By Amy Alkon
Q: I’m a single woman in my 40s. It’s been ages since I’ve seriously dated anyone. People tell me that I seem “closed off.” I don’t want to be, but I worry that I’ll get into another relationship that ends badly. I don’t want to die alone, but I just don’t think I can survive another heartbreak.—Terrified
A: My dad loves quoting that FDR line, “The only thing you have to fear is fear itself.” Sorry, Pops, but that’s ridiculous. There are things to fear in life. A couple of examples that spring to mind: 1. A hug from the lady at work who just got back from vacationing in Ebola territory. 2. Being in immediate need of lifesaving surgery and waking up to your drunken neighbor operating on you with salad utensils and a steak knife.
However, it turns out that there’s a next part to that “fear itself” line—explaining that the problematic kind of fear is “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Perhaps that sounds familiar? And granted, when love packs its bags, leaving you with just a few empty hangers swinging in your closet where your man’s shirts used to be, it’s normal to come undone for a while—perhaps spending some time lying on the bathroom floor in an evening dress and breakfasting on Froot Loops a la vodka.
However, what’s also normal is recovering from heartbreak. Grief researcher George Bonanno explains that while therapists and self-help books portray grief after a loss as a paralyzing sadness that people are unable to survive without professional help, this isn’t how he finds it affects most of us. In fact, he says we are wired to be resilient—to pull ourselves out of our misery hole and get on with things.
What helps in this, Bonanno explains, is “hardiness.” Research by clinical psychologist Salvatore Maddi finds that hardiness involves three interrelated attitudes: A desire to engage with people and life (rather than detach and isolate yourself), a belief in taking action to make things better (rather than sinking into “passivity and powerlessness”) and a willingness to face stressful stuff and use it as a learning experience—transforming personal disasters into personal growth.
Even if the behaviors that make up hardiness don’t come naturally to you, they’re there for the taking. So, yes, heartbreak will be painful, but hardiness is a shovel you can use to dig yourself out. What you don’t get to do is make the bratty demand, “I want love without hurt or disappointment!” You can fill up your life so it won’t be so empty if somebody leaves you and get comfy with the hard truth: Having love is no guarantee that you won’t “die alone”—choking on a chicken bone just as your beloved’s gone out the door all, “Wow, double coupon day at the Quik Sak! Be right back, loverbunny!”
Q: There are two women who arouse mega-chemistry in me when we hug, talk, etc. Unfortunately, neither is available. Though I’m basically attracted to the woman I’m dating (meaning she’s the right height, weight, hair color, etc.), I don’t feel those highs with her. So, my question is, can I make a go of this relationship even though I lack the tingly zest I have with the taken ladies?—Missing The Whole Enchilada
A: Can you “make a go” of this relationship? Of course you can! Before you know it, you’ll be booking one of those romantic weekend getaway packages to try to rekindle that magical indifference you felt at the start.
Unfortunately, you can’t work up to lusting after a woman, like by making your libido do pushups over her picture. We seem to have evolved to be subconsciously drawn to the smell of certain people—those who have immune system genes different from ours, with whom we’d make a baby with a broader set of defenses against icky parasites and disease. Men, in particular, evolved to be hot for features that reflect high fertility, like a small waist, big eyes and big pillowy lips. The right smell and physical features flick the “on” switch in what affective neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp calls your “seeking system,” sending you signals (in the form of “tingly zest”)—much like a sign spinner holding up a big arrow, “Your penis here!”
No, obviously, you can’t have it all, but you have to have enough of it all—enough of the hots for a woman, along with the hots for who she is as a human being. This isn’t to say there won’t be issues in bed, but you’re more likely to solve them if the licensed professional best suited to help you is not the corner taxidermist.