DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’ve been a huge fan of yours for a decade now–you gave me such thoughtful and kind advice when I struggled with “losing” my virginity years ago (“Good Girl Gone”). It helped me immensely, so I’m back for more dating advice.
For the last five years, I thought I had life figured out. I had what I thought was a wonderful relationship, finished my doctorate, and landed my dream job as a professor in a beautiful part of the country near my partner’s family. I hoped marriage and starting a family would be our next chapter, both things I’ve wanted forever. But when my institution offered another tenure-track professor job to my partner as he finished up his PhD, I learned that he had vastly differing expectations for our respective futures.
My small, well-paying, polytechnic university was good enough for me, but not nearly prestigious enough for his professional goals. Even though it was close to his family and me, in his eyes, it was “fine it’s my only option.” While we had discussed our future goals endlessly, he didn’t know if he’d ever want marriage or children. When I realized that he might never be in a position to know if he wanted a long-term future with me, I ended it. In our breakup conversation, his exact words were “but part of me wants a future with you.” I’m hopeful that somewhere out there is someone who will enthusiastically want a future with me…but what if it’s too late?
I really love what you say about a relationship not being a failure just because it ended. I think my ex and I tried our best despite incompatible life goals and values. I’m not angry even though he became someone who decided my feelings, communication needs, and problems were never “serious” like his. Post-breakup, I’ve spent time with friends and family, continued to do things that bring me joy, and even been on a few dates. Ending it was the right call, and I feel mostly at peace. But I’m also worried.
My question for you is: how do I let go of the idealized future and timeline I’ve had for years? It’s clear that marriage and children are not in the cards for me when I thought they would be. I just turned 29, and I’m afraid that my window is closing for having biological children. I don’t want to jump into another long-term relationship right away, but I live in a small community of mostly conservative white retirees, so I’ll have to cast a much wider net and look harder to find someone my age with similar values. How can I reconcile the desire to enjoy being single (teaching study abroad, traveling, being optimistic about the future, all the things my ex didn’t want to do) and the need to pursue a serious relationship with someone kind, intelligent, and family-oriented before it’s too late?
Begin Again Blues
DEAR BEGIN AGAIN BLUES: Alright, this is going to be a fairly quote-and-aphorism-heavy response, BAB, so stick with me for a moment. I promise it’ll all make sense.
There’s a saying I’m fond of: “man plans and the gods laugh.” One of the hardest and harshest truths we can ever face is that the universe (or God or the fates or the Wheel of Time or whom-or-whatever) doesn’t take our plans and goals into consideration as we move forward into the future. Sometimes we get lucky and we find a groove where our future plans are able to stay fairly consistent and life unfolds more or less as we hope. Other times, life will jam a stick straight into the spokes of our plans and we get thrown ass first into the brush and have to figure out what we’re going to do now.
This, I’ve noticed, happens the most often to people who are determined to have life figured out. The people who have a very solid idea of how the world will be, the direction their lives will go in and exactly how they’re going to get there. The problem is that irony, not gravity, is the strongest force in the universe and the more your vision of the future is set in stone, the more you tempt fate. If someone has a ten point plan to ensure that they have seen the future and it will be exactly this, the greater the odds that something is going to step in and say “Absolutely f--king not“. Usually around step three or four.
The problem is that having an idealized vision of the future and holding onto it for dear life requires a level of control that you or I or anyone simply doesn’t have. If our vision for the future is such that only one particular outcome is acceptable, we have to prepare for disappointment by virtue of the fact that we simply aren’t Doctor Manhattan. There is no system so rigorous, no plan so carefully plotted that chaos can’t leak in. In fact, to quote a wise man (GNU Terry Pratchett), “Chaos is found in greatest abundance wherever order is being sought. It always defeats order, because it is better organized.”
Any vision of the future, if you want it to come to pass, needs to be one with a certain amount of flexibility built in… up to and including being willing to scrape it all and start over, because the requirements for that particular future are no longer in effect. This doesn’t mean that the future you hoped for was somehow “wrong”, nor does it mean that you made a mistake, or that you didn’t work hard enough, believe hard enough or dream hard enough to make it come to pass. It just means that you, like the rest of us, are mortal, rather than a god. And even the gods aren’t able to control fate; there’re entire pantheons dedicated to this and their attempts to dictate futures never end well for them.
