Playing With Matches

by Jennifer Garstang July 31, 2012


By Jennifer Garstang


After the breakup (and three subsequent years of his seemingly endless ability to tick me off and withstand the resulting hail-fire of my wrath), my first boyfriend and I managed to stay friends. Things got a lot easier once he stopped the particularly irritating game of finding superficial similarities between me and whoever he was currently dating. The conversation would go like this:

Him:     Guess what? This girl I’m dating is also a Jewish brunette writer who’s into music. Isn’t that crazy?

Me:       No. What’s crazy is that you keep making these stupid comments. What’s crazier is that I haven’t yet punched you in the face for it.

What’s crazier still is that everyone makes these kinds of comparisons, usually on a much deeper level — and we don’t even realize it!

Barring major head trauma resulting in amnesia, your first relationship will be with you in some form for the rest of your life. She* will be inscribed upon the doorposts of your house and on your gates. She may even be a sign upon your hand — though with tattoo removal technology, that’s much less likely these days. Worse yet, she becomes a symbol before your eyes, a lens through which you view all future relationships.

But isn’t that a good thing? Dating is all about learning from past relationships and discovering what we are and aren’t looking for, right?

Well, sure! Until what you expect to see becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That’s right. You can turn your current special someone into a previous-special-someone-who-is-now-a-not-so-special someone using only the power of your mind.

It can be as blatant as an obvious attempt to recreate a past relationship: “My ex was so horrible. She made me watch the whole ‘Twilight’ series three times…speaking of which, I happen to have the special edition on Blu-ray. Want to watch them? ‘Cause I’d do that…for you…”

Even more perilous to a relationship, you can turn your date into your ex with something as subtle as an unconscious interpretation of her actions: “She ate a green bean off my plate. Wait, my ex did that, too. Oh no! There can only be one explanation: She’s a domineering bupkes like my ex! RUN FOR THE HILLS!”

That’s part of the challenge of being human. As soon as anyone does anything, our monkey-brain survival-instinct starts interpreting what those actions mean, and, more importantly, what they will mean for the future. It’s a great skill when applied to life-and-death situations. It’s what keeps (most of) us from sticking that fork back in the toaster a third time (of course, you have to do it at least twice to confirm cause and effect). It can also be pretty handy when spotting red flags in potential matches.

The problem is, the flag you’re seeing may actually be waving on the interior of your retina. You know those floaty things in your eyes that are always there no matter what you look at? Yeah, like those. You’ll be sitting there, admiring a beautiful blue sky, and suddenly you’ll notice them. Then you start chasing them around your field of vision, and after just a little bit, you completely forget there’s a sky out there. Likewise, if you focus on your relationship-interpretation-floaties, it doesn’t matter who you’re with. You’re going to see the same things over and over again, and you’ll stop seeing what’s in front of you.

Of course, occasionally, your date may succeed in create a fresh new floaty in your eye, which you will then carry on to your next relationship. We all know that the longer you live, the more floaties you get, and the harder it can be to see past them.

Luckily for all of us who are interested in dating other people rather than our eye floaties, there’s hope: the sky is still there, and we can still see it. Along with our monkey-brain survival instincts, we also have the ability to distinguish our interpretations from what’s actually there. It’s not always easy. In fact, it’s usually pretty darn hard. But if you don’t find a way, you’ll find yourself dating the “same” person over and over again, endlessly doomed to repeat your first relationship. And if you think about it, your first relationship happened long before your first sweetheart. It happened back in the days when boys were gross and girls had cooties. That’s right. If you can’t look past the floaties, you will find that everyone you date becomes…your mother.


*I use “she” for the sake of pronoun simplicity, but this applies to those of you with male exes, as well. So listen up!


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