Sunday, October 26, 2008

crushes: the danger that lurks

I got an email a few days ago from my friend Waspy. A cry for help. Waspy is my well-to-do, white, yuppie friend from law school who works at a big firm and lives in the suburbs (the most elite Portland suburb, in fact) and has a husband and a kid and in-laws and the whole, mainstream thing. In a lot of ways we're very different, but we've managed to forge an unlikely but strong friendship that has lasted into our post law-school lives.

So I got this email from Waspy asking for my "expert" advice about a crush. She's had a very safe crush on an older guy at her firm for nearly two years now. It's "safe" because it can't possibly ever go anywhere, there isn't the slightest risk or danger of anyone taking any action, so she gets to enjoy it even as it tortures her. It's a sort of guilty pleasure she indulges in, like ice-cream for lunch. It's harmless.

That's not what she needed advice about. She needed advice about a *new* crush, a crush that is not so safe...

Unfortunately she didn't give me any more info than that. All she wrote was that this crush has "the possibility of going somewhere..." -- which, she claims, she really doesn't want. "But on the other hand..." she writes cryptically. And that's where she leaves it.

She didn't want to give any more details on email and we weren't able to meet up for drinks before she left for a weekend firm retreat in Washington, presumeably WITH the crush-guy, but who knows. The best I could do was text her the advice "be careful" on her blackberry. She texted back "I will." I guess we'll see.

A year ago, in the same situation, I would've been vicariously thrilled for Waspy. She's been married to the same nerdy guy for nearly 20 years now. The thought of my frigid little Waspy going up to Seattle and getting crazy with some hot guy from work would have tickled me to pieces. You go Waspy!

But that was then and this is now. NOW, I just feel vicariously anxious about the whole thing. I used to revel in the excitment and scandal that crushes involved. I used to indulge in excessive crush-behavior and I would have urged Waspy to explore her feelings, take risks, do what she had to do. That was before I came to accept the reality that I have terrible boundaries. All my crush-mongering was just immature rubbish -- avoidance, melodrama, projecting.

Now I recognize that crushes are not these magical blessings from the universe that have to be treasured and explored and fully exploited. Crushes can be fantastic inspiration when viewed through a different lens, but the way I treated crushes in the past was nothing but sexual opportunism. Some kind of romantic permissiveness not only allowed but practically required me to throw caution to the wind and risk everything to follow every urge and impulse.

Now I see crushes as flirts from the universe, pulls in certain directions with a deeper significance than sex. A crush can be explored psychologically, can be taken inside and examined: am I attracted to this person because I want to be more like them? I want to have things that they have? Is this crush telling me I want to grow in a new direction? Crushes don't have to be about connecting with someone sexually, they don't have to be a threat to existing relationships.

When I look back at my former relationship with crushes, I see that I allowed myself to engage in a whole host of voluntary crush-behaviors. Some examples of crush-behaviors: indulging in fantasies about the object of the crush, engineering interactions with the object of the crush, subtly communicating your interest to the object of the crush, and ultimately creating situations in which the crush can move to the next level: adultery.

Of course crushes and crush-behaviors can be fine if you're single or in a non-monogomous relationship. But if you're trying to be monogomous (and for some of us it definitely takes effort), you can't just let yourself run willy-nilly into crush-behavior. It's a slippery slope and if you're not careful, you'll find yourself tumbling in a big crashing heap to the bottom where you will probably land alone.

My advice to Waspy, if we're ever able to finally sit down and talk about it, will be to tell her husband. Am I crazy? Keeping it a secret from him will continue to enforce for her the idea that it's her own little private indulgence, it will give her the ongoing sense that there's nothing wrong with tending her fantasies and keeping them alive. It will drive a deeper wedge between her and her husband, it will invite resentment and contempt and maybe -- am I being an alarmist? -- maybe it will speed her in the direction of cheating.

If you want to stay married, if you think of your relationship to your partner as your primary, number-one, important relationship, you can't keep those kinds of secrets. You have to talk about it. Telling your partner about the crush is a new kind of crush-behavior: it closes the door on the object of the crush and opens the door back up to the primary relationship. It says "I know you're not going to like this, but you're my person, my one-and-only, and I will make myself vulnerable to you now by sharing this feeling and then we can process it together. Even if it's painful, it keeps things in the family.

I know from plenty of experience that secrets and lies can only end in destruction in relationships. Crushes can and must be managed responsibly, good choices must be made, or relationships will suffer and eventually end. This used to be a risk I was willing to take and eager to watch others take. Not anymore. Maybe I've just gotten old...