Valentine’s Day approaches. For many, it moves toward us like a frontier caravan hauling love and affection to weary, sun-kissed settlers. It’s a time for lovers to take stock in their relationships, to celebrate unions and romance—a time where blood nearly boils over with so much passion that can only be expressed through the most decadent sauces, the richest chocolates, the most fragrant flowers, and the most meaningful, most tender lovemaking. For sad others, like me, that day approaches like a devastating tidal wave of overzealous and disingenuous fondness that wipes out entire island nations, the kind conjured up in Roland Emmerich movies. It arrives like a foreign invading army there to force democracy and civility upon your people, a stark reminder that, according to them, you are a savage.
Winter is a cold season, and there are few things better than hiding under a heavy down comforter to stave off the frigid air with someone on an unproductive Sunday afternoon, or tumbling playfully in the powder. But when you’re alone, those things take on very different meanings. Burying yourself beneath blankets and refusing to surface for an entire day can often be perceived, by concerned and partnered friends, as clear signs of crippling depression; and when you’re alone and you fall into a snow bank, your day is unquestionably ruined.
So around this most alienating of holidays, I can’t help but look backwards and survey over past loves. I find that, as far as dating histories go, I’ve been pretty fortunate. The women in my life have been immeasurably special (and, all things considered, completely out of my league), but each relationship, fun and lively as they once were, ended with a fizzle. No big fight that spills out into the street or final straw; the seams just kind of unwound, the ends frayed. And each and every time, I struggle to move on, perhaps because this slow decline provides absolutely no closure. But the side effect of these lingering, unresolved feelings—coupled with my tendency to fall in love and be fallen in love with far too quickly—is that there are major gaps in my timeline. My history is filled with highlights, major ones, to be sure, but infrequent ones. If my dating life were a resume, the hiring manager would jot this concise note in the margins: “Enthusiastic but inconsistent.”
I tried to come to a conclusion about where each relationship went wrong. What I found was, in a word: me.
In several more words: My problematic approach to relationships may be more chronic and widespread than I first suspected. This year, as I looked back, an analogy started to reveal itself. My experiences with women have closely resembled my experiences with writing. My analysis yielded interesting connections:
In my relationships: A lack of self-awareness has caused me to neglect the issues within the relationship. I am typically conscious of the fact that there is a problem but unable or unwilling to address the issues directly. Essentially, in the difference between removing a splinter with tweezers and letting it work its way out, I choose the latter.
In my writing: I leave stories unfinished, narrative arcs unplanned. I set stories aside, intending to return to them, but usually once a story is set aside, it’s set aside for good.
In my relationships: I’ve long said that the first three months of a relationship is my absolute favorite time to be with someone. Then, you’re learning, courting, nervous and uncertain but filled with an electricity sparked by newness. After that, though, can come complacency.
In my writing: One of the biggest reasons I neglect works is because I tire of them. My initial excitement for the idea fades just as quickly as it arrived. This forces me to…
“Spice things up”
In my relationships: Once the discovery period has ended, when frustration and complacency start to set in, I try to keep things lively, though that usually manifests itself in destructive ways, frequently by manufacturing reasons to argue.
In my writing: Deus ex machina. To try to salvage my dull work, I attempt to throw in a plot twist or some unexpected intervener. Failing that, I try to completely retool the story into a different perspective entirely, not to improve the piece but to rekindle that initial excitement to write.
In my relationships: I have never been the kind of person to date multiple people at the same time—I struggle to make it work with one person so why would I want to complicate it further?—and cheating just always seemed like the ultimate form of disrespect. Even in my worst relationships, I could never imagine hating someone so much that I would willingly hurt them in that way. Sure, that reads like an example of moral superiority but, looking over the other issues, is more akin to putting a monocle on a monkey.
In my writing: I have only ever been able to devote enough brainpower to working on one story or one article at a time. I worry that if I pause my progress on one thing in favor of another, I will never be excited enough to return to it again. (But maybe the opposite is true. Maybe working on multiple pieces is the way to curb the boredom. But I’ve only gotten as far as self-reflection now; self-improvement comes further down the road.)
A slave to my “type”
In my relationships: My “type” has never been so specific as to be something like tattooed Goth girls with tongue piercings, porcelain skin, and daddy issues, but I suppose that I have certain characteristics that I gravitate toward. All of my exes have been Caucasian-American, college-educated, leftist atheists. To my defense, in the circles I run in, they are overwhelmingly the majority.
In my writing: Through years of expensive aversion therapy (college), I’ve learned to stray from simply writing what I know. But though my stories and characters are often, though not always, invented, my style of writing is usually the same. I stick pretty closely to memoir-like pieces, dramatic but with moderate helpings of dark, sardonic humor. I rarely try my hand at unfamiliar genres, though. No science fiction, no horror or mystery, and, goodness, no romance.
In my relationship: I always, at some point near the end, suffer from a hopeless desire to start right back from the beginning.
In my writing: See previous answer.
So what can I glean from these intimate connections? That I’m a maddeningly stubborn, mentally unfit loner? I knew that already. Date me for six months and you’d know that, too. No, the thing I can gather from this information is that, whether in my writing or in life, I’ve played it too safe. I have willingly avoided risks. Effectively, I’ve done a poor job seeking adventure. I’m not naïve enough to think that stepping out of my comfort zone will guarantee success. But I have to remind myself: hearts mend, words are infinite, and excitement can be rekindled if I have the courage to simply provide the spark.
Joshua Covell is a New Hampshire transplant who loves the big city lights and a state that completely sidesteps the national political spotlight but pines for good seafood and a proper time zone. He is a writer, editor, and co-founder of STFU, Internet.