A year ago I wrote my first article for Rookie, about the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. I talked about the figure she calls the Woman in Love, a woman who loses her identity and personality as soon as she’s in a relationship. She drops all the activities she once took pleasure in, because she feels like a full worthwhile human being simply by virtue of being loved by a man. Being loved by a man justifies her whole existence; it’s what she was born to “do.” Here’s how de Beauvoir explains it:
Love is the revealer that shows up in positive and clear traits the dull negative image as empty as a blank print; the woman’s face, the curves of her body, her childhood memories, her dried tears, her dresses, her habits, her universe, everything she is, everything that belongs to her, escapes contingence and becomes necessary: She is a marvelous gift at the foot of her god’s altar.
What I didn’t say in that piece is that when I wrote it I was struggling with the fresh realization that from my very first kiss, I had spent most of my life as the Woman in Love. I got my first boyfriend when I was 15, and since then I had never not been in a relationship with a dude. I jumped from boyfriend to boyfriend, each one chosen because they had some quality I wanted for myself. When I wanted to become a stringent Marxist, I dated one instead. When I grew sick of hearing people talk politics with thin-lipped gravitas and wanted to try being a fun-loving fashionista, I dated a fun-loving apolitical hipster (and then another one). When I was tired of parties and wanted to believe that life was Realer and more Full of Permanent Truths than my life at the time, I ran away with a hippie. Note: At no time during any of this did I go off on my own to read Marx, or shake my booty like an Independent Woman, or meditate alone in the desert. Instead I attached myself to some guy and hoped his qualities would rub off on me. I depended on him to hold on to everything I wanted to be, because I lacked the self-confidence, the moving-through-the-world confidence, to develop those qualities in myself, by myself, for myself. Like I needed a male to tell me that I was worth it. Like if a male possessed these qualities that I admired, the only way I could access them was to date him. If I date someone who is smart, well, that means I’m smart too, right? Because they’re dating me? This went on for a decade.
Love is all right. Love is more than all right, love is nice. Moving through life can be a terrifying prospect, and it’s nice to have another person to take care of and to love, and it’s wonderful to be loved. It is beautiful to share experiences with another person. Love makes it worth it.
The thing is that I suck at being in love. When I think back on my past relationships, I see myself as some kind of succubus, constantly trying to get my lovers to spit up their souls so I can pet them and play the savior. Because here’s another awesome habit I have: I try to eat the souls of men. I let my boyfriends’ personalities and belief systems and opinions swallow mine, but meanwhile I am trying to get them to confess all their deepest, darkest secrets to me, their hang-ups and their fears, so I can psychoanalyze them. (It helps if they seem to be a secret sad boy, as secret sad boys tend to be more open to letting me prod their innermost innards.) Doing this makes me feel like I have a purpose, and I think that learning how to live, how to be a person, will stop feeling overwhelming if only I can crawl into the mind/soul/body of another human. I am not aware that I am doing this while it’s going on (or sometimes I know but don’t care); I’m swept up in what I believe is the act of being “in love.”
When I’m in a relationship (i.e., almost all the time) I very quickly lose interest in pursuing my own activities or spending any time away from my lover. I’d rather spend my time understanding him (my new hobby). I get super attached to the role of Woman in Love, wanting to make nonstop googly eyes with the boy, wanting to say I love you and hear I love you back every hour on the hour, forgetting about my friends, forgetting about my own life separate from him. When I’m forced to be away from him, I conjure mental images of his face and imagine the heat of his clammy palms against mine.
I know that some of these symptoms overlap with those of the early stages of real true love, when you’re busy fusing souls with another human being and you can’t help thinking about them all the time; sometimes googly eyes are dead serious. But for me, all too often, they aren’t. It’s more like I’ll see a male that I want to be and I’ll make a calculated decision to fall in love with him, and then I pop in my googly eyes like a pair of contact lenses.