Monday, June 13, 2011

Dating outside of your league: Should we be raising our standards, or is chemistry -- and a good story -- what really count?

Aside from my best friend Lori, I can't think of anyone who knows me as well as my big brother Alexi. Over the years, he's made some interesting observations about me. He was the first one to call me a "recovering introvert," a phrase that stuck and one that I still use whenever anyone asks me to describe myself.

One of his more interesting conclusions: That I spend way too much time dating outside of my league -- not up, down. Now Alexi hasn't met all of my exes, but he's met enough of my dates to notice a trend if indeed there is one. While I'm not inclined to dismiss his point of view (I have dug deep in the dirt on occasion), I also wouldn't dream of disparaging the ghosts of my past relationships. After any romance ends badly, don't we all sniff, "He wasn't good enough for me anyway" and crank Beyoncé's "Irreplaceable," Cher's "Believe" or whatever your recovery anthem of choice might be? (Just please, don't let it be Gloria Gaynor's dreadful "I Will Survive"!)

But what makes one person "good enough" for another? I'm not going to say that all men are created equal, because a world of equals would be a dull place indeed. But I'm not crazy about the idea of assigning values to people and refusing to slum under a certain level. I do have my standards, and they are higher than my brother thinks they are (a good-looking, creative non-smoker with a wry sense of humor, a strong point of view and a love of pop culture who is taller than me -- 6'1" and above -- out of the closet, living on his own and not too attached to mom would be my romantic holy grail), but I rarely refer to them when I date someone. Does that guy even exist? If so, I've never met him. So I negotiate my standards until they're all thrown out the window, and my overriding concern, for better but usually for worse, is whether we click.

It hasn't worked too well for me, but not because the guys I've dated weren't good enough for me. I think a healthier post-break-up attitude would be, "He wasn't right for me." I haven't been lucky in love, but I've been fortunate in the sense that most of the guys with whom I've gone on more than a few dates have been pretty decent people. Yes, they all have been flawed, but so am I.

Over the years, I've convinced myself that my first boyfriend, a German artist five years my senior whom I dated for a year and a half when I was in my early 20s, might have been the one who got away. We travelled together (I made my first trip to Europe -- Amsterdam, Barcelona, Madrid, Zaragoza, Segovia, Sitges, a train across the Pyrenees from Spain to France, Toulouse and Provence -- with him), had scintillating conversations about art and philosophy (he introduced me to Nietzsche, I brought Dostoyevsky to the table), and we were almost always on the same wavelength. He even stopped eating red meat and chicken in deference to my vegetarianism.

Alas, I was in my early 20s and my young heart wanted to run free. He was ready to settle down at the ripe old age of 28. When we broke up, he left me a message telling me that he'd been listening to the 10,000 Maniacs song "Noah's Dove" on repeat all day and thinking of me. He insisted that Natalie Merchant might as well have been singing about me -- and he was sure to point out that I should not take that as a compliment. I pulled out my Our Time in Eden CD and listened carefully to the lyrics. I cried for an hour. I still can't listen to that song without tearing up. Uh oh, here comes the rain again.

My brother would have approved of him had they ever met as he was squarely in my league, meeting nearly all of the above standards (a high-art snob, he looked down on low-brow pop culture -- definitely one for the con column), but our time in Eden wasn't meant to last any longer than it did. When we broke up, I remember crying on the phone to my mom that I'd never find anyone to love me again. She assured me that I would, but it would just be a different kind of love.

She was right. The guys that make up my ongoing love story have been a varied bunch -- they've loved and lived in very different ways. Should I have been more selective, had higher standards? My brother might say yes, but I regret nothing. I've never been cheated on (to my knowledge), mentally or physically abused, or ripped off by any of my exes. I've been snubbed and insulted, and I've cried myself to sleep, but I've never really had my heart broken. For that alone, I should be grateful.

There have been a few strays along the way whose charms I probably should have resisted. But I'm glad I didn't. If it weren't for the guys who stood me up, the ones who lied to me, the one who dumped me by email while I was on vacation in Brazil, what would I have to write about? What would I have learned? Someday my prince will come. Until then, I'm just thankful for the lessons, and all the good material.

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