Dear Bartender and Priestess,
I am a 22-year-old man and recently got dumped. Again. And this last one really hurt.
We were together for about a month, and I really liked this girl, “Sally”. One night, we got involved in a long conversation about family, and family history, and the kind of baggage we have. One of the things she told me about (along with her parents’ divorce and an estrangement with another sister) was she had a brother who was born with a congenital heart disease. I thought, FINALLY! Someone who might understand me. You see, I too was born with heart disease. I got all excited when I told her about my condition. I thought she would get it.
Instead, she bolted. First, she was slow to respond to texts and calls. Then she stopped replying altogether. When I went to her house to ask her what was wrong all she said was, “I am sorry, “Bob”, I just can’t do this.”
It’s really painful. I know my life isn’t going to be terribly long, but does that mean I am supposed to be alone for it? Sally should know that as much as her brother deserved to be loved, I do too. How can I help a girl get past my heart problem and see the real me?
–Heart Problems Galore
B: Oh, my dear young man. You have my compassion and my good will. You were born with a very tough row to hoe, and I admire and respect your desire to push it aside in the pursuit of a normal life for as long as it’s available to you.
But you need to understand that your conditions bring a special set of complications into any new relationship you want to start. Of course you deserve to be loved; we all do. But you need to find someone who’s willing to love extraordinarily.
The girl you talk about, “Sally”, has already been through an unenviable degree of pain in her life, and if you and she are contemporaries then she’s only 22. You said her parents have divorced, and she’s got an estrangement with her sister. You also talk about her brother—the one who shares your congenital heart problem—in the past tense. He had a heart problem, he deserved to be loved. Has he already passed away? That’s a whole lot of anguish for one young woman to handle in only 22 years. You’re asking for her compassion but not giving her any in return. She may be wounded, and wounded so deeply she can’t dig down any deeper to give you the sort of love you were hoping for from her.
P: Oh, I’m so sorry. As if your damaged heart was not enough, now you have a broken one. Whatever your heart’s condition, you, like all of us, are looking both to love and be loved.
Understanding what may be true about Sally isn’t going to make your heart hurt any less, but her reality seems as complicated as yours. We don’t know why her parents split up, but statistics tell us that it’s often about the death of a child. It seems that everyone in her family ran to different corners. She already feels alone. So your condition may well represent a loss of everything rather than the possibility of something beautiful and precious.
While it seems that the potential to understand your life may be there, it doesn’t seem like she’s made that leap. She may never make it. She may always choose safety. You may be a wonderful choice, and the fact is that none of us know how long we have, but you are not a choice she can make.
In life, in work, and in love, people are only capable of that of which they’re capable.
B: You need to understand that it’s not about you, even though it affects you profoundly. It’s about her, and her capacity to keep opening her heart. And it’s not that she’s wrong to draw in and protect herself. She may have reached her pain limit, and that needs to be respected, in everybody, at all times.
The unfortunate thing about relationships is you can’t make the object of your desire, desire you back. That’s the part that hurts.
You have a difficult task. When we start relationships that we think have staying power, we tend to project our cozy newfound couplehood into a gauzy ideal; we picture what our children would look like, we imagine long nights under the covers, we see Thanksgivings fifty years from now, with gaggles of squirrely, laughing grandkids around the table. What we don’t project into is widowhood at 40. We don’t imagine starting over. We don’t start relationships thinking, “What’s my next move when this relationship comes to an end?” And, unless you experience a medical revolution regarding your heart problems, that’s exactly what you’re asking your new love to ask herself. What will she do when you leave?
That’s a tough starting point.
P: There are so many myths out there about love, and most of them are fairy tales. We choose to love people. And as painful as it is, we can, and sometimes must choose to unlove them. Because her choices, given her baggage, as you call it, are for safety. You’re not a safe choice, partially because your heart is damaged and partially because you’re willing to grab what life has to offer. That scares the hell out of a lot of people, and good for you!
B: But you are digging into your life with both hands. You are not letting your condition best you, and you’re blazing forward with the intent to love, and do so wholly, for as long as you are able. It’s admirable, and it’s brave, and it’s intense, and it’s incredibly healthy. You just need to find someone willing to make that plunge with you, knowing the likely downside and deciding to go for it anyway.
But you can do it. The thing is, if you want to have an extraordinary love, you need to be extraordinary. And by default you are asking your intended to step outside the parameters of a “normal” relationship.
You’re allowed to be disappointed by the outcome of your attempted relationship with Sally, because you thought you had an “in”. But, as we all have to discover as we navigate every relationship we’re in, we can’t let other people’s baggage define us.
So no, Sally wasn’t capable of having a relationship with you.
P: As Terri says, you get to be extraordinary. Why not let your heart condition be part of what makes you that way? Not in a negative fashion, but in an aggressive, “one of the side effects of my congenital heart disease is that I live passionately and love deeply” kinda way.
Are you an activist for your disease? I know it’s not everyone’s dream to become an activist, but there’s something so exciting about bold people who tell you what their limitations are and then wow you with their strengths. If your heart problems are just another (out front) piece of you, then the people who come into your life come in knowing some of your weaknesses, they’re going to run away long before you fall in love…
Being part of a group these days almost always means you get a tee shirt. Get a bunch. Wear them! Go to conferences and meet ups, get to know other people who are living with your disease. Educate people. And do things you want to do. You know that the likelihood of a shortened life is your reality; what are you doing to ensure that the time you have is fascinating?
You deserve a fabulous life. (we all do) You got dealt a crummy card. (many people do). But that card isn’t all of who you are, by a long shot. Discover your passions, love yourself wildly and watch people line up — if you have time given that you’re busy having a good time.
And figuring out what groups to belong to will give you a chance to meet new people while your heart is healing. Because you cared a lot about Sally and you had high hopes. That leaves you with a very tender heart. The tenderness will heal. I think we can promise you that. (Because pssst: Both the Bartender and the Priestess have had their hearts bruised on more than one occasion. But bruises heal; yours will too.)
Want to know more about The Bartender and The Priestess? Go here!
If you would like to ask us a question, email us at bartender priestess (at) gmail (dot) com; human non-spambots, remove spaces, insert appropriate punctuation.
Thank you for reading.
Ann & Terri
Hm. Bob sounds like this letter writer’s boyfriend: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/dear_prudence/2016/02/dear_prudence_my_boyfriend_has_a_heart_defect_can_i_break_up_with_him.html