Thursday, September 13, 2007

New Rules

At 14, I began my journey down the long, emotionally hazardous road that is Dating.

Thinking all I needed was an intoxicating perfume, a terrifying amount of hormones coursing through my bloodstream and a big smile plastered on my face, I was in for a rude awakening, when at 14, my first boyfriend and I broke up. Red and swollen, my young eyes got their first look at reality: Love hurts.

That's when the lectures started. The Czarina, ever the stoic, encouraged me to play hard to get. She bought me both volumes of The Rules, and practically quizzed me on their contents. For the most part, she managed to convince me (brainwash me?) that playing hard to get can serve as Heartbreak Insurance. Or at the very least, Dignity Preservation.

"You see?" she said, in a tone of voice usually reserved for elementary school teachers. "If you don't act interested, he won't think you are, and that will make him want you more. And if you date other people and only see him once in a while, it's more difficult to get all wrapped up in one guy, anyway. It really is the way to do it, honey. Do you see how it can prevent you from feeling like this in the future?"

I looked up at her, sniffed, wiped the tears off my cheek and nodded. Anything to prevent going through this again sounded like a great idea to me. Despite some initial questions and misgivings, I embraced this concept with open arms, hanging on every word and explanation coming from my mother's mouth. Wanting to show her I was a serious student of the methodology, I vowed to become Ice Princess -- The Czarina was Ice Queen, so it was only fitting that I be her protege. After all, I was lucky enough to live with a Master-- between the years of 1963 and 1976, she dated approximately 80% of the single men on the Eastern Seaboard, and several hundred more during her year abroad in London. Or so it seemed to me.

Did I believe in the philosophy? Yes.

Did I always follow it? No.

Alas, my dream of being crowned Ice Princess was not to be. As if my extreme shyness was not enough of a hindrance, I failed to attract the same level of male attention that my mother did. So practicing these tactics was difficult. Which means, I never really got very good at them. I can't do math, but I would guess that over my dating lifetime, I average one boyfriend every three years. I remember 2000 and 2003 as being Entirely Dateless Years, actually. My average relationship length is about 6 months. I'm not complaining, just trying to illustrate to you the difference between my dating history and my mother's. A heartbreaker I never was.

If we were Shakespearean characters, she would play Lady Macbeth, and I would be Juliet Capulet, complete with the tragic end due to an unfortunate misunderstanding and lack of communication with her intended. I was fairly hopeless. But this never stopped me from striving for Ice Princess perfection. I have always trusted The Rules and the philosophy behind Hard to Get. I just need more practice.

After being adrift in the Ocean of Singledom for long stretches of time, I have to admit that spotting a piece of Potential Dating Real Estate on the horizon can send me into a tizzy. And when I finally get my feet on the malleable soil of a New Relationship Island and walk ashore to find a potential paradise of happiness and acceptance, I have a tendency to be more grateful and excited than anything else. No more swimming alone! This person likes that I'm here! Woo-Hoo! Let's do cartwheels!!

This is, of course, not how an Ice Princess behaves. So to put it bluntly, when presented with the opportunity to play Hard to Get, I would, more often than not, eff it up. Royally.

Upon the inevitable breakup and sobbing hysterically on the phone to The Czarina, I receive the same lecture I've been getting since 1996: stop showing and telling them you care and start playing hard to get or else you will have to keep going through this. Emotional investment only gets you hurt. Let him make the emotional investment in you. Men don't stay with you because you bake them yummy cookies. They stay with you because you are elusive and they can never get you. You need to stop being so gushy... [there's another 45 minutes to this lecture, but I won't bore you with the details. I'm sure you can guess how it goes.]

Every argument I make against playing hard to get is met with a solid and indisputable rebuttal on The Czarina's behalf. Every one of these phone calls ends with me conceding defeat and acknowledging that yes, she is always right, especially when it comes to romance. And her credentials back it up: a very happy marriage of almost 30 years, several proposals from different men and one legendary year when (at age 18 or so) she had a date every Friday and Saturday night.

How can I not listen to her? Not only is she my mom, who loves me, but the woman is a master at getting men to fall all over themselves for her. She knows what she's talking about! And I have nothing but a train wreck of a relationship resume. After dating for 15 years, I often feel I have learned nothing.

Women who can maintain emotional distance, put up walls and possess the ability to be cold fish amaze me. I look at them as though they are Wonder Women -- that's how foreign it is to me. They are these mechanical, robotic Bionic Women. Cold, unfeeling, unaffected, strong and protected. They are safe from the bullets of heartache. They are wearing impenetrable vests of aloofness. And men seem to love it.

