Being cynical about love
I don’t want to hurt again
In August, I attended my lab's summit meeting at the MIT Endicott House, a fancy conference center in Dedham. Besides talking about their research, every attendee had a slide with a fun fact about themselves. One slide that stood out to me had many pictures of local Boston eats. The postdoc said that when she was doing her PhD, she was in a long-distance relationship and flew to Boston every so often to visit her boyfriend. During each visit, they ate at a different place to complete their food bucket list of places to eat in Boston. Before she continued, I immediately thought that her sentence would end awkwardly with “we broke up but are still friends.” Instead, she said that the boyfriend she stayed with for five years ended up being her husband.
Since I kept these thoughts to myself — nothing humiliating happened — but I was still embarrassed. As I listened to others present their projects, I kept getting distracted by my negative assumption. I was appalled that I made fun of the idea of maintaining a long-distance relationship that required flying two hours one way to see each other. I didn’t understand why I jumped to the conclusion that a long-distance relationship wouldn't work out, thinking that distance would ultimately kill the relationship. The more I reflected upon these thoughts, the more troubled I became about how cynical I had become.
After the presentations ended, there was a nice dinner. But once the day was over, my mind came back to the troubling feelings of cynicism. I started to become concerned about how detrimental my self-hatred for having romantic thoughts could be. I found it ironic how I was the complete opposite a year ago, letting myself daydream about imaginary conversations and hypothetical dates with my crush. It’s as if I’m back to square one. As I write this, I don't have the conviction to stop being a love cynic. Yet there is a quiet voice in the back of my head telling me that I can no longer ignore the potential consequences of my pessimistic attitude.
Over the past few months, I have repeated and internalized the idea that no one will ever be interested in me and love is something beyond my reach. Sure, I see couples basking in the sun at the local park or drinking wine at a fancy restaurant, but while romantic love is a reality for them, it’s not for me; the concept is a pipe dream.
I don’t know how to stop finding faults in myself as a way to suggest that I am not compatible with anyone. When thinking about romantic relationships, I consider any possible sources of conflict that may arise because of me, such as the fact that I like exploring places alone or how my lifestyle doesn’t align with theirs. I then think of how I will annoy the other person because I am not a touchy-feely type. In other words, I can only think of reasons why a relationship with someone would fail.
I am aware that failure is not a bad thing. I try to see failure in a positive light in my academic and everyday life. While failures aren’t ideal, I see them as opportunities to learn from my mistakes and become a better version of myself next time. When it comes to relationships, however, I don't want to fail, which means I don't want to take any risks. The whole scenario feels like a paradox. I believe that taking risks is beneficial because it makes life more enriching, be it scuba diving for the first time or signing up for a 10k. But I can't think of anything to reassure me and persuade me to view relationships the same way.
“I am kind of scared of being in a relationship,” I said to my new friend after confiding that I had never been in a relationship or on a date before.
“I don’t want it to fail.”
“Have you heard of the hedgehog’s dilemma? I learned about this from an anime I watched. The dilemma is that two hedgehogs can choose to huddle together in the cold to stay warm, but their prickly spines will cause harm if they are too close. The same things happen with relationships. What would you do in that situation?”
“Honestly, I would still choose to be in the cold alone,” I replied. I would rather stay alone in the cold than end up hurting someone I’ve grown close to. Or worse, letting them hurt me.
When I reflect upon this conversation, the reasons behind my fear of failure in a relationship are a lot more apparent to me. Not only do I see myself as someone unable to move on from a breakup gracefully, but I also believe that a breakup would be evidence that I am not capable of being in a long-term relationship. To make matters worse, I somehow view a breakup as an indication of a personal weakness that I have, even though the reasons for a breakup are often complex and not because of one person.
There’s a movie I watched that taught me the value of a relationship that ends, but I feel like this lesson won’t apply to my life. In the movie, the couple part ways due to their diverging goals and interests, but they still cherish the memories of moments and experiences they shared. At first, the movie reassured me that breakups weren’t as horrible as I thought they would be, but then I reminded myself that what I saw was a movie. Unlike reality, movies have elaborate plots and perfect scripts with touching quotes. As nice as it is to picture a breakup that ends smoothly, I imagine mine to be a disaster. I feel so much shame and embarrassment when I think of people I’ve liked in the past that I can imagine cutting off contact and avoiding a future ex as much as possible. So no, I am not ready to embrace the uncertainty that comes with relationships.
