A few years ago, I was dating a 28-year-old painter and musician who didn’t have a job during the year and change we were dating; his mother paid his rent, paid for his car, gave him spending money and (unwittingly?) paid for his weed. What did he want to do with his life besides paint, play the drums, sleep and play Sudoku all day? Unclear. He went on job interviews, but since he had no experience doing, well, much of anything, he couldn’t get a job, even though this was in the go-go year of 2005. I tried to be supportive, but it eventually got to be too much.
A few months later, I’d heard he’d moved to the Midwest. I got a more comprehensive report from mutual friends who’d gone out there: He had a job at a local paper, had a new band and was doing “really well.” And lived in “an awesome house.” With “really cool roommates.” He “knew everyone in town.” (Already?!)
I was happy for him, but there was also a little teensy part of me that felt whatever the opposite of schadenfreude is—instead of feeling happy at someone’s misfortune, I felt resentful at someone’s good fortune. Why couldn’t he have gotten his proverbial shit together while we were dating? And, a more uncomfortable thought: Was it somehow my fault? Maybe, I realized, I had seen him as someone who had potential but just needed a little tweaking. But it was sort of annoying that he managed to do all the tweaking after we’d broken up.
It’s the Butterfly Effect: one day he’s a pot-addled caterpillar barely hanging on to his barista job, begging off brunch because he’s only got $37 in his checking account, spending his nights “playing music” (his band is going to start playing shows again really soon) and eating cheese fries, and then, six months after the breakup, he’s turned into a Monarch: lost 20 pounds, has a job as a graphic designer, his band is playing the Bowery Ballroom and he has a new girlfriend (tall, blond, wearing what appears to be the $282 Vanessa Bruno sweater you eyed longingly at Stuart & Wright) who, he casually mentions when you run into him at brunch, is the heiress to a paper clip fortune.
So in the spirit of Valentine’s Day, I asked some female acquaintances whether they’d ever experienced the Butterfly Effect. A few claimed the reverse: “No, my loser boyfriends have all stayed losers after we broke up,” said one. Another told me: “I make ’em good, then they go downhill after we break up,” pointing to an ex who works in human resources in a dingy town in upstate New York. And a third: “I do have the phenomenon of men hitting bottom after they date me, which is delicious/sad/rewarding. … It’s somewhat comforting to know that they ‘peaked’ with me.”
Other ladies, however, were all too familiar with the phenomenon. Michelle, a 26-year-old law student, told me about a guy she dated in college named Steve who was “hot as hell,” but “wasn’t particularly brilliant.” He was on the wrestling team on scholarship, but quit soon after they’d started dating. “He was a pre-med major but got mostly C’s, so he definitely wasn’t going to become a doctor. I convinced him to switch to history/pre-law. I remember editing one of his 20-page papers—it took me 11 hours. It was awful.”
Thanks to Michelle’s help, Steve’s grades improved. He took the LSATs “a few times to get a good enough score to get into a decent law school,” and, said Michelle, “I didn’t think anything of it”—until a couple years later, when she found out he’d graduated at the top of his class, was editor of the law review and got a job at “an incredible international law firm. He was completely floundering when we were dating, and now all he does is work and succeed. No idea how that happened!”
Michelle’s relationship hews to a common pattern, in which the woman, seeing the man as a project, tries to “improve” him, thereby leading to resentment in the relationship when the woman feels that the man is not improving enough, and the man feels emasculated and condescended to.
(Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything.)
Liz (not her real name), a 31-year-old writer who lives in Brooklyn, had a similar relationship with Josh. “I was always actively trying to improve him,” said Liz. “He had been really depressed and wasn’t going to therapy. And I was finally like, you really have to go back. And he was like, I know, but I’m never going to make the appointment. So I found a therapist and made an appointment. So I felt this sense of self-worth—I’m the girl that’s making this guy happier.”