Meanwhile, I am running down a hillside, a la Maria Von Trapp, singing about how wonderful love is as I twirl around picking flowers and petting bunny rabbits. My internal dialogue is reminiscent of Sally Field's Academy Award acceptance speech. I am vulnerable, warm, eager and emotional. When the Heartbreak Mafia come to town, I am mowed down over and over again like a victim of the St. Valentine's Day massacre. So while I am aware of my faults, I still have a hard time denying my true nature: I'm a gusher, dammit. I wear my heart on my sleeve, for the most part, and I probably always will, for better or for worse.

It's like we are a modern-day American version of Sense & Sensibility.

As much as I wish I could be The Czarina and deny a man for a YEAR (as she did to my poor father, who only wanted to take her to lunch!), I think we all know I could never do this.

In fact, if you know me in real life, just the mental image of me actually saying "No, thanks," to anyone I'm remotely interested in should have you laughing so hard, you fall right out of your chair.

Even The Czarina is starting to give up on me. "You're just too much like your father," she's started to say.

After many painful breakups, I can say that maintaining emotional distance is starting to come more naturally to me. In fact, I'm starting to become really good at it: I am now petrified of developing feelings in the first place. I am uncomfortable with "getting to know someone". The thought of kissing someone for whom I have an emotional attachment leaves my knees shaking--and not in the butterflies-in-your-stomach good way. It's similar to that pit you get inside of you when you are on a rollercoaster--a sickening feeling. This has not been a conscious choice on my part. I did not have an epiphany or some new appreciation for playing Hard to Get. This has been a Darwinian adaptation. I simply cannot go through another painful breakup. It would kill me, I think. Or at least send me running towards the nearest bottle of Prozac.

So for a while, now, I have decided to take a little vacation from romantic emotions. It's been easy, being alone: no emotional hurricanes or disappointment in my travels. Just smooth sailing, with the occasional port-of-call in such exotic locations as One Night Stand, Flings, Harmless Crush and Bad Dates.

These places serve as re-fueling spots, providing me with a hint of what real relationships are like, without much of a downside. I linger long enough to feel like a desirable woman, and then...I get a taste of relationship in my mouth, and I run back to the safety of my Single Girl Man-o-War, fleeing from the flood of bad memories and pessimistic premonitions. Emotions can drown me. It's safer and easier to just stay alone, high and dry, on my ship. And so, that's where I've been for a while.

But along came Cute Neighbor. Armed with dimples and the ability to make me laugh, his relaxed and spontaneous ways have caught me off guard and unprepared. The Wannabe Ice Princess is still ingrained in me, but I can feel her slowly melting away with every conversation I have with him. I can tell he's being open and honest with me -- so if he's not playing any games, why should I? I haven't won a game of Hard to Get yet, so maybe it's time to just stop playing and start being myself. Maybe all this time, it's been the rules that have held me back.

I don't know why suddenly, I'm abandoning the only dating mantra I've ever believed in. Maybe I'm tired of the same ending, and realize that unless something changes, it will happen again. Maybe I feel I have nothing to lose. Maybe he's allowing me to trust again. Maybe The Rules are antiquated in this day and age. Maybe I'm just exhausted from artificially maintaining distance and calculating my next Ice Princess move.

Whatever the reason, I'm not ready to let down my anchor quite yet, but I am looking forward to exploring this one. I've just got to get my land legs back. Because right now, I'm a little shaky.

24 comments:

Alison said...

From everything you've said about him, he seems like a nice guy. I don't think he's out to break your heart. So, take things slow and get to know each other. If things don't work out romantically, he seems like a pretty cool guy and you will have gained a new friend who likes to tailgate and watch football. :)

coffeesnob said...

it's a far far better thing she does, than her mother ever did.

Kestelnon said...

He may not be out to break hearts, but that doesn't mean it can't happen. My intentions are always for the best, but breakups are never easy past the point of emotional involvement. Such is life...

mysterygirl! said...

I guess my real problem with The Rules is, why would I want to jerk around someone I like? My last boyfriend would have been too shy to make a move if I hadn't told him that I had a crush on him, and it ended up being the most important relationship of my life to date. I think that you should go for the things you want in the way that feels natural to you. For me, I feel better knowing that I've always laid my cards on the table, and if it doesn't work out, at least I know that it wasn't due to a misunderstanding. For you, it may be different, so I say just roll with things as they feel comfortable for you. :)

teahouse said...

Hey, sweetie!! I'd say that if playing hard to get is an ordeal, then it's not for you! You can be friendly and open and approachable - those are all wonderful qualities that the right guy will LOVE!!

Behind The Curve said...

What an amazing post. Totally spoke to me. From an admitted Ice Princess myself, I say let go. Go with it. Nothing's ever guaranteed, but nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?

KingBob said...

Dear Mother is simply wrong. KINGBOB

Holly said...

i dont know that women who don't show much emotion are immune from heart ache, or impenetrable.