My reluctance to accept uncertainty is only one of the many problems I have with romance. The bigger problem is that I despise the fact that I experience romantic feelings. I know that these emotions are normal, but that fact doesn’t make me feel much better. What’s frustrating is thinking about the infatuation that takes over my brain, causing me to have irrational thoughts.
Knowing that I hate myself so much for having a crush in the first place, I can't imagine what the level of self-hatred would be if I experienced a breakup. As said in the movie Her, love is “a form of socially acceptable insanity,” yet I detest how I can’t stop myself from obsessing. It’s like knowing that I have an addiction, but continually finding a justification for my behavior. I want to be the exception, not part of the norm that enters this state of mind.
I disliked feeling disillusioned after I gradually lost interest in my crush. It was clear that my thought patterns at that time displayed the unmistakable signs of unrequited love, but I didn’t want to reconcile with the truth until it was too late. I have felt like an idiot countless times, from making a careless arithmetic error to entering the wrong subway entrance, but this felt much worse.
All the factors that I never considered, like differences in personality, were obvious, yet in the midst of my crush, I overlooked them and brushed them to the side. I am mad that serious questions such as whether we had conflicting beliefs were ones I didn’t examine early on. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed having conversations with him, even ones that challenged my views. But because I didn’t know this person that well, I grew to like the image I had of him, which was different from reality.
My struggle to accept myself for having these feelings raises the question of how I could ever be in a relationship that doesn’t work out in the end. All of this sounds contradictory. On the one hand, I am curious about romantic experiences, like going on a date. On the other hand, I think of possible reasons the date won’t turn out well for me: the conversation stalls, the romantic gestures are contrived, and so on. The more I think about it, the more I wonder what the point of going on a date is when it’s easier to make friends. The stakes are lower since there’s no romance involved, and there’s no need to worry about the million little things of what not to do on a date. I am conscious that this mindset is hurting me more, but I am stuck in this situation and don’t know how to get out.
So far, I have mentioned my fear of love’s unpredictability and my inner conflict with how I perceive my romantic thoughts, but I haven’t quite explained why I am cynical about love. I haven’t done so because that means acknowledging a fact that I have avoided confronting: I don’t want to hurt again. It is as simple as that. I originally thought that I wasn’t bothered by the fact that my feelings weren’t reciprocated, but in hindsight, my ego got bruised quite a bit. I know that many years down the road, I will probably not dwell upon this because time heals. At this moment, however, the past and the present aren’t distinct – they are a continuum.
I don’t want to repeat the experience of disappointment and frustration, even though they’re inevitable if I want love to be part of my life. I refuse to undergo the pain that comes from unrequited love again, feeling insecure by thinking about traits my crush had that I didn’t have. I am tired of letting unhealthy thoughts take a toll on my self-esteem, thinking about how awkward and nerdy I am compared to him. I am mindful of the fact that he is in no way, shape, or form, obligated to like me back. Despite all of this, I find it so difficult to not take things personally, to not let this incident make me doubt my self-worth.
I don’t want to remind myself of how much mental effort I put into reaching out to him, whether it was carefully crafting my text messages or coming up with stupid, silly ideas of confessing my feelings. I am sick of wasting my time imagining something that was never bound to happen in the first place.
My cynicism towards love serves as a defense mechanism. But is avoiding romance altogether an effective solution? Is this even sustainable? The answer is probably no. I can’t keep embodying this mindset by shutting down opportunities around me.
Typing all these repetitive, negative thoughts feels like splashing and smearing paint on the wall out of anger and spite. To be honest, I felt no closure from writing this until I passed by a hallmate’s whiteboard with this quote by Yasmin Mogahed: “The more you let go, the higher you rise.” Hating myself for the past and being cynical about love weren’t going to change anything for the better; it would only perpetuate these mean thoughts. If I want to be at peace for once, then I have to start talking to myself as if I were talking to a friend. That means letting go and accepting who I am, a challenge that will require time.
I am still fearful of being rejected again, even if that rejection is indirect and subtle. But I am gradually realizing that unrequited love is bound to happen again, and I have no way to avoid it. All I can do is reframe my perspective of the past year as a learning experience, as cliché as that may sound. Yes, I will make mistakes when navigating the complexities found in love and relationships for the rest of my life, but under the right circumstances, I can mature emotionally and develop in other ways. I am a bit more optimistic that there’s hope for me, at least for now.