Reality television is a never-ending hell of shameless people with narcissistic tendencies outdoing themselves and each other to prove how far (and low) they’ll go for the instant gratification of widespread recognition and adulation, and the assumed paydays that ostensibly come with said recognition.
…But it does have its merits.
In this instance, it brought me to an epiphany so painfully obvious, that I’m embarrassed it took me so long to put a lens to it.
Let me explain.
Last year, during the “honeymoon stage” of lockdown, I succumbed to the chatter on my social feeds and work Slack channel and watched a show on Netflix called “Love Is Blind,” in which single strangers partake in a social experiment where they “date” by going into rooms (or “pods”), where they can only speak to each other through a wall, and eventually emerge either still single, or engaged to be married in the span of a month. Full disclosure: weeks before, I’d accidentally encountered the couple who became the breakout stars of the show when I was in the throws of a work event, and needed to meet one of our speakers outside and didn’t factor in the temperature when I swung the door open without wearing any protective outerwear and let out an ear-piercing yelp just as they were walking by. They were startled, I was apologetic, and onlookers were amused by the exchange but continued to fawn praise on them for being their favorites. Confused, I asked a woman who they were and figured I’d watch to find out why this couple — and this show — struck a chord and a cultural moment. (Yes, this story is true. And yes, random shit like this happens to me a lot. To the point where my friends make fun of me. Don’t ask me why. I’m only just fessing up to this being a thing.)
An-y-way, I ended up getting sucked into this program, and also falling in love with the couple because they were so damn adorable and pure! Which brings me to present day…because I just watched the extra episodes they added for an anniversary special to celebrate the two year mark of the couples who successfully paired up.
And while those episodes were absolutely as craptastic and contrived as the show itself, there were some standout moments that were, in my opinion, gold.
Most notably, one of the couples that seemed to be on the verge of making it official toward the end of the show’s initial run was now in struggle mode because the man was now entertaining another prospect while the woman was openly declaring her love for him and commitment to working out their issues. And since this is “reality TV,” we get to watch the whole thing play out as this ginger-haired fuckboy with a new midlife Porsche legitimately attempted to gaslight the “girlfriend,” the prospect he kept calling “a friend,” and the audience that he’s justifying his borderline toxic behavior to. It was messy. It was uncomfortable. It was packed with essential relationship takeaways.
Then we were given the ancillary single characters, who maligned their situations, and pleaded their cases for deserving the seemingly “fairytale” outcomes of the married couples, but when given the opportunity to present their best selves on a show that has a bit of a global reach, they consistently blew it in favor of ego and high production drama. One woman in particular thought it would be a good idea to invite a man who was seemingly interested in her to the “anniversary party” as a first date, then proceeded to spend the majority of the evening getting into everyone else’s business and fighting a battle that wasn’t hers while her date was left chatting with his friend who introduced them and everyone else around him until he was over it all and decided to bounce, which then prompted a tearful hissy fit from the woman, who then needed to be comforted and reassured by her girls that she was deserving of love, yadda, yadda. It was messy. It was uncomfortable. And it was also packed with essential relationship takeaways.
But the one key takeaway that I got from both messy AF situations and the show overall (which isn’t so much a takeaway as it’s validation of a running theme in my life these days) — is that any relationship you put effort into will blossom and thrive, while the ones you don’t will wither and cease to exist. The couples that made it did so because they, first as individuals, were wiling to be honest, open, selfless, vulnerable, take on uncomfortable conversations and conflicts, and make sacrifices that ultimately would lead to them collectively becoming stronger. The ones that didn’t unsurprisingly consisted of at least one person in the relationship who was guarded, self-preserved and/or repressed their feelings and desires til the very moment when they left their “mate” at the alter. It was brutal to watch.
In short: Love is a houseplant.
But seriously, people who mutually feel special, valued and appreciated in their relationships will grow into their best selves together. It’s kind of a no-brainer at this point. Yet, here we are.
In the midst of writing this post, I ended up on a (perfectly timed) call with my cousin (aka one of my main heartbeats), in which we were speaking about a family gathering we held exactly eleven years ago, and the life changes that have since happened. One of those things being that I would leave my boyfriend — who was there — weeks later for the final time. What everyone knew was that I’d called in another cousin, who had a truck, and my uncle, who had a licensed gun, to remove me from the situation. What they did not know was that over the course of the nearly six years we were together, I’d been the one financially holding up the relationship; paying half the rent, all of the utilities, all of the dinners out, the spa visits and entertainment on vacations, and putting money into his account when his went into childcare, clothes and shoes, DJ equipment and fixing his used luxury car (aka a money pit on wheels). We made the same salary. I was debt free. He was not. None of this stopped him from blaming me when things continued to go south, taking things out on me physically, telling me I could never do better than him and finally slandering me to our mutual friends when I’d finally had enough. Hurt people hurt people.
