When I was in my early 30s, I started examining the data: Many years of unrequited crushes, mediocre dates and jittery mini-relationships that started off great but soured fast. I just seemed to suck at love.
I figured it must be me—after all, plenty of other women managed to find guys who they happily took to their parents’ houses and spent Sundays reading the paper with. So what was my problem?
As a journalist who frequently reported stories about relationships and personal growth, I interviewed a lot of experts, who had many theories about why some people have a hard time finding romantic partners. I studied their advice and began an ambitious self-renovation project so that I too could find love. My task list included the following:
Raise My Self-Esteem. Because obviously, right? Nearly every dating expert said that confidence is the key to romantic success. So I took acting lessons, which were great fun and gave me the chance to dance and sing and scream obscenities in room full of supportive people. I made sweet, funny friends and went to their plays in tiny black box theaters. And I tried a couple of open-mic nights myself.
Most important, I learned to project (if not feel) confidence. On dates, I was shiny and happy and full of optimism about the future. At parties, I walked up to cute guys and flirted brazenly. Sometimes it worked and I’d go on a date or two. Sometimes they said, “Excuse me, but I need to go get a glass of water.” None of the recipients of my jacked up self-esteem ever became my boyfriend.
Fix My Aura. The other problem with the self-esteem theory was that I knew plenty of self-doubting women who nevertheless had good relationships with men who loved them dearly. Dating isn’t like used-car sales. You don’t have to impress everyone—you just have to find one person who likes you despite your flaws. But how?
Enter the New Age soul mate finders. Their advice was fun to take because it encouraged me to go on nature walks and burn scented candles. I started doing yoga, and meditating and doing free-writing exercises in which I brainstormed about where my true love might be—my favorite bookstore, the old hotel bar in my neighborhood. Yes, I would find him. I could feel it. Except that … he never was at my favorite bookstore or the old hotel bar in my neighborhood. So now it wasn’t just my confidence that was lacking, my soul was also a dud. Bummer.
Have Different Feelings. Having failed to get the love fairies working on my behalf, I realized that the true problem was the fact that I wanted a boyfriend in the first place. The dating books said I couldn’t be happy in a relationship until I first learned to be happy alone. So: happy alone it is! Yay, alone!
And I was happy lots of the time. After all, I had an interesting job; sweet, smart friends, and lots of time for reading novels or learning Pilates. But then, sometimes, I would feel something that was … not so happy. I might be at a baby shower, where I would calculate my steadily declining chances of ever becoming pregnant. Then I’d feel like a jerk for thinking about myself on the expectant mom’s big day. Or I’d be home alone on a Saturday night, feeling like life was passing me by. I didn’t just feel lonely, I felt ashamed of feeling lonely, my misery compounding like credit-card interest. I not only sucked at being in relationships; I also sucked at being single.
Funny story. Eventually, I met a guy. Not because I had changed my attitude or gotten myself “out there” or stopped wanting to meet one, but because I took a freelance editing gig and there he was. I still had weird flaws and hang-ups. I was still a self-conscious atheist who got wistful at weddings and lonely on weekends. Oddly enough, he liked me anyway. Eight years later, he still does.
I never had to fix my personality or renovate my soul to find love. I didn’t even need to relax and let love come. I wasn’t relaxed—actually, I was extremely impatient. But it came anyway, without me really doing anything.
This is what the experts never want to say: Love is a completely unwieldy and unpredictable force and actually there are no 7 or 12 or 832 steps you can take to catch it. They don’t want to tell us this because they think it will make us despair. But if I can’t control it, what do I do?
My suggestion: Do whatever you like, feel whatever you feel. There is nothing wrong with taking steps to feel happier or improve your life. But don’t do what I did: Don’t treat self-improvement like a prerequisite to finding a relationship. Go to therapy, try a speed-dating event, sail around the world. Do it all! But drop the part where you decide that these experiences will lead you to your one and only. They will, or they won’t.
Instead of trying to “fix” yourself, try taking care of yourself. That way the heavens and the stars and that dude on OKCupid have nothing to do with it. That way, you can’t lose.