Decades ago, shortly after my one divorce, my new girlfriend expressed frustration with me by means of a hand gesture. With one hand she beckoned, with the other she warded off. She said, “This is what you’re like with me.”
I felt bad about it but eventually came to see that the gesture was how I was, especially after my excruciating and costly divorce. I wanted a shot at redemption. I wanted back into romance ASAP. I felt incomplete without a partner, and at the same time, I was deeply wary because throwing all in with my wife hadn’t turned out so well.
Yes, I suffered from fear of intimacy and it was well-founded. In any other arena of life, the high cost of being totally committed to someone who rejects you and takes half of what you have would make one wary about throwing all in again.
But romance is different. It’s the dream of merging completely with someone or something. So however brutal decoupling felt, I felt compelled to re-couple. Compelled and yet as my new girlfriend rightly noted, repelled also. I really wanted to merge; I really didn’t want to merge.
That ambivalent hand gesture has stuck with me over the decades. It’s the inspiration for my blog’s name: Ambigamy: Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical.
I rarely write about sexloveromance but I think the ambigamy concept applies to all aspects of our lives. Sure, we dream of a full romantic merge with our work, our beliefs, our tribe, our partners, but we’re also deeply wary, deeply skeptical.
I even find ambigamy at the origins of life, my primary area of research. Being an individual organism isn’t like being an individual rock. It takes no energy to remain a rock, but if an organism doesn’t get energy, it dies. All organisms, therefore, have to be selectively open in order to stay closed and individuated. Every individual organism is an island but one that must import and export to remain an island. We are all selective in our interactions and have been since life’s origin.
Don’t panic, it’s organic.
Still, at the extreme, such open/closed-ness is crazy-making. Right after my divorce, straining to merge with a new partner, I ran really hot and really cold, a state I have since dubbed Bipolar Ambigamy.
One minute I was surging to merge with all my might. The next minute I was warding my date off, and worse, I didn’t see myself doing it. I thought I was being consistent when I wasn’t.
It’s why in later dating, after a hard breakup I’d quarantine myself for as long as I could tolerate, recognizing that I had no right to go out sending such mixed messages in my addled bipolar state.
Maybe it’s closer to Borderline Ambigamy with all of that “I hate you, don’t leave me.” Or maybe a mild form of PTSD. Whatever the term for it, being in it makes us treacherous company.
I know, because the dating world is rife with this extreme form of ambigamy. It’s rife especially by middle-age, among people who have mounted the horse of romance and been bucked and thrown, remounted and thrown over and over, people, in effect, shell-shocked by all of their rushings to the front line of love and being blasted back again and again.
I first noticed bi-polar ambigamy on a date with a woman who extolled the virtues of pure true romantic love, beckoning hard, and then rebuffing within minutes. I counted eight reversals in one night. By the end of that last date, we went to bed together. The next morning, she ended it abruptly. Maybe it was my performance. I wouldn’t doubt it. I was plenty confused as we went to bed.
If you’re on a dating site you’ve probably met the type or even been the type, deeply romantic, deeply wary and deeply unaware that you’re so intensely ambivalent.
As a guy, I’ve noticed it in women who are just furious at men, even while asking whether I have any male friends I could set them up with.
My answer is no, at least in their present prickly better-quarantined state. I get the impression that they’d be unreceptive to any of the necessary compromises of love since they’re ready to blame all compromise on maleness. As furious as they are, they’ve decided that men are all jerks, even though they still want one very badly.
And why furious? Because men run so icy hot, so burning cold. Men don’t know what they want.
I’m sure they’re right about us but I don’t guess it’s a gender thing. I blame it on romantic idealism, the unrealistic assumption that any of us can open all the way up to truly merge.
At least after our first-blush puppy love explodes in our faces. Sure, we remain romantic, beckoning and singing “why not take all of me?” but we’re warier and wiser than that. We don’t really mean “all of me.” Mature love is a partial merging. We want to be as one but we want to remain as two. A woman friend says, “I’d never want to be anyone’s first priority.” She wants her partner to have a life because she has one. She can’t afford to be anyone’s everything.
I know many couples that have succeeded at merging. Most are couples that started young, back when they had enough energy, innocence, and hormonal certainty to make each other feel safe for long enough to relax into sustained partnership.
A few of these seasoned couples have kept the romance alive for decades. Many seem to have settled into a safe, sane, realistic state of relaxed, even frumpy partnership.
I know a few couples that have been able to establish such easy partnership starting late in life but my impression is that it gets rarer with age. We tend to get more prickly, like porcupines with quills that get longer and sharper with age and experience. Porcupine love is the state of things, wanting to merge but not wanting to hurt or get hurt.
At 61, I’m now married to solitude. I could divorce it, but I bet I won’t. I’m retired from sexloveromance or at least deeply default single. I’m too old and war-torn to try merging again.
I call this state being a loaner, my life on loan to me and me on loan in friendship, connecting where the connecting is good. It’s not friends with benefits since the benefits tend to corrupt friendships. Freeing myself from my former almost-religious faith in the dream of romance frees me to meet anyone as just a person without my old tendency to come at attractive women with that sharp and exacting cookie-cutter of romance. I no longer have that prickly romantic hidden-agenda to manage.
Being a loaner suits me. I don’t recommend it for everyone any more than a gay person thinks everyone should be gay. It’s just my lifestyle of choice. It relaxes my bipolar ambigamy accumulated over a very good run at that intense dream of romantic merging.