If you’re a regular reader, you already know things didn’t improve much on the dating front after that. There was name calling. There was no calling. There was now an understanding that when I heard phrases like “You think you’re so smart,” “Aren’t you popular?” or any iteration of “You talk too much,” I was about to find myself in a situation where I’m in a competition I never asked for that had already determined me the loser because someone needed a win at my expense.
My father was prison counselor, my biological mother was a nurse and my adopted mother was a schoolteacher. By sheer osmosis, I was designed to be someone who always wanted to make people feel special and cared for. It made sense that my professional life mostly found me in roles that catered to the needs of others. It was also, in my mind, the only way I could secure my own safety and presumed care. It backfired. Badly. I fell hard for grand gestures and other red flags indicative of control issues. I was attention-starved, resentful and running on empty. What a time to be alive.
It was messy. It was uncomfortable. It was a time packed with essential relationship takeaways.
The irony in having a father who made convicted (and alleged) criminals feel empowered and human is how he unintentionally failed spectacularly at instilling those same feelings into his daughter. I never got the talks and the words of encouragement that prompted defendants to effusively wave at him in a courtroom (immediately getting him excused from jury duty), procure the latest technological gadgets for members of my family for a literal steal as gifts, or get excited about seeing a photo of me on his desk at work because their niece is a school friend. (Again, true stories. Also: WTF?!) I’d only learned after his death that I was a source of immense pride and a constant topic of discussion for accomplishments never acknowledged out loud. And that discovery, which simultaneously healed and broke my heart, shifted EVERYTHING in my personal and professional relationships.
I no longer stay where I’m not wanted or valued. I no longer entertain transactional people and situations in any form. I’ve gotten really comfortable with having uncomfortable conversations that result in having peace of mind and clarity on where I stand in any situation and how to move accordingly. I’ve become so protective of my energy its almost uncanny, which has made way for more authentic interactions that bring me joy. Disappointments are now seen as the lessons and detours to greater opportunities that they are. I’m proud of me.
When I mentioned earlier about being embarrassed by how long it took me to address the topic, it wasn’t because I wasn’t aware of its impact. Again, I built my professional career around making sure others felt special, at times sacrificing my own personal life and comfort because I never considered for a moment that I was too. I used to joke that I’d either hung out with, dated or been in the presence of enough actors, models, artists, producers, musicians, photographers and entrepreneurs in my lifetime that there should be a handbag named after me. I’m only now realizing not a lot of people could make that joke…or that it’s kinda not a joke. It’s weird. It’s unbelievable. And it’s why I haven’t turned to a life of crime to secure the kind of lifestyle where my travel plans aren’t remotely reliant on how many points I’ve racked up through my Amazon purchases. (Real talk, how many vitamins does a chick need to buy to get to St. Martin?)
Everyone wants — and deserves — to feel special in whatever relationship they’re in and space they take up. I think we can all agree that most problems tend to arise when we either feel unworthy of that feeling, or entitled to be the only ones who do. People will (and have) gone to great lengths for the distinction. Academically-inclined students. People who spend extra money on luxury experiences. Athletes who spend their entire lives training for quickly-fleeting moments of glory on the world stage. Anyone who’s relentlessly pursued the arts in hopes of being world-renown, steadily in demand and lucratively rewarded and awarded in the process. People in marginalized communities fighting to be seen and acknowledged as deserving of all the things they’ve been denied by their more privileged counterparts. People who scaled government buildings for narcissistic psychopaths who gave the word new and ominous meaning. People who use the words “internet famous.” Even people who are so crippled by insecurities and past hurts that they actively push anyone who tries to get close to them out of their lives (after much therapy, soul-searching and healing, natch).
And, of course, people who go on reality television shows to find and vie for love after getting to a point where they felt invisible in the real world.
The reality is…life is messy. It’s uncomfortable. And it’s packed with essential relationship takeaways. But when you find that special someone —or, even better, become them — it gets so much easier to navigate.