“I’ll be more surprised if we succeed than if we fail,” I scrawled in a beat-up notebook last year. It was one of my many reactions to the new, deeply passionate relationship that had eclipsed every other element of my life. I’m a pragmatist, so this pessimism was not necessarily out of character but nonetheless sad in context: Love had inspired in me an impulsive, efficient lunacy that was accompanied by what I assumed was an ironclad sense of the future. I met Max on Tinder very late in 2014. By March 2015, I’d broken up with my previous boyfriend, moved to Max’s city, and secured a home for us to share in advance of us marrying—which would happen, I assumed, in a year or less.
I didn’t discuss this last detail with Max. I, again, assumed it was obvious and nearly guaranteed given how strongly we felt about each other, how completely we were in sync. Would it have been possible for us not to be married? In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson writes about fearing “the happiness police” who arrest people who are too joyous together. I imagined the inverse, a sort of love compliance team who would be flagged down by our ostentatiously perfect love as if we blasted it like a searchlight from our bodies, and issue a ticket for us not having codified our bond. But a few more months together revealed the limits of this hastily and eagerly arrived-upon theory.
Max and I had lots of learning about one another left to do, as well as the management of the pain and confusion that goes along with such intimate education. It will forever be a mystery if marriage would even have occurred to him if I hadn’t written about the presumed inevitability of ours to a rather large audience, which he later read. As these… mutual teaching moments accumulated, so did my doubt of those early ideas of wedded bliss, eternal commitment, unparalleled understanding. At one time I’d been confident we were destined for forever but now I leaned just as heavily into the opposite pendulum swing: we were probably doomed. I’d give this pairing my best shot and enjoy it for as long as possible, but I couldn’t expect a romantic relationship to last. Could I?
Emotional connection with another person is always scary because of the degree to which it leaves you vulnerable, not just to separation from the one you love through death or circumstance but to their rejection and the humiliation that follows. As someone who shared her confident flights of fancy so widely, my rejection would have been (or will be?) unusually visible and consequently, even more shameful. I had a hard time accepting the possibility of myself as someone suckered by love. I, of all people—by which I mean, as a former escort who saw the bleak underbelly of so many marriages—should know better.
So I entered a period of preparing for the end. As a child of divorce, this came easily. I’ve always been more comfortable with the notion of a man and woman formerly coupled than I am a man and woman coupled, so much so that the latter only ever seems like the former waiting to happen. I read books like Breakup and By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. I imagined what it would be like for him to move out and for me to be alone, how I might try to stay in his life in spite of our sad history. And I started conversations with Max about what it would be like to fall in love with someone else.
“I wouldn’t be able to love anyone else,” he said.
“But what if you did?” I said.
“I would have to make a decision to love someone else,” he said. “And I wouldn’t do that.”
“But what if you change? What if I change?”
I still loved Max, but I was practicing what it would be like to no longer have this love. When philosopher Gillian Rose wrote, “There is no democracy in any love relation: only mercy,” she was pointing to the truth that mercy is not only bestowed but withheld. I wanted to be ready for the mercy to leave me, so it would hurt less. So that it would leave less of a scar.
The mercy hasn’t left yet, though, and I’ve slowly eased my way out of living like I’m hostage to any predetermined future. The impulse of a writer is like the impulse of a lover. Both want to arrive at insights as flawless as a diamond and just as unbreakable. But both also age and so, inevitably, they change. (Something is very wrong if they don’t.)
“Sometimes I feel like I have to be an enlightened being,” my friend Meaghan said of her own personal writing. “But I feel differently about things that happened a year ago.” Expecting to have no revisions in writing or love is, as she put it, “another version of trying to escape vulnerability.”
After I met Max’s mother, she told him, “you found a keeper.” After my mother met Max, and months after she listened to me enthuse about how I loved him in advance of that meeting, she asked if the glow had worn off. Max’s mother is still with his father. Mine’s been unmarried for almost thirty years since her divorce.
Max has wondered aloud before if what each woman said is a testament to how she thinks, or to how well she knows her child. I don’t believe those two aspects can be untangled—our mothers so literally made us who we are. But if I can be forgiven for momentarily reducing two intelligent, perceptive women to separate, easily summarized philosophies, I would say one believes love is a cooperative adventure that, with the right participants, can endure for decades. The other sees it as an illusory dream of partnership that will most likely end only after it has inflicted copious amounts of suffering. And they both are right.
“Succeed” is an ugly word when applied to love because love in its best form is not about achievements. Efforts, perhaps, but not discrete end goals. Two adults could stay together for three quarters of a century and not be any good at love, while two others could part after six months of loving each other excellently. So to understand my time with Max as something capable of success or failure, like it’s a military mission or rebranding campaign, is not what I want to do anymore.
One facet of what I wrote last year remains true now. The most practical pocket of my mind may still suspect love does not last, but I’m trying to let go of all convictions about the future. Whatever the odds really are, I’m ready to be surprised.