When I was newly separated and had just begun dating again, I would call one of my best girl friends every morning after a date. Let’s call her “Annie.”
Annie: “Soooo? How was it?”
Me: “Um, fine…. It was fine.”
Annie: “Ugh. I’m so sorry.”
“Fine” had become, for us, synonymous with “good enough” and “okay” and “not bad” and “I suppose I could live with this… if I had to.” Fine was… well, fine… but definitely not what I had left my marriage for. If all I needed was “fine,” well then, I could have bloody well stayed and saved us all a heap of trouble.
I will be the first to acknowledge that a relationship that I might deem “fine” could make another woman deliriously happy, and another woman’s “fine” could be my worst nightmare: relationships are necessarily relative. What we each need at any given time is truly unique to our circumstances and personal history. No matter what Hollywood tell us, there is no one recipe for a perfect relationship (thank God!); our relationships and what we need from them are as unique and fluid as the people in them. Our judgment of each potential relationship and the possibilities therein are informed by a huge number of variables, including where we are emotionally, intellectually, sexually, hormonally, socially, financially, etc. etc. etc. I think that’s why we hear the old yarn about timing being everything… because the exact same relationship, at an entirely different time in your life, might be a completely different experience. I have even realized that men I discarded quickly during those initial dating months after my separation might have been worth a closer look. I don’t exactly regret not having dated them for longer, but I do wonder at my criteria during that time.
But the point of this post is that, whatever your definition, “fine” shouldn’t be good enough. I know this seems to contradict my earlier assertion that we all want different things, but it doesn’t. Everybody deserves to love someone and feel loved and feel like what they have together is special and unique and so very much better than “fine.” Even if nine out of ten couples can look at couple number ten and deem their relationship horribly boring/mundane/suffocating/pick your adjective, if the couple in question thinks they’ve hit the jackpot, then what does it matter? But, if the couple in question also feels that their relationship is only “fine,” well then, I would suggest that that’s a problem.
I understand that people date and marry for many, many reasons, and that not all relationships and marriages are about love. I sincerely understand and appreciate that. I also happen to respect it, when the individuals in those relationships are able to be honest with themselves about their choices. It’s definitely not my place to tell anyone why they should or shouldn’t be in a given relationship. In those circumstances, I just advocate for authenticity.
But for the rest of us, for whom dating and marriage are primarily about love, “fine” is definitely not an adequate standard. Look at it this way: think of your best and dearest friend in the world. Would you wish for her to have a relationship that was “fine”? Is that the extent of your aspirations for her? If not, then why would you settle for that for yourself?
Recognizing that your relationship is merely “fine” is no easy feat. It can be gut-wrenching. In my experience, most married women living in a “fine” state can’t leave it until the emptiness in their heart threatens to swallow them whole. And even once you acknowledge that your relationship is — and probably has been for quite a while — only “fine,” there’s still a lot of work to do to discover whether “fine” is its permanent state or only a temporary phase to be worked through and overcome. To leave a marriage that is “fine” is never easy work; the reasons aren’t obvious and, as I said before, one woman’s “fine” might be another’s “dream come true,” so the self-doubt and potential guilt are heavy and ominous.
My dating-as-research phase really helped raise my awareness of when something was only “fine.” I sat across from too many perfectly nice, attractive, successful, intelligent men and thought, “I could do this. This could work out. And it would be ‘fine’.” And so I didn’t go out with them again. Because even before I was sure about what I wanted, I knew I didn’t want “fine.”
My friend Annie is now making the same discoveries. Following her separation, she quickly settled into a relationship with a very nice man, whom I’ll call Ned. Ned is a nice guy, with a successful business, and he and Annie enjoyed doing many of the same things. Right from the beginning, the relationship was pretty solid and stable and easy-going. I could tell that Annie liked Ned, and I was happy that she’d found someone to spend time with and help distract her from the hell that is divorce negotiations. But I could also tell, from the beginning, that Ned was only “fine.” For a short time, I was worried that the security and constancy Ned offered would be seductive enough for her, and she would call it good and settle down with Ned. But I needn’t have worried for her; because, like me, she’d left a perfectly “fine” marriage and her heart won’t allow her to contemplate another tour of that duty. To her enormous credit, she was able to recognize what was missing and muster the strength of conviction to break up with Ned. It wasn’t easy. Security, stability, and constancy are all very attractive qualities, especially to someone in that post-separation, pre-divorce no-man’s land. But if there’s one thing that you learn from leaving a marriage, it’s that the path of least resistance is only a short term solution. It buys you time, but it doesn’t usually solve your problem.
Ned fought the break-up. To him, the relationship was so much more than “fine.” He cajoled and pleaded and guilted and played every possible angle to get Annie to agree to come to back to him. But Annie didn’t waver. She knows that she — and Ned, too, for that matter! — deserves and desires more than “fine.”
Shortly after breaking up with Ned, the universe rewarded Annie with Ricardo, a tall, dark, and handsome college professor. The way Annie felt about Ricardo was definitely better than “fine,” and a few dates with him reminded her that deliciously tingly feelings are infinitely preferable to “fine.” True, they open you up to potentially greater pain as well, but no great reward comes without great risk. Put another way, you get what you pay for: play it safe, and you’ll probably get “fine.” Roll the dice, and you might just get “giddy.”
The opposite of “fine,” for me and Annie, is “giddy.” “Giddy” is how you feel when you are really, really digging someone. When a text from them puts a goofy smile on your face that no amount of professionalism can hide. When you can talk about the minutiae of your last date with your best girlfriend for an hour and still be excited. When you realize that you’re acting not unlike your middle-school-aged niece experiencing her latest crush. “Fine” is pleasant and comfortable and feels nice. “Giddy” is wonderful and buoyant and joyful. “Fine” is good for companionship and friendship and decent sex. “Giddy” involves intimacy and passion and crazy hot sex.
See the difference?
I think one of the saddest rationalizations that people make to themselves when they settle is this: “Giddy” doesn’t last anyway, so you might as well skip it and go straight to “fine.” Except for one thing. I have never known a relationship that didn’t mellow with time. So, if you start out with “giddy” then maybe someday you’ll end up with “fine.” But, if you start out with “fine,” where the heck do you go from there? In my experience, you start down a road with stops at “Okay,” “Not bad,” and the final destination: “Ugh.”
Now, I know that someone out there is reading this and saying vigorously, “Not true! My parents/grandparents/co-worker/neighbor’s fourth cousin met someone that they didn’t really like and they dated and it was only fine and then they fell in love and lived happily ever after!” To you I say, That’s great! Seriously! I love a happy ending — any happy ending — so long as it’s really happy. Being married for 50 years doesn’t count if 49 of those years were miserable or only “fine.” Secondly, I have no doubt that some relationships do not fit neatly into my little formula, because, as I said above, our relationships are truly unique and often defy generalizations.
Which leads me back to my original beef with having a “fine” relationship. If you’re in a “fine” relationship and that feels good to you, then chances are, it’s not really just “fine.” Because “fine,” in the way that I intend it here, doesn’t feel really good. It feels vaguely….. uncomfortable…. like a really warm wool sweater on bitter cold day, but the wool is slightly too scratchy to really feel good. It seems like it should, but it doesn’t. It gets the job of keeping you warm done, but it doesn’t feel just right. Declining a relationship that is “fine” sounds easy, but usually isn’t. Most of the time, we have to wear that sweater around a little while before we determine that it really is itchy and not a good fit for us.
The bottom line is this: “Fine” is all around us. It’s common. It’s easy. It’s readily-available. And, to me, it’s a four-letter word.