You meet a guy. You’re attracted to each other. You have a great conversation. The chemistry is palpable. You both love Tarantino movies and are worried about the bees dying. He asks what you’re doing Saturday night and you grin because you know.
You go out and have the best first date in the history of the world. The kind of date where you break into an enormous smile as soon as you close the door behind them and immediately text your best friend the details. “He said I was the most amazing girl he’d ever met!!!”
He calls and texts you every day. He’s crazy about you. He wants to see you all the time. He makes casual remarks about your future together, telling you his mom would “totally love you.” You know it’s too soon, but you can’t help hoping she does.
Then it happens, like a crash.
It’s not necessarily on the second date, or the third or even the fourth. But at some point, the volume of calls and texts reduces drastically. He doesn’t plan another date. He stops mentioning the future. He may ghost, or he may pull a slow fade, but the message is unmistakable: He no longer wants to see you. His enchantment has dissipated, leaving only indifference in its place.
If you’re a straight woman, you’re probably familiar with this phenomenon, but that doesn’t make it any less painful.
The first time it happened to me, I remember how bewildered I was. I went over the evening obsessively, wondering if I’d had something in my teeth. Had he seen me in bad lighting? Was it the story that I told him about my junior prom? (My friends swore up and down that the story was hilarious, but maybe it had put him off irrevocably).
Then it happened again. And again, and again, and again until I was forced to conclude it wasn’t something I did. It wasn’t something in my teeth, it wasn’t bad lighting, and it wasn’t my stories. These guys had just stopped liking me. When I didn’t fit into the mold they envisioned, they were profoundly disappointed. They were boys longing for the magical-looking toy they saw in the shop window. When they took it home and saw it wasn’t magic, they were no longer interested in playing with it.
In a letter to his friend Mary Haskell in 1908, the poet Kahlil Gibran wrote: “The professors in the academy say, ‘Do not make the model more beautiful than she is.'” It feels like a warning to a certain kind of man.
This man is a man in search of a muse. He’s looking for something to worship: his dream woman. He draws a portrait of her which is always, always more beautiful than the flesh-and-blood woman. He’s Jay in The Great Gatsby, who’s spent more time with the Daisy in his head than the real Daisy. No woman could possibly measure up to the dream Daisy — not even the real one.
It’s true that young love requires some level of idealization. It’s normal to think that the way they squeeze the toothpaste out of the tube (from the middle, never from the bottom) is the most delightful thing you’ve ever seen. Surely, we think, nobody else has ever slurped their spaghetti with as much grace]. Surely, we say, no one is as beautiful and different and full of extraordinary thoughts.
But there has to be more to love, surely: more heft, more ballast. Something has to survive when the illusion has burned away. Can you love what’s left?
I think women are better at loving what’s left. For all the stories written about women being incurable romantics, they seem remarkably good at coping with reality. They never expected a perfect man, after all. Perfection isn’t associated with men in the same way that it is with women. The media we consume teaches us that men can be lovable while being flawed. Gritty TV dramas like Breaking Bad encourage us to root for male characters like Walter White who do terrible things. (If anything, their flaws make them even more compelling.) However, women are generally presented as idealized versions of themselves. Female characters who display the smallest character flaws are extremely unpopular with viewers.
Just consider the reaction to Skyler White, who was reviled by Breaking Bad fans for the crime of not being unwavering in her support of her husband’s criminal enterprise.
This mirrors real life, where women feel they must maintain the illusion of perfection to be loved.
Once, a girlfriend told me “I wake up in the mornings before my boyfriend so I can do my hair and put on a little bit of makeup. That way, he never sees me looking bad.” When she saw my incredulous face, she quickly added: “I mean, I’m not going to do that forever. But in the early stages, I think it’s important.”
Is it? Maybe it is. After all, so many men joke about how women look without makeup. Men comment “this is why I have trust issues” under videos of makeup transformations on YouTube. They joke about going swimming on the first date so they aren’t fooled by a flawlessly-applied contour. I’m reminded of the story about the Algerian man who sued his wife the day after the wedding, when he saw her without makeup for the first time. He sued her for 20,000 dollars, claiming she had caused him “trauma and physiological suffering.” When I read that story, I wondered how his wife had felt. What trauma had she undergone when he looked at her in the cold light of the day and declared he couldn’t love the real her?
It feels amazing to be swept off your feet. To meet someone who’s so into you from the moment they meet you. It feels special to be put on a pedestal. What hurts is the day they knock you off. Surely love has a better ending than this cycle of idealization and disappointment. The flood of text messages that slows to a trickle and then to a stop. The constant search for somebody perfect (if it’s not this swipe, it’s the next, or maybe the next after that…)
Surely someday a man will come along: A man filled with more than a dream. Someone who doesn’t want you to meet his mother right away, because he doesn’t go from infatuation to indifference as quickly as the weather changes. No, this man takes his time getting to know you; building a bond too strong to dissolve in daylight. This man isn’t looking for a muse, but if he were painting you, he wouldn’t exaggerate or alter your features to fit his ideal. He would paint you lovingly, carefully.
Exactly as you are.