This new year’s I made a resolution to be more present with my friends.
The intermittent reinforcement pattern of a previous relationship had turned me into a pigeon in a Skinner box on a variable interval schedule repeatedly pressing buttons in the hopes of getting a fix (English translation: someone was coming around only when he damn well felt like it, and I was descending into obsession trying to turn that into something consistent), and that too often meant that I was turning my friends into human sounding boards to talk about people who weren’t treating me well. When I realized what a fucking embarrassment I’d somehow allowed myself to turn into, I first forgave myself (literally operant conditioning is science, and I’m not going to blame myself entirely for the unsurprising effects someone’s repeated abandonment had on me), and then I resolved to make a change and do better.
One of those things I’ve resolved to do better for my friends is to show genuine care and concern for how their lives are going, to not only actively listen when they tell me about their relationships, but also to make inquiries and be genuinely curious about them. I no longer vaguely listen to their stories and tune in to put my coach hat on when they ask my analysis (something which, to my credit, I’m both good at and unstingy with); I now also examine the stories they tell me by asking questions.
It’s pretty amazing what you can learn from people when you’re really paying attention. Not just “oh, I listened to an old lady at a bus stop today and she had a cool story and now I feel better about myself for making her feel good” kind of paying attention but actually zooming out and looking at the patterns you see around you. How much do you know about your friends and why they do what they do? How much do you know about the passions and fears that motivate them?
For example: childhood, as author Matt Haig has said, is the chorus that keeps repeating, and that chorus is mostly the subject of Neil Strauss’s book The Truth, a life-changing relationship manifesto in the form of an Odyssean memoir that I truly believe, though I’m biased, could be the defining book of our generation. Neil talks frankly in the book about how his “emotionally incestuous” relationship with his overprotective mother affected both his choice of partners as well as his ability to show up for them, perpetuating a hellish avoidant/addict cycle where his lovers’ acts of affection felt smothering to him and his need for space felt anxiety-inducing to his lovers. I couldn’t unsee that fucking book. I read it in October on the plane to Iceland for a shoot and I fear that the puzzlement of emotional landscapes it brought up in me may have actually caused me to be rudely withdrawn from the kind designer and photographer who’d hired me for the trip. I couldn’t assimilate the information in that book and also continue living in the Skinner Box my ersatz lover was keeping me in, even though he’d just shown up again, and we’d just had one of the most beautiful evenings together at a spa in New York that had been a dream of mine to take him to since day one, and I had been so convinced that I could turn this thing around this time. (Sure enough, he ghosted me again shortly afterward, and that time my decision was easy. Well, easy isn’t the right word, but it was clear.)
I’ve long come to terms with my imperfect childhood and made the necessary separations from the harmful relationships therein, but I had always held deeply to the belief that my awareness of the wrong that was done to me somehow exempted me from having its effects play out in my adult life. In the week-long retreat Neil held that was part of his research for the book (the deleted love commune chapter that you can get online if you buy the book), we presented our childhood timelines and mine was done so with detached rationality and even a peaceful superiority — I’ve always known this wasn’t right. I’ve come to terms with all this. I’ve done this work. This is nothing new about myself.
Neil called me on it, actually. “No wonder you feel you need pickup if your dad kept instilling the belief in you that you’re worthless,” he told me. “Arden, you’re more hardcore about seduction than I am. But you don’t need it. You’re good enough just as you are.”
“I have empirical data that state otherwise,” I replied stoically. (I was a virgin til I was 22 and discovered pickup shortly after, and credited it with all my further love life success.)
The thing is, I realized just now that maybe it wasn’t my not being good enough without pickup that was actually keeping me romantically starved until that point — maybe it was actually me unconsciously insisting on reinforcing the worldview that my dad had instilled in me.
Looking back, it’s true that the guys I was interested in weren’t interested in me. But it’s also possibly true that I was interested in those guys because they helped keep my world intact, a world in which the men in my life, all modeled after my dad, felt that I was worthless. I remember friendzoning a guy in my acting school in favor of a long-distance crush I was obsessed with, and only when he was about to leave NYU for a year to study abroad did I suddenly “realize” I’d had feelings for him all along. How rom-com! How perfect! No, of course not! I could only feel for him when his leaving town meant a necessary rejection of me that reinforced my story! That is the opposite of perfect!
