“Ask Ellie” is LARB’s new advice column, drawing wisdom from the great myths and stories to navigate the terrible, glorious weirdness and difficulty of modern life. Please submit your dilemmas, midnight anxieties, fear, loathing, and confusion to askelliehere@gmail.com.

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Dear Ellie,

Over the past year, I’ve gone through several versions of heartbreak. I left a marriage, having finally given up on dreams we built together when it became clear we would never be able to fulfill our potential because of our accumulated baggage and a total loss of intimacy. Then I fell in love with a friend, more passionately than I can ever remember, only to have him be unable to handle the intimacy we had cultivated and drop me. Months later, after all this discouragement, I was slowly, hesitantly opening up to someone new. He seemed grounded, emotionally mature and willing to invest in me. But as I came to trust him, deepening my feelings and hopes, he casually abandoned me as well.  

In the first instance, I had the hopes of stability and marriage and family. I started out thinking my partner was one kind of person, only to discover too late it was a front, covering up significant historical trauma that was never addressed but instead would be projected onto me. The man I was in love with was deeply unhealthy and I knew that from the start, but my feelings were so strong I couldn’t make myself be reasonable or judicious, and I was desperate for the emotional intimacy and intense spiritual connection I lacked in my partnership. This most recent attempt seemed both reasonable and filled with emotional potential, only to have him reveal a shockingly callous, cowardly side I would never have expected based on the months we spent exploring possibilities and building trust together. At this point, I have been disappointed so many times that, despite being a highly self-aware person capable of deep and healthy connections, I no longer trust my own judgment.  

My question to you is: how do I evaluate potential relationships, given that initial impressions, emotional intensity, and objective evaluations of emotional maturity seem inevitably untrustworthy? I’m so tired of trying to find healthy romantic relationships only to be hurt, abandoned, and let down by the people I allow to get close to me.  

From,

Let Down Again

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Dear Let Down Again,

I think you’re trying to be the protagonist of the wrong story.

Right now, you’re engaged in a love quest. Your letter is sprinkled with references to your holy grail: intimacy and a deep, spiritual connection. That’s your goal, and you’re doggedly facing down trials and deceptions in pursuit of it.  

Now, don’t get me wrong: love quests are very real. But when Psyche struggles through Venus’s hazing to be reunited with Cupid, or Rama quests for the kidnapped Sita, they’ve already found their partners. The love quest is the story of what happens after the supposed happily ever after. It’s the pummeling you and your beloved have to face on your road together, before you can truly behold and receive each other. You can’t engage in a love quest until you have someone to engage in it with.  

I know it seems like I’m pouring salt in the wound of your singleness, but please don’t slam your laptop shut just yet, because here’s the great news: the real story for your current life stage is a whole lot more fun than a love quest.

Have you heard the story of the nightingale? Let me remind you. There was an emperor who lived in a beautiful palace, with sprawling, lush grounds. And on these grounds, unbeknownst to the emperor, lived a nightingale whose song was the most beautiful sound in the world.

The emperor knew nothing about this nightingale or his song, but travelers heard it and went home to write whole volumes about its beauty. One day, one of these volumes reached the emperor, and he demanded to hear this nightingale immediately. His staff searched high and low until they finally found the bird and brought him to the palace, to sing for the emperor.

Now, the nightingale warned the court that his song wouldn’t be as beautiful in the palace as out in the forest, but the emperor didn’t listen. And truly, it didn’t seem to matter much anyway. The little bird’s song was so dazzling it brought tears to the emperor’s eyes. When he’d finished singing, the nightingale tried to go home, back to his nest in the forest, but the emperor wouldn’t hear of it. From now on, the nightingale was to live in the palace, go outside only when supervised, and sing on demand.  

Things went on this way until, one day, someone sent the emperor a mechanical nightingale. Though his song was beautiful, the living nightingale was quite plain to look at; this mechanical bird, on the other hand, was encrusted with gems. It sparkled and shone. And it sang a single song, and sang it very well indeed.

But wouldn’t you know it: while the emperor and the court were marveling over the mechanical nightingale, the live nightingale flew straight out the window, back to the forest.

No matter, said the emperor and his court. The mechanical bird is more wondrous anyway, more beautiful and more reliable, too. With a mechanical nightingale, nothing is ever left to chance. The song is regular as clockwork.

The emperor played that mechanical nightingale every day, and when its cogs wore out, he had his music master fix it with a stern speech.

It might seem that everyone got what they wanted here, but soon enough, the emperor got sick. Deathly sick. And when Death came to visit him and recount all the deeds of his life, he wanted nothing more than to drown it all out with the song of his beloved mechanical nightingale, but there was nobody there to wind the toy. And so he sat in silence, awaiting death — when a beautiful song pierced the air. There was the nightingale — the real, living nightingale — trilling a song through the open window, crisp and clear. The song brought the colour back to the emperor’s face and even charmed Death himself. Soon, the emperor had fully recovered, and he asked the nightingale how he could repay him. The nightingale said he needed nothing, and that he would gladly come and sing for the emperor, but that he could only do so at will. He must be left to live in the forest and visit only when it suited him. And the emperor, of course, agreed.

