(Re)learning to Love
Relationship templates, and the junk we fill our heads and hearts with
Good Pesach on this good Friday! It’s time for Down the Pipes, your weekly opportunity to consider what I’ve been considering in a bloggy newsletter. Your subscriptions are deeply appreciated, friends and acquaintances always read for free (unless you’ve opted to pay, in which case…I’ll buy you a Coke). The rest of you need to pay or be relegated to free snippets and the occasional Weekender edition, that’s just how we do it. Regardless, welcome on down.
I’ve been hesitant to write about my own romantic relationships here, mainly because it’s none of y’all’s business, but also because my relationships by definition aren’t just my business…there’s always another person (or people) involved. That’s what makes it a relationship, after all.
So while I’m always happy to spill my own guts, I get a little skittish talking about the other people in my life without their consent. It wasn’t always like this…through high school I gleefully and openly blogged about backseat makeouts and relationship drama, half in awe of my blossoming sexual appetite and half in braggadocio.
Looking back on these posts make me cringe; we were 16, horned up, and I was blogging about it constantly. It’s one of the great reliefs of my life that none of this content exists on the open web anymore. We’ll leave the endlessly looping DVD menus, numb lips, and musty basements in the past, where they rightly belong.
But those films and TV shows we grew up on left an unmistakable imprint on what we thought romance was supposed to look like. There were seemingly two streams of courtship presented to us in 80’s and 90’s culture, neither of which has any basis in reality.
On the one hand, you had sincere, female-marketed romcoms that followed the common arc of boy meets girl, girl likes other guy, boy makes some kind of grand gesture to win girl over, other guy turns out to be a jerk, boy and girl kiss in the rain, happily ever after, etc. A whole lifetime of complicated love condensed into 90 minutes, airbrushed and beautiful, with a perfect bow on the end. I’m looking at you, Nicholas Sparks & Nora Ephron, though Disney films had us trained on this idea from infancy too.
On the other hand, you had the Farrelly Brothers style of bromcom, which had cruder humor elements for “the boys,” but they still followed the same general romantic arc. The male protagonists in these films were always presented as profane, broken, sex-starved apes, until a girl—“not like all the others”—rejects him, forcing him to change his ways so he can “get her” by the end.
These films feel unwatchable now, as there’s almost always a casual implication (or graphic depiction) of unbridled male conquest and/or date rape. American Pie came out just as I was hitting puberty, if that gives you any indication, though you can find a slew of these films in every decade (and sometimes emulating previous decades). American Graffiti, Animal House, Fast Times, every John Hughes film, Clueless, Dazed & Confused, Ten Things, SuperBad…it’s so common, I took an entire NYU course called “Coming of Age in American Cinema.”
I remember distinctly when 500 Days of Summer came out almost a decade after American Pie, perhaps one of the first romcoms of my era to suggest that sometimes happily ever after means not winding up together at the end. This was fairly revolutionary at the time, though credit to James L. Brooks who dabbled in the 80’s anti-love story with Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News. I guess Woody Allen kinda goes there too with Annie Hall, but even that movie ends with Allen’s Alvy writing a stage play of his broken relationship, though notably in his dramatization she accepts his wedding proposal at the end (which she flatly rejected in his “real” life, perhaps an early comment on the trope of love stories being entirely staged kabuki).
I mention all of this because I think if you’re a single or loosely dating millennial like me, this is what we we’re working with culturally. Women who are conditioned to expect grand gestures of love to make them see what’s right in front of them, and men who are too childish to ever get there until a woman inspires them to clean up their act.
But is art imitating life, or are we just imitating bad art?
There’s a concept in psychotherapy called the “relationship template,” a kind of roadmap inside each of us that determines the kinds of relationships we seek out. Like most things, it’s not static, but it often develops without our awareness. How your parents relate to you and each other (or not, as the case may be) is often our first taste of a template we can either choose to accept or reject, though later in life it’s more often influenced by the content we consume, the friends we associate with, and of course, the relationships we find ourselves in.
To wit: I remember one of my earliest relationships in HS was a sordid love triangle between myself and two best girlfriends that, in retrospect, was just a cosplay of the film Cruel Intentions; a kind of psychological game where the point wasn’t to fall in love, it was to toy with each others hearts. The drama was the whole point, we were sneaking around to get caught, cry about it, make up, and then split again. It ended poorly, as you can imagine. I had a handful healthy relationships with girls in HS too, but they were never as engaging for me as the ones that made my head and heart hurt.
My first serious relationship in college was with the literal girl next door on the 11th floor of NYU’s Rubin Hall. Our relationship was a well-kept secret for the first 4 months we were together, mainly because I had previously hooked up with the girl on the other side of my door, the girl across the hall (who happened to be my girlfriend’s best friend), and even my girlfriend’s roommate (before they lived together, but still). We swore our roommates to secrecy, I’d wait for our floormates to go to bed, and then I’d sneak over in the middle of the night, sure to leave early enough that nobody would see me slinking out of her room at 7am.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Down the Pipes to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.