“Isn’t that the way it always is?” one of my evolved-PUA friends said to me today when I texted him that story. “People only start appreciating you when you’re gone!”
“NO!” I replied forcefully, “That’s NOT the way it always is! There are actually plenty of healthy partners out there who show up for each other all the time, but we’re not seeing them, because that’s the way we think it always is!” I made a list of healthy couples I know personally. Hang out with these people more, I told myself. Let their worldviews rub off on you.
The Baader-Meinhof effect is what happens when you see something and start to notice it everywhere — buy a blue Honda, and you’ll see nothing but blue Hondas on the road. The relationship equivalent of this is that if your mom or dad treated you like crap, you’ll see nothing but people who treat you like crap. So, in keeping with the metaphor, if the blue Honda is your relationship model, you need to buy a new car. All of a sudden you’re in your red Lexus seeing nothing but red Lexuses (Lexi?) on the road. You need to reprogram your definition of what it means to love and be loved.
In being more present with my friends and listening to their stories, I realized that even really smart, really talented, really amazing people can have some really fucked up views about what love is. I find myself listening to their relationship complaints and in examining them, I’ve started asking, “Ok, so what is it that makes you feel that this situation is somehow more appealing than literally anything else?” And to a one their response to that question is always to start making excuses for their lovers. I then counter by repeating all the excuses I’d made for my ex-lover just months earlier. And then we look at each other and realize that shit got real.
I want my friends to be happy, just as I want to be happy, but I also know that giving unsolicited counsel is usually shitty, so I check in and ask if they want my hot takes or not and I also fully support their right to make their own adult decisions. I’ve also asked some of my friends to respect it when I tell them I’m not ready to hear about their own romantic compulsions, the same way that a newly sober person needs to refrain from hanging around alcohol for a while until their sobriety feels more effortless. “[Redacted] showed up again,” a girl friend texted me this weekend. I replied, “You know what? I want so much to support you as a friend, but I can’t in good conscience celebrate this with you. I don’t want you to get sucked back into another pain cycle, by which I mean that I actually don’t want to get sucked back into another pain cycle, and I’m not far enough away yet to be sure that I won’t, so this feels like dangerous information to me. I’m sorry. I hope whatever happens that it makes you happy.”
I’m starting to worry a little bit that reprogramming my idea of love into a healthier model is going to require sacrificing not only the people I dated who perpetuated my toxic narrative, but also some of the amazing, generous, loving, talented, supportive friends I have who subscribe to the same worldview. It’s not enough to axe the emotionally unavailable avoidants from my life; I might have to gently winnow the beautifully over-loving addicts who enable me to keep giving and giving when I’m getting nothing in return because this is just our normal, because our parents all, in different ways, made us feel we were worthless.
“If we don’t get our shit together soon,” I finally cried to my evolved-PUA friend, “we’re going to spend our entire relationships talking about them to each other in the DMs!” “Damn Arden,” he wrote back, “WHY’D YOU HAVE TO GO AND DROP A TRUTH BOMB LIKE THAT!!”
In The Matrix, when Neo takes the red pill and realizes that his whole life has been an illusion and that he’s actually living in an impoverished dystopian hellhole, he freaks out so hard that he vomits. Writes Adyashanti, “Enlightenment is a destructive process. It has nothing to do with becoming better or being happier. Enlightenment is the crumbling away of untruth. It’s seeing through the facade of pretense. It’s the complete eradication of everything we imagined to be true.”
Enlightenment is a misnomer. Enlightenment is heavy as fuck. (It’s also highly ironic that the deeply misogynist Red Pill PUA community refers to itself as such, because in trading their views of women as sex-gatekeepers on pedestals for their views of women as hypergamous money-grubbing hoes, they’ve actually just traded one blue pill for another blue pill. A lie for a lie.)