What does a nightingale have to do with your love life? Just this: when you say that you are a highly self-aware person capable of deep and healthy connections, I believe you. I do. I believe that you have done a whole hell of a lot of suffering and probing and dirt-under-the-fingernails work to understand yourself. I also believe that you’re so desperate to get through the work of understanding yourself and find the intimacy you crave that you’ve missed out on the joy of being a shimmering, ever-changing, fundamentally unknowable, magical creature. A living, breathing nightingale.

I’m saying this partly because of the timeframe you lay out here. The heart moves more slowly than the head. Romantic love — real romantic love — doesn’t come along that often in a lifetime. Three forays into the field in a year is a lot — it’s a quest. And when you’re questing, you don’t have time to be forever singing the most beautiful song in the world.

Are you sure that the truth about yourself you’ve found, the self-awareness you’re operating from, isn’t the truth of a mechanical nightingale? Are you sure you’re not singing a song of yourself that you’ve learned by rote, which doesn’t actually have that much to do with you as a living, breathing being with your own uniquely beautiful and capricious song?  

I ask because when you say that you fell in love, more passionately than you can ever remember, with a friend you knew was deeply unhealthy — I worry. That sounds, to me, like a classic act of self-sabotage. There’s also a passivity in the way you describe each of your recent relationships. In your marriage, you were blindsided and projected upon; when you fell in love with your friend, your feelings were too strong for you to control; in your third attempt at love in the last year, you thought you’d found someone willing to invest in you (as though you were a share in a questionable company), then you were abandoned. You don’t mention anything about your willingness to invest in return.

It sounds a little like the song mechanically programmed into your chest is all about how much it sucks to be single and how unlucky you are, how many times you’ve been screwed over, how everybody always leaves you or lets you down. Worse, the silent undertone to that particular song might be, and often is: I’m not really worth investing in. Deep down, you might be singing to yourself: this is hopeless, there’s something wrong with me, and I don’t deserve love.  

And if that’s the song you’re singing to yourself when you set off on your love quest, there’ll be no end to the pummeling you receive. Not only because you’ll seek out situations that confirm it — even when you think you’ve found something reasonable and full of potential — but because you won’t be able to really connect with anyone. When you’re so busy singing your mechanical-nightingale song about how you never get what you want despite being so self-aware, you become less aware of others. Your friend, for instance — if he was deeply unhealthy, he might have needed friendship and support more than he needed someone to try to initiate a relationship. And when you’re primed and hungry for signs that someone is finally willing to invest in you, you might miss all kinds of signs they drop about what they need in return and just how emotionally mature and grounded they really are.

So what’s the answer? First, stop being a tyrannical emperor to yourself. Stop winding yourself up over and over to bleat one tired song till your cogs give out.  

This will involve some deep healing. There’s something driving this mechanism, some indefatigable energy behind the idea that people will always let you down, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it’s a sense that you deserve to be let down. Whatever it is, start by listening for this song, whenever it starts playing. Get so good at hearing it that you can note its glitches, its skips and warps. Study it until you’re separate from it and it sounds like nothing more than a wind-up toy doing its wind-up thing.

Next, make space for your real song. What does that mean? First, remember that at the beginning of the story, the emperor doesn’t even know the nightingale exists. Which is to say: make space to be surprised by yourself. Notice things that don’t align with the story you tell about yourself — the little melodies and phrases a mechanical nightingale could never improvise. It’s clear from your letter that you are eloquent, thoughtful, capable of deep passion, with a wildly impressive determination to find what you want in the world. Are you maybe, at times, also a little obstinate? Maybe an idealist? Good! Perfection is the enemy here.  

Your job right now is not to put on a show, to look like the most dazzling bird — or potential partner — in the world. And it’s not to quest for a partner. Your job is to become fully integrated, to become absolutely and joyously yourself, so that you’re not singing a little mechanical song you’ve learned by rote, but rather pulsing with a melody that comes out of the ever-changing truth of who you are. In other words: the most beautiful song in the world.

I know this doesn’t really answer your question. You asked how to evaluate potential partners, and sure, you can look for red flags (showing signs that they’re deeply unhealthy, being rude to wait staff, pacing the relationship in a way that’s uncomfortable to you, etc). But the truth is, there’s no surefire way to know, on the front end, exactly who someone is in their depths. The other is always essentially unknowable and ever evolving. So’s the self. That’s the beauty of the human experience.

But there are other ways to protect your heart. “Evaluating” doesn’t cut it because it’s an analytical skill — it works well with stocks and shares (I guess maybe? What actually is a stock? One of life’s great mysteries), but it’s no way to get to know a human. With humans, your best bet is to make sure that your song of yourself is true and clear and full of life, and sings of even the hidden parts of you. If you can sing that way, when anyone tries to trap you in their palace, you’ll know to fly straight on out of the window. And more to the point, you’ll draw in others whose songs are also true and clear and full of life, and can harmonize with yours.

And then you’ll be ready to start your love quest.

Love,

Xx Ellie

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Ellie Robins is a writer and advice columnist. To read more “Ask Ellie,” subscribe at patreon.com/ellierobins.