Modern Love

In Praise of the 10-Percent Wrong Relationship

We fear imperfection in our love lives. What if we embrace it instead?

Credit...Brian Rea

As a broke, bookish, self-identified Marxist who spent her free time converting to Judaism, I was not popular among my business school classmates. I capitalized on my invisibility by playing anthropologist, quietly observing people from the periphery. Which is to say: I noticed him years before he noticed me.

Tall and quick-witted, he carried himself with a generous smile and a Hugh Grantian slouch. He lived in one of the houses that threw all the parties, the kind where you were asked to pay $50 to cover the alcohol. I did not go to these parties, both because I could not afford to and because I had no idea how to socialize with people who had worked in private equity.

I accepted that he and I would never speak.

And then last spring, five years after we graduated, I flew from Chicago to our class reunion in California. I was shivering next to an underpowered gas fire pit when I heard his voice over my shoulder, asking if the seat next to me was taken. Suddenly, improbably, we were talking.

After nodding vigorously at each other’s take on the war in Ukraine, Palestinian nationalism, institutional failure and our own failures of political action, we slipped into a conversation about love.

I told him that I had spent eight of the past 13 years utterly single, without even a kiss. I had decided in my mid-20s that I was interested in dating only the kind of person with whom I could spend a day trapped in an elevator without growing bored or annoyed. This seemed to have limited my dating pool to a number near zero, especially if I insisted that the person also be attractive, younger than my father and unmarried.

I told him that I was considering abandoning the physical attraction requirement; perhaps desire could grow over time. He fixed his eyes on mine and said I shouldn’t give up on attraction.

He told me about his most significant relationships and how close he had come to marriage. I asked what went wrong. He said that was what was most troubling: He couldn’t quite describe it, but as wonderful as those relationships were, in the end, something was missing. If there were a name for the missing thing, he might be able to seek it out, but he was left searching for a lost item whose dimensions and qualities remained unknown.

I do not have a track record of helping men locate missing feelings.

When I was 23, my boyfriend of four years broke up with me in a mosquito-infested Washington, D.C. backyard, delivering the verdict that I was 99 percent what he was looking for in a wife but that the missing 1 percent was damning.

I forgot to turn on my headlights on the drive home; a cop pulled me over and found me sobbing behind the wheel, mumbling about heartbreak. He told me I was young and pretty and would get another man and be OK as long as I remembered road safety.

Over the next decade, I met only one other man I could envision marrying. After seven months of being suspiciously close friends, we finally slept together. The next day, he grew distant; two weeks later, it was over. He didn’t “feel enough” for me, he said. We remained close for another two years, both of us single the entire time, and I spent those years wondering what it was that we lacked.

So when my classmate told me that his previous relationships had been felled by the feeling that something unquantifiable was missing, my stomach churned. But maybe it was significant that we had been glued to our seats for three hours, neither of us willing to admit our need for water or a leg stretch or the bathroom. Maybe this is what it’s like when a missing feeling is unexpectedly found.

We lost track of each other at a crowded after-party, but a few days later he sent me a video of himself playing Ludovico Einaudi’s “Nuvole Bianche” on the piano, followed by an invitation to New York for a live performance. I had told him about a missed connection I’d once had with a professional pianist; perhaps, he said, he could make up for that loss.

I bought a plane ticket.

In the weeks before, we texted daily. He shared his links to his favorite writing about New York and pictures from his brother’s wedding. I nervously sent him the draft of a 20-page essay I had written about my conversion to Judaism.

When a scanned copy of my essay full of handwritten comments landed in my inbox a week later, I gave myself permission to love him.

We met at his Brooklyn apartment on a Saturday morning and walked across the city, talking with the same urgency as that first night, dragging out unacknowledged sexual tension until we had no choice but to go home.

At his apartment, he sat down at the piano and started playing. I watched from the couch, pinballing between anticipation and terror.

The day’s conversations had convinced me of our compatibility — we both wanted lives of travel with adventurous children underfoot — but I knew that within seconds our fantasies of each other would give way to the reality of skin and breath. I prayed that our first touch would feel electric. I didn’t need fireworks to begin a relationship, but I suddenly feared that he did.

The next day, lying in bed with our legs entangled, he said that he felt anxious. After a first date as perfect as ours, he expected to feel elated, but instead he sensed an inexplicable hesitation. He needed time to think.

The rejection came a week later, via a tenderly written email. Our relationship felt 90 percent right, right enough that we could fall in love, but wrong enough that it would never last. We should end it before the inevitable split got more difficult. It’s not that there were any glaring incompatibilities, and he had never experienced an intellectual connection as powerful as ours, but something was missing.

I read the email in bed, thankful that there was no cop to see me crying. When my tears dried, I sank into my pillow, closed my eyes and was overcome by the conviction that this whole missing feeling thing was a scam — or, at best, a polite excuse, a blameless way to end things.

There is a Sufi story I love about the wise fool, Mullah Nasreddin. It goes like this: Darkness had fallen, and Nasreddin had lost his keys. He knelt by a lamppost, searching. A friend joined him, and after a long while, asked, “Where exactly did you lose the keys?” “In my house,” Nasreddin said. The friend said, “What? In your house? Why are we looking here?” To which Nasreddin replied, “There is more light here.”

The only three men I had ever imagined a future with all told me that something was missing, and I had let their words haunt me for years, scouring my memories of us for flaws. But maybe their quest for a missing feeling was a bit like Nasreddin’s futile search: They were looking for a relationship to fill an emotional void rather than searching within themselves.

This is how I chose to see it, at least — an interpretation that helped me heal. But there are other ways of seeing.

In truth, I love the story about Nasreddin because sometimes lost items do turn up in improbable locations. I use the story to explain my attraction to Judaism. In my 20s, I had lost my sense of wonder, and I went searching for it. I flirted with a variety of religions and felt nothing, but a Shabbat service opened in me a well of feeling I did not know I possessed. I found my lost wonder in a place I had never visited.

Maybe the men I have loved are not so foolish in thinking that a woman will show them the keys to their heart. I have come to admire their audacious belief in a more perfect love. They deserve to find partners who are 100 percent right, whose presence fills them with joy and washes away doubt.

But this is not the kind of love I want for myself. I believe that life feels wrong most of the time, and it is enough to find someone who will help you find humor in the wrongness, who will bear witness to your loneliness rather than relieve you of it entirely.

I believe that the most passionate love is experienced by people who embrace the imperfection of their relationship, who see it as a fixer-upper with good bones.

I believe that when you are with a wonderful person but something indescribable feels missing, you take your partner’s hand and search for it together.

I am looking for someone who shares this faith.

Oz Johnson is a writer in Chicago who is working on her first novel.

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