There’s a lot that is really lovely about knowingly, willingly living in a fantasy world, especially when you can craft a beautiful one to your liking and invite potential lovers into it with you, and also especially when it fuels your art — and lord knows some of my best work has been born out of one-sided relationships that I was having in my head with someone who wasn’t showing up for me, because whether positive or negative if I’m not being allowed a conversation with that person you can be damn well sure I’ll have it with my notebook, my band, my mic and my audience, or else with a camera and a photographer. But I can’t let a fantasy world blind me to reality, no matter how seductive, and I don’t want to believe that I can’t be happy and also create interesting work. Sure, the passion of a love addict fuels my purest, most fiery creations, but if I start believing that I have to be in pain to be an artist that’s just going to have some nasty ripple effects that I refuse to accept. And like, it’s equally shitty when your art becomes a reminder of the lack of love you’re receiving, when you literally spent money on a ticket to your former lover’s movie when it opened and yet he never once came to see your band play or bought your songs on iTunes, nor even uploaded the CD you gave him, because “rock isn’t his thing.” Ok, but supporting the art of people I care about is my thing, so.
Remember what I said in my last entry about beginning the year anew and doing my damnedest to get better? No one ever tells you how much healing hurts. No one ever tells you it’s not about receiving new happy butterfly beliefs that immediately make you feel brand new, that it’s about letting go of your favorite fucking fairytales that maybe literally saved your life when you were a kid. It feels like losing your home. To heal is to grieve.
In vowing to be more present with my friends, I’ve also started realizing who my friends actually are. In her interview with me on her Observations podcast, my friend Sovereign suggests comparing your dating life to doing your taxes as a freelancer and seeing each year which people actually hired you and contributed to your income. In looking at it, it’s pretty amazing how many musicians I’ve dated and yet how the people who invited me to go to the Grammys with them were friends of mine who are a couple about to have a baby. It’s amazing how much I have chosen to date people who have shown less care for me than people I’m not dating, especially when you consider how much, for me, dating someone (and all the sex, art, dinners, and experience curation that I put into that) is an intentional way of showing them care.
I invited my evolved-PUA friend today to commit to solving our similar issues and he said yes, so here’s what we’re doing: In addition to making a list of happy couples (or triples, or non-monogamous intimate partnerings of any variety) and spending more time around them so that I can slowly trade my shitty blue Honda in for the red Lexuses they’ve been driving around, I also vowed to make a list over the next week of anytime someone shows up for me — which could mean inviting me out, spending time with me, giving a gift, supporting my art, promoting my work, buying me a drink, cooking a meal, fucking me in a way that conscientiously takes my desires into consideration, creating art with me, holding space for me to talk about whatever’s on my mind, giving a sincere acknowledgment, sending a welcomed sext, listening to my music, or anything really that is designed to make me feel good and not just appeal to their own agenda — and then at the end of the week to look at that list and see which names come up and which ones are conspicuously absent. (I’m doing that this week. Want to curry favor with me? Now’s the time.)
Last night at the Grammys, Our Lady of Perpetual Red Lipstick Taylor Swift became the first woman to win Album of the Year twice. And in her acceptance speech, she said, “I want to say to young women: There are going to be people along the way who will try to undercut your success or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame, but if you focus on your work and don’t let those people sidetrack you, someday when you get where you’re going, you’ll look around and you’ll know it was you and the people that love you that put you there.”
Hearing Taylor say that live in real time was like being hit in the chest, even sitting in the upper mezzanine. Being loved is not the same thing as being sporadically wanted when it’s convenient for someone. Being wanted feels so good but it’s not at all the same thing as being supported. There’s a saying in pickup that the measure of a PUA’s sincerity is whether they spend time on you, and I would add to that that it’s not only time spent but quality time spent, time in which the two of you are engaging each other in ways that make both of you feel good. Are you choosing people who love you, who support you? And if not, why? What is it that you think love is? Why is that situation preferable to literally anything else you could be doing?
Break your illusions, babies. Start loving the people who show up. (Or until you can, at least enjoy the art.)