Love, Actually: Dialogue 2

I have this theory about men and love.  Specifically, men and love gone bad.  I am no expert, but I do believe that for men, a broken heart signifies the genesis of many years of dark and dangerous behavior in romantic relationships.  A brokenhearted man once confessed to me that he had managed to “compress my feelings deep down into my stomach until they are merely a lump of coal.”  Another explained away his own heartache by joking that “no, I haven’t been in any emotional pain lately; I’ve simply been emotionally unavailable.”

Over the years, I have come to believe that unlike women, men often have a difficult time offering up their hearts to even the most sincere woman when it has been mishandled by a less than sincere one.  Case in point: My childhood friend, Tammy, got knocked up in high school.  The father of her son was abusive, crass and subjected her to years of emotional and physical abuse.  When she escaped his madness, spending a few months in a battered women’s shelter, Tammy met Peter, a worker at the shelter.  About a year later she was happily coupled with him.  My friend, Conrad, on the other hand, has had his fair share of relationship failures.  His biggest occurred when he was in his 30s.  A woman with whom he had fallen madly in love dismissed his intense feelings, choosing instead to marry a man who could provide her with an upper middle class life style.  Since that time, Conrad has made a conscious choice not to genuinely connect with another woman.  “I’m too jaded; I’ve failed too many times at love.”  Tammy, who endured emotional torture from the man she loved, was willing to take another risk at love even though logic would suggest love had been no friend to her.  Conrad, who endured a very painful failure, allowed such a common casualty of love to deter him from a real connection well into his 40s.

I am perplexed by the vast differences in Conrad’s and Tammy’s reactions to love gone terribly, terribly wrong.

My friend, Bernard, is not.  When I shared Conrad’s story with him, he did not seem bewildered at all.  As a matter of fact, he verified that Conrad’s perspective is shared by every man he knows.  “I have been him,” Bernard casually admits.  “Maybe not for ten whole years, but I am very familiar with the place he is in now.”  Bernard feels confident in speaking for most men when he says that failing at love is such an undesirable result of taking the leap to love in the first place, that if it does happen to you, the most logical response would be to do everything in your power NOT to put yourself in that predicament again.  “I guess a heartbroken woman would continue to seek love even though she might be carrying the same ole baggage into all of her relationships.  For men, we simply just don’t seek it – at all.  And for some of us, if the failure was so big and so humiliating as it obviously was for Conrad, then we stay in that extreme avoidance of love for many, many years.”  Bernard notes that it was the woman who left Conrad for a wealthier man that sent him into this downward spiral.  “Men already are insecure about not having enough to keep a woman’s interest.”  According to Bernard, if your failure at love stems from a woman not finding you suitable to love based on your bank account, then it prolongs that dark, dangerous period where a man simply sits across the table from a woman or lies in her bed, committing to nothing else but sitting across the table from her or lying in her bed.

Bernard is the first to admit this is not healthy.  However, he is also quick to assert that it is the only coping mechanism men have to deal with the pain of love letting them down.  “People think men don’t long for love as deeply as women.  That could not be farther from the truth.”  According to Bernard, young men fantasize about meeting that one woman who is everything they’ve dreamed of: beautiful, supportive, intelligent, willing to set and achieve life goals.  Bernard even asserts that men spend a great deal of time agonizing over a relationship in trouble.  “Earlier today, my boy called me to ask my advice about problems he’s having with his girl.”  When Bernard recited how the conversation went, it sounded identical to the conversations I have had with girlfriends over the years. “I think we long for it even more than women do.”  How else to explain the difficulty in moving on when the woman a man  loves chooses to no longer love him?

I have never been of the school of thought that men are adverse to love. That they only surrender to it when a determined woman refuses to accept anything less than their love and commitment. I have always wondered if the only reason we assume women are more willing to love is because our culture encourages men to take love – particularly romantic love – for granted.  To look at such an intense emotional connection to another human being as the antithesis to manhood.  If this is the case, how do men get to the point where Bernard is now?  Knocking on 40, he has recently fathered a child and is happily nurturing a fulfilling relationship with his son’s mother.  When I asked him if he felt he had enough love in his life, he beamed with laughter. “Oh…I have an abundance!”

So, how did Bernard get from that dark, painful place in which Conrad has permanently settled to a place where he has opened up his life to an onslaught of love?  Bernard actually thinks it has nothing to do with men’s inability to love after being hurt or our culture’s ad campaign about the beauty of love being pitched solely to women.  When he thinks about all that he has learned about love and how to sustain it, he sees one common thread between all the genres of love he is blessed to experience right now.  “Love with absolutely no expectation,” he advises, “and you will find that it not only makes you happier, but it also makes the love itself grow much deeper.”  When he was younger, Bernard had lots of expectations when he offered his heart.  When he loved, the recipient of that love was expected to respond in specific ways before he felt secure enough to love further.  His love came with an invisible contract.  He made certain that a clear signature was at the bottom before he gave 100%.

“The same reason I lovingly hold my son because he is fussy is the same reason why I lovingly hold his mother when she is upset.”  Although I would argue that it is much easier to take such a diplomatic approach to loving your child than to loving a romantic partner, Bernard is convinced that there really shouldn’t be any distinction.  “Love is pure,” he explains.  When it becomes convoluted, it is because people sully it with their own agendas and expectations.  “I love my son because it makes him happy.  I love my girlfriend because it makes her happy.  I love my mother because it makes her happy.”  Bernard has managed to make the GIVING of his love uninfluenced by his RECEIVING love.  “I might get the love back the way I want it; I might not. I still give my love either way.”

Perhaps, this is why his feelings are not compressed into a lump of coal.  Sounds like a much easier and more energizing place to be.

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