An Incomplete Guide to Love for the Incomplete Man

(Photo: Charlie Hang/Unsplash)
(Photo: Charlie Hang/Unsplash)

This is an excerpt from The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships.

1. No matter what the situation may be, the right course of action is always compassion and love.

“I flew in to talk to you. Can you just open the door?”

I want to hide. I want to run. I can’t let this get in the way of my plans.

But there are plans and then there is life. And life trumps plans every time.

“What are you doing here?” I ask as empathically as I can.

2. As long as at least one partner is in the functional adult at any given time, most—if not all—arguments can be avoided.

“This is crazy, I know. I’ve been trying to reach you to apologize. I made a mistake. I love you.” Pause. Silence. “I got scared, so I ran away, but I’m not scared anymore. I want to be with you. I hope you care about me enough to at least give me five minutes of your time.”

I hesitate for a moment, widening the space between the emotion I’m feeling and acting on it. The emotion I’m feeling is fear. I’m worried she’ll do something that will affect my newly won clarity or my chances of getting back together with Ingrid. So I summon all my adult brain cells to a meeting in my neocortex and remind them that no one can hurt me without my permission.

3. Recognize when you are backsliding into a childish or adolescent behavior. Then pinpoint what old story is being triggered and tell yourself the truth of the situation. Let go of the lie.

From a distant flank of my brain, however, the small, ragged remains of a once—formidable army of guilt tries to invade. She flew all this way, so I must not disappoint her or hurt her. I squash the voice instantly as the pathological accommodation it is—the old belief that because my mom loves me, I must never do anything to make her suffer. And just about everything makes her suffer.

Love is a cage only when you feel indebted to it, constrained by it, responsible to its owner

4. Accept what is.

With one army vanquished, the next attacks: the terror of self-doubt. What if this is how I sound when I see Ingrid? What if Ingrid thinks exactly what I’m thinking right now? What if she’s right?

What if…Today I will expunge those two words from my vocabulary and replace them with I will accept it if.

I will accept it if this is how I sound when I see Ingrid. I will accept it if Ingrid thinks exactly what I’m thinking right now. I will accept it if she’s right.

5. Instead of saying “I’m never going to cheat again,” say, “Today, I’m not going to do that thing that makes me feel weak and shameful about myself again.”

And then the final phalanx marches toward me, the most dangerous of all: desire. It tells me how great the sex with Sage was and how fun the threesomes were. And I attack it with the best weapon there is: experience. I remind it that besides the lonely night with the twins, the adventure before that involved a neighbor who brought her giant husky over, and Sage and she made love while the dog tried to make love to me.

Perhaps the corollary to Rick’s secret is that the fantasy of other people is almost always better than the reality.

I open the door and guard the threshold. Sage stands before me in full club makeup and a black dress, with her hair freshly dyed and her legs perfectly tanned. She’s clearly spent a lot of time working on herself. And, more worryingly, there’s a suitcase at her feet.

She reaches out to hug and kiss me, and I back away. I will not feel sorry for her. I will not be turned on by her.

6. You can’t have a relationship with someone hoping they’ll change. You have to be willing to commit to them as they are, with no expectations. And if they happen to choose to change at some point along the way, then that’s just a bonus.

Words start tumbling out of her mouth, concluding with her desire to move in and start a family with me. It sends a chill up my spine, because this is exactly what I want with Ingrid if things work out between us.

“You want to move in, stay with me forever, and start a family together?”

“Yes,” she says, her eyes widening with equal parts sincerity and supplication.

I picture what the future would actually be like with Sage: I imagine us married and raising children—until one day when she feels trapped again, she runs away to Fiji without warning, leaving me to explain to the kids that Mommy left to search for herself and I don’t know when she’s coming back. The winds of ambivalence will continue blowing her back to me and away again, back and away, back and away.

They say that love is blind, but it’s trauma that’s blind. Love sees what is.

7. Communicate and maintain healthy boundaries. This means finding the proper balance of filtering and protecting your self, thoughts, feelings, time, and behaviors without either closing off behind walls, or becoming overwhelmed or overwhelming.

She looks forlorn and expectant, and every now and then tears fall from her eyes as she tells me that she spent her savings to fly out here. Until recently, this was my nightmare: having to meet other people’s expectations—especially when doing what’s right for me hurts someone else’s feelings. But it was her choice to come here, so there’s nothing to feel guilty about. This is my chance to implement the boundaries I’ve learned, to enforce them when they’re trespassed so I don’t feel enmeshed, to break old habits and reinforce new ones.

“This isn’t cool,” I tell her. “You can’t just come by without letting me know.”

“But your phone number wasn’t working. How can you be so cold? You said you loved me. It doesn’t just go away like that.”

She has a good point. I flash back to Lorraine’s words: You won’t get hurt playing with toys, but they will. “I have a lot of love for you,” I tell her. “But the relationship just”—I don’t know how to best put it—“is over. It ended exactly when it should have.”

8. Ask yourself throughout the day, “What do I need to do in this moment to take care of myself?” If you can be aware of what legitimate needs and wants you’re not attending to, and then take actions to meet them on your own—or ask your partner for help if you can’t—that is the road to happiness.

“Is there someone else?” she asks.

“There is. But she won’t talk to me.”

“Is this a joke? You’re crazy.”

“I used to be crazy,” I tell her. “I think I’m finally getting sane.”

“Can I at least sleep here?” She takes a step closer and I inhale her unique blend of pomade, sex, and moisturizer.

9. No one can make you feel anything and you don’t make anyone feel a certain way. So don’t take on responsibility for your partner’s feelings and don’t blame your partner for yours. The most caring thing to do when they’re upset is simply to ask if they want you to listen, to give advice, to give them space, or to give them loving touch.

“What?” It’s amazing: Even when you set a boundary, people still want to trample across it.

She says, “I have nowhere to stay. Can I at least stay in the spare bedroom and we can talk when you’re ready?”

I remind myself…

She says, “I took a cab from the airport.”

…that Sage is not my mother and…

She says, “I promise I’ll leave after we talk.”

…I am not responsible for her happiness.

So I draw the boundary more firmly. “It’s not okay to stay here. I’m sorry, but I made a commitment to myself and I need to honor it.”

10. Love, honor, and affirm yourself. Whatever your decisions, actions, feelings, and thoughts throughout the day may be and whatever outcome they may lead to, if you are healthy, then they are ultimately healthy.

The words register on her face and she starts to protest. The old me would want to hug her, to say we can talk later, to let her crash here, to promise that we can still be friends, to make any number of mistakes. But now all that goes through my mind is a question: Is it in my highest good?

And none of these is in my highest good. So I remain resolute like stone and she melts into water.

The tears mix with her mascara, running black down her face. They are not my problem. They are her problem. And she will get over it. Or she won’t. But the most compassionate thing I can do is let her make her own decision based on the truth. And the truth is that I love Ingrid.

I just hope that Ingrid loves me.

11. And, above all, always remember to breathe and be in the moment.

But I will accept it if she doesn’t.

Neil Strauss is a seven-time New York Times best-selling author. His books, The Game and Rules Of The Game, for which he went undercover in a secret society of pickup artists for two years, made him an international celebrity and an accidental hero to men around the world. Both books topped The New York Times best-seller list and were #1 on Amazon, and the former has the dubious distinction of being the most stolen book at Barnes & Noble besides The Bible. An Incomplete Guide to Love for the Incomplete Man