I am reserved, but never tried to jerk anyone around. As such, I am not a card carrying rules follower by any means, but it is natural to me to be more guarded than many people- i always wished i could be more free in my emotions, but it just doesn't seem to be in my nature.

perhaps you give us too much credit. As one who has been called a cold fish on more than one occasion i can say that whilst i am more guarded, and wary before giving my heart, a heartbreak is still a heartbreak for many of us too. maybe we just hide it better.

best of luck with the new approach- i hope it works for you, and the new boy

Meghan (The Declaration of MY Independence) said...

Beautifully written. Good job ex-Ice Princess.

Phantom Hater said...

Wow, I really love this post, VB. It was eloquently written and has great literary and pop-culture references.

I can relate to a little of this as a man. I've dated a few "Ice Princesses", and I really feel that although they hold themselves back from heartache, in the end they feel a sort of void, because they become so disconnected from their emotions. The only way to truly love is to open up and be vulnerable. Sure, you're going to end up with a broken heart once in a while, but that's life.

I have similar tendencies myself, and I'm sure a lot of guys that women call "assholes" are like that. You hold yourself back emotionally so you don't get hurt, and you make sure you are always the one to end it.

Also, even though the info in Rules is very much antiquated, it is also very effective. To me, that's just kinda sad, but a lot of insecure women who have been burned in the past probably need some sort of armor to protect them from getting hurt.

Also, it sounds like your mother is trying to exert a lot of control over your life. Although I think she does have your best interests at heart, she obviously doesn't understand how different the two of you are. There's nothing wrong with you as you are.

Coco said...

I think you can protect yourself without having to play some sort of "game"--just don't rush right out and start getting his and hers monogrammed towels right at the start. :) I am really glad to hear you sounding so optimistic at this point-I hope that things continue to go well!

Smug said...

The Rules work for some people, but it always seemed like you were messing with someone's head. Why would you want to do that to someone you might love? I know how you feel about the dating/relationship mine field - I have only had a handful of relationships, all lasting several miserable, physically and emotionally damaging years! It takes a long time to be able to trust someone again with your thoughts, body and most of all your heart - it is worth it though! All the bad stuff makes you recognize when something really great comes along!

Gypsy said...

The way I feel about games: someone always loses.

The Rules always seemed to me a manual for landing someone. But who wants just someone? It's so... desperate. What about self-development and personal responsibility and genuine feeling and independent thought?

If you remain true to yourself, if you be yourself, there's so much opportunity for true connection, without contrivance.

Good luck! :)

lenfercestlesautres said...

It works without the Rules. I mean, there is a ground truth in them because if you're the exact opposite of hard to get (read always available and without surprises), you'll get disapointed. But turning down a man for a whole year just doesn't sound like much fun.

Kraig said...

Sometimes being distant can work to protect you. And maybe you'll find someone who will either not care or understand and wait for your walls to come down. Maybe you'll even find that guy that will work to make those walls come down because he loves you.

I know I'm a very emotional person. I do hold back sometimes, but when I fall, I fall fast and hard. It means I get hurt, but it also means I have the opportunity to be happy, to be free. To feel for someone and express that. I don't have to hide, or shield myself.

Your mother is someone who is more comfortable and is probably better at slowly developing her feelings than a whirlwind rush love affair. She doesn't wear her heart on her sleeve. And for her, it makes her happy to work that way. She probably is right when it comes to being more like your father. You wear your heart on your sleeve, you get attached quickly, and you love easily. Thats not a bad trait, its just different.

So your moms advice isn't wrong, not for her. That doesn't mean it will work, or is whats best for you.

Theres only one advice I try to follow when it comes to love. Never make someone a priority when to them you're just an option. I'll try to restrain myself until the other person is willing to let go, then I let go and see what happens.

Love isn't a "game". it isn't about saying the right line, or doing the right thing. It isn't about feeling the same for someone, or anything like that.

Of course I'm completely incapable of explaining what love "is", so I'll stick to saying what it isn't.

Good luck with CN :)

Stuck said...

Oddly enough, a lot of men are taught to obey the same rules. So what happens when an emotionally aloof man decides he wants an emotionally aloof woman?

I'm sick of being emotionally unavailable, and sometimes wonder if I waited too long to become sick of it. I am certain of one thing, though, and that is that every emotional break-up I've had was a small price to pay for the benefits of the relationships that led to them. It's worth the price.

Love freely. Hold nothing back. If you get hurt, regroup, dust yourself off and do it again.

Matilda Jane said...

RULES SCHMOOLES!!! EFF HIM!

Matilda Jane said...