(Looking at you, Odin. Lookin’ at you.)
It always sucks when you realize that you have to give up on a dream, especially when that dream has been one you’ve been holding onto for so long. And while we can’t control the future and dictate terms to the universe, that doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t be sad that a dream can no longer come true. So I think part of how you need to let this dream and timeline go is to treat it for what it is: a death, of sorts. The future you – the one who was going to be in THIS place at THIS time with THIS family and spouse – is gone. That future family will not be. That’s something to be sad about. You don’t want to let this change destroy you, because I promise you it is not the first nor the last time that you will encounter this, but it’s good to grieve it. Let yourself mourn these days of futures past in the graveyard of other dreams that you had to let go of along the way. Mark it’s passage and give it the farewell it deserves. It may be a future that will never be, but in some ways, it’s one that will always there because you will remember it fondly if wistfully.
As with many other losses, letting yourself have that moment of saying goodbye is what allows you to let go. And in letting go, you’re allowing yourself to dream a new dream and build towards a new future… even if that future isn’t the one you’d initially hoped for or expected. And that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with being a little sad about it, any more than it not coming to pass means that you weren’t “good enough” somehow.
However, in doing so, you also want to make sure that you aren’t inadvertently holding onto a future that’s less of a dream and more of a nightmare. It’s all too easy to think that, since the way we time as linear, we exist on a schedule. Achieve this by X date, accomplish this by Y time or else you’ve DONE IT WRONG. SOMEHOW. The idea that we’re “supposed” to be at certain stages of life or hit our marks within particular time-frames is a construct, an artificial attempt to define reality and bend it to our will. But those schedules and time frames are man made, not laws of nature. At most they reflect cultural values, not reality. And if you’re busy worrying that you missed your window because time marches on in a linear fashion, then all you’re doing is borrowing misery from the future instead of attending to your present.
But here’s the thing: “always in motion, is the future,” as the sage once said. This truth is actually something to take comfort in. The future you’re now worried about – the dolorous one, the Project Wide Awake that you’ve been trying to preempt – isn’t any more set in stone than your previous one. The worst case scenario you’re afraid of is no more destined than the nuptual bliss you’d imagined with THAT particular person at THAT time. The future isn’t written and still has the capacity for being better that what you fear… or even better than what you previously imagined.
So take a bit of time and mourn the loss of that dream. But at the same time, as you mourn, give a little thanks for that dream too, because the loss of that dream is what is going to enable you to move to a new future dream. One that could well fit your needs much better than the one you had to say good bye to.
The key is to realize that since the future is always in motion, you need to be able to move with it, instead of being firm in only accepting one possible outcome as best. In many cases, what you think you want may well not be what you actually want. Or it may be what you want, but it isn’t what you need. And unfortunately, the only way to truly see this is in hindsight; it’s easy to look back and see “oh, right, if Sad Thing X didn’t happen, I wouldn’t have been on the path to Happy Thing Y instead.” Since you aren’t someone who can see the Matrix or plot the exact number of flaps of a butterfly’s wings are necessary to set off the hurricane across the world, you have to be able to bend and flex and flow as you move towards the future. Time, you see, flows like a river and fruit flies like a banana and if you want to move to a future, you need to be adept at flowing yourself. You don’t want to plant yourself like a tree and demand that time stop for you, you want to be like water.
Like the master said: “Empty your mind.
Be formless, shapeless, like water.
You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup.
You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle.
You put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot.
Now water can flow or it can crash.
Be water, my friend.”
Build that adaptability into your future. Be open to changes and realizing that what is true now may not be true down the line. There will be challenges, yes, because entropy comes for us all. But challenges aren’t the same as impossibilities. It means learning how to adapt, how to shift gears and to change to suit the moment. Become the cup, if you’re poured into a cup. Become the tea pot if you are poured into the teapot. Flow, rather than allow yourself to be dammed up and stagnant.
The future is yet to come, and trying to fit yourself into a specific timeline OR ELSE will only make things harder. Let your dreams be flexible. Pride yourself in your ability to adapt and grow as circumstances change and meet the needs you may not have had previously. The fact that they are new needs doesn’t make them bad; having to let go of old goals and dreams doesn’t make you a failure. It just means that this one future didn’t come to pass, but others will.
Be water, my friend.
All will be well.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org