"I'm not sure if this is relevant," the woman on the phone says, "but I'm reminded of the boyfriend I had in college when I went to study abroad in Tanzania 4,000 miles away. We'd both struggled with anxiety, and two weeks before I was supposed to come home he had a complete mental break. He couldn’t handle my being away.
"But I'd had a complete paradigm shift in Tanzania. I felt so detached from western problems, I was in a completely different world there. So I was like oh it’s fine, it’s the least important thing in the world, you have food and shelter and you're relatively happy, you're fine. And he was so upset that I took such a detached view of it, that he ended the relationship.
"And I really took that home; it never really left me. I felt like I'd screwed up, that he was the one that got away. It took me three years to get over it. And now I think about how when I was younger, I got every job I applied for. I blew people away, made amazing connections, was always hustling."
"And then, after all that happened with that guy, suddenly I have no direction, feel completely useless, haven’t done anything noteworthy since. It's no wonder no one wants to hire me."
As I listen to this story, I am reminded of another, told to me weeks ago by a different woman:
"A year ago I ended my long-term relationship. We'd both been laid off from the same company, and I took it harder than he did. He enjoyed the time off and got work easily, whereas for me it was harder and stressful. I became depressed and had a lot of anxiety, and I felt he just wanted me to put on this happy face. I felt I couldn’t completely be who I was. It made me feel like he didn’t love all the parts of me.
"So at the time it was mutual and I felt like I'd made the right choice. For the first time in months I felt liberated, I picked up new hobbies, I felt great.
"But 6 months later, it hit me like a ton of bricks. Now I think maybe it wasn’t the right choice. I tried to go back to him, but he had moved on with someone else. Ever since then I've been circling around this idea of failure, and I just keep ruminating on what went wrong and what I could have done better. On bad days, I think I’ll never get back to that life where I was happy. I can't help but think I’ve made a huge mistake, and I’ll never find anyone else. I've also developed some health issues, which I think might be related."
Of both these women, I ask the same question:
"Do you believe that this person was perhaps perfect for you, and that if you could have only been or done something different -- then maybe, you might have been able to live happily ever after together?"
Both of them respond that yes, perhaps, this would be the case.
If you, dear reader, have ever tortured yourself with a story like this one, I want you to hear the same piece of insight I shared with these women, as told to me by a friend many moons ago.
Over steaming bowls of mushroom soup at Bar Tartine, he said: "You know, I used to look for a partner based on things like attractiveness, intelligence, fun to be around, etc. But as I get older, I realize that the real role of a partner is to help you solve problems. Because that's what life is: a never-ending series of problems, that only get bigger and more complex as you go.
"So the real question in finding the right partner is not who do you have fun with; it's who do you enjoy solving problems with?"
After relaying this, I ask the first woman, who had traveled to Tanzania, whether a person who is unable or unwilling to communicate his emotional needs before it reaches crisis level is equipped to help her solve increasingly complex life problems, such as those that come with parenthood.
"No," she says slowly, as though a new age is dawning inside her brain.
I ask the second woman, who had initially felt good about ending a relationship in which she couldn't be herself, whether a person who is unable or unwilling to acknowledge her personal demons is equipped to help her confront and transcend them as life continues getting harder.
"... No," she replies. "You know, I never thought about it like that."
Well, start thinking about it like that.
Relationships, romantic and otherwise, are a two-way street. When a partnership doesn't work out, it's too easy to blame yourself and wish you'd been different, or to blame the OTHER and wish THEY'D been different. These blame/shame stories become repetitive loops in our brains that manifest in every area of our lives -- from our relationships to our careers to our physical health.
In reality, everyone is imperfect, and everyone is just guessing, and the best thing we can do?
... Is forgive each other -- and ourselves -- and try to go on loving, in spite of that.