and most lasting passion will always be reserved for his critics, especially when they act as though he doesn't exist. If you are interested in an Aspiring Genius, you would do well to follow this example. If your lack of interest fails to arouse his, try giving him a nasty review. This will never fail to elicit a passionate response.

The Drummer

Any person who enjoys hitting pot-shaped things with sticks has not managed to make the transition from the anal to the oral stage.

"Do You Love Me or Am I Just Paranoid? The Serial Monogamist's Guide to Love," by Carina Chocano, is excerpted with permission from Villard Books.

By Carina Chocano

Carina Chocano writes about TV for Salon. She is the author of "Do You Love Me or Am I Just Paranoid?" (Villard).

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