*literally*

Jonathan Zero said...

as stuck said, we men are told not to be too available, let the women want us thinking that we do not want them. This makes no sense to me. I wear my heart on my sleeve and it is pretty well known to them and others for better or worse. In fact, one emotionally aloof girl told me that she wanted me to ask her out years after I had had a thing for her. Needless to say I was dating someone else and by that point had no desire to be with this girl. My point is, we live only once. I think it is better to be yourself and let things happen as they happen. and yeah, CN sounds cool to me as well.

Virginia Belle said...

alison -- true. but unfortunately, i don't work that way. i couldn't hang out with someone i used to date in a friendship way. that's even more awkward than dating!

coffeesnob -- thanks. i am grateful for the encouragement!

kestelnon-- don't say that!!! i'm getting that pit in my stomach again!

mysterygirl -- you pretty much just summed up my current dating philosophy!

teahouse -- um, ok. i hadn't really thought of it like that. i've always associated those traits as bad and wrong. behavior to be ashamed of.

bhtc -- yes, that is true...nothing ventured, nothing gained. at least i'm trying.

kingbob-- hey now. that's my mom you're talking about. just because she's an uptight control freak doesn't mean you can say that. ;)

holly-- REALLY??? all this time, i just thought that by behaving that way, it would soon turn into how you FELT as well. sort of a "fake it til you make it" concept. i had no idea that breakups were even remotely painful for Ice Princesses. thank you for opening my eyes. i feel a LOT better about this now! thank you thank you!!

meghan-- *bows* thank you, Ice Princess Meghan. ;)

PH-- thank you. i just thought it was full of terrible analogies...*groan* and i'm not throwing the rules out the window or anything. i mean, i'm not STUPID. i'll never be that girl who calls her boyfriend 5 times a day or writes him love letters. i'm just trying to relax a little bit more and be more natural about all of this. by the way, your last paragraph sums up my entire relationship with my mother. good job. you're very observant. thank you. with a mom like her, sometimes it's hard to remember that maybe there's nothing wrong with me. i'm just different, is all.

coco-- yes, exactly. i'm not going to do anything stupid! and yes, it's going really well, actually. which is only making me wig out more.....ugh.

smug-- ooh! you bring up an excellent point! i do think that getting burned in the past makes it easier to know a good thing when you see it!

gypsy-- yeah, maybe it is just that simple: be yourself, just don't be crazy. thanks for the well wishes. :)

len-- yes, exactly. you have to follow The Rules at least a teeny bit or else you're just asking for heartbreak. as far as putting off my dad for a year not being any fun goes, trust me, my mom would beg to differ! she had tons of dates during that year. i'm sure she had a lot of fun. then again, as one friend put it to me once, "the problem with dating lots of guys casually at the same time is that you don't REALLY like any of them."

kraig-- wow. thank you so much for the long comment. i really appreciate it. it makes me feel a LOT better about all of this. i'm not a freak. i'm not the only one out there who is like this. i'm just different, that's all. it hasn't worked for me because it's not WHO I AM. i don't know why this concept hasn't been obvious to me already! LOL

stuck -- yes, i suppose there's no getting out of it. hurt is just part of the package. holding back will definitely put you at risk for ending up alone, i know that. people aren't mind readers. so i guess, yeah, maybe it is better to just take a deep breath and jump! just look before you leap! ha!

MJ -- stoppit!!! you're making me nervous!!! i am not ready for that yet! i need baby steps!! *blushes*

coffeesnob said...

it's hard, thankless work trying to warm up an iceblock. plus the heating bills are murder. keep your natural warmth and bouncy good nature, i say

Susie said...

This was an awesome post and I can totally relate. My philosophy has always been: if you're going to have rules, make them your own. And be flexible. Everyone's different and what worked for your mother might not work for you. Every guy is different too, so what works with one might not work on another.

After my last break up I also decided to take a break from letting my heart get involved with anyone. I went for the sure thing: a super hot guy in a band who will never break my heart because I know I can't give it to him. It's been just the experience I needed...I found a best friend, one of the most fun people I've ever met, and an amazing hookup. I never thought I'd be so happy being single, but I am not letting my heart get involved with anyone until I find someone I KNOW is worth it. And when I find him, I'm pretty sure, everything will happen naturally. No rules needed!

From what I've read Cute Neighbor sounds like a really good guy. Good luck! And regarding MJ's comment- I can totally hear my best friend saying the same thing to me :)

Scotty said...

I say forget the Rules, they suck. Do what you feel like doing, be honest and up front from the start.

It may be hard, but in the end I am sure it'll totally be worth it.

M said...

well,i hate to say it, men do respond when i play hard to get. and when i was bitchier i got more dates.

but...in the end, the emotional distance can't be healthy! i mean, what is the difference between being single and having a man you can't be emotionally close to??