I had a conversation with a friend recently about how the heart seems to have a mind of its own. It yields when we want it to remain strong and resolute, clings when our brain is clamoring that there is no hope, and refuses admittance to some people who seem to be a really good fit. For centuries, poets and balladeers have struggled to make sense of the unpredictability of the heart, while psychologists and social scientists have attempted to explain and understand its irrationality. But I don’t think anyone has figured it out yet.
When “Pete” and I broke up last month, he (and other, well-meaning, male friends) attempted to convince me of the reasons why we belonged together. These reasons consisted primarily of apparent similarities in our present lives, family structures, and goals. They were concrete, they were rational, and they were the kinds of similarities on which online dating algorithms rely heavily. I listened quietly to Pete (and those friends), and noticed that how I felt did not seem to enter into the equation. The fact that my feelings toward Pete had changed as a result of the natural evolution of learning more about him and us seemed almost irrelevant. The facts and evidence of our suitability were there and acknowledged and so, it seemed, should trump any reservations my heart was expressing. In fact, at one point I even said to Pete, “Love is a matter of the heart, not the mind.” To which he replied, “I don’t think that’s always true.”
I had a more visceral and emotionally aggressive reaction to his words than many people probably would, because, for me, that was an important and clear demonstration of how differently we approach relationships and think about love. I do not expect love to be practical. I do not expect love to be a matter of adding a column of numbers and reaching an immutable conclusion. I see dating as gathering qualitative, not just quantitative, data about how we fit (or don’t). The greatest loves of my life were amazing qualitative fits and seemed completely wrong for me quantitatively.
I think of quantitative similarities as the kinds of things you might find on someone’s “life resume” — cultural upbringing, religious background, education, relationship experience, socio-economic status, parenting style, geographic proximity, level of professional attainment, etc. Qualitative elements might include outlook on life, values, dreams, physical attraction, curiosity about the other person or the broader world, or a sense of relating to someone on a “soul” level instead of or in addition to an intellectual level, etc. When couples share quantitative similarities, they seem to line up and “fit” in ways that are obvious and identifiable to almost anyone. These couples make sense to us. Successful couples who do not share quantitative similarities are often considered “opposites” and we lump them into the “Opposites Attract” adage. I would argue that they are likely not true opposites, but that they share commonalities that are not as easily perceived to outsiders.
But the heart doesn’t always make sense, and I would argue that no one falls in love –truly, madly, deeply in love — with their partner’s quantitative traits. I do understand that most people are attracted to people who are similar to themselves in these ways, but I don’t think those similarities alone constitute love. They contribute to comfort, companionship, understanding, and ease. But you can have all those things and still not have love. I think that people who have both similar life resumes and a deep and abiding love often point to the quantitative data to show their compatibility because that is more easily explained and understood, even though it is actually the qualitative elements that bind them so tightly.
But regardless of what is true for others, my heart knows what it wants, and I have learned the hard way that to allow my brain veto power over my heart is disastrous for all involved.
I have met many, many men in my life whom I’ve wished I’d felt more for. Men who were good, practical, honest men but whom I absolutely did not want to wake up next to every morning forever. Sometimes, my heart will play along for a while, seeming to appreciate or warm to a guy who appears to be a good fit on paper. And my brain cheers and crows victoriously. But soon enough, my heart sheepishly admits that it simply isn’t real, and my brain rages at the heart’s apparent unwillingness to get with the general program. But my heart persists, unfazed by my brain’s tantrums.
I’ve also spent many sad moments begging my heart to relinquish its attachment to men with whom a future is not possible. As I’ve written before, it took me 4 years to get over Parker… to stop using him as the measure for every other man I dated. Four long and mostly lonely years when my heart whimpered and pouted and cried out for him, even as my brain forced us on lots of dates and through a couple of meaningless relationships.
I guess I simply do not believe that we can force ourselves to love someone anymore than we can force ourselves to stop loving someone. We love who we love, whether we should or not.
I think, to a very large extent, this is true for most of us. Our heart wants what it wants, and then we cite the quantitative data to support that decision so that it feels more rational and right to us. I also think that, for many people, the quantitative data lines up more neatly and more consistently than it does for me. For instance, I was a lawyer. A lot of lawyers enjoy relationships with similarly educated and/or employed mates. I’m sure this is because most of the people who choose my profession are somewhat similar in nature. But here’s the kick for me — not one of my close friends from law school is married to anyone remotely similar to them in profession. In fact, my two best friends from law school are married to a Broadway producer and a sales manager, respectively. This is not surprising to us because we three were very dissimilar from most of our law school classmates. We were slightly odd, slightly different. And it is those differences that speak loudly in relationship contexts, I think. On the flip side, I have friends who are much more representative of their chosen fields of endeavor and they do seem to select people who quantitatively match them.
So, when someone argues with me over why I should or should not love someone, I find it pretty perplexing. Am I not an intelligent, emotionally-aware woman capable of understanding and expressing my feelings and desires? I am not particularly impulsive, nor overly judgmental of minor faults, but I do know what I value, what my dealbreakers are, and how I want to feel in a relationship. Are those not a good enough basis to make a decision without facing an appeal that is, to be honest, a bit patronizing? And furthermore, I would absolutely, positively never want to be with someone that I had to convince to be with me. Sure, it’s tempting to make those arguments, but if you persevere, what have you really won? Reluctant love? Love by forfeit? Don’t we all deserve more than that?
And what of our friends who are still aching for a love that is no more? Why do we expect them to simply “get over it”? Why do we value the ability to forget so easily what we once thought so special? Maybe we, as outsiders, don’t value their love as they do, but does that even matter?
Time and experience are great teachers. They have the power to guide us gently and tenderly into great love, and they have the power to eventually guide us out, as well. They alone influence our hearts, I believe. Not our minds, not our friends, not our life resumes. They abide by no rules or algorithms. They follow no trend or dictate. And if it were any other way, love would be far less special, far less rare, and far less magical.