Saturday, December 26, 2015

In a Fix: The Danger of Renovation Relationships

When I was younger, I entertained a romantic illusion about buying a fixer-upper house and restoring it with the man of my dreams. No turnkey ease for us! We would steam away wallpaper, scrape carpet from hardwood floors, and paint the walls—tenderly wiping the paint splotches off of each other’s noses.

And then I grew up.

Well, partly. I nixed the idea of fixing up the house—I get a crick in my neck when I even think of repainting walls. Problem was, I shifted the idea to the realm of relationships; I thought I could find a fixer-upper man and transform him into flower-boxed, picket-fenced realtor candy. I would help him achieve my—er—his dreams for himself. How marvelous of me!

Strangely enough, the men I dated also tried to fix me. Imagine! In fact, the main relationship of my 20s was a doomed, mutual renovation attempt:

He thought he needed more money to make me happy. I thought I needed his happiness to be happy.

He would have liked me thinner. I would have liked him to build a bit more muscle.

He wanted me to look better in photographs. I wanted him to be as kind as he looked in photographs.

That real estate bubble burst long before 2008.

We couldn’t renovate each other, but more importantly, neither of us had bothered to renovate ourselves. I am so grateful for that messy relationship because of what it taught me.

Now, on the brink of forty, I know that I don’t want a partnership built around constant trips to the relationship equivalent of Home Depot. With someone or without, life throws us enough hail damage, burst water pipes, and busted heating units (literally and figuratively). I want any improvement adventures to be the exception, not the rule. As much as possible, I want to be turnkey. I want the man I share my life with to be turnkey, too.

In short: I’ve done my work, and I’m looking for a man who’s done the same.

Still, I’m single. Thoroughly. Not even a whiff of “it’s complicated.” I enjoy my life, and I want to share it with someone. So last year, I succumbed to friends’ suggestions that I re-enter the world of online dating.


“Fine,” I said. Years before, I had tried, but I cancelled an account after glancing up at the “mail” button one night and—in a brief second—mistaking it for “mall.” I panicked that I would start to treat this search like shopping.

This time around, I tried another site. I dutifully uploaded photos and filled in the little boxes. In the field asking, “What are you looking for in a partner?” I listed several qualities that work both ways—like cultivating joy despite circumstances and communicating openly.

But reading the profiles of my “matches”—at least the ones who’ve taken the time to fill out their own little boxes—I am amazed at how few of these dear souls seem to have done their own work.

*Clarification before I proceed: I like men…I’m looking for one. I’m not bashing them here—they just happen to be the gender that I have experience searching for on dating sites. I am confident that plenty of women do the same things I mention…probably because I have done/thought some of them myself. With the exception of the photo-op.

When choosing traits they are looking for in a partner, many prospective matches opt for words like good listener and sympathetic. I have a theory that these are often “Fix Me” traits in disguise—a desire for external renovation instead of internal. Such words are the relationship real estate equivalent of: unfinished garage and undeveloped lot with potential. What these matches are usually saying is: “Yeah, I haven’t fixed parts of myself yet. I’m going to need someone to help me do it or…hey! You want to do it for me?”

No. Really, I don’t. And you shouldn’t want me to.   

When I do happen to find a potential match, or at least one who ran spell check, we usually move to the Q & A section. But…when selecting a round of questions to ask a prospective mate, many matches choose questions from the drop-down menu like: “If I came home tired from a long day at work, what would you do for me?” Again: “Fix me” alert.

On the site I’m using, you can also write your own questions. So I do. I ask things like: “What are the dreams you are working toward in your life?” That usually kills the conversation. In fact, it just did again last week. It fascinates me that few to none of my matches—or near matches—within a twenty-year age spectrum or from any country on earth (the search settings I chose)—is building their own “dream house.” They either want someone to build and/or renovate it for them, or they want to step right in to someone else’s.

(And one man out there apparently wants to attract a mate who’s interested in a photo of himself with his head sandwiched between a woman’s thighs. That’s not exactly the kind of dreaming I’m referring to.)

One match, a defense contractor, did seem promising. He’d filled out his profile with panache and wisdom, asked and answered meaningful questions, and sent me a Valentine’s email from Afghanistan. But after replying, I never heard from him again. Obviously, I still have some of my own work to do because I couldn’t help but wonder: was he killed in combat? That would be a terrible reason for the silence, and the more likely one is straight-up rejection. Of course, I hope it was just rejection….

Oh, humanity.

I’ve been thinking about turnkey in the context of relationships for years. But I only just looked up the word. According to Merriam Webster, turnkey’s primary definition is “one who has charge of a prison’s keys.” Hmmm. The second definition is an adjective meaning “complete and ready to be used.” Also, hmmm.

I am saddened by how many of us choose to sit in the fix’er-upper (or fix‘im upper) of our lives with the Home Improvement Channel cranked up to full volume and the roof about to fall in. If we do hear the sound of a key turning in the front door (Aha, There is my soul mate! Finally!), we often mistake it for 1) the warden coming to release us from our drafty, self-made “prison,” or 2) the arrival of one who is ready to use us—or someone we’re ready to use. Unhealthy dynamics whatever way you tilt the miniblinds.

I’ve observed something in successful relationships that have lasted twenty-, thirty-, forty-plus years; those partners know how to share their lives. But they share from their own wholeness—not trying to take from the other what they need or trying to give to the other what that person lacks. They each do their own work, and then they work together to build something even greater together.  

It has taken me several continents, years, and online dating sites to be able to propose a third definition of turnkey as it would apply to relationships: “Complete and ready to share.” So I am adding “good sharer” to the mutual list of traits I seek in a partner. And I’m practicing it here by sharing this essay.

Meanwhile, I keep my life ready to share with someone. I continue to enjoy the things I’ve fixed and to fix the things I haven’t—in myself, no one else. I don’t expect perfection, and I’m hardly perfect: the door to my heart can stick and requires a bit of a push. The ventilation system of my attitude can short out and needs occasional service to let in the fresh air of perspective. But I know how to get such things back in working order myself. Even more importantly, I’ve gone down to my soul foundations, made sure that the load-bearing values are built with integrity, and painted this entire structure in the color palette of joy-despite-circumstance. The furnishings aren’t bad, either.

“Charming and quirky” would be suitable descriptors for my real estate listing—I mean online dating profile.

And if my future partner does come home from a long, hard day at work, I’d love to make him his favorite dinner. Among other things. But I’ll do it from a place of completeness—not fixing or being used.

Turnkey woman is ready to share her life with